Saturday, December 13, 2014

They are not making this stuff up

Sometimes, when debating the treatment  of minorities in the US with family and friends, I can get argumentative, even combative. I believe so strongly in the truth of the situation and am convinced of the importance of believing this truth I find myself getting a tad overly zealous.  I am distressed by the fact that people whom I respect and love, who I know are good-hearted people who care deeply for the well-being of others, who believe deeply in civil rights, and hold dear that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, believe that minorities are, on average, treated just as well as a white counterpart would be treated in the same situation. It distresses me because this belief about the treatment of minorities in America leads good people to support a way of doing things that hurts others and is contrary to what they themselves embrace, it keeps good people from being as good as they could be, because I want the people I love to do what is good, because it keeps good people from confronting evil, and because it allows other persons made in the image of God to have that image denigrated and be oppressed. 

A lot of good people are scratching their heads saying, “We outlawed segregation.  We outlawed racial discrimination.  African Americans can do anything they want to now, if they work hard enough.  Heck, we even have a black president.  I don’t see African Americans being hassled. I’ve been pulled over and I’ve watched COPS and they always conduct themselves professionally and are careful not to use force unless necessary.  And there were trials with evidence- they found the police did nothing wrong in these cases.  And when a white person is killed by a black person, there is no big outcry- that isn’t fair.  Looks like just a bunch of thugs looking for an excuse to break stuff and loot, to me.”

 I am one who once believed that it was all just a matter of poverty rates correlating with race, attitudes of African Americans when they interacted with authority figures, and African Americans own theory ladeness of observationI bought the lie.  We've come a long, long way in the last 50 years.  Lynching, overt segregation, and openly denigrating other races are largely over.  But that doesn't mean everything is hunky-dory now. Racism in the US now primarily occurs in the form of unconscious attitudes/impressions/fears that manifest themselves in the way we react to people and situations.  Racism plays out as policies, laws, programs, voting laws, gerrymandering, school funding, bus routes, etc. that, intentionally or not, help or harm people primarily of one race over another.  There is still work to be done. Over the years I have come to see that there is truth behind the outcry.  There is a lot of data to back up the outcry.  We, as Caucasians in the US, live in a different world than our African American neighbors do.  To paraphrase George Orwell, we are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.  And there seems to be some force at work to keep it that way. There is a reason African Americans are so emphatic in calling for reforms.  And there is a reason there is such a wide range of classes represented in the demonstrations and other forms of agitating for change from college professors to pastors and ministry workers/leaders to congressional staffers.  We need to listen and to hear what they have to say.  We need to listen and hear and then come alongside our neighbors.  To keep quiet on this issue results in a tacit approval of the injustice.

Some Stats and Links to Sources:

African Americans, as a whole, are oppressed by our society as a whole. General societal oppression can be seen in everything from harsher punishments in schools (and the darker the skin, the harsher the punishment), to greater difficulty in getting a good jobmentoring, or access to their public officials, or being shunted away from better apartments/houses.  The killings of African Americans by police and by Caucasians who were “standing their ground” is perceived as part of this institutionalized oppression.  

The average Caucasian American has no African American friends while most African Americans do have Caucasian friends according to a recent study.  Fully 75% of Caucasian Americans have no friends of any other race.  This is not just among close friends who might help you move, but all friends.  Caucasian Americans who have virtually no real relationships with African Americans and no real interactions with African Americans beyond the occasional exchange of goods and services or that African American guy at work we say “hi” or “how ‘bout them Steelers” to but never have lunch with or do anything after work with will not likely know anything better about their African American neighbors than they are told/shown by society and media.

 According to a very large survey by the Census Bureau, The 2012 American National Election Study, half of all Caucasian Americans believe that African Americans are, in general, less intelligent and lazier than Caucasian Americans. A similarly unflattering view of Caucasians is NOT held by African Americans.  (Data is in User Guide on ANES page or sign in for spreadsheet download. Graphs of this referenced data can be found here.) Can we seriously believe that if half of all Caucasian Americans have this foolishness in their hearts, it will not show up in their actions?  


Young African American males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their Caucasian counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.  The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million Caucasian males in that age range died at the hands of police.  One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more Caucasians over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185, more than one per week.  And the numbers only include those police departments which actually report their stats to the feds.  Many, NYPD, for example, do not. 

