Would President Trump Have Been a Slave Owner?

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) gives greater detail to the argument that America’s economic fortune was built upon an infrastructure forged by slavery. In the wake of the bloody Civil War, the second industrial era’s twin links of mass production and mass consumerism birthed unforeseen prosperity and inequality. Yes, good ol’ American ingenuity and innovation had plenty to do with the boom, but as Baptist writes, an economic trampoline had been constructed before the war through the hands, arms, and torsos of enslaved Americans.

Baptist argues that white historians’ over-emphasis upon American ingenuity and innovation is part of the ruse to downplay our enslaving heritage. He also argues that the North wasn’t exempt from the economic benefit provided by southern slavery. Southern cotton fields produced millions of fiber bales that were eventually processed into clothes and durables in English mills, but northern states’ industry supported the enslaving enterprise with bank credit that financed firms selling slaves, and saws to clear-cut fields and shovels to till soil. If you assume that Baptist writes history from a narrow perspective because he is black, check yourself.  He’s white and grew up in North Carolina. He teaches nineteenth-century history at Cornell University, and tells students, as he does readers of his book, that cotton was the nineteenth century’s oil that fueled the majority of its economic activity before the latter resource did the same for the following century.

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The United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, but enforcement lagged. Domestic slave trading was not addressed by the new law. The Half Has Never Been Told chronicles, among other moral transgressions of the era, the constant breaking apart of black families in Virginia – a true feeder system – as the economic locus in southern states and territories shifted from Old Dominion tobacco farms to cotton plantations in the Deep South. While reading Baptist’s descriptions of forceful family breakups (not only in Virginia), the connection between that brutal history and present-day realities suffered by numerous African-American families made me shake my head in shame. Enslavement is inequality at its most basic and gruesome level. Its effects didn’t simply fade away with the passage of time, and have been girded up by prejudice and racism which still thrives, incredibly, in the twenty-first century, in this land where we profess to uphold “liberty and justice for all.”

Of course, I can be aghast. I had a solid northern upbringing in the Land of Lincoln, no less, that included the following teaching about the Civil War: the battle was all about slavery. When I moved to Texas more than twenty-five years ago, I picked up the alternative notion that the Civil War was about the North attempting to dominate the South economically. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument, but noticed that a lot of research and footnoting went into it. In recent years, I’ve also read about “states’ rights” as a justification for the war. Both arguments contain some truth, but not enough to override or even dent Baptist’s assertion: the Civil War was not only about the maintenance of slavery, but its expansion. The vestiges of that desire plague this society yet today.

Before the Civil War, ten of the fifteen presidents owned slaves, eight of them while serving the office. This society – down to its core DNA – has always been a conflicted jumble consisting of freedoms, privileges, and advantages for some, and enslavement, bondage, and inequalities for others. I’m not mocking the values that we hold dear and confess to be part of our heritage. I’m doubling down on one of Baptist’s points: the playing field has always been significantly imbalanced and not to recognize it only perpetuates its effects. As I argue in Just a Little Bit More, the pursuit of Mammon has been the overriding spirit that has, in great part, made this country what it is. Our true national religion – the pursuit of “just a little bit more” – is simultaneously a great blessing and curse. This spirit helped build this country into the leading economic power in the world. But it also justified slavery the during the colonial days and the first eighty-five years of the nation’s existence, and the effect of this justification lingers like a permanent hangover.

Reading Baptist’s book made me think: How many kick-ass business types – money accumulation and attainment their modus operandi – would be enslavers if they had lived in pre-Civil War days (or would be today if slavery were still legal)?

Provocative blog posts titles, posed as hypothetical questions, don’t prove anything. They can, however, spur our thinking. In the oval office, the current president proudly has hung a portrait of the seventh president. Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, helped clear out Native Americans from Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi via the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. Much of this land, in subsequent years, produced cotton picked by enslaved people, many who had been forcibly marched south and west from Virginia or South Carolina.

The challenge to look at and understand history in a new way can lead to transformed thinking, which in turn can lead to actions and interactions of greater love, clarity, and justice. May it be so in this land of stony roads and chastening rods that have not wiped out the faith and hope taught – and wrought – even from the dark past.

 

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville (forthcoming, fall 2018).

