Monthly Archives: March 2011

My, How Feverishly The Hawks Are Spinning!

President George W. Bush addresses sailors dur...

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All of the sudden we’ve seen an explosion of American pundits criticizing their President over his handling of Libya.  Most of these detractors are conservative hawks who cannot stand how Obama has dealt with this situation.  He engaged the rest of the world, and he carefully considered many options before embarking on military action.

These hawks loved the George W. Bush approach: shoot first and ask questions later.  Of course at the time they labeled as traitors those who dared to criticize a president in the time of war.

But desperate times require desperate measures.  Now that we have a president who actually governs as if war is undesirable, they must not miss this opportunity to influence America’s voters.  They would like to convince America to tolerate nothing less than shooting first and asking questions later.  If they can manage to convince voters, then they can ensure that the Republican Party will do well in the next election.

Quitters Never Win

Turn and Burn: No-Fly Zone

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We have such an uncomfortable relationship with war.  We strive to claim that America only wages just and noble wars. History keeps challenging that comforting notion. With Libya, we have now entered something that we’re telling ourselves is not war.

Establishing a no-fly zone over Libya doesn’t sound like war, but the distinction is not as wide as most of us want to believe. Like others, I am glad to see us stand up and help out our fellow humans who are in need in Libya. I am also glad that we are joining with the rest of the world rather than proudly and defiantly striking out on our own.  Gaddafi has proven to be a menace and a murderer, and so I hope and pray for the best.  I am proud to be part of a nation that stands up for others.

But wars have a funny way of not following the script we would like.  Our war scripts are shaped by Hollywood movies and video games.  We want a noble entry.  We want a climactic battle between the forces of evil and good.  We want to “leave no soldier behind.”  We want to never quit because “quitters never win.”  We want to win and “make the world safe for democracy.”  And we’d prefer for all of this to occur in about two hours.

We have many clichés surrounding war.  One of the least useful, it seems to me, is that “quitters never win.”  Once we enter a war, this notion keeps us involved until we can declare victory.  Our wars have a nasty habit of becoming quagmires.  We can never re-evaluate whether we belong engaged in a fight overseas because that sounds too much like quitting.  So we must stay.  Soldiers must die.  “Enemies” must die.  Money must be spent.   Often these things must happen in order for us to save face.

What does it say about the integrity of a people that would continue to devastate an “enemy” just in order to save face? I will let you answer that question for yourself, but I am not proud when our nation falls into this trap.

John 4:5-42 – Interpreting the Word of God Literally

Jesus and the Samaritan woman. A miniature fro...

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[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for Mar 27, 2011]

There are many fascinating things to notice about Jesus‘ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. This time, I note how she misunderstood Jesus because she took his words too literally.

When she questions why a Jew like Jesus would request a drink from a Samaritan like her, Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Jesus was speaking about a spiritual gift rather than physical water. But she interprets his words literally to mean physical water, and she replies, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”

Realizing that she was misinterpreting him, Jesus tries again, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Again she is blinded by her attempts to interpret him literally; she replies, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:10-15, NRSV)

Because we understand who Jesus is, we have a better shot at understanding that he doesn’t mean to be taken literally when he speaks of “water.”  Yet there are those who would insist that they take the Word of God (Scripture) literally. Furthermore they insist that this is the only proper way to interpret Scripture. Yet these words of Jesus were misunderstood by one who tried to take them literally.

In my opinion, no one truly takes every word of the Bible literally because they understand that it is full of analogies, like Jesus’ reference to water.  There are many who believe that because Scripture is the word of God, it is without error. Unfortunately some confuse the notion of believing it to be without error and interpreting it literally. Because people want to embrace inerrancy of Scripture, they sometimes feel obligated to take things “literally” that shouldn’t be. They fall into the trap of this poor woman at the well.

One of the prime areas where this tension arises is in the creation story. There is nothing in Scripture that demands that the “days” of creation are periods of 24 hours. Yet those who feel that the inerrancy of Scripture is under attack often feel compelled to defend a literal interpretation of “day” rather than allowing that it might be an analogy. We end up in fruitless debates about the scientific accuracy of passages that were never meant to be read as scientific texts.

We can be like the woman at the well and miss the message because of a slavish devotion to interpreting every word of God literally, or we can dig deeper and try to understand what God’s words are trying to convey. Ironically, an insistence on literal interpretations often introduces errors into the text that we are trying to defend as without error.

