DACA, Immigration Reform, and a just a little bit more Sarcasm

Lady Liberty has beckoned for more than a century, but now it’s time to give back – or better said, time to expel. President Trump’s uncharacteristic wishy-washy revocation of DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s enthusiastic endorsement of the revocation, and the House Republicans’ steady inaction on immigration reform could result in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Latino youth (and others). American society, over the centuries, has given slaves, migrants, child laborers, and foreigners the opportunity – that’s right – to build the nation through their blood, sweat, and tears. Yeah, legalized slavery is a thing of the past thanks to the stinkin’ abolition movement and that obstinate president named Lincoln. And the days of kids getting their fingers stuck in cotton-spinning looms and coal mine breaker boys getting their lungs full of coal dust are over because of the stinkin’ rise of unions, child reform labor regulations, and compulsory education laws. The problem of all these horrible DACA recipients in the country couldn’t possibly be one of our own doing, could it? Two words: Cheap labor. Five more words: Oh how we love it.

Coal mine breaker boys – circa 1910 – photo by Lewis Hines

Without America’s long-standing love affair with cheap labor, why would the parents of these DACA recipients have come here in the first place to do their unpatriotic duty from the bottom rungs to make America great?

Remember the foreign and migrant workers who laid rail track in the western territories and states? Lucky them! Today their vocational descendants pick fruit in the south and west and harvest wheat in the Plains, slaughter pigs and cows in the Midwest, clean up restaurants and office buildings and cut grass and trim trees all over the country. Why give them – and their children – a path to citizenship with legal rights and protections when we can continue to exploit them for what we need so dearly – unprotected and loosely regulated cheap labor? How the hell are my wife and I supposed to enjoy relatively cheap California wine ($10-15) if it becomes more expensive ($25) because some damn Mexican grape-pickers need to be paid a living wage? WTFlagon.

If you must know the specifics: DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – was a policy put into place by the Obama administration in 2012, after a do-nothing Congress did nothing on immigration reform. Close to 800,000 applicants have been approved since that time with the majority of these living in California and Texas. And now the great American president has given a green light to AG Sessions to pull the plug on the program.

All of these horrendous “Dreamers,” who came to the USA on the backs of their parents – get the hell out! Thank God for the Texas Attorney General (currently indicted for securities fraud) doubling as a fine Christian man, standing up for the US Constitution with a threat to sue the president if DACA is not revoked. The poor, tattered Constitution is under fierce attack from Dreamers who go to school, work, and make their families stronger. Hell, some of them even go to church. It’s so entirely un-American of them – if only they would learn how to smoke weed and binge drink like a lot of white kids from the suburbs do, while cruising around in cars provided by Mommy and Daddy. That’s the American way.

A musician in Austin that I’m fond of (James McMurtry) sings, “We can’t help what came before.” These damn Dreamers, if they’re so smart, they should have known to do something about their status before their underachieving parents brought them here.

Another American musician I’m fond of (Lou Reed – RIP) sang of the aforementioned Lady Liberty: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor and I’ll piss on ’em. That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says.” Reed was a New Yorker. As you can tell by his lyric, he knew, just like the great American president knows, that Lady Liberty was soooo nineteenth century. It’s about time we start living up to the updated credo, championed by the really, really rich president from New York: Put America first, baby. Go home, wherever that is, you damn Dreamers, and quit ruining our – not yours, but our – country.

We’ve come a long way from the dark days of the summer of 2013 when fourteen Republican senators joined fifty-four Democratic senators to approve an immigration reform bill. A bipartisan group of eight senators championed the bill, but, thank God, the House Republicans wouldn’t join in the apostasy. The bill died before the president who wasn’t even born here could sign it.

The problems America faces are too many to list in a blog post designed to run 750 words. Suffice it to say, getting rid of close to a million Dreamers would set the country back on the path to greatness because expulsion would get at the very root of every single one of the problems – again, too many to mention – that beset us. And hell, once we get rid of all these stinkin’ Dreamers, we’ll feel much better about ourselves as a society. Probably, maybe.

————————————

Lou Reed was on to something, but for the moment I’m going to call Lady Liberty “The Statue of Irony.” It’s times like these that we need her torch of enlightenment (ironic, isn’t it?) to shine ever so brightly!

James McMurtry, “Iolanthe,” Where’d You Hide the Body? (1995)

Lou Reed, “Dirty Boulevard,” New York (1989)

 

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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Trash and Trump

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve queried: How in the world did Donald Trump become president? My blog post from October 20, almost three weeks prior to the election, speaks a cultural truth – for better and worse, Americans equate wealth with success – but my prediction that Trump would “convincingly” lose the election, despite his wealth and because of his many flaws, reveals that I have more to learn about Americans.

Nancy Isenberg’s provocative White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is essential reading for understanding the Trump phenomenon, and for delving deeper into American society’s long history of inequality. Even though the hardcover version was released in June 2016 before the advent of the Trump era, Isenberg effectively describes the context that helps answer the above query. The LSU American history professor, in the paperback version released earlier this year, directly answers the query in a new preface. Class and identity politics, she says, not one more than the other, operated in tandem to help elect the forty-fifth president.

