Monthly Archives: May 2011

Acts 1:6-14: Let’s Get To Work On Our Task In The Here & Now

Ascension of Christ

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[Reflections on the Lectionary Reading for June 5, 2011]

According to the ascension account in the book of Acts, Jesus answered one final question: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6, NRSV) In reply he told his disciples that it was not for them to know the times that have been set by God’s authority. He went on to tell them that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit and that they are to be his global witnesses.

Our curiosity wants to know. We especially want to know the future. But Jesus tells us that we should not focus on knowing the future or other answers that only God knows. Jesus tells us to focus on what we already know: the past and present. Jesus calls us to testify about how God has been working in the world. We are to spread the word about things to which we have been witnesses. Jesus promised that we would receive power. We are called to use that power to testify to what we know about God to the ends of the earth rather than what we guess about the end of the earth.

As the disciples stood watching Jesus ascend into heaven, they were probably dumbfounded. While they stood frozen on the spot, an angel snapped them out of their stunned amazement. The angel asked them why they were standing there looking up toward heaven.

Jesus had given them an assignment; they had work to do. We Christians have work to do here on earth. We should not be spending our time, energy, and power from the Holy Spirit speculating and longing for the return of Christ. We need to quit trying to unlock mysteries of things that only God knows. We should be about the business of telling others about what we do know. We need to be sharing our testimony about how God has been working in our lives and in the history of the world.

We need to be testifying about God’s love not just through words but through our actions. We need to be proving to others that God is working right now by allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us a love for our neighbors that exceeds any love that we could muster on our own.

Every person you meet today should experience a love from you that is beyond human capabilities. They should be so amazed by your love that they become curious to know its source. Once they ask, you then will have the opportunity and power to be Jesus’ proper witness.

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This is Fiscal Responsibility?

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The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a defense authorization bill to spend $690 billion dollars yesterday. That’s odd because they still haven’t given themselves permission to raise the debt limit to pay for the stuff that they already agreed to buy in the past. That’s funny because the Republican’s are screaming about how bad the deficit is, and yet they are still signing checks that will overdraw their account. That’s funny because they are increasing spending more on defense than the Obama administration requested. It’s funny because the Republicans are the ones who say that we need to balance the books by cutting spending without even considering doing anything to bring in more money.

Republicans talk about how sacrifice is needed to solve our debt problem. That’s funny because so far the only people who they have expected to sacrifice are citizens who traditionally don’t vote for them; they still want their pet projects and their base to keep receiving goodies from the government.

The Republicans claim it is the President and the Democrats who are playing politics around the deficit.  That’s funny because  they are the ones holding the solvency of the U.S. hostage to their own special interests. That’s funny because they are the ones who attached provisions to this $690 Billion bill to prevent us from dealing with Guantanamo detainees in a way consistent with our constitution and in a way that is consistent with the liberties for which we fight wars. That’s funny because they have also attached a provision that prevents us from reducing the number of nuclear weapons we have.

The Republicans insist that the only way to fix the deficit is to make people pay more for their healthcare, and they say the government should subsidize private health insurance rather than be in the business of providing healthcare. That’s funny because this bill also reduced the amount that the Secretary of Defense suggested was the military’s fair share to pay for its own government-provided healthcare costs.

Many Republicans complained that Obama did not flex our military muscle adequately to support the Libyan rebels. It’s odd that they also passed a bill to prohibit the Commander in Chief to use any money to put ground troops in Libya. It’s funny that they want to give the military more money, but they don’t actually want our president to be able to use it as Commander in Chief. That’s funny because the last president the Republicans gave this country started two wars for very dubious reasons.

So why am I not laughing?

Yet it is the Republicans who claim to be fiscally responsible, and the Tea Party elected them to eliminate political games in Washington.  Now, that’s funny!

The Dubious Virtue Of A Strong Backbone

Last summer while I worked in a political campaign for a Democrat, I met a Republican ex-Mayor who was supporting my candidate. We worked a festival together, so we had some time to talk. I was interested in picking her brain about what she thought about the Tea Party influence over her party.

