Tag Archives: USA

The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.

Born Against: The Way of Jesus as Protest

A.J. Swoboda recently wrote a very thoughtful piece on how the Christian faith relates to the occupy protest movement. I want to make sure at the outset that I acknowledge the article said many positive things about the movement including,

Protest isn’t new. The prophets protested endlessly against evil, injustice, and at times the institution in the Hebrew Scriptures…Jesus protested too. His entire existence was a protest against death, sin, and evil.

However, Swoboda also says, “We are not born against. We are born again. We are born for.” While this was written as a critique of protest movements, I think it fundamentally misunderstands this particular movement. In some ways it may also misunderstand something fundamental about the Christian narrative.

I previously wrote about why the Occupy movement’s position is not primarily (or only) against something (Occupy This Blog?!). Certainly there are some basic grievances that the movement has made clear. However, Douglas Rushkoff has said that the Occupy protests are a “beta test for a new way of living”, not just a way to be against something.

If we take seriously the idea that the Exodus narrative is at the very core of the biblical narrative, fundamental to the identity of the Israelites and paradigmatic for understanding the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus (the Last Supper was after all a Passover meal), then we must wrestle with the basic character of this narrative. The Exodus narrative does not begin with a vision for the future. It begins with a movement of protest.

First, comes the creative resistance of the Hebrew midwives rescuing the Hebrew babies that Pharaoh tried to kill. Moses is born and left to die, but his sister manipulates his rescue into the hands of the powerful. As a man torn between his position of power and Hebrew roots, he lashes out in violence at the injustice of oppression murdering an Egyptian. But this violent resistance will not be the way of YHWH. His own people condemn his actions and Pharaoh puts him on his watch list (there were no airplanes so he couldn’t yet be on the no-fly list). Then Moses disappears. As we know, he will be a reluctant leader. It is not his charisma that sparks this movement of liberation. It is the people crying out against.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2: 23-25 ESV)

God acts on behalf of the Hebrews, not by giving them a vision of what they should be for, but because God is inherently against the injustice and oppression they suffer. The ensuing plagues ultimately demonstrate, not what God is for, but that God is fundamentally against, Pharaoh. Certainly the wilderness is a liminal space in which God begins to unfold God’s vision for an economy of gift, grace and abundance (think manna and quail). Yet, even then the people grumble about the circumstances and long for the “good life” they had under Pharaoh. Forgetting what they are against leads them to romanticize their own oppression, because after all liberation is hard work. A new way of living requires sacrifice and letting go of our previous life, even though there was some stability and certainty (even if false) in the old order of things.

So, perhaps the idea that the Edenic narratives in Genesis provide a blueprint for how God intended the world to be is less helpful than the very clear reality that God’s mission in the world begins fundamentally by being against certain things. This is true also in the patriarchal narratives, where God is against Cain and later the rest of humanity in the Noah story because of their propensity for violence (Genesis 6-9). There are certainly glimpses of what God is for, the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is an idealistic vision that qualifies. The prophets sometimes hint at this other way of living, but more often than not they were first against the Pharaoh-like actions of Israel’s own rulers.

Clearly these are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, how can one be against something without some vision for the way the world should be? The prophets’ outcry against injustice was certainly motivated in some way by a vision for how God intended Israel to live. My point here is not to say that we should not discover what we are for and what God is for. The point is that God does not begin with the same starting point that Swoboda and others seem to require of ourselves. In many ways I think that we are uncomfortable being against things, because it is that prophetic stance that gets people killed and inspired the violence of Empires throughout history.

The way to be for a different order of life is to begin to live it out together, as Occupy Wall Street is attempting. What makes us squirm is the way that living out the way of Jesus inevitably forces us to be against some things and the actions of some people. As liberation theology points out, the God of justice is necessarily against the wealthy for their own liberation and salvation. God cannot be just without being against those causing the people to cry out for help. If we could be for the kingdom of God without having to be against the injustices ad systems of oppression, we could have liberation without any struggle or need to deal with the reality of the world we have created. It would be like the question Julie Clawson recently posed, “When does speaking of liberation actually enable oppression?” on her blog. Real liberation involves being against the order of this world and hopefully embodying what we are for in our churches and communities which inevitably makes the Powers (and often ourselves) nervous.

Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!

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The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”

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So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.

Consumerism: Disease or Religion?

The book (which was originally a series on PBS) Affluenza uses the metaphor of disease to try and understand the modern world, in particular the consumerism of North American culture. Following this metaphor the book is divided into three sections: symptoms, causes and treatments. Among other things the book is a pretty amazing compilation of interesting facts and statistics about our consumer lifestyles.

I have used the metaphor of religion to describe consumerism. Even though disease is the prevailing metaphor throughout this book, the authors also see the spiritual aspects of the consumer religion. I would like to share some of the statistics, quotes and insights I found most interesting and try to connect them to the idea of consumerism as a religion.

Shopping Fever Shopping is certainly the primary activity of the consumer religion, and the first symptom of the affluenza disease. Numbers and statistics about how much we buy and spend are staggering, but this one in particular really stood out.

In 1986 America still had more high schools than shopping centers. In less than twenty years later, we have more than twice as many shopping centers (46,438) as high schools (22,180). (13)

This book was published in 2005. So, I’m not sure how the financial crisis has affected these numbers if at all, but I would guess that it hasn’t improved much. The authors then make this astute observation, “In the Age of Affluenza…shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values” (13). Perhaps some more detailed cultural anthropology would need to be done to prove this assertion, but it certainly rings true. Nevertheless, we tend to view shopping malls as economic rather than cultural symbols. Are these our modern temples, synagogues, mosques or churches? We certainly spend more time there than at centers of worship.