Why We Need Governments

Earthquake and Tsunami damage-Fukushima Dai Ic...

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With the rise of the Tea Party movement, there has been a concurrent rise in the popularity of libertarianism. This political and economic view advocates radically reducing the role of government in society. Libertarians tend to advocate for the privatization of many things currently handled by the government.

Ever since Reagan, America has been flirting with privatization and deregulation. It is a popular move among those who perceive the government to be inherently wasteful, inefficient and corrupt. While things are going along reasonably well in society, it is tempting to think, “we don’t really need the government to be doing ‘x’.” On the other hand, times of crisis and extraordinary circumstances give us the opportunity to consider and appreciate the valuable role our governments play.

Consider the recent earthquake near Japan. Not only did it create a tsunami that has devastated many communities, but it has also endangered nuclear power plants. Some may imagine that private industry would do a better job than any government in rescuing victims and combating the emergency of the at-risk nuclear power plants. But our experience tells us otherwise. The governments of the world are the ones who come to the rescue in these situations. Although many corporations have interests in seeing the problem solved, they are simply not equipped to effect a large scale rescue and recovery. We look to our governments to play those roles and to ensure that corporations fulfill their responsibilities in crises.

Emergency rescue and management is not the only role that our government plays. It also provides infrastructure for commerce and daily living. It provides a safety net for citizens; and this provision not only protects the least in our society but it also protects the rest of us from massive unrest. It provides education for us.

My goal is not to itemize every valuable function of government; it is to contemplate and remember just how critical such things are for civilized society. Yes, there are inherent challenges in making sure that our government functions well, but when we advocate for the elimination of those functions, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to be coming together to work toward improving the way our government performs critical functions rather than self-inflicting wounds in a quest to eliminate those critical functions.

Perception vs Reality

James O'Keefe

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When I worked in corporate America, I heard a lot about perception vs. reality.  I was taught that perception was more important than reality, and even that perception was reality.  I have never been comfortable with this lesson.  Certainly in our society perception is often more important than reality, but that doesn’t mean it should be.

Advances in media technology has given more power to more people to shape perceptions through video. From the time that George Holliday videotaped Rodney King being mistreated by police, we have seen an increase in the number of “sting” videos capturing the attention of the nation. Technology has made it now possible to fabricate such videos. This has made it even easier for people to use video to shape the perception of others in a misleading way.

James O’Keefe is the leading practitioner of creating media that skewers people and organizations that he doesn’t like.  Time and again, his product has been found to be edited and manipulated to give a false impression.  Yet, we are still eagerly digesting his product, and people are losing their jobs based on his bogus videos.

It is time for us to move away from a knee-jerk reaction to every bit of film or audio we hear.  We need to be less quick to judge others.  We need to wise up and not be so gullible.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 – One Who Lives By The Law Dies By The Law

[Reflections on the New Testament Lectionary Reading for Mar 20, 2011]

Jesus was a radical.  He preached a gospel of faith. Faith runs counter to every fiber of our mind. In order to meet a goal, we want to plan and execute. We want to accomplish our goals through works, for after all that is how things are done here in the world. Yet Jesus called us to live by faith in our Creator. He presented the radical notion of turning the control of our lives over to God.

If our goal is to inherit the world from God and life eternal, then we must live by faith. Our natural instinct is to try to live by our own works. We hope to impress God on Judgment Day with our good works. We figure that if we can only manage to keep all of God’s rules, then God will be impressed by our accomplishment.  The only problem is that no one is without sin. No one will succeed in living by the law.

Paul discusses this radical theology in his Letter to the Roman’s.  He says, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (Rom 4:13-16a, NRSV).

God’s law is eternal; it will not go away just because our society has decided to ignore some of the more difficult bits. Our tendency to ignore the parts against which we have transgressed reveals the degree to which we are still striving to fulfill the law for our own salvation.  The law brings wrath.  If we choose to face our maker having only lived by the law, then we will surely experience wrath.

Jesus came to show us another path toward salvation.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV).  Jesus came to show us that path of faith to salvation.