 

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Back in the Saddle

The topic of inequality wedged itself into my mind and heart when I was a child. I was no more than four years old when my maternal grandmother gifted my brother and me with an Arch Book titled The Rich Fool. Based on Jesus’ parable from Luke 12:13-21, it tells the story of a rich farmer who failed to realize that the blessings of the earth – including that of his own farmland – were intended for more than his own consumption and hoarding. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” By way of prelude to the parable, Jesus told his listeners that they should “be on guard against all types of greed.”

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This first Bible story that I remember learning has colored my faith and understanding of the world. I draw a direct line between its message penetrating my developing child soul to the start of my research in 2011 that led to the production of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good in 2014. I’ve had a number of good conversations and interactions with you and others on the topic of inequality since that time. During 2017, I took a self-imposed sabbatical (thanks in great part to my main supporter and spouse, Denise) and dedicated much of my time to researching the topic of restorative justice. As a result, my second book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, should be published before the end of this year. (I’ll have more to say on the incredible stories of transformation and reconciliation I’ve written about in the crafting of this non-fiction narrative.)

As of March 1, I’ve started a new position as Director of Community Development for ACL – Austin City Lutherans. ACL consists of fifteen area ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations that work together in social ministry. We have a food pantry serving working folks and their families in Southeast Austin and have designs for enacting an early childhood development program in the same underserved area of the Texas capitol city. This work includes the consideration of inequality and its effects – consequently, I feel like I’m “back in the saddle.” I’m extremely grateful for the bold leadership within ACL congregations to embark upon this ministry. I’m also humbled by the opportunity to shepherd a group of people inspired and urged by their faith to make a difference for developing young souls (and their families) in a vulnerable area of Austin. Eighteen percent of children in Austin (see the 2017 Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data book) live in economic poverty, a great improvement from 2012 when the figure was 30 percent. The economy has improved in the past five years, but Austin’s rising cost of living has forced poorer families to move out of the city, and Austin’s population growth has diluted the percentage. Even so, today, more than 25 percent of Latino children in Travis County (where Austin resides) live in poverty.

What precisely will our “early childhood development program” look like? We’re not sure at this point. We have a lot of work to do: speaking with school principals, researching existing options, listening to and learning from experts, talking with parents who live in SE Austin, enlisting partners, and much more. The compiling of information from these conversations and considerations will help us answer the above question. Stay tuned, and if you’re so inclined, reach out and join our efforts.

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Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville (forthcoming, fall 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

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Death, Resurrection, and Cilantro

(The Austin American-Statesman published this post as an article on March 20, 2016.)

The winter gardening season – in Texas, at least – is coming to a close.

Almost twenty-five years ago, I planted my first winter garden in Texas. Having grown up in Chicago, I was unaccustomed to winter gardening. That first year in Houston, I planted some cilantro seeds (coriander), as instructed on the package for Zone 9, the middle of October. As the temps subsequently cooled off into November, the tender green shoots emerged. Wow – plant growth in the winter made me feel like I was somehow cheating. The shoots soon turned into baby cilantro plants, their little leaves exhibiting the defining crags and jags of the mature version.

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A first of the year harvest of cilantro

One post-Christmas December morning, however, I woke to see my beautiful garden covered in frost. My baby cilantro plants were drooped over, weighted down by ice crystals. My heart sank. All my work for naught – the future harvest ruined. So much for winter gardening.

But then the sun came out, and the temp warmed. To my complete shock, my baby cilantro plants revived as they soaked in the winter sun. AWESOME! The coating of ice melted, my garden glistened once again. My confidence in Texas winter gardening restored, I anticipated plenty of fresh pico de gallo fortified with our homegrown cilantro for months to come.

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March Madness – the flowering and seeding out process of my cilantro garden

For two months, the harvest met those expectations. An unexpected thing happened in March, however, right in the middle of Lent. My cilantro plants put on white flowers, beginning the deathly process of seeding out. I had a plan, though. I’d simply cut off the flower shoots, thus extending the life of my plants. What a plan! To my further surprise, my plan to stave off the death of my plants only hastened their death. Where I had cut the shoots, new ones came up only faster. There was no other option – my plants wanted to die, and timed their demise to coincide with Holy Week. As a pastor, I realized my garden was reflecting the cycle I taught and preached about during Lent: unless a seed falls to the ground and dies . . .

There are natural limits to the creation and how it works. Try and do all you can, but most of these limits are unassailable. Sometimes the spirit of “just a little bit more” needs to accommodate itself to the spirit of “enough is enough.” Creation, if we pay attention, teaches this invaluable lesson in many and various ways. My cilantro garden followed its given script. It thrived and produced during the cooler months of the year and then produced something else when spring warmth returned – hundreds upon hundreds of seeds. October would come again, and with it, the glorious cycle of rebirth.