Jim DeMint speaking at CPAC.

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In particular, I asked her about Jim DeMint. He is our senator who, in my opinion, is like the Godfather of the Tea Party movement. She told me that although she frequently disagreed with his views (like the one that gay people should not be allowed to be teachers), she liked him because he was the same man on the campaign trail as he was in office. In other words, he never misleads people about who he is and what he believes in. I was amazed to learn that it mattered less whether she thought that what he believed was true so long as he was steadfast and open about it. She seemed to fully embrace the postmodern idea that truth is less important than passion and sincerity.

Paul Ryan

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This brings me to the latest Tea Party man of the hour, Paul Ryan. Here is a man who is pretty passionate about the philosophies and ideas of Ayn Rand. She had much love for the productive superstars in society and disdain for the rest. She obsessed over the idea that without the efforts of the most creative businessmen, scientists and artists, the economy would falter and society would implode.

In turn we see Paul Ryan standing firm in his insistence that once people are  no longer economic producers for society, our society should not be obligated to provide medical care for them. His idea is to take their money that they paid into the Medicare system and dole it back out to them later in the form of vouchers to purchase their own health insurance.

Most Americans probably see their society in contrast to one that casts their infirm and elderly out on ice floes to die. (Anybody recall the Palin-induced outrage over death panels?) I doubt there are many who actually embrace the idea that because a person has lost their economic production value to society they should be discarded much like worn-out machinery. However, I suspect there are many who embrace Ryan simply for his tenacity and willingness to propose such a politically difficult position. They support him precisely because he has the temerity to propose something that is politically unpopular. His idea is politically unpopular because it runs counter to the general culture and beliefs of our society.

By prizing stubbornness and candor above philosophies and ideas we circumvent the value of democracy. We open ourselves up for zealots who advocate ideas and plans that run counter to our culture. If we were all to vote for people based on their passion rather than their ideas, then we would be destined to elect some pretty dangerous characters.

President Harry Truman with "The Buck Sto...

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Harry Truman is admired for putting a sign on his desk that says, “The Buck Stops Here.” I appreciate the fact that he was willing to take full responsibility for his administration. In a democracy, however, the buck doesn’t stop at our leaders; it stops with us. We are the ones who placed them in their position of power. It is easy to want to throw all of the bums out; it is harder to acknowledge that we put those bums in power. It is easy to admire the strong backbone of a zealot; it is more difficult to consider the value of his or her ideas.

When the “Bill of Rights” Bites Back

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In our constitution is a Bill of Rights intended to protect citizens against their government. The 8th amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees that the government will not subject people to cruel and unusual punishment. Sometimes overcrowding in prisons has been judged to be cruel and unusual punishment, and some people don’t like that one bit.

On Monday, the Supreme Court decided that California’s overcrowded prisons result in cruel and unusual punishment for the way it subjects prisoners to increased disease, violence, and death.  Here is a situation where the court sided in favor of those with little power and against government excess. One might hope that those who clamor and shout that our government has forgotten the little guy and has forgotten its own Constitution would embrace if not celebrate this ruling. If one hoped that, one would be very disappointed.

Although the conservative movement tries to portray itself as the champion of the victims of government overreach; it actually plays favorites. It prefers the wealthy to the poor. It prefers the majority culture over the minority cultures. In its world, people in prison deserve no accommodation. They don’t know anybody in prison. Their friends have enough influence and money to avoid prison, and so it is easy for them to characterize  inmates as bad people. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the same group who see no problem with ignoring the Geneva Convention‘s rules prohibiting torturing prisoner’s of war are quick to use the same callous logic against its own citizens.

The reaction to this news from the right has been swift, in unison, and fully spun to misrepresent facts. They ignore the fact that the court is giving California time to deal with this court order. The Wall Street Journal was typical in its headline: The Supreme Court’s Prison Break.

John Bolton is considering a run for the presidency, so he came out swinging. According to John, what America needs is another president like Ronald Reagan who knew how to appoint “originalist” justices to the Supreme Court. Ignoring the fact that a Reagan appointee wrote the opinion in favor of this ruling, Bolton embraces originalism as some noble principle of justice.