History tells that colonial Australia was a dumping ground for English convicts and other undesirables. Colonial America, with widespread indentured servitude and expanding slavery, wasn’t markedly different. Consequently, Isenberg argues, American society has always been stratified and class-based. The group of marginalized American underclass – enslaved Africans and blacks, Native Americans, and expendable laboring migrants – also included white undesirables, initially labeled as waste people, rubbish, lazy lubbers, crackers, clay eaters, and swamp dwellers. The moniker “white trash” would come later as a catch-all phrase subsuming these and other descriptions.

The extension of suffrage to non-property owning white men in 1828 helped Andrew Jackson win the presidency that same year. Jackson – vengeful, blunt, defensive, retaliatory, braggadocious, and crass – was the original Trump. An arch-populist, he spoke the language of common folk and railed against elites in Washington. Jackson won reelection in 1832. He signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, aiding white settlement and abetting the deaths of thousands of Native Americans in the infamous Trail of Tears.

During his first week in the oval office Trump proudly hung a portrait of “Old Hickory” near his desk, calling the seventh president “an amazing figure of American history.” The two men, and the political contexts that produced their presidencies, have many commonalities. I scribbled “Trump” in the margins of my hardcover version of White Trash no less than twenty-five times on the pages where Isenberg described Jackson and his era.

Isenberg says that, like Jackson and other politicians before him, Trump has tapped into a rich vein of American identity politics. Trump embraced the forgotten white, sometimes rural, working (or previously working) class – many who are afraid for the future, feeling disinherited, some blaming Mexicans and immigrants for unfavorable changes, and others perilously hooked on opioids. Thomas Edsall reports in the New York Times that, according to a 2014 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, opioid prescriptions in twelve states outnumbered their populations: Arkansas, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Strikingly, all twelve states voted in the Trump column on November 8th. Edsall also cites a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation release that reports overdose death rates from opioids, including heroin, were much higher for whites at 13.9 per 100,000 persons, than for blacks (6.6) and Hispanics (4.6).

When Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump’s supporters as a “deplorables,” she filled up a white trash basket with racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamaphobes. While Trump’s numerous disparaging comments rarely hurt his political fortunes, Clinton’s phrase turned against her. Not only was it over-generalized and inaccurate, it further galvanized some of Trump’s supporters – non-college educated, left-behind whites – into a class and an identity that separated them from elites like Clinton and her ilk from above, and “Mexicans and immigrants” from below. Their fear of falling down the socioeconomic ladder met up with Trump’s promise to be their savior. A small slice of this group – white supremacists and neo-Nazis – acted out mid-August in Charlottesville, Virginia and the president, incredibly, came to their defense.

Trump was not elected solely by whites anxious about losing status and tumbling into a lower socioeconomic class. There were plenty of college educated, and economically well-to-do that voted for Trump. Isenberg argues that America has always been a class-based society, and despite all our talk of equality, a society quite comfortable with hierarchy. With the attainment of the American Dream for many becoming nothing more than empty promise and platitude, Trump masterfully tapped into (and continues to stoke) historic resentments and an electoral college majority of Americans bought it.

In part, this is how Donald Trump was elected president. I’m still learning about my fellow Americans, even though it sometimes leaves me scratching my head.

I’m loathe to make another lousy prediction, but for the life of me I can’t see how this presidency ends well.

 

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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Better Than Church

The women file past me into the room. They all wear the same bland prison whites, a pullover top matched to loose pants with an elastic waistband. Most of the women are in their twenties and thirties, and not attractive in the conventional sense. Their collective presence jars me, though I do my best to appear nonchalant. The prison unit, a substance abuse felony punishment facility in Texas that offers treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, claims them for seven to twelve months because of drug possession or DWI conviction. A number of the women are missing teeth, due to crystal meth abuse. Some of the women’s faces betray hard decisions and painful memories – of which I will hear when they begin to speak.

I’m at a graduation ceremony for Bridges To Life (BTL), a restorative justice prison ministry that joins surrogate crime victims and perpetrators face-to-face. (BTL is a volunteer program that is not part of the prison’s in-house drug treatment efforts, but it buttresses those efforts all the same.) All of the women in the room have completed the ministry’s fourteen-week program that coaxes forth self-awareness, accountability, and restoration by requiring participants to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Small group discussions allow participants to honestly share their stories with one another. The traditional healing practices of confession and forgiveness are used to help inmates examine the effects of their crimes upon themselves, upon their relationships with family and friends, and upon the relationships their offenses have created with the victims of their crimes.

It’s open-mic for this ceremony night of graduation. Three questions guide the women’s remarks: 1) How have you changed in the last fourteen weeks? 2) How do you feel now? 3) What do you want to say to the group?

The first woman to speak steps up to the wood podium in front of six neat rows of folding chairs, where her fellow inmates, ten BTL volunteers, the prison chaplain, and I watch her intently. She tries to speak but can’t as tears well up in her eyes. Immediately, a chorus of fingers snapping, raised in the air – as I’ll learn, their particular expression of support – fills the room. The woman covers her face with her hand and wipes her tears. She takes a deep breath and begins: “For the first time in a long time, I’m living actively and not passively. I feel alive again and my attitude has changed immensely. I’m letting feelings about my past go as I’ve learned I need to forgive myself. I feel important to myself again.” This last phrase jars me, but in a distinct manner from the jarring that internally shook me when the women filed into the room. I feel important to myself again – this particular description, the tip of an iceberg of human darkness and light, sets the stage. I will hear variations on the same wonderful theme for the next seventy-five, tear-inspiring minutes.