Because of these patterns, each injustice or perceived injustice against an African American is seen as another example of an entire people group being oppressed systematically and not as isolated events There is no reason, in the eyes of the oppressed, to believe that their perceived oppressors are telling the truth or that the courts are fair.  Especially when there are so many events like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Rodney King which occur on camera and anyone can see that there is obviously no danger to the officers involved who are relentlessly beating a man lying on the ground or choking an older overweight man to death or rolling up on a boy and shooting him the moment the car door opens and in virtually every case the ending verdict is “not guilty.”  It is the oppression of the weak by the powerful and they are almost never held accountable by the justice system in any way.   Therefore these high profile cases must be seized upon to bring the injustice to light and to build momentum or it will slip back into the unreported, unseen, and be ignored. 

I am not saying that all police or even the majority are unapologetic racists.  There are a lot of good cops who are honorable men and women.  They love their neighbors and act like the police officers we see on shows like COPS.  I am also rather incredulous about “a few bad apples” theory that police and government officials put forth and we should keep in mind what the rest of that saying is. I don't believe that most officers are consciously pulling over black people more or looking to kill blacks. But we as a culture have created and maintain certain stereotypes so that when perceiving a black person our level of suspicion, defensiveness, wariness, etc become heightened and we are prone to paranoia.  Police have dangerous, highly stressful jobs where split-second decisions have to be made daily that can affect officers and citizens.  This results in targeting African Americans for traffic stops, questioning, and the use of violence during those interactions.  

The “brotherhood” culture of police officers means that even otherwise good officers turn a blind eye to the abusive behavior of their fellow officers and will even actively protect the abuser from justice.  Investigations are normally handled internally, by the accused’s coworkers.  In the rare event that a grand jury is convened (usually due to publicity), there is rarely a recommendation to prosecute.  Grand jury investigations normally consist of the local prosecutor (who works with the police) and no representation by the victim.  Grand juries almost never recommend prosecution of the prosecutor’s coworker for some reason.  And in those extremely rare cases where the grand jury does recommend prosecution, the prosecutor has a terribly difficult time getting a “guilty” conviction against his or her coworker.  If the police and the government who directs them will not actively and publicly get rid of their bad apples, but instead actively protect them from consequences, what conclusion is left for the oppressed but to assume the whole bunch is spoiled? 


I do not write this to bring judgment.  I wrote it as someone who needed to be shown the truth and who wants justice for all who are created in the image of God.  It is intended to give all of us a clearer picture of how our neighbors might see the world. It gives us a starting point to know that, "Hey, many white people do not see African Americans in a very positive light. Maybe I should be more thoughtful in my conversations about this subject so as not to reinforce foolish opinions. And maybe I should be more aware of how those around me are treated by whites or treat blacks that may stem from this foolishness. Maybe I should take an African American more seriously and have less skepticism when he or she complains about being discriminated against for a position or by someone in authority. And maybe I should find ways to be a peace-maker and a reconciler." 

-Loyal Hall



The following is by another author who does a very thorough job of outlining the historical and current-day pattern of economic abuse and predation upon black Americans.:

Our history, both of our grandparents and our own present day, is rife with financial oppression.  Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

The marks of collaboration with Jim Crow are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”

The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits “that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.”

The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of Whites Only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them.

This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.

And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. “Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes, “that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.”

The implications are chilling. As a rule, poor black people do not work their way out of the ghetto—and those who do often face the horror of watching their children and grandchildren tumble back.

In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”

“We just went right after them,” Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan officer, told The Times. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”

In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.


I am not saying that every injustice is the result of conscious, intentional racism.  Some injustices are.  But if I may give people the benefit of the doubt, I believe that much of the modern oppression of African Americans is subconsciously done.  With the present way we segregate ourselves and how so many Caucasian Americans view African Americans, I don’t see how racial injustices would not happen. 
That same spirit that led our ancestors to enslave another race and to value them as less than human seems to be at work in our society today, keeping African Americans from fully being part of America. 








Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Response to a popular pro-choice blog


I read over the blog post on losing faith in the pro-life movement (How I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement” by Libby Anne).  I can see some of the points made, but ultimately found some of them based on a particular subset of the pro-life movement and others I simply did not find convincing. 