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Cilantro pesto

Since this first described excursion, I’ve been growing cilantro every winter in Texas. The last few years, I’ve discovered a more effective way than chopping the shoots to extend the harvest: cilantro pesto. I’ve been making basil pesto for years (from the summer garden), and use an adapted blender recipe: harvested cilantro leaves, walnuts (or pecans), extra virgin olive oil, a few slices of fresh sweet onion, and a touch of salt. It keeps in the freezer for as long as needed and goes really well with grilled fish and Viognier. Provecho. 

Oftentimes gazing upon my cilantro garden, I am reminded of the cycle of death and resurrection. Death, many times, is undesirable and cruel. Yet, my garden testifies: death is not the end. More is to come.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide became available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más salió en Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

 

 

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A Love Supreme – A Tribute to John Coltrane

 

stjohncoltraneJohn Coltrane released his masterpiece A Love Supreme in February 1965. For those of you unfamiliar with Coltrane’s work, A Love Supreme is as fresh and timeless today as it was more than fifty years ago. Accessibly melodic, Coltrane’s exuberant tenor sax fuses with McCoy Tyner’s teeming piano chords and riffs to produce an unparalleled thirty-three minute session of ascendant and flowing grace.

Give it a look and listen here:

Coltrane’s road to A Love Supreme was anything but straightforward. An incredible talent, he often travelled a wayward path. The hungry ghost of addiction haunted him; he was booted out of Miles Davis’s band in 1957 for continued heroin use, including a near overdose. The close call propelled him to clean up, however. From the autobiographical liner notes of A Love Supreme: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” His calling was “to make others happy through music,” which, he claimed, was granted to him through God’s grace.

Coltrane was raised a Christian, and he also sought out other faith traditions after his epiphany. His conclusion: “No matter what . . . it is with God. He is gracious and merciful. His way is in love, through which we all are. It is truly – A Love Supreme – .”

Yes, Coltrane’s credo – like some of his music later in his career – is a bit vague and esoteric. Let me put the credo in other terms, more accessible: love is a sufficiency all its own. In Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the societal desire and drive that is never satisfied with enough, always seeking “just a little bit more.” Love is the antidote to the pursuit of more and more; it helps us to be grateful, to relax, to rest, to enjoy, to share, and to know what and when is enough. Love also helps us to do great things – busting our tails in the process – for our neighbor and the common good. Love covers it all.

John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, having completed only 40 years of life on this earth. Forgive the obvious cliché – his music does live on. Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music, University of Michigan Press, 2000) explains that Coltrane plays the “Love Supreme” riff (four notes) exhaustively in all possible twelve keys toward the end of Part 1 – Acknowledgement, the first cut on the disc. Love as sufficiency – it covers all we need and then some.

The conclusion of Coltrane’s liner notes: “May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in all ways and forever.”

May A Love Supreme reign for another 50 plus years, and then some. Amen.

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, Amazon, and wherever books and ebooks are sold.

 

 

 

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In Lieu of Flowers . . . Revisited

Originally published February 15, 2016 on this blogsite, I reworked this post for the Austin-American Statesman. The newspaper ran it on October 29, 2016, right before the election. Still fresh . . .

 

A message arrived from my hometown. My parents informed me that the mother of one of my high school classmates had passed away. I don’t remember having known the deceased, and I had lost touch with my classmate from our Chicago-area high school of thirty-five plus years ago. My folks shared this news with me because of the jarring request at the end of the deceased’s obituary: In lieu of flowers, please don’t vote for Hillary Clinton.

How’s that for a new twist on the obit pages? A quick search on the Web reveals that, in obits across the country during this political cycle, numerous negative requests concerning both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump reach out to voters from the grave. Who knew the disdain for these two candidates extends even to the great beyond?

Negative requests like these are a sign of the times, skewed hyper-partisan. Before this era of hyper-partisanship, a rare obit might have kindly solicited a request for a positive vote for a particular candidate. In lieu of flowers, be so kind to consider a vote for candidate X in memory of the deceased. Even so, previous to this current era, such a request would have betrayed a slight breach of etiquette.