Released emotions, more tears, and at-the-ready snapping fingers accompany the ensuing testimonies, each one upon its conclusion met with cheers and applause that buoy the speaker back to her seat:

“I didn’t feel like I was worthy of change before, because I came here with a lot of guilt and shame . . . but now I have acceptance.”

“My everything has changed – the way I look at others and the way I look at myself. I’m proud of myself. I haven’t been proud of myself for years.”

“For so long, I hated myself and couldn’t forgive myself. But I feel lighter and freer now. The more I tell people about my weakness, the more restored God has made me feel. I have hope again.”

“Before I started this program, I felt like I was a victim. But when we wrote our letters, it occurred to me that I had harmed other people. I was blind, but now I see.”

The letters to which the speaker refers are confessional letters of apology to those harmed by the offender’s actions. A letter is written to a family member and a victim of the offender’s crime – the letters are not sent but used for small group discussion in one of the weekly BTL sessions, for the purpose of claiming responsibility, accountability, and forgiveness.

Others testify:

“Some of us haven’t had positive role models in our lives. To have ears listening to us, helps restore my hope. I have a future again.”

“I never used to care about completing anything. Receiving this certificate tonight is so important – now I know I can complete things. My self-esteem has been lifted up so much.”

“To come here and be loved and accepted and forgiven – we’re all God’s little miracles.”

Toward the end of the testimonies, another woman, after fighting back tears like so many before her, shares with the group six words of profound self-understanding:

“Now I remember who I am . . .”

By this time, I’ve come upon an eye-opening realization myself. I see that what these women are sharing, straight from their souls, is the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in some time. As a male in the yet male-dominated twenty-first century world, my first glance at women often times, almost instinctively, is one of simple examination for what my eye understands to be beauty or good looks. I don’t say this in a braggadocious way, but in a truthful and confessional way. The women this night – some with missing teeth, and others unkempt in prison whites and freed from having to present themselves to the outside world – remind me that what binds us together more than anything is the common humanity we carry inside consisting of feelings, emotions, and experiences. All of us are in need of the inner gifts of love, acceptance, and support. Outward displays of possessions, accomplishments, and good looks – all of these having positive attributes – are overemphasized in popular culture, often to the detriment of the more important inner gifts.

Bridges To Life has a crucial place in my new book on restorative justice, due out the beginning of 2018. The woman who invited me to the graduation, Ellen Halbert, told me ahead of time: “You’ll see. The graduation ceremony is incredible.” She was, and is, absolutely right. Ellen is a crime victim and a prominent restorative justice proponent – the prison unit in Burnet, Texas where we’ve gathered for the graduation, is named for her. She was a presenter, during an earlier session of the fourteen-week program with this same group. The women were so moved by hearing Ellen’s story that they insisted she come back for their graduation.

As we linger in the room and share refreshments with the graduates and volunteers, I – a preacher – share with Ellen my evaluation of the evening: “You’re right, Ellen. This was great – better than church.” She smiles and nods her head. She’s seen it before and she’ll see it again: The healing power of shared story and testimony to make a new way forward, for bearer and listener alike.

 

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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Restorative Justice, Face-to-Face

I’m committing the bulk of my attention this calendar year to the fascinating field of restorative justice. I’m writing a new book (available in 2018) that tells the story of a young man who killed two people in a 1996 drunk driving wreck and subsequently received a forty-year prison sentence. He experienced transformation not because he decided to rehab his life, as if it was a do-it-yourself solo job. His reformation came via a gradual process that was greatly enhanced by encounters he had with surviving victim family members, and other victims of crime. His healing was the direct result of face-to-face encounters with those deeply and innocently wounded by the ravages of his crime and other crimes.

State-sponsored retributive justice is a bedrock of modern Western society as understood in the colloquial phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” Societal order and expectations are positively shaped by laws and corresponding punishments of their violations. In retributive justice theory, the state is the principal victim and consequent administrator of punishment.

Restorative justice—distinct from retributive justice—goes back to traditions that pre-date modern Western societies. Its goal is to restore the relationships damaged by crime and sustain the community where both victim and offender reside (usually the case). In restorative justice theory, the person violated is the principal victim, not the state. Face-to-face encounters between victim and offender aim to match victim needs and offender responsibilities as concerns confession, apology, information, restitution, reconciliation, and future security. In restorative justice practice, offenders take responsibility for their crimes by acknowledging their debt to their victims and by paying them back, if possible, in concrete ways. A grade school teacher, for example, practices restorative justice when she has two of her students, previously fighting, sit down face-to-face to work out their differences instead of sending them to the principal’s office for mandatory discipline.

A restorative approach is not applicable to all situations of crime victimization. Situations of sexual abuse, especially, are not suited to face-to-face encounters. Surrogate meetings, where victims encounter offenders—offenders of similar crimes but not the offender(s) in their particular case—are effective vehicles to positively impact both parties.