Economics.  The economics behind abortion is the author’s final point, but I will list it first because on this point we are in strong agreement.  The primary pressure turning people towards abortion is economics- if a woman must work to earn income to sustain herself or her family, then she cannot easily afford to be pregnant; if pregnancy will hamper career advancement, she cannot easily afford to be pregnant; if a woman will be kicked out of school for getting pregnant, she cannot easily afford to be pregnant.  And these pressures should be alleviated if we are to be truly pro-life.  That is why being pro-life must be bigger than just outlawing abortion.  Pro-life advocates should be saying FMLA is a great start but needs to be stronger and provide paid time off. Employers should be more flexible with parents- telecommuting, flexible hours, allowing children in (safe) workplaces, subsidizing childcare, etc.  ObamaCare™ should be applauded by pro-lifers for reducing the demand for abortion through providing contraceptives and mandating a minimal amount of health care (but unfortunately many pro-life advocates are blinded by partisanship). Finding ways to create jobs that can support a family should be a top priority of any pro-life politician.

And many pro-life ministries deal with those economic realities.  For example, Mom’s House (http://www.momshouse.org/) provides free child care and career counseling to single parents who chose life and are furthering their education.  Susquehanna Valley Pregnancy Services (http://svps.org/Services.aspx) provides education on adoption, local support services (medical care, financial services, etc.), parenting classes, financial counseling, etc.  YWAM’s Adoption Ministry (http://adoptionministry.net/node/73) provides comfortable residential housing, academic tutoring, and medical care so that women who do not wish to keep their babies but wish to give them up for adoption can have a supportive and comfortable environment.

Abortion laws do not reduce abortions.  Not able to read the study the author referenced since it is not linked to, I can only go by what she summarized and a similar WHO study summarized in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/24/health/abortion-worldwide-rate-stopped-falling-after-2003-researchers-cite-scarcity-of-contraception.html?ref=worldhealthorganization).  In both cases another correlation (and a more likely causation) is to be found and that is the link between abortion rates and economics/industrialization/age demographics. (In these studies, the term “rate” is abortions per # of women, not abortions per # of pregnancies.)  US and Western Europe have low rates while Latin America and Africa have higher rates and of all of Africa, South Africa (the most industrialized) has the lowest rate in Africa.  However, the more industrialized and economically well off a nation is, the more access to birth control there is, the more incentive to use birth control and keep families small, the better the education system is (and more likely the population is to be educated about birth control), the more likely public assistance is available to provide income for a woman who keeps her baby, and age demographics shift from a younger, more fertile population towards a older, less fertile population.

Abortion laws cause women to put their lives at risk.  This is true in the same way that banning pharmaceutical companies from selling cocaine or meth leads to people poisoning themselves with black market versions containing who knows what.  But unlike that rather crude comparison, women are subject to many forces which direct them to abortions.  The primary pressure is economics- if a woman must work to earn income to sustain herself or her family, then she cannot easily afford to be pregnant; if pregnancy will hamper career advancement, she cannot easily afford to be pregnant; if a woman will be kicked out of school for getting pregnant, she cannot easily afford to be pregnant.  And these pressures should be alleviated if we are to be truly pro-life.  That is why being pro-life must be bigger than just outlawing abortion. (See Economics.)

Contraception.  I am all for contraception.  People are going to have sex whether contraception is available or not.  It is better we educate and make contraception available than use abortion as contraception.  We should not start confusing contraception with abortion.  They are two different subjects.  I understand that Catholic pro-life arguments often blend the two because they feel strongly about both.  But as the author pointed out, most contraceptives do not cause miscarriages. 

Zygotes and the supposed lack of concern regarding them.  When my wife and I had 3 miscarriages, all within the first trimester, we did not just lose a collection of cells we had no feelings for as the author accuses.  We lost 3 children whom we mourned deeply and still do.  If you ask just about anyone who has lost a baby through miscarriage they will share similar feelings.  There has been extensive research by the medical community to help prevent miscarriages.  In our case it was a simple hormonal imbalance that prevented proper implantation.  Once this was corrected our next daughter was able to fully develop and she is a source of joy.

Monday, September 3, 2012

On the importance of mapping, GIS, and communication.


So, I run the West Nile virus mitigation program for the county of Lebanon in Pennsylvania.  This year we got enough funding to have a summer intern.  Andrew is a great intern- he’s quick to learn, applies what he learns, has a good knowledge base, works well with me and on his own, and is conscientious in his work.  I better watch out for my job.  Anyway, I sent him out on his first solo sampling expedition.  I gave him a list of sites and he was able to use the database to find the location of each site based on the name.  The one site however was going to prove problematic.