Originalism seeks to follow the intent of those who originally drafted a measure. If it were possible to achieve, then this would yield a perfectly static set of laws in America where Africans would remain enslaved and women would remain powerless to vote. [Of course this may not sound so bad to this crowd]

But the truth is that it is an unrealistic goal. How does one know the extent of the imagination of people who pass laws of principle? Did the words “all men are created equal” only apply to white guys in the minds of our founding fathers? Did the words “cruel and unusual punishment” have specific boundaries? If so, then why didn’t they simply list prohibited punishments rather than draft such an open-ended phrase?

There is also the problem of figuring out who the originator is for a concept. The concept of our Bill of Rights did not originate with us. We borrowed it from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Furthermore, I would argue that much of our concepts of law derive from the Ten Commandments. Does John Bolton presume to know what was in the “mind” of the originator of the Ten Commandments, God?

Most people imagine that what they were taught about religion when they were a child represents orthodoxy. Similarly in politics people like to imagine their own preferred interpretations as the one’s advanced by the heroes of our nation’s founding. Just as some Christians try to create Jesus in their own image, Americans like to create our forefathers in our own image.

Originalism is just a fancy sounding word that allows people to co-opt the credibility of our founding fathers for their own pet theories and prejudices. And many of the protestations against this Supreme Court decision represent nothing more than a hissy-fit being thrown by spoiled children who are used to getting their own way in all things regarding our government.

If It’s Not Armageddon, Maybe It’s Global Warming

P globe blue

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The world didn’t end this weekend, but 89 people are dead in Joplin, Missouri from a tornado. So far this year tornadoes have killed nearly 400 people in the U.S. Haven’t we had more tornado disasters this year than in recent memory?  Last year 45 people died in tornadoes. The year before that 21 people died.

Jesus listed “famines and earthquakes in various places” as one of the signs of the end of the end of the age and his return. So for some Christians, their certainty or suspicion that the end of the world is near is bolstered by recent weather events. But as we saw the past weekend, it can be risky to try to predict the time for an event that even Jesus said he didn’t know when it would happen.

Anticipating the end of the world allows conservative Christians to put the weather disasters of the past decade into a familiar narrative. It permits them not to worry about whether these events are trying to tell us that something is wrong with our planet. It also allows them not to worry too much about the long-term effects we’re having on our planet because they believe that the world isn’t going to be around much longer anyway.

Severe weather events is one of the consequences predicted by those raising the alarm over global warming. Somehow these events no longer generate much discussion about global warming. It’s as if we have a stalemate now. Gallup reports “48% of Americans now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41% in 2009 and 31% in 1997, when Gallup first asked the question.” Rasmussen reports that 59% of Americans believe that there is significant disagreement about global warming within the scientific community. These opinions stand in the face of the fact that no scientific body of national or international standing denies global warming or that human activity contributes to it.

It is instructive to consider the final scientific body to cave and agree with everybody else about global warming. That body was the  American Association of Petroleum Geologists. It reminds me of the notion (not mine) that it is very difficult to convince a man of something if his livelihood depends on it not being true. The entire question of global warming has been corrupted by commercial interests. Industries who do not want their activities to be restricted based on the external costs they cause our society will spend lots of money to try to convince the decision makers that they are not causing such a problem.

Unfortunately many Christians have been co-opted politically by business interests in America. This has been done in many ways. One strategy has been to use social issues as wedge issues. Many Christians use questions such as abortion and gay marriage as litmus tests. They trust people who agree with their orthodoxy on these two issues. Political conservatives have learned that adopting the “right” positions on certain social issues give them carte blanche with these people on the economic issues that these conservatives care about.

The world didn’t end this weekend. We don’t know when the world will end. Maybe these signs of the end times are not a result of God fulfilling prophecies about the end of the world. Perhaps they are the result of what we are doing to our planet. Perhaps it is time for Christians to focus less on the end of the bible and more on the beginning when God gave us responsibility to care for God’s creation.