Texas’s was the first state criminal justice system to offer a restorative approach for victims of violent crime—its program starting via profoundly unique circumstances in 1993. A woman by the name of Cathy Phillips wanted to meet with the imprisoned killer of her daughter. She didn’t know the man but wanted to tell him face-to-face what her daughter meant to her and what his actions did her family. Anthony Yanez was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Phillips. Most of Phillips’s friends told her she was crazy, but she was undeterred. As there was no official means by which to pursue her desire, Phillips eventually appealed directly to Texas governor Ann Richards. Richards had previously appointed the first crime victim, Ellen Halbert, to the powerful Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board—and Halbert’s advocacy led to Phillips having her day across the table from Yanez. The meeting, with a trained mediator present, allowed Phillips to unburden a part of her soul. It wasn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation—it was about honesty and disclosure: This is what you did to my family and you need to hear me out. The meeting occurred in 1991. Yanez offered an apology and Cathy Phillips said she felt better after the meeting, with some of her questions answered. She no longer had to play the “What you don’t know will drive you crazy” game.

Ellen Halbert and John Sage receiving TDCJ Board special recognition for prison ministry work in April 2017. Sage’s “Bridges To Life” prison ministry uses restorative justice practices to bring together offenders and surrogate crime victims.

After Phillips’s encounter with Yanez, Halbert helped direct funding to the victim services unit of Texas’s criminal justice system and a victim-offender dialogue program was created and made available to victims of violent crime in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation. To date, almost forty other state criminal justice systems have followed suit.

My book-to-be tells its story in narrative fashion, the specific story of the 1996 wreck fitting into the larger story of Texas’s foray into state-sponsored restorative justice practices. The goal is to reveal the life-changing and -enhancing practices of restorative justice. Before I delved into this project, like many, I was only vaguely aware of restorative justice practices. This book aims to expose many to its healing ways.

A number of friends and acquaintances have asked if this book project has anything in common with my first book, Just a Little Bit More, which exposes economic and social inequalities and offers a better way forward. This new book will be very different in form and message, but, yes, it will lift up, as does Just a Little Bit More, face-to-face meetings as a powerful balm to cure some of what ails us in our current day. The sharing of and listening to a genuine story, told with humility and honesty, holds within it the ability to help us see our shared common humanity. We need more of that today.

 

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 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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Income Tax – The Original Inequality Equalizer

Did you have a good time compiling and filing your taxes last month? As much fun as I did, I’m sure. Most Americans agree (link to Gallup poll) that it’s time for a change to the tax code.

T.R. Reid’s A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System (Penguin, 2017) breaks down the complicated subject of income taxation with a cursory global compare and contrast of other countries’ taxation efforts with those of the United States. This type of formula worked well in his previous effort, The Healing of America (Penguin, 2009), exposing America’s inefficient and disjointed healthcare system. Reid invites us to see how other countries do healthcare and taxation and asks: What best practices can we adopt to make our systems better?

A bit of history: Property and consumption taxes (excise, duties, tariffs, and sales tax) have been around since colonial days. A temporary federal income tax existed during the Civil War. Corporations have been taxed since 1909. In the wake of the Second Industrial era’s Gilded Age, and its previously unrealized economic inequalities, the Progressive era birthed the federal income tax in 1913 via the 16th Amendment, empowering the federal government to tax Americans’ personal income. Only 4 percent of Americans – the country’s highest earners – paid an income tax that first year. I call the federal income tax the original inequality equalizer – those who had “the ability to pay” did so for the common good. It was only after WW II that a broader base of Americans paid federal income taxes. In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined: “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” As our bridges and rails and other structures deteriorate, a collective reset on our attitude about taxes could help.

A bit of reality: Of the thirty-four richest countries in the world, as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2014, the United States ranked thirty-first in taxes paid at slightly more than 25 percent of GDP. Only in South Korea, Chile, and Mexico is there a lower tax burden than in the United States. Reid also reveals that US government spending is comparable low at 15.5 percent of GDP, ranking thirty-second among OECD nations. Reid says the dual argument that Americans are overtaxed and the size of government is out of control is fictitious. More genuine would be for Americans to admit that our societal DNA – “no taxation without representation” – makes us skeptical about paying taxes. We prefer to do some things with private rather than public funding. Americans privately give more to social programs and charities (than do citizens in other countries), but none of these good works fixes bridges or roads or public structures.

Reid explains that there have been major revisions to the tax code in 1922, 1954, and 1986. The mathematical symmetry of a significant change every 32 years targets 2018 as the year for the next reset to the code. While President Trump promotes a revision to the tax code as a major agenda item, a polarized and dysfunctional congress will make it difficult to attain.

The 1986 revision – a bipartisan effort – was widely hailed as a needed breakthrough. Reid says other countries adopted its main thrust of slashing income tax rates for the highest earners. The code has since, however, been overburdened with loopholes, breaks, and complexities. Yes, it’s a mess. The majority of US taxpayers hire professionals to do their taxes, and Reid says that the “Tax Complexity Lobby” (Jackson Hewitt, H&R Block, Intuit, and others) strenuously opposes innovations like pre-filled tax forms that save billions of hours and fees for citizens of Japan, Britain, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal.

Reid discusses three main options from his global survey: BBLR (broad based, lower rates), VAT (value added tax), and flat tax.

Quoting Reid on BBLR (all the hyphens are his): “The tax base – that is, the total amount of income, or sales, or property that can be taxed – is kept as large as possible, then the tax rate – that is, the percentage that people have to give to the government – can be kept low. Virtually all economists and tax experts agree that this is the best way to run a tax regime.” Remember Bowles-Simpson (aka the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) from 2010? Even though it died in committee (it had its bipartisan supporters and opponents), it featured a BBLR approach to reduce the national deficit. A BBLR approach buttressed the 1986 tax reform law. One of its architects, former Sen. Bill Bradley, a long-time BBLR advocate, says, “The key to reform was to focus on the attractiveness of low rates, not on the pain of eliminating reductions.”