That aforementioned problematic site was owned by the telephone company.  They had their equipment storage on the western edge of the property, but the eastern side of the property was a wetland with some intermittent springs and all wooded.  Perfect for some really nasty floodwater mosquitoes.  The database, however, did not show property lines and bordering on the west side was a hermit who is more than a little distrustful of the government and who lives in a shack.  Andrew pulled up, saw an overgrown driveway near his given coordinates leading up to what appeared to be an abandoned building with lots of junk around it.  Junk holds water and is great for several mosquito species.  That must be the spot.  So he sets the trap next to the driveway.

Andrew called me the next day when he was out collecting his traps.  One was missing. You can guess which one.  As soon as he told me where he lost it we tried calling the police.  But the borough and the state police could not agree where the borough line fell and both thought it was out of their jurisdiction.  (They didn’t want to deal with this guy either.)  So I told Andrew to just get the rest of the samples and process them, I would check on the missing trap. 

I pulled up to the property and called my secretary.  I told her where I was and who I was visiting and to call the police for me if I didn’t call back in 15 minutes.  I whistled loudly as I walked in and out popped the hermit.  I smiled and introduced myself and began by apologizing for the trap being set on his property.  I told him I didn’t give adequate instructions to my summer intern and it was my fault.  He accepted my apology and said he was glad to find people to took responsibility for their actions and if we ever needed access to his property again, just ask and he would be glad to grant it.  After a little more chit chat, since we were now friendly, I decided to ask about getting my trap back before I left.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I’m awfully sorry about it now that I’ve met you and all, but when I found it I didn’t know what it was.  I just saw the wires and heard the buzzing, so I hit it.”

“That’s ok.  I’m pretty good at fixing things. Can I get the parts back?”

“Well, you can have what’s left. It’s over here in my shed.”

We walked over to the shed and he unlocked it and brought out the pieces.  Then I saw by “hit it” he meant “I shot with my 12 gauge using number 6 shot.”  There was nothing left of the trap except a battery and a plastic tub that held the attractant.  And even those had several holes.

So, what could I do?  It was my fault and he had done nothing really wrong as far as I understood it.  I laughed, thanked him for his time, walked back to my truck, and called my secretary.  And then I took the next two days to personally show every single site, along with their preferred trap locations, to Andrew.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

God and Science

There is a common belief that science and religion are in conflict. This is usually the result of a “God of the Gaps,” theology which holds that anything unexplained is done by God and anything with a physical explanation is not done by God but is independent. If one follows this vein of thought, then the more phenomena science explains, or purports to explain, the smaller God becomes. One then might see science as a threat to one's faith or lose one's faith because of science. If one instead first accepts the tenant that God is the Creator and sustainer then this assertion falls apart. If God created the universe and life, then the mechanisms by which they work are also His creation and are the work of God. Whether someone is a proponent of theistic big bang/evolution or a literal creationist, he or she declares that God created and directed the process.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Miracles

At the start, I want to stress that this happened to me, Loyal Philip Hall. It did not occur to a friend or a friend of a friend. It has been a rough 2 years. My wife and I lost 3 unborn children during that time. Each was a traumatic experience. After a battery of tests, we found out it was an easily corrected hormonal imbalance to blame. We are now 5 months pregnant but it doesn't end there.

About a month ago, on Valentine's Day we had an ultrasound. Everything was going wonderfully- we found we were having a little girl, she was moving around a lot, her growth was exactly at the 50 percentile. But then the technician zoomed in on our little girl's heart to take some measurements. She stepped out of the room and the room began to fill with doctors. We new something was wrong. Eventually one of the doctors started talking to us. "Your baby's heart is malformed. The wall separating the atriums is missing, as well as the wall separating the ventricles. This is a serious heart defect that occurs in 0.5% of pregnancies. She will be fine for now because she is receiving all her oxygen from her mother and the heart doesn't need to direct blood to and from the lungs. But at birth she will need immediate heart surgery." Then we were whisked to a genetics counselor who informed us that this defect is often associated with trisomy of a chromosome (it could be Downs Syndrome, but it could also be different extra chromosome). We should get an amniocentesis that day to find out; there is only a small risk. We decided not to- we did not want to pose a further risk to the baby with an invasive procedure when we knew that it would not change how the doctors would monitor her development or treat her and we knew we would love and cherish our daughter with or without a disability.