The current wave of hyper-partisanship traces back to the early 1990s when the Republicans gained majority status in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Their strategy wasn’t new, but it was certainly effective: Destroy the institution to save it—throw the majority bums out. The Democrats, not to be outdone, adopted the same strategy. House Republicans and Democrats have been feuding ever since. What happened to the good old days when President Reagan (Republican) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Democrat) understood that they were adversaries (not enemies) before 6:00 p.m. and colleagues after that appointed time? Reagan famously gave a seventieth birthday party for O’Neill at the White House in 1982. Both partisans were of Irish descent; they understood they shared common humanity.  

The political modus operandi of the day – hyper-partisanship – tramples over the Reagan-O’Neill understanding from a generation ago. This political spirit has spilled over, unfortunately, into American society as acceptable social behavior. Economic segregation in America has increased; and, in some quarters, the demonization of others who are “different” is on the rise. It makes me wonder: Could the spirit of American hyper-partisanship be strong enough to survive into the great beyond, colonizing a few cloistered places for hyper-partisans? God only knows if there will be gated communities in the afterlife . . . 

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Prince Edward County, Virginia

Vernon Johns was Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama—the church that proudly stands one block away from the Alabama State Capitol. Johns, provocative and creative, was a firebrand for equality.

One weekday morning in 1949, Brother Johns, as was his custom, arranged the letters on the front sidewalk sign announcing his coming Sunday sermon topic for passersby. What a shock to the good people of Montgomery, abiding by the laws of racial separation, to see the preacher’s sermon title spelled out: Segregation after Death. The Montgomery police chief noticed the sign and demanded that Johns come to the police station to explain himself. Luke 16:19–31, Jesus’s parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives, provided Johns with his textual basis. Johns explained to the chief and his lieutenants that Dives, a staunch practitioner of segregation (economic and otherwise) during his earthly life, was cursed by it in the afterlife. The reversal of fortune—Dives suffering in Hades, and Lazarus being comforted by Father Abraham in Paradise—was not enough for Dives to see that he shared common humanity with Lazarus. The chief and his men, according to Johns’s retelling of the encounter, empathized with the black preacher. He was not required to alter or take down the sign with his bold sermon title.

Johns’ brilliant interpretation of Jesus’s parable for Montgomery’s specific context focused Luke’s message not on the afterlife, but on how human brothers and sisters, sharing common humanity, treat one another in this life. Perhaps there is a time and place for hyper-partisan strategy, but may its utilization be rare and not commonplace.

That said, brothers and sisters: Vote your conscience, love your neighbor, and begin to shed any negative hyper-partisanship that unnecessarily discolors your relationships with others in the human family. You can’t take it with you when you go, you know.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016 – next week, as a matter of fact. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016 – la semana que viene!

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Santa, Our National Patron Saint!!

A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.

Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.

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A depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra. Notice the bishop’s mitre, the shepherd’s staff, the cross, and the religious vestments.

The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.

The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.

Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.

Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.

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Our modern Santa – with a little commercial backing.

 

James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.

Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty, in the richest country in the history of the world.

It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?

 

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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All I Want for Christmas is a New Lexus or Mercedes – 2017

‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. As was the case in 2016, Lexus and Mercedes have new commercials that show the power of seasonal goodies to make adults act like children. Whereas the Mercedes commercial (like last year) tastefully gets its message across, the series of Lexus commercials (again, like last year) is over-the-edge cynical in its depiction of adults whose childlike behavior is excused in the pursuit of perfect holiday plunder.

American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth that helps keep a religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate, however, is the explanation of today’s American Christmas as the modern manifestation of the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.

The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!

There’s nothing wrong with owning a Lexus or Mercedes – they’re good cars to get from Point A to Point B in style. The same goes for Cadillac. The above mentioned commercials (follow this link for my take on a similar Caddy commercial), however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that none of these commercials actually showcases the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.

When we teach our children – by propaganda, creed, and example – that wealth and possessions determine status more so than service, commitment, and character we only perpetuate the regression of American society.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, reveals much about our societal character and identity. The gift giving tradition of St. Nick sought out needy children. Today’s American Santa does it all – taking care of children and even affluent adults. When possessions for this latter group serve the primary purpose not of utility, but of self-aggrandizement, there’s an attached danger the adult Jesus warned of numerous times and in various ways . . .

On second thought – blog post title be damned – I think I’ll keep tooling around in my ’07 Accord for the foreseeable future. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

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Happy Black Friday Eve!!

Happy Thanksgiving  . . . I mean, Happy Black Friday Eve.