The two main deductions needing elimination in 2018, according to Reid, are well-loved by middle and upper class Americans: the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and the charitable contribution deduction. Reid claims the familiar rationale behind the MID – it encourages home ownership – is now passé; other OECD countries without an MID have home ownership rates similar to ours (about 65%). Reid also contends that Americans will continue to support charitable organizations whether there’s a tax break for itemized deductions or not. His rationale for this latter assertion seems mostly to be personal opinion. I do strongly agree, however, with his overall assessment: “Like the charity deduction, the benefits for home ownership are strongly skewed to the richest taxpayers.” This turns out to be – let me use a loaded phrase to make a point – government dole mostly for the well-to-do to the tune of $200 billion in 2016, with three-quarters of the MID tax break going to households that make more than $100,000/year.

Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted (see my review here), goes farther than Reid and claims that the MID is greatly exacerbating American inequality. His NYT article of May 9, “How Home Ownership Became the Engine of American Inequality,” details the cases of four homeowners and three renters in various American locales. Desmond calls the MID “public housing for the rich.” That’s not all: “A 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way. It is only by recognizing this fact that we can begin to understand why there is so much poverty in the United States today.” Desmond’s work is provocative and well worth reading.

Reid says that 175 of the planet’s 200 countries employ some version of a value added tax (VAT). Essentially a sales tax on consumption, the VAT is applied to every stage of commercial production, not just to the final sale in a retail store. Two advantages emerge: there is less incentive to evade the tax for producers, and its collection is more steady. That it tends to be a regressive tax is its main disadvantage.

While praising its potential simplicity, Reid rejects the flat tax outright. He says it can work in countries where a polarity of income doesn’t exist (like the former Russian satellites in the last half of the twentieth century), but not in highly unequal societies like the United States. The flat tax takes in precious little income, and it further increases inequality. Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially utilized the flat tax but them dumped it as an oligarchy class gained prominence.

Reid additionally suggests that the US corporate tax rate be lowered (which would help deflate the current rampant incentive to avoid the tax), that our very richest citizens be taxed progressively, and that a financial transactions tax be implemented on Wall Street. He also says increasing the gasoline tax is a no brainer that can easily help bolster sagging US infrastructure.

Mr. Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said the administration is confident that it can create a new tax plan that “pays for itself” with economic growth. Flat taxers, like Grover Norquist and Ted Cruz, spout the same type of fervor – that tax breaks will unleash economic growth like never before. This type of dogmatism has dutifully entered the realm of bogus cliché. The days of robust growth are over – see my five-part blog series on Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth – and it’s time for Americans to hold political leaders accountable to a responsible and sustainable understanding of economic development.

How a country structures its taxes matters for inequality, economic development, and social spirit – all these included in an understanding of common good. In the earliest days of federal income taxation, “the ability to pay” was recognized by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as a patriotic duty of the economically advantaged. The tax also helped America maintain some sense of egalitarianism. Today, with a federal poverty rate of 13.5 percent, the majority of Americans can claim status as economically advantaged. Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society – a tax code that is simplified, more equitable, broader-based, and progressive toward the top can help this society recover some much needed civility.

 

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 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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Just a Little Bit More in Houston

I’ll be in Houston on Sunday, June 4 to  present themes from Just a Little Bit More, kicking off four Sundays of conversation on faith and inequality. Thanks to the folks at Chapelwood United Methodist Church for the invitation.  Chapelwood’s address is 11140 Greenbay Street on Houston’s west side. My presentation, starting at 11:00 a.m., is the first of four adult education sessions on Just a Little Bit More themes scheduled for the four Sundays in June. My good friend Kathy Haueisen and Noel Denison will lead the three remaining sessions.

Social and economic inequalities continue to command attention in American society, as they have for the last thirty-five years. How do people of faith respond to the ongoing challenges inequalities present? This general question brings us together for conversation that, hopefully, helps clarify our faithful response, individually and collectively, to some of the problems created by excessive inequalities.

Legend tells us that John Rockefeller, history’s first billionaire in the early twentieth century, when asked the question How much is enough? answered ingeniously and accurately described American culture: “Just a little bit more.” One hundred years later, Rockefeller’s legendary response still describes American culture spot-on and it serves as my starting point for the June 4th presentation.

We’ll also consider biblical passages and stories, including the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12 and Jesus’s intriguing statement to explain the parable of the sower (found in all three of the synoptic gospels): “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12, NRSV). This statement seemingly endorses inequality. We’ll talk about it and more! Come and join the conversation!

 

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 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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Jesus Was Not a Self-Made Man

I know what people mean when they say someone is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spoken): a person who has risen from dire circumstances to success by hard work and ingenuity. Benjamin Franklin – the tenth son of a humble candle maker – printed, invented, flew a kite, authored, and became a great American patriarch. Frederick Douglass – the son of an unknown father (most likely his original master) and a slave mother – escaped slavery to preach, write, speak, and become a foremost abolitionist and statesman. These two giants of American history have exemplified the term in question for generations.