We went home and spent Valentine's Day crying and praying for our daughter. We knew God is good, whether our daughter was born healthy or not. We asked God for faith and comfort. But that didn't mean we were not going to ask for a miracle. We prayed for her every day. Friends and family were also praying for her. Two weeks later we had a follow-up ultrasound. The upper chambers of the heart were now divided. This past Friday, 3/16, we had an ultrasound with the pediatric cardiologist. He was looking at the ultra-sound and began by saying, "Everything looks good. The chambers are all divided, the valves are in place and working properly, and the vessels attached to the heart are all in place. There is a little brightness here that might be some sort of scar tissue on the dividing septum between these chambers, but otherwise everything is healthy." He was genuinely surprised when we told him why we were there. "No, she won't need any surgery. I'd like an EKG done at birth just because of that possible scar tissue, but otherwise everything is fine and you can deliver wherever you like." God healed our little girl's heart.

I am praising God right now. We live in a world warped by sin and that warpedness includes fetal development going awry. There are lots of people who are praying to God whose children are not healed. I don't believe God healed our little Ester because we prayed right or he loves us more than other people or that we were "due." God could have said "no." He did so for 3 of our other children and I believe He has His reasons. God healed Ester because he chose to for some reason. In a broken world, broken by our own sin, supernaturally intervening to make anything better is mercy. God is good. Praise him and don't loose faith.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Loving the poor

Caring for the poor is a concept that carries many questions. Why should we? Who should do it? What does it look like? I put money in the Salvation Army kettles every Christmas; does that count?

Let’s look at the first question I always ask: “why?”

“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

It is for this reason we love our neighbors as ourselves. To love ourselves and to love our neighbor is to love and honor God whose image we bear. True, that image is marred by sin. But to love our neighbor, whatever their behavior, status, demeanor, or appearance is to recognize God’s image that pervades the entire person. When a teacher of the law asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer and asked what he thought the answer was. The lawyer said to love God and to love his neighbor. Jesus said that this was correct. But the man wanted to know who qualified as his “neighbor,” in other words, “Who do I have to love?” Jesus responded with a now well known parable about a Samaritan (despised by the Jews) who stopped to help an injured Jewish man after the priest and Levite (who should have known better) did not. Your neighbor whom you are to love, indicates Jesus’ parable, is the one who needs it. If your neighbor needs friendship, be a friend. If your neighbor needs a meal, provide food. If your neighbor needs rent money, share rent money. If your neighbor needs help shoveling their sidewalk, help shovel the sidewalk. If your neighbor needs Jesus, share Jesus.

But loving the poor is not that simple.

Because we are made in the image of God, we are more than physical bodies. We are spiritual beings. And we cannot meet people’s needs through exclusively focusing on helping people obtain material wealth. If we want to address poverty we must also address spiritual transformation and realities or we will fail.

God cares so much for people and his creation. He became a human and died for the sins of the whole world and invites every person to respond in freedom to the gift of salvation. He has promised to redeem his creation that is groaning under the destructive effects of sin (Romans 8:19-23). God also demands that our economic and political systems acknowledge and protect the dignity of each individual. To deny economic freedom or reduce people to interchangeable pieces of a machine is to violate their individual dignity. On the other hand, choices have consequences. Obedient, diligent use of our gifts normally produces enough material wealth (unless powerful people oppress) and disobedient, lazy neglect of responsibilities increases the danger of poverty. So, completely equal distribution of wealth is not compatible with human freedom. Work and opportunity are.

God works (Gen 2:1-2). Jesus was a carpenter. Paul made tents. Even before the fall, God told Adam to cultivate the earth and name the animals. Work not only serves to provide material needs, but is also a way to express our basic nature as God’s co-workers and is a way to love our neighbors. Meaningful work is essential for human dignity. Any person who fails to work disgraces and corrodes his or her being. Any system that could but does not offer every person meaningful work violates and crushes the human dignity bestowed by the Creator.

After all this”work” talk you might think that I think that poor people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get to work. It is not that simple. Some are poor because of self-destructive use of over-drinking or drug-use. Some are poor because of short-sighted choices to misuse their wealth for luxuries like cable tv, electronics, smartphones, etc. or gambling/lottery. Some people are poor because of unfair economic structures- astronomical medical bills should one have the misfortune to become ill without insurance, welfare policies that discourage savings, unlivable wages, etc. Some are poor because they were born into poverty and lack the life-skills to escape. Many are poor because of all these things mixed together.