Daaammmnnn – I’m doing my best to adjust to the new reality, but I’m having some trouble.

I’m so deplorably old-school. I just can’t get the hang of the new lingo or the new way to roll.

Gathering together with family and friends around the table and enjoying turkey, ham, Tofurky (that’s vegetarian tofu-turkey for you extremely old-school types) and all the trimmings, toasting the day of gratitude with some nice oaky California Chardonnay . . . I now realize this description represents a by-gone era, like a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart holiday classic.

Today – early twenty-first century – “Thanksgiving” is increasingly about getting ready for Black Friday Eve and Black Friday, the biggest shopping days of the American calendar year. Turn on the football games if you must, but get ready to go! Shop!! And for our hard-working Americans, go and get the Walmart, Target, and the plethora of mall stores ready to rock, stock, and roll! Push away from the table and do your duty!

This is our time.

Or, at least it used to be.

——————————————————————————————————-

blackfriday2811e
I saw commerce-based Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween this year. I’m not knocking commerce; buying and selling defines the modern world and provides goods, employment, services, and meaning for the vast majority of us. Market activity is a good thing – unequivocally. We’d rather the youngest generation – able, creative, and impressionable – become integrated into the world of commerce than one of other-worldly disinterest and hate, which in extreme cases, can lead to things like terrorism.

Even though commerce is a great civilizing force, it ultimately does not make the world go round. The words of a Jewish prophet from long ago, “Life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” cut against the grain of commerce’s ability to dominate. Maintaining balance and perspective in the midst of all the pots, pans, smartphones, sofa chairs, and cars that surround us requires either poverty or discipline.

Thanksgiving Day 2011: Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, and Best Buy annex the holiday for commercial purposes by opening their doors at 10 p.m. That very night “customer versus customer shopping rage” is reported and responded to by police in at least seven states. This year, Walmart and Target are hitting the airwaves unabashed with advertisements inviting shoppers in at 6 p.m. for Black Friday Eve. Kudos to the checkout aisle workers who, upon handing shoppers their receipts, crack a wry smile and go subversive: Have a good Black Friday Eve holiday weekend. 

Not all Americans are falling for the ploy. The pushback to maintain Thanksgiving as holiday without street fighting at the local big box retailer is gaining momentum. Increased internet commerce mitigates the big box stores’ physical lure. And that really cheap 40″ LED television on sale for Black Friday? It truly is cheap – made exclusively on the cheap for Black Friday and only sold on Black Friday.

On the positive side of the ledger, REI, the national outdoor equipment store, is leading the way by being closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday. Locally in Austin, Tree House, an environmentally conscious home improvement store, is also closing its doors to commerce on Thursday and Friday. #optoutdoors

Two exemplary theologians of our day – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Walter Brueggemann – have done excellent work lifting up the classic teaching of biblical Sabbath. Sabbath is time to give thanks, slow down, take inventory, breathe deep, and get away from some of the distractions of everyday life. I’m looking forward to Sabbath time this Thanksgiving with family and friends. And then I’m going to sleep in on Friday . . .

 

T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).

 

 

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Veterans Day: We Support the Troops, But . . .

This post touches upon some of the connections in American society between football, military service, and violence. Special thanks to Vietnam-era veteran Arlin Buyert (USN) for permission to reprint his poems “Big Brother” and “‘Oh Say Can You See’.” 

God bless Mack Brown, the former head football coach at the University of Texas. His sixteen-year tenure exuded victories on the field and classiness off it. He, by all appearances, treated players the right way; there won’t be any legit “tell all” books coming out anytime soon exposing a dark side of the Brown era. He shepherded a minority of his players on to the NFL, while maintaining during the last half of his tenure a 70 percent plus graduation rate – pretty good for a major college football program. Part CEO, PR master, and recruiting glad-hander – he eventually was done in by his own success. Longhorn partisans took umbrage at his 30-21 record during the final four years of his reign, and it was time for him to go.

I’m not the only commentator to have noticed the increasingly cozy relationship, in the past few years, between football (major college and professional) and the military. Fighter plane flyovers at the beginning of games have been around for a while, but ceremonies honoring service men and women at games – in large part due to the fact the US military has been at war since 2001 – are now commonplace. The tragic death of Arizona Cardinals football player and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004 cemented this relationship in our current day. And this relationship is a natural one; scholars have argued for years that football is not only an extension of military combat, but a good substitute for war. [Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports, Public Affairs Books (2004) is especially noteworthy.]