Franklin I appreciate and Douglass I revere. The credo of hard work and ingenuity I wholeheartedly support. But the term used to describe Franklin’s and Douglass’s accomplishments – self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school until he was ten at a time when few did, and apprenticed under a brother to learn the printing trade. The wife of a subsequent Douglass master taught young Frederick to read (later, her husband coerced her to renounce this radical activity). Even though Franklin’s beginnings were humble and Douglass’s cruel and unjust, neither could claim complete freedom from the guidance and assistance of others. A community of some sort provided a foothold and direction.

Later historical figures – Carnegie and Rockefeller – and contemporary figures – Oprah Winfrey and Nasty Gal proprietor Sophia Amoruso – fit the bill of achieving success while overcoming difficult circumstances. But again, none of these four could or can honestly say that they did it all on their own. Contemporary figures who have enjoyed business success, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan, Sean Combs, and Michael Dell all rose from middle class or upper-middle class beginnings.

Little human beings need more caretaking and rearing than any other mammal. Newly born bears, orangutans, and elephants all require less time and effort to develop into adults than do newly born Olivia and Ezra (two of the most popular baby names in the US during 2016). When the raising up of our young ones is negligent or haphazard, catastrophes often result. Combine this proven reality with US society’s increasing inequality, and current troubles could ripen into future disasters.

Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has outlived its usefulness. Economic mobility in the US (the ability of a person to improve – or lower – their financial status) has not improved in the past fifty years. We no longer lead the world in economic mobility and many older Americans consequently overestimate its vibrancy. Other countries, such as Canada, France, and Denmark, boast higher rates of economic or social mobility than does the US. The cycle self-perpetuates: inequality makes the great American attribute of social mobility a myth because of its availability only to a minority. The majority of American males born today, for better or worse, will live into the same financial status of their fathers. For these, economic immobility is their American reality.

Putnam advocates public policy and private citizen action to support all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of striking symbolism) children born into impoverished situations: investments social and financial in poor neighborhoods, establishment of more mixed income housing developments, and ending the pay-to-play aspect of extracurricular activities in public school systems. Simply relying upon an American attribute increasingly unattainable won’t make for a better society for the generations that come after us. Individual initiative emboldened by hard work and ingenuity is still an absolute necessity, but it must be manifested within the greater context of communal support and societal resolve.

That today’s “self-made man” is a raging financial success who can live the life of ease and luxury is a clear bastardization of the term’s original understanding. In contrast, during Douglass’s day, the self-made man was a positive force in society for integrity, honesty, and love. The point of making money was not personal enrichment, but liberation from the necessity of work, freeing oneself to labor for the betterment of society.

Jesus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a supportive family, and an established communal tradition raised up, in the course of thirty years, a son who advocated the renewal of society based upon love of neighbor, forgiveness, and compassion – values representative of the coming kingdom of God. Additionally, Jesus criticized excessive trust in wealth, labeling it a worldly, not kingdom of God, attribute.

What twenty-first century America needs: fewer “self-made” millionaires and billionaires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us can also strike it rich) and more citizens, be they rich or poor, who understand that strong and healthy communities produce the best and brightest individuals.

 

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 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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The Immigrant Spirit

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running a condensed version of this blog post in the Saturday, April 1 edition. No foolin’ . . .

 

Some of you know that I’m working on a new writing project, and no longer serving as a full-time parish pastor. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opportunity to preach on Sundays – I was honored to preach recently at Palm Valley Lutheran in Round Rock, Texas. Solo es que prediqué en Español. I preached in Spanish for the congregation’s Hispanic Ministry effort. Thanks to colleague pastor Joaquín Figueroa for the invitation. Most of the gathered faithful were immigrants, born outside of the United States. They reminded me about el ánimo (explained below) – part of the immigrant spirit, a principal foundation of this society.

I used Isaiah 58:1-9 for my message. This post-exilic text – leaders returning to a destroyed Jerusalem to reconstruct the city and its temple around 500 B.C.E. – entreats people to remember that the best religious practice balances worship piety and social concerns. Plain and simple: gathering for worship to sing, pray, and uplift Scripture goes hand-in-hand with the good acts of feeding the hungry, welcoming refugees, and practicing justice in the market place.

On the surface, our current societal context in the United States is much different from Israel’s in the 5th century before Christ. The Israelites lacked material resources as they returned to their homeland with hopes and dreams. Here in the United States, material resources abound for many to pursue their hopes and dreams. What the two disparate contexts have in common is anxiety – personal and societal. Israel was anxious about the momentous task of rebuilding their city while having to protect themselves. In the United States, we have levels of personal and societal anxiety that are off the charts.

And what do individuals and societies do when they experience high levels of anxiety? They turn inward. Adopting survival-mode is a logical response – and some will argue, a biological one – to anxiety. It’s natural to turn inward and to close ranks; individuals put me first, and societies adopt us and them language and put tribe, ethnic group, or nation first.

Be careful, however. Turning inward is a legitimate response for emergency situations; as a long-term strategy, however, turning inward doesn’t make for a better me, you, us, or nation. This was the prophet’s message from two and a half millennia past. Reaching out to the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and treating others fairly in the market place were vital components to the right practice of religion. They still are.