Chronic Congestion It is clear that we buy more stuff than we need. Whenever we move into a bigger house, because we’re running out of space, instead of enjoying the extra space we buy more stuff until we have to either move to an even larger house or perhaps turn to the burgeoning self-storage industry.

There are now more than 30,000 self-storage facilities in the country, offering over 1.3 billion square feet of relief…The industry has expanded fortyfold since the 1960s, from virtually nothing to $12 billion annually, making it larger than the U.S. music industry. (32)

This fact blew my mind. When you think about the biggest corporations, industries and big money, do you think of self-storage? Certainly not. The music industry would certainly be higher on most people’s list. Yet the numbers don’t lie. If consumerism is a religion, perhaps self-storage is the place where we put our holy objects. We have “set apart” these spaces for our stuff and made it so important that this industry can thrive.

The Stress of Excess The amount of extra stuff we have also comes with a certain burden.

We thought the opposite was supposed to be true: that advances in technology, automation, cybernation, were supposed to give us more leisure time and less working time…In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcomittee heard testimony that estimated a workweek of from fourteen to twenty-two hours by the year 2000. We got the technology, but we didn’t get the time. [quoting Staffan Linder, Swedish economist, warning about the "harried leisure class"] “Economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time. As the volume of consumption goods increases in the scarcity of time, requirements for the care and maintenance of these goods also tends to increase, we get bigger houses to clean, a car to wash, a boat to put up for the winter, a television set to repair, and have to make more decisions on spending.” (41)

It seems that our economic indicators and measurements don’t account very well for this scarcity. Certainly we like to say that time is valuable and people should be compensated for their time, but it doesn’t seem that the effects of this lack of time are accounted for. In religion time is set aside for particular holy days, where other activities, like economics, are set aside. More and more, however, the consumer religion encroaches on these sacred times. Sundays are no longer set aside for Christians, and when other religions request space for Sabbath or prayer practices, it is mighty inconvenient for the consumer culture which does not recognize these as viable activities.

Family Convulsions The effects on the family of this lack of time and emphasis on stuff seems obvious to me, but we have come to live with these contradictions. The authors point in particular how conservatives embody such cintradictions.

“The contradiction between wanting rapid economic growth and dynamic economic change and at the same time wanting family values, community values, and stability is a contradiction so huge that it can only last because of an aggressive refusal to think about it.” (52 quoting former Reagan administration official with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Edward Luttwak)

Social Scars The disease of affluenza has social and global implications. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World and former business professor at Stanford and Harvard, worked for Harvard Business School, Ford Foundation and USAID in Africa, Asia and Central America says,

“My career was focused on training business executives to create the equivalent of our high consumption economy in countries throughout the world. The whole corporate system in the course of globalization is increasingly geared up to bring every country into the consumer society. And there is a very strong emphasis on trying to reach children, to reshape their values from the very beginning to convince them that progress is defined by what they consume.” (87)

This is what the church calls spiritual formation and involves catechism, bible study, confirmation classes or other forms of discipleship. This man is what the church calls “missionaries”. His mission is the mirror image of evangelism efforts by missionaries in foreign contexts. He is seeking to make converts in the developing world, saving their souls by selling them the American Dream.

It seems crucial to me to understand that this kind of “education” takes place in order to spread the gospel of consumerism and it functions in the same way religious instruction does (or any other form of ideological education or indoctrination). I confess that religious education is propaganda, in much the same way that David Korten describes his work spreading consumerism. The difference is between destructive and healthy or constructive ideologies.

Resource Exhaustion I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing this topic. So, I will just share two of the statistics that struck me.

Dividing the planet’s biologically productive land and sea by the number of humans…[we] come up with 5.5 acres per person. That’s if we put nothing aside for all other species. “In contrast,” says [Swiss engineer Mathis] Wackernagel. “the average world citizen used 7 acres in 1996…That’s over 30 percent more than we can regenerate. Or in other words, it would take 1.3 years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year.” (96)

More than 20,000 species go extinct every year causing many scientists to proclaim that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction and the largest extinction in the planet’s history. (98)

Industrial Diarrhea I just really liked this phrase. The chapter is about the waste that industry produces.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed The fact that rates of depression and anxiety disorders continue to grow exponentially should be a sign to us that something is wrong, but instead we simply medicate the problems so we can function in a sick society.

Psychologist Richard Ryan points to scores of studies–his own among them–showing that material wealth does not create happiness… In the human species, happiness comes from achieving intrinsic goals like giving and receiving love. Extrinsic goals like monetary wealth, fame, and appearance are surrogate goals, often pursued as people try to fill themselves up with “outside-in” rewards. (115)

Isn’t this the goal of most people? To be happy? Isn’t this why we pursue the consumer religion (or any religion, ideology or system of belief)? To find meaning and fulfillment? So, if it obviously doesn’t work, then why do we keep doing it? While results are not everything when it comes to religion, I think it’s worth asking if what we’re doing or believing is producing the actual results we want. This is not about efficiency, but integrity. In a world so saturated by media and advertising the most difficult task may be to actually identify what it actually is that we want. Then we can begin to deconstruct the siren call of consumerism as something that fails to meet any of our most basic human needs.