Since I live in Austin and pay some attention to football, I heard Mack Brown many years of his tenure proclaim – mostly during rushed twenty-second halftime interviews – “We support the troops,” “Thanks to the troops,” or “God bless the troops.” Yes, yes, and yes. Mack Brown wasn’t and isn’t the only football coach to say so, conveniently, during the weekend games on or around November 11. But, wait a minute. The troops and their plight deserve much more than passing or canned accolades as the coach runs to the locker room. Coach Brown no doubt meant what he said, but it was also part of the PR recruiting show intended for millions on national TV. How deeply do we support the troops? Numerous veterans hear “Thanks for your service” as the four quickest words of patronization, wondering if the ones uttering said gratitude have the remotest clue about the fragmented shards of a soldier’s soul that are ripped out and left for dead in a war zone. As a nation, we are undoubtedly guilty for the way we casually accept war and inadequately treat the PTSD many of the troops develop and bring home as result of combat situations.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Wood calls attention to PTSD and something else he calls “moral injury” (originally coined by clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay working with Vietnam vets some twenty years ago). To be clear: Wood claims, in describing moral injury, that troops in battle have not necessarily committed a wrong. Moral injury “is a relatively new concept that seems to describe what many feel: a sense that their fundamental understanding of right and wrong has been violated, and the grief, numbness or guilt that often ensues.” Wood calls moral injury the signature wound that Afghanistan and Iraq veterans deal with – a “bruise on the soul” that has lasting impact on the individual and his or her family.

Arlin Buyert’s poem Big Brother, dealing with a war two generations previous, poignantly describes some of the angst and brutal consequence of moral injury.

 

BIG BROTHER

I was ten years old
when we took Bobbie
to the courthouse in Orange City.
 
Dad and Mom wept
as he boarded the Greyhound
bound for boot camp.
 
After graduation, Korea,
Third Infantry Division.
Two years later
 
someone else came home:
quiet and brittle as a dead tree,
non-stop Old Gold cigarettes,
 
quivering fingers, drunk
in his 1949 Ford, in the ditch,
a ditch that held him forever.
 
Mom cried again,
and again.*
 
 

Suicide, tragically, among military personnel (active duty and veterans) is near double the general population rate. Twenty military personnel per day take their own lives, according to 2014 data. Ray Rice, the former NFL running back, was initially given a slap on the wrist for slugging to unconsciousness his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer; later he was both suspended and scapegoated by a league that cashes in on a level of violence, although regulated, raw and primitive. Colleges and universities with football programs have higher rates of sexual assault on campus than those without. Military institutions are plagued with misogyny and the mistreatment of women; both institutions are guilty of not taking proper care of all of their veterans (both use the same term for retired participants) – especially those injured in action. Both institutions target recruits that are young, able, and not yet risk-averse – the pre-frontal cortex in the human brain, inhibiting risk-taking, is not fully developed until the bearer of that young brain reaches twenty-five years of age.

I don’t write this piece to ridicule either institution; the military is necessary in a diverse and conflicted world, and football is a loved diversion – and, again – a desired substitute over actual war. If you’ve not read Chris Hedges’s War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002), I urge you to do so. Hedges worked as a journalist, covering wars from Central America to the Balkans, and he famously describes war as a drug – potent, lethal, and exhilaratingly addictive. War, he claims, gives us meaningful purpose in a world besieged by seemingly insignificant pursuits. It can be, however, a seductive purpose. “Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment – often at a terrible price.”

Of course we support the troops. Yet in gratitude for their sacrifice and service, perhaps it better we purse our lips, remembering that we have been endowed with two ears and only one mouth. Two ears to listen; two eyes with which to see and better understand the experiences of our fellow brothers and sisters. There are no easy answers. But there are experiences that instruct and inform. We need to pay better attention – Wood’s piece on moral injury is must reading.

War has been around a lot longer than football. Whereas football is derived in part from war and its battle scenarios, we risk confusion when we look to football as being instructive or indicative of war. War is not like football, a bigger and badder version. To the contrary, war is burdened with much more gravitas, obviously, than football ever will be. We Americans invest a lot of time, effort, and energy into our teams following their travails and successes. The least we can do to respect the troops: put in just as much if not more time, energy, and effort learning about the realities of war, and how those who fight our wars are affected by them.