After the worship service, we gathered for Estudio Bíblico – Bible study. Pastor Figueroa invited me to present a few themes from my work on faith and inequality from my book Just a Little Bit More, now available in summary form in Spanish as Solo un Poco Más. We had a lively discussion, using Ecclesiastes 5:10 as a guide. We talked about work, money, faith, responsibility, and el ánimo – best translated in English as drive, enthusiasm, effort. The stories shared spoke of sacrifice, perseverance, and dogged hope – and good ol’ hard work. All of the men who were present work in construction; the women work as house and office cleaners, and in healthcare. Almost all send money to relatives in their native countries. These are great American traits and practices – busting one’s tail for extended family, paying taxes, teaching children the value of hard work, and uplifting common good by attitude and lifestyle. This is the immigrant spirit that so many have brought to these shore through the generations and still today. This is the positive spirit of just a little bit more.

The negative spirit of just a little bit more has shaped American society as well. Slavery and the near-extermination of indigenous inhabitants were carried out, whether the perpetrators knew it or not, in the spirit of social Darwinist conquest. In that day for many, the end result justified the means used. Today, greedy Wall Street firms and pharmaceutical companies blatantly ripping off customers are only two examples of the pervasive negative spirit of getting what’s mine at the expense of someone else. Today we know that neither the means nor the ends are justified when someone takes advantage of another socially or economically.

Drive, enthusiasm, and effort – el ánimo – are great traits when used for the betterment of family, community, and society. Life is complicated; efforts at betterment, small or large, must be  examined continually to make sure that others are not taken advantage of in the process.

High levels of personal and societal anxiety explain why a lot of Americans voted for nominee Trump. His promise “to put America first” struck a chord. What “America first” means precisely and whether he can carry it out in the globalized twenty-first century remains to be seen. While he doesn’t disdain immigrants or migration generally – First Lady Melania is an immigrant – his specific disdain of people of Mexican heritage, Mexican migrants (whether legal or undocumented), and his attempted ban of Syrian immigration sends a clear message: some immigrants are not to be trusted. No one has or ever will accuse the president of being a historian; his strategy of turning inward goes against the best moments of our history and joins some of the worst (the Trail of Tears in the 1830s; FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor; the flourishing of the Klan in the 1950s; and, the era of McCarthyism).

When the president models reactionary behavior concerning immigration, it follows that some ugly bits of our history will be repeated. Take a stand – either from religious conviction or human solidarity – and welcome the stranger in your midst. We have more in common than that which differentiates us. The following story exemplifies the best of the immigrant spirit.

——–

I travelled to Detroit with eight of my high school youth two summers ago for a five-day national youth gathering – 30,000 Lutherans descended upon the Motor City. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce slipped up a bit; apparently word didn’t get around that the Lutherans – 30,000 hungry people with money to spend – would be arriving mid-week. Late that Wednesday afternoon of our arrival we walked downtown Detroit with the goals of taking in a few sights and getting some eats. I had checked the Web previously and picked out a place called Gateway Deli (I’m a big sandwich guy, and my youth gave me first dibs on choosing a place to eat). We found the place – 333 W. Fort Street – but it was closed!! The restaurant’s hours were 7am – 4pm. We were so disappointed – and hungry. I looked inside past the “CLOSED” sign to see if someone was inside. A guy came to the door and opened up. He said, sorry, we’re closed. He had an eastern European accent. I explained our dilemma. He said that he heard a big group was coming this weekend, but he had no idea people were arriving today. He said he’d been there that morning since 4:30am. I said your menu looks great – I had perused it online. Then he said the magic words: “Come on in. I’ll take care of you.” He had already put in twelve hours that day.

And he did take care of us. One of his wait staff was still there. Between the two of them they served us – a group of ten – with smiles, hospitality, and great food. And, yes, we gave our server, a middle-aged white woman who had to moved to Detroit from Arkansas, a hefty tip. As the youth finished their meals, I went over and talked to the kind man who let us in after they had closed. He said call him “Q.” He was the proprietor. Yes, he was an immigrant from eastern Europe; I didn’t ask which country. He had previously lived and worked in New York City, and then moved to Detroit in 2013. He heard that rents were cheaper in Detroit, and that the city was making a comeback from the turmoil of the 2008-09 economic crash. And he was right – Detroit is coming back, thanks to immigrants like Q and other hard-working Detroiters. Three days later we came back and had a great breakfast. That weekend he stayed open later for dinner and had staff to cover. Our second meal at Gateway Deli was just as good as our first, and all of our youth got a kick out of thanking our new immigrant friend who went by the cool name of Q.

The immigrant spirit. There’s no America without it. The immigrant spirit reminds us where we’ve come from; it reminds us that this land originally did not belong to us; it helps keep us honest and focused. Spend some time and talk to the next person you encounter who speaks English with an accent. Listen to their story. Their immigrant story just might surprise you – for the better.

q

Q and T. Carlos – Gateway Deli, Detroit – July 2015

 

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 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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Just Mercy – Book Review

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption hammers away at its main theme from the first to the last page: courtroom justice in America, contrary to common perception, is not readily attainable if you are poor. Especially if you are poor and brown or black, and living in one of the former slave-holding states. I would have amended the subtitle: Stories of Justice, Redemption, Injustice, and Inequality is much more descriptive of the formidable contents of the book. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

My reading experience of Just Mercy was akin to reading Dee Brown’s heartbreaking and daunting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the crucial retelling of late nineteenth-century westward expansion and attempted extermination of Native Americans by US government policy and dominant Anglo culture. Both books are must reads for anyone truly desiring to understand modern American society and its complex history.

jstmercy

Admittedly, I’m late to the game in reviewing this provocative memoir published in 2014. I read it recently as a comparative book for a new writing project (concerning retributive and restorative justice) and discovered the insidious theme of inequality prevalent page after page.