But what does it mean to live by faith?  It is simple, but hard.  Rather than evaluating every decision against a metric of self-interest and expected outcomes, we simply rely on God to guide us. Paul points to Abraham as an example.  God made a promise to bless Abraham if he would go from his country and his kindred and his father’s house to the land that God would show him (Gen 12:1, NRSV).  God didn’t give Abraham details of the objective.  God didn’t tell him where God was going to lead Abraham.  God demanded faith. Abraham had to give up everything he knew and step out in faith.  He had to surrender and trust God.

Abraham could have decided to try to inherit the blessings from God by diligently trying to obey every law.  Instead, he was able to bypass the inevitable wrath that comes to those of us who have transgressed the law by faithfully following where God led him.  We have the same choice in life.  We can focus our lives on crafting an impressive legacy of good works, or we can let that go and trust God enough to look to God for direction in our life.

The irony is that I seem to be able to come closer to fulfilling the law once I stop making that my goal and make my goal placing my faith in God instead.  When I look to the Holy Spirit for direction, God leads me down a more righteous path.

SC Senate Toasts Underage Drinking in Immigration Debate

Underage Drinking

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South Carolina is run by Republicans.  It isn’t too surprising that it has been eager to join the “me-too” movement with respect to enacting an Arizona-type immigration enforcement bill.  Yesterday South Carolina’s version passed the Senate.

There was a minor glitch in this chest-beating effort to get tough on undocumented workers in South Carolina. Somebody proposed making it a felony to produce fake IDs. Apparently at least one Senator had the presence of mind to realize that underage drinkers also need fake IDs to skirt the drinking laws in the state.  Whoops! They couldn’t have that.  What a disaster it would be for angry constituents to call their office because this bill was ruining their kid’s college experience.  So they carefully worded the bill “so that it wouldn’t apply to teenagers and 20-year-olds trying to get into a bar or club with a fake ID.”

We have an immigration problem in the United States.  Our economy depends on many more foreign workers than our immigration laws allow into the country to work. As a result, we have a large number of undocumented workers. However, the Republicans would rather vilify those who come to fill those unwanted jobs than to actually fix the underlying problem.

In South Carolina, we learned yesterday that our senators are eager to harass and arrest undocumented workers who contribute to our economy, but they are loathe to allow their efforts to inconvenience underage drinkers. They work to criminalize coming to America to find a job while at the same time giving a nod and wink to those who sell alchohol to minors.

I admit that there is a perverse sort of logic at work here.  One way to solve South Carolina’s immigration problem might be to make sure that the main job for students in South Carolina is to party and get drunk.  That way, when they graduate they would only be qualified for the sort of low-wage jobs that undocumented workers normally fill.  By increasing the supply of native born workers for these jobs, there would no longer be a need to look outside the U.S. for such workers.  Plus, the state could probably save some money by firing all of those overpaid public educators.

Traders Taking Us For Another Ride

Commodities index (RBA) and oil barrel (WTI) i...

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A few years ago I was intrigued by an argument I heard linking the housing debacle and great recession to the spike in gasoline prices.  I wish I could remember the source of this theory, but I can’t. The logic went this way: as urban sprawl continued in cities, people bought homes further and further away from where they worked. When gas prices spiked 3 years ago (rising to above $4 per gallon), then suddenly those people found that their cost of driving to work spiked as well.  Some could no longer afford to live where they had bought homes.  The value of their house went down because of the rising cost of commuting, and so they were stuck with homes they could no longer afford.

I acknowledge that there were many causes for the housing crash and great recession, but I think there is something to be said for the idea that rapidly rising gas prices have far reaching negative consequences to our economy.  I am reminded of this because we are seeing the beginning of another spike in the price of gas.

If you listen to the news, people will tell you that the price is going up because of the unrest in the Middle East in general, and unrest in Libya in particular.  That answer reveals the reason that oil prices are being bid up, but it doesn’t really do justice to the degree to which our current system of setting commodity prices is prone to wild swings because of the wagering going on in the trading pits.

When one thinks of the price of goods, one tends to think of the simple relationship between buyers and sellers.  If there are more buyers than sellers, then the price of a good rises, and vice versa.  Yet, the price of oil is not set by buyers and sellers of oil.  It is set by buyers and sellers of oil contracts (“futures” and “options”).  I can buy a contract from someone in which they promise to sell me oil at some future date at a certain price.  Such a contract seems hardly of interest to someone who is not in the business of refining oil.  Yet because these contracts are so liquid,  I can buy one today and sell it tomorrow and try to make a profit even though I have no interest or capacity to deliver or receive the underlying product of the contract.