Acts 17:22-31: Searching, Groping, & Finding God

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. The Book ...

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[Reflections on the Lectionary Reading for May 29, 2011]

Paul sums up God’s purpose in creation in a single sentence. According to Paul’s sermon in the seventeenth chapter of Acts, God made us and set each of us into our allotted places within creation so that we would search, grope and find God. Creation surrounds us in order for us to be in the right situation that God has designed for us to eventually find God.

What is the situation in which you find yourself within creation? Do you consider yourself fortunate to be living in “modern” times? Do you praise God for the blessing of having been born where you were born? Are you thankful for all of the privileges that you have enjoyed based on your allotted place in creation?

Paul contrasts God to other things that humans worship. God is not like “gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29, NRSV). But those are the things that we find ourselves surrounded by in our allotted place in the world. And those are the things that misdirect us in our search for God. We grope not for God but for gold and silver. But such things are counterfeits, and such things cannot satisfy the longing that God created in our hearts.

God has put us all into the right situations in order for us to search for God. Those situations present many counterfeits for us to consider.  We might first go through a period of groping, but we can eventually find God, and finding God is our purpose here on earth.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Julian Assange & “Inside Job”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn (French socialist polit...

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I recently watched “Inside Job” for the first time. That was the winner of the 2011 Best Documentary, Features Academy Award, and it details the financial meltdown of 2008. I would recommend this documentary to everyone.

What I appreciate most is how it doesn’t play favorites among our two parties. This film shows how every president since Reagan has been part of the problem by hiring Wall Street insiders to positions of power within the government’s financial regulatory agencies.

This film interviews many people. Some are defensive while others are willing to criticize what was going on. One of those who criticized what had gone on was Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The day after I saw this film, I learned that he has been accused of raping a woman. I remembered him from the film, and I thought “what a shame” and “how horrible”.

The juxtaposition of these experiences about this person settled and digested a bit until I finally began to wonder about a conspiracy. My mind immediately connected to Julian Assange. Here are two foreigners who after criticizing or damaging the reputation of the U.S. government have been put away on charges of rape.

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories because I feel like they feed on paranoia and resist evidence to the contrary. On the other hand it is certainly true that sometimes conspiracies do exist. Even if my worst fears are true and these men were set up, I don’t really see this as a full-blown conspiracy, but it smells like one.

Someone with a lot more intellectual capital than me has also suspected the same thing. Paul Craig Roberts, former U.S. assistant secretary of the Treasury espouses the same idea in an interesting article here. His article goes into more detail about why the U.S. would want to derail the campaign of this man who was the front-runner to become the next president of France.

Unpopularity Vote

A symbol to indicate voting process

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Speaking recently with a Tea-Party leaning Republican, I was struck by the fact this person didn’t like John McCain or George W. Bush.  In fact I’m not sure they’ve liked anybody running for President since Reagan. I often hear people talk about how they don’t like the candidates that our two parties offer up. It seems to be more and more common for people to vote “no” against a candidate than to vote “yes” for a candidate.

For several election cycles we’ve heard how hard it was going to be for incumbents because so many people were furious with Washington, their state capitol, of city hall. Politics has perfected the art of making opponents look bad, and this has bled over into new media. To paraphrase an old proverb: Scandals and rumors ricochet around the world before real news can get its boots on.

As I reflect back on my own attitude towards people who I have voted for, I can say I have really liked all but one person who I voted for president (Walter Mondale, who later I have learned to respect more than I did at the time I voted for him). I truly do believe that it is important for us as a society to figure out a way to vote for people that we would like to serve in office. That seems sort of obvious, but the problem is of course the dominant parties. We are afraid of wasting our vote because then the worse of two evils might win.

There are proposals to change the voting method in order to encourage people to vote for who they really like best, and maybe that’s what it would take. But I also believe that if voters would take their responsibility seriously and do their homework, they might find that there is a candidate among the two major parties that on balance they do like. It’s not about finding the person who agrees with you on every single issue. It is about finding a person who is smart, capable, dedicated to what’s best for America, and has a similar world view as you do.