Sin corrupts and mars individual persons and the ideas/institutions we create. Our economic systems often oppress our neighbors. As individuals, sinful selfishness, pride, and apathy keep back generosity and overlooks oppression. As individuals, sinful selfishness, apathy and impatience keep the poor mired in poverty. So it comes back to a need for redemption and redressing sin in the systems, in the rich, and in the poor.

We should talk about using the term “the poor.” It can (but not necessarily) be a dehumanizing term to use. It is easy for affluent people to view the poor as “the poor”- unwashed masses, people who through some lack of character and/or skill fail to earn wealth. They exist in our view as nameless persons asking for money (presumably for drugs) or pushing a wheeled cart down the street. They may have some sort of housing paid for with government funding and receiving welfare. But we don’t see them as individuals, as true people- just characters, stereotypes devoid of the complexity and imago Dei that defines people. This is one of the challenges for Christians with simply giving to a charity and then going about our business. The charity acts as a broker so that one never has to personally interact with poor people and possibly get to know someone as a person. And it has a similar effect on the receiver.

Jesus told another story about sheep and goats. He told the sheep they were blessed because he was hungry and they fed him, naked and they clothed him, a stranger and they invited him in, in prison and they visited him. He told the goats they were cursed because they refused to feed him, clothe him, welcome him, or visit him. Jesus said that whatever we have done for others, we have done for him. So, in a sacramental way, Jesus is present in each person we interact with. And when we treat our neighbors in need kindly and recognize their humanity, we are in fact interacting with and loving Jesus. Perhaps instead of just giving a homeless person $5.00, you could buy lunch for the both of you and sit down together. A, it will assure that you are not enabling substance abuse (it is sadly true that most who approach you on the street for money really do want it for some sort of drug) and B, it will allow you to be a conduit for the love of Jesus while getting to know another person as a person and be ministered to through them. If you give to charities, that is wonderful, but it is also good to volunteer your time, so that you interact with the people on a personal level.

The challenge of helping people is that sometimes one can do more harm than good. Obviously people in a pinch need help and sometimes a straight up gift of material wealth is warranted. However regular handouts can create dependency and ruin the dignity that comes with work and responsibility. For that reason, it is a good idea to work through churches and other charities when giving of your time and resources. They can help you avoid having your act of love come to a bad end and to maximize its impact. Take the time to choose your avenues of showing love wisely. Be shrewd as snakes while being innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). Make sure that you are truly loving your neighbor for his or her good.

Fair warnings: 1) You will occasionally get burned. It is a tragic fact that some people are users. People are image-bearers, but they are still people and warped by sin. But blessed are you when people despitefully use you (Matt 5:44). And do not let your love grow cold (Matthew 24:12). 2) I stole liberally from “Just Generosity” by Ron Sider when writing this. It is a great book and it would be a blessing to you read in its entirety and without my editorializing.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven in the United States of America

Recently a paper, “Declaration of Covenant” from www.lamplighterministries.net was distributed at our church. The intent of the distribution was to allow our church-goers to consider the point of view which is popular among some Christians: that the United States of America was founded as a politically Christian nation and should be “restored” to a Christian nation politically. As a student of history who knows we have not been a very Christian nation, as a follower of Jesus, who said that “My kingdom is not of this world” and “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” and as an Anabaptist who remembers our history of being persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics who were trying establish politically Christian kingdoms, I dispute the truth and wisdom of that point of view.

A quick note about points of view: I firmly believe that a point of view can be wrong or correct or (in most cases) have elements of truth mixed with falsehoods. But at the same time when we believe something we see current events, history, and scripture through the lens of that point of view. For this reason, once we come to believe something, we are not quick to change our minds about it because we key in on aspects that support our beliefs while downplaying or finding explanations for those things that contradict our beliefs. It is usually when we have built up enough unexplainable contradictions or the Holy Spirit changes our hearts that we are willing to change our minds and give up a belief. For this reason I ask the reader to be patient if they do not agree. I do not expect a reader who disagrees with my point of view to immediately change their minds upon reading this. However, reading this article may help you to better explain your own point of view, understand another person’s point of view, or be an important step in coming to a different point of view yourself one day.