Oil prices today go up and down based on folks on Wall Street trading such contracts rather than on the purchases of people who are actually interested in buying oil or gasoline (commodities trading is based in Chicago).  The price we pay at the pump has little to do with the supply of gas compared to its demand; it has everything to do with the latest price bid by the traders.

I can buy and sell “futures” for all sorts of commodities like oil.  If I bet correctly about the direction of the price of a particular commodity, then I can make a lot of money.  If I bet wrong, then I lose money.  It sounds an awful lot like a casino.  I can legally bet on all sorts of things.  I can even place a bet on the weather.

The globalization of the world’s economies give more and more power to these futures and options traders to influence prices.  As measured by the FAO Food Price Index, food prices are also headed up. Like oil, they spiked three years ago, but unlike oil, their current run-up has already surpassed that past spike. One of the reasons that food prices are going up is because last year we had droughts and floods that wiped out many crops around the world. But like oil, food prices are also heavily influenced by options and futures traders.

And this brings us back to the unrest in the Middle East. Rising food and energy prices are two of the reasons that people–who have been enduring oppressive regimes for years–recently took to the streets.  So rising commodity prices begets turmoil that begets rising commodity prices.  It turns into a chicken or egg question, but squarely in the middle of the equation are money managers who are making plenty of green for their clientele from the volatility of the price or oil and food.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – The Poison of Knowledge of Good & Evil

Adam and Eve by Peter Paul Rubens

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[Reflections on the Old Testament Lectionary Reading for Mar 13, 2011]

God created paradise on earth. God planted a tree in paradise. This tree’s fruit contained the knowledge of Good & Evil. God warned us that this tree’s fruit was poisonous.

This sounds quite strange to us today. How could learning right from wrong be a bad thing? Later in the story, scripture tells us the answer. In fact it is the serpent who plants the idea that serves as a warning. The serpent says, “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5, NRSV).

Our problem isn’t the degree to which we understand good from bad; our problem is that we try to play God with our ideas of what’s good and evil. We judge others. We convict others. We punish others. And maybe the worst part of it all is that we blaspheme God by attributing our judgment to God.

This problem is part of our nature. We must constantly fight against the temptation to believe that we have sufficient knowledge or that it is up to us to pass judgments on other people.  We see things that “seem” bad to us all the time.  We want to pass judgment.  Who could be more guilty  than someone like me who writes a blog about things that “seem” bad to me (like judging others!)?  We must find some sort of way to stand up for what’s right without ascending to the godly task of deciding who is evil and who is good.

The stakes are higher for those of us who have more power in the world. Those with economic, political, and military power have the unfortunate curse that our judgments have more powerful consequences. When we judge a person or persons to be evil or in the wrong, we have the worldly might behind us to make them suffer.

Revisiting Wisconsin

100% of WI teachers have a higher education th...

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Many different special interests are busily crafting narratives about the Wisconsin battle that promote their agenda.  I’d like to add my thoughts to the mix.  In my opinion, what we are really talking about in Wisconsin is the governor’s attempt to force a pay cut on public employees.

Governor Scott Walker likes to speak in terms of the teachers “paying their fair share” of the cost of their benefits. Consider, however, that in any job Total Compensation = Salary + Benefits. So when Walker speaks of them “paying their fair share” for their own compensation; he’s really talking about a pay cut. His words are just a euphemism for them giving back part of their own compensation.

He likes to talk about how Wisconsin is broke and can no longer afford to pay its teachers. So he wants us to believe that his insistence that teachers take a pay cut is necessary to balance the budget. Yet he is scheduled to announce today a new revenue limit that would require a $500 per-pupil reduction in property taxes. Strange move for a guy trying to balance the budget, wouldn’t you say? If Wisconsin is so strapped that it can’t afford to pay its teachers, then why is it a good idea to reduce revenue from property taxes that help pay teachers?

The answer is pretty simple. Scott Walker is interested in “starving the beast” rather than being fiscally responsible. The beast in this case is public education in Wisconsin. He wants to remove the right of teachers to bargain collectively so that the government can strong-arm them into accepting pay cuts. The reason we allow groups like teachers to unionize is so that there is a balance of power when it comes to negotiating compensation. The fear is that without collective bargaining, the government will use its power to exploit teachers. Scott Walker is the poster boy for why unions are needed for those who work in the public sector.