Now is the time for voters to begin doing their homework. Before a party nominates a candidate, then anything is possible. Now is the time to seek out a good candidate and to get behind that person. This is how our system is supposed to work, and if it’s not working, then we need to look to ourselves to begin the process of fixing it.

A Mandate By Any Other Name

Newt Gingrich

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Newt Gingrich opened a can of worms when he was asked about the Republican plan passed by the House which radically changed Medicare. Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.” More importantly his comments brought to my mind and to others the uncomfortable contrast between the Republican plan and what they have been saying about the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Republicans have been egging on the states to sue the government claiming that Health Care Reform (ACA) is unconstitutional because it mandates people to buy health insurance.

There’s the rub. The Republican plan does the very same thing, except in a bigger fashion. The Republican plan takes money that would fund your healthcare and uses it to subsidize your private health insurance premiums.  In other words, the only way you’re getting any of that money that you’ve spent your life paying into Medicare is for you to buy health insurance. Government financial rewards for buyers of insurance is precisely what the Republican plan offers, and it is precisely what they’d like to claim is unconstitutional about the Democrat’s plan.

Now, I have read some conservative commentators who write that this comparison is not fair. (see: National Review) However, on page 46 of Paul Ryan‘s “Path To Prosperity” it states, “This is not a voucher program, but rather a premium-support model. A Medicare premium-support payment would be paid, by Medicare, to the plan chosen by the beneficiary, subsidizing its cost” (italics mine). I don’t get it. Is there a difference between a voucher and a deal that pays premium-support money to a service provider rather than directly to you?

What I do get is that words matter. In politics, it isn’t as important what you are saying as how you say it. But it is the job of the electorate to see behind the curtain and to call out politicians who are trying to use words to mislead. To me Ryan’s plan calls for replacing Medicare healthcare with a voucher to buy insurance from a private insurer. And if his plan is taking money that currently is designated to fund my healthcare and directs it in a way so that I cannot receive its benefit unless I buy insurance, then that sounds to me like a mandate to buy health insurance.

Republican Army of the Gullible

Republican Party (United States)

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Here’s the good news: the number of birthers (people who believe that Barak Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A.) has declined from 20% to only 10% of the population following the release of Obama’s long form birth certificate.

Here’s the bad news: the number of people who believe that Osama bin Laden is still alive is sitting at 20% of the population.

So what’s going on here. Why do so many people believe things that facts show are false? Many theories abound. Maybe it’s part of the wave of the internet–where anyone can broadcast whatever bogus information they want. Maybe it’s because people are so suspicious of authority. Maybe it reflects a decline in public education.

I think there are many reasons, but I believe that one of the primary reasons has to do with politics, plain and simple. After losing the last presidential election so significantly, the Republican Party adopted a strategy as outlined by Rush Limbaugh, who famously said that he hoped that Obama would fail. After winning a majority in the House during the mid-term elections, the Republican Speaker of the House echoed Limbaugh by naming his top priority as defeating Obama. It was no longer about what was best for America, or even what was good for America, it had been reduced to a purely political calculus: the Republicans just want to be in power.

Obama identified this tactic last September when he commented “If I say the sky is blue, [Republicans] say ‘no.’ If I said fish live in the sea, [Republicans would] say ‘no.'”

Because Rush Limbaugh has been inoculating millions of listeners against truth and fact for a generation, the Republicans have a gullible core of people who are primed to disbelieve and dislike Obama regardless of who he is or what he does. This sets Republicans up to make their strategy effective. They can oppose even dire needs of our country (like fixing the financial system or not defaulting on our governments obligations) because it works to the benefit of their political party. If the economy tanks, that’s great news because they can blame it on their bogey man, Obama. If Americans die because they can’t go to the doctor, that’s great news because they can blame it on Obamacare.

And every time Obama outshines his Republican predecessor (as in actually finding Osama bin Laden), then they’re ready with their whisper campaign of doubts to sway their army of the gullible.