When we look at the history of the Church we see warnings to forgo creating a political kingdom. Up until the Roman Emperor Constantine, the church was separate from the government. There were government officials who were Christians but governments were not “Christian.” As a separate entity, the church was able to be a prophetic voice, telling those in power to be just to the poor and the stranger. As a separate entity the church was able to love all and the nationality of the person did not matter because the church was without borders. As a separate entity the church could love its enemies. However, Constantine saw the growing numbers and wealth of the church and the decline of Rome’s power. Upon his conversion to Christianity (whether real or politically expedient) he joined the Church and the State into the Holy Roman Empire. At this point the church became an arm of the state (it has never been the other way around in any “Christian” government). The church became compromised. To speak prophetically was sedition. To love your enemies was treason. To be born a Roman was to be a Christian and the heart did not matter. To be born a non-Roman was to be outside the Church. And we can see the quick decline of the Church into becoming just another government with only the trappings of religiosity.

Into this came the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. They were fed up with the loss of faithfulness to God’s word and broke off, starting anew. However, they did not give up on the idea of the church being part of the state. When other Christian groups, such as the Anabaptists (to which we Brethren belong), tried to practice our faith as we saw scripture teach, the Christian governments were quick to use the sword to maintain their kingdom, slaughtering us with drownings in icy rivers, burning at the stake, and other tortures (along with the normal, more pleasant, executions). When we ran to Catholic governed countries, we received the same treatment because we were not their kind of Christian either. And that is why we ended up in America. That is why we have historically supported the separation of church and state. We understand that with the power of the state behind it, the version of the church in power uses that power to persecute.

I’m not saying that an officially Christian United States would start executing Muslims or atheists or Mennonites. But as any attendee of a Christian school in America can tell you Christian law enforcement almost always declines into Pharisaical obsession with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, conformity, and nationalism, while justice, mercy and faithfulness are ignored. And even now, as the church seeks and attains political power, it is compromised and we can see this happening.

I could write at length about the history of America and how those who founded and lead this country were in large part were not worshippers of Jesus. Among those who founded the United States there were Christians of many denominations, but there were also deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The facts that our founders were a mixed bag religiously are well established. I’m not going to waste your time rehashing what you can find in many history books, National Archives, etc. I know there are people who try to use out of context quotes to “prove” all founding fathers were Bible-believing, born-again Christians, but they are deluding themselves and others. It just is not so. These founders from different religious backgrounds knew the dangers of officially religious governments and they wisely decided to separate the state from the church. For the good of both the church and the state.

I could write at length about American history and how we as a nation have behaved in a most un-Christlike way throughout our history. But that also is well established by history.

The main reason we are not going see a treatise here on Christianity in American History is it really doesn’t matter whether or not the United States was started as a politically Christian nation or not. If a politically Christian nation is a holy and righteous thing to do, it is holy and righteous regardless of American history. If it is wrong, it is also wrong regardless of history. What does scripture say? As followers of Jesus, we must look to the example of Jesus and the revelation of God’s will in the Bible. Another note: Jesus and the New Testament is the lens through which we must view the Old Testament. Just as we do not directly go to the Leviticus for instructions on whether to mix different fibers to make cloth or how long a woman is unclean after her period or what kinds of animals are ok to eat, so we do not look for instructions on government in the Old Testament without looking through the lens of the New.

Jesus did teach about establishing a kingdom. But it was not a political kingdom. He had every resource and worldly reason to restore the political fortunes of Israel. The land of Israel was occupied by pagans who worshipped their emperor and a myriad of other “gods.” They demanded taxes of God’s people to expand their kingdom and further the worship of these false gods. Jesus was the Messiah. He was supposed to save his people and restore the throne of David. The masses loved him and would follow him as an un-numbered army. He was Almighty God and had legions of angels at his call. But when the people tried to make him a political king he rejected the idea. He told parables about the kingdom being like yeast worked through the dough of the world or about the wheat and the weeds growing together in the same field until the very end when God would judge between them. The Jewish leaders asked Jesus about paying taxes to the pagan Roman government, knowing the people wanted to throw off the Romans and establish Israel as an independent Jewish kingdom, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” When the people realized that Jesus was not about to be the messiah they wanted, they turned on him. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he was a king. His answer was that yes, he was a king, but his kingdom was not of this world. A few hours later he established his kingdom by dying and being raised from the dead. He established a spiritual kingdom, not the political kingdom the Jews wanted.