 

“OH SAY CAN YOU SEE”

As preamble
to high school basketball games
it felt fine.
 
As highlight 
of Memorial Day
at cemetery,
it roused my youthful joy.
 
As crown jewel
of Saturday parades
in boot camp,
it drummed shivers through my blood.
 
As “bombs bursting in air” 
became my bombs
bursting a village in Vietnam –
I can sing no more.
 
I saw.
I saw too much.* 

 

 

* “Oh Say Can You See” – War Poems by Arlin Buyert

Chapbook, 39 pages.

Buyert Books, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

Order directly from Arlin Buyert, $10 (no charge for shipping) by email: arlin85@att.net

 

This blog post was originally published on this website November 18, 2014.

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

 

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When Money Speaks, the Truth is Silent

Reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money has solidified a long-held conviction: I simply don’t trust people who revere money and the attainment of wealth as a two-pronged highest good. Blame it on my stolid religious upbringing – a number of the Hebrew prophets and their protegé from Nazareth taught the same conviction, and my parents exemplified it to me and my siblings in their actions and speech. Mayer exposes the fallout of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that deemed corporations free-speech enabled persons. It’s not so much that ExxonMobil and Walmart have kicked in millions to the political process, Mayer says, but that excessively rich Americans – like the Koch brothers and George Soros, and a few others – are increasingly commandeering the process. Their massive financial contributions, through various “social welfare organizations,” is what she calls “dark money.” Those scummy and scathing political television ads, mailers, and social media ads – produced by “Shadow Group 501(c)(4)” or some such entity – that invade your space right before an election? Produced by non-profits that shield donor names from public knowledge, they promote the political agenda of donors via their unlimited contributions – questions rarely asked. Mayer documents that dark money spending has increased exponentially since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in favor of Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) organization that promotes a conservative political agenda. Not only has the 2010 decision opened the door to dark money’s influence on elections, but also to rogue players like Russia.

Mayer argues that our commitment to the greatly cherished American attribute of liberty can go too far. The increasing lack of transparency in our political process threatens collective liberty. I’m not saying that money is bad or that people who have it (most all of us reading this post) are bad, either. Money, simply put, is one of the principal entities that can magnify the human propensity for good and for evil. Money implements and supports actions that uplift common good, but it also had a dark side. As I argue in my 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More, egalitarianism – equal opportunity, helping to mitigate imbalanced inputs that lead to outcomes of blatant inequality – is the foil that keeps liberty honest. I’ll call upon a Russian saying that aptly applies: When money speaks, the truth is silent. 

Gilded Age partisans John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, with their never before realized and gargantuan gains in wealth, gave a new permission to modern American society: to leave its egalitarian foundations behind. Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their defense, sensed the responsibility to redistribute their vast fortunes and acted upon it. What’s different today? As egalitarianism’s influence has faded, a number of today’s wealthiest sense no responsibility to redistribute their gains but instead use these gains to influence the political arena to their own benefit – the Koch brothers, as Mayer argues, being the most arrant example. Common good, in this post-Citizens United age, has become a private rather than a public ideal where freedom is narrowly defined (incorrectly) as the making of money, and wealthy and corporate interests are able to act with impunity. Mayer quotes the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Total liberty for the wolves is death for the lambs.”

Citizens United is helping to crush the moderate voice in the political realm, notably on the Republican side of the aisle. Mayer quotes Lee Drutman, of the New America Foundation: “The more Republicans depend upon 1% of 1% donors, the more conservative they tend to be.” The Kochs’ preferred brand of cutthroat libertarianism, an outlier a generation ago, is ascendant today with its anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-climate agenda. It has a few common intersections with Donald Trump’s populist nationalism, but is decidedly distinct from it. These two groups are out for the soul of the Republican party – moderate Republicans like John Kasich and Lisa Murkowski be damned.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that societies of increasing affluence tend to become more individualistic, jeopardizing their social cohesion. Sacks’s description perfectly frames the American society of the past thirty-five years, and helps explain its rising rates of inequality. Mayer fingers Steven Schwarzman and Charles Schwab as players on the Koch brothers’ dark money team, using their wealth politically to further serve their personal economic interests.

Conversely, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, in the spirit of Rockefeller and Carnegie from a generation ago, understand the responsibility inherent to great riches. Philanthropy is not the greatest good, but its proper practice remains vital until that utopian day arrives when political and economic systems produce wealth sufficient for all of its members.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago). JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

 

 

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