If we are to “walk as Jesus walked” and he refused to create a political kingdom or allow his followers to do so, how can we do different? If this refusal to change the world by writing laws seems strange, it is because it is strange. To become rulers and compel people to obey with the power of the sword (or financial pressure, threats of ostracization, shame, etc.)is the world’s way. “But we do not wage war as the world does.” Our model for establishing the kingdom is the towel and the cross. Our model is servanthood, love, and suffering. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, he also washed Judas’ feet. Jesus did not wait for our hearts to change before he died on the cross. He went to the cross first and that act of love convinced us. Now it did not convince all, but that did not change Jesus’ final commands. He did not say, “Love, serving, and suffering don’t really work in the real world. No, he told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” He told them to build the church, his body, and not a political nation.

After Jesus was taken into Heaven, the church grew by leaps and bounds. But while they established their own organizational structure, they were not creating a nation. On the contrary, their goal was to be the yeast and salt of the earth. They were to be scattered throughout the nations as living testimonies to their pagan neighbors. We will look at 2 examples (there are more).

In 1 Peter 2:9-17 it reads:

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

It starts off pointing out that the people of God are a peculiar people: they are a nation, but not a political one. The church is a nation without borders that fills the earth. They are to live among the rest of the world as foreigners and exiles, without a country of their own, and to revere and obey God while they honor the government of the country they are in. Not to go off and start their own country where they can outlaw paganism.

In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 we read:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”[d]

One of the primary goals of an American politically Christian government is to enforce moral laws. But we are not supposed to be disciplining the people outside the church; that is God’s job.

Some will undoubtedly point back to the nation of Israel and argue that God started a nation in that instance. And that is true. But as Jesus obviously refused to reestablish Israel or establish some other political nation, we can conclude that God is calling us to something different than creating Christian nations. God chose Abraham to bless the entire world. Israel started off as a few dozen shepherds; they were taken in by Egypt during a famine, grew to several hundred thousand, were made slaves, and then lead out of Egypt. At this point God made them a political nation, with laws and organized government. They were more of a confederation than anything else, with a tribal form of leadership. God was to be their king. But the people did not want God as king. “Everyone did as he saw fit.” And after several hundred years, the people demanded a king, “like the other nations,” in effect corporately rejecting God as king. So they had Saul, David, and Solomon. But then after only 3 generations of kings, the nation was split by civil war, 2 tribes following Rehoboam to form Judah and 10 following Jeroboam to form Israel. Israel was disobedient, having not a single righteous king (Although not all the people were so; God told Elijah that he had a remnant of 7,000 righteous in Israel). After a few generations, Israel had so besmirched God’s name that he let them be defeated by the Assyrians and, with the exception of the dregs of society left behind to become Samaritans, were dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire. Judah had some good kings and some bad kings, but eventually, God let them be conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. In exile they learned that their true identity was as God’s people, not a political nation. After a time of exile they were repentant and God returned them to Judah. They were still a conquered nation and were governed over by other nations until finally they were ruled over by the Romans, at which time the Messiah came to them. Jesus came calling the people to a new kind of kingdom. He called them to repent, to do what is right, and to be a part of God’s heavenly kingdom. The word “heavenly” does not refer to afterlife. It means having to do with God and it takes place in the here and now. And, based on Jesus’ support for paying taxes to the Roman government while obeying God and his assertion that his kingdom “was not of this world”, Jesus was not starting a new political kingdom. He was calling the people to be a kingdom that exists parallel to all other governments. That supersedes those governments. The nation of Israel (largely) rejected their Messiah and the kingdom of heaven, instead trying to recreate their own lost political kingdom by a violent rebellion which Rome crushed and then dispersed the Jews throughout the world. The church became God’s people (with many of Jewish descent among them) and they are now scattered throughout the world, bringing the blessing to the world God promised to Abraham.

We are part of a kingdom which is so much more than a mere political nation. The church is a kingdom without borders that fills the whole earth. Scripture teaches us to live in the world as aliens and strangers among the pagans. It teaches us to discipline our own brothers and sisters (gently, with humility, and for their good) but to leave those outside the church to God’s judgment. The kingdom of heaven is an upside down kingdom (as far as the world is concerned) where God’s” strength is made perfect in our weakness,” our hope is “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” and the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. When we pursue the creation of a political nation we are very much like a new Israel. We are like the Israel that rejected Jesus because he did not create the political kingdom they wanted. Instead let us as the church in America be like the true Israel which follows Jesus into advancing the Kingdom of Heaven.