Stevenson describes his coastal Delaware home area as poor, rural, and “unapologetically Southern” where Confederate flags flapped in the wind and defiantly defined the 1960s’ cultural landscape in which Stevenson grew up. Church helped shape his early understandings of justice; he studied at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School. While serving a legal internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta in the early 1980s, he discovered his life’s calling – working with death row inmates.

This calling of more than thirty years has crystalized two primary learnings for Stevenson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done and our brokenness is the source of our shared common humanity. Toward the end of the book, after presenting the cases of more than twenty prisoners represented by EJI, Stevenson utilizes the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery from John 8 to illustrate the synergy between these two primary learnings.

In 2013, Stevenson and EJI scored a great success at the Orleans Parish courthouse in New Orleans. Two inmates of Louisiana’s Angola prison (the setting of Sister Helen Prejean’s work in Dead Man Walking) had life imprisonment without parole sentences restructured – both men, African Americans, had been condemned and sentenced for non-homicide serious crimes as juveniles. Both men, elderly and infirm after having spent nearly fifty years in Angola, would soon know freedom. Stevenson walked down the imposing courthouse steps after the legal proceedings concluded and was stopped by an African American woman he recognized from the restructuring hearings. He inquired of her connection to either of his clients. She responded she didn’t know either of them. She explained, however, that she started come to the courthouse fifteen years previous when her sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered by fellow juveniles.

“This place is full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here . . . someone to lean on.” She continued: “Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.

“All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”

She told Stevenson that she could tell he was a “stonecatcher” too – just like her.*

Life is difficult and people throw plenty of stones – actual and metaphorical – at one another; fewer people, however, do the good work of catching those stones midair. Jesus’s example and teaching in John 8 encourages the practice of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and standing firm in the face of injustice. Stonecatching, as described by Stevenson, is a modern-day interpretation of John 8 to help this society live up to its stated credo of liberty and justice – not for some – but for all.

The stonecatcher story is but one of many in the book that underpin Stevenson’s wise assertions about the shared human condition. Though not an overtly theological work, Stevenson’s tome is strongly supported at its foundations by two precepts advanced by healthy faith communities: love of neighbor and the confrontation of oppressive power with truth.

As children we are taught to differentiate between small and big, boy and girl, right and wrong, black and white. Important and necessary, these elementary learnings help us navigate in our early years. Later, however, change and maturity compel us to adopt more nuanced understandings of the world and its peoples: the best of us are not perfect; the worst of us have redeeming qualities; we have more in common than that which makes us different.

The newly elected president uses the elementary language of “us and them.” It helped him win election; I’m not convinced, however, that it will help this society progress. Stevenson doesn’t use the language of “us and them,” he simply uses the language of “us.”  An understanding of shared common humanity permeates Just Mercy – an understanding that will help this society not only progress but heal.

* Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014), pgs. 307-09.

 

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 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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“Entertaining Angels” . . . from Syria

Thanks to colleague Brian Peterson for another guest blog post. Read his previous post, A Flame of Hopelinked here. (This post was originally published August 2016.)

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13: 1-2

 

What does an angel look like? For some, an angel is a super human-like creature who looks out for you; a gauzy, ethereal presence that makes you feel good. For others, an angel is a cute, adoring cherub in a fifteenth-century painting. A case could be made for each, but I’m skeptical of both.

The Bible speaks of angels, but without much detail. In Greek the word “angel” is rendered άγγελος and refers less to physical appearance and attributes as to function. They are by definition bearers of some sort of message. The word is related to another familiar biblical word, evangelism, Ευαγγέλιο, which translated literally means “good news,” encompassing a lot more than some sort of prefabricated Christian sales pitch. The mere presence of angels holds the possibility of seeing and hearing something completely new and unexpected, something good and even holy. If that’s what angels are all about then I must confess that I’ve encountered more than a few in my lifetime. Truth be told: angels are all around hidden only by our lack of imagination.

I want to tell you about five angels who recently showed up in my life. Late one night this past April, Adna, her husband Ahmed (not their real names), and their three young boys aged 13, 10 and 5 arrived on a flight from Iman, Jordan via Paris and Houston. Jordan had been their home for the past four years where they had fled the increasing violence of their hometown of Damascus, Syria. And as these five Syrian angels descended the airport escalator in Austin to the baggage claim, something profound began to occur.

We’d been preparing for them, of course; we being the gifted folks of AustinLutheranWelcome, the welcome team comprised of my congregation, three other local Lutheran congregations, a couple of progressive Baptists and a friend of forty years, all of them angels in their own right. Our journey had begun a couple of months earlier when we signed up with Refugee Services of Texas to assist in resettling a refugee family in the Austin area. Trained and vetted, but anxious like first-time parents, we waited for our family to arrive.

The folks at Refugee Services of Texas assured us that we’d have three weeks to get things together: locate furniture and household items to set up an apartment, arrange for airport pickup, prepare a first meal and help them get to various appointments those first few weeks of their arrival. So, imagine our surprise when we learned that it wouldn’t be three weeks of prep time, but one! With no time to waste, our team of angels got to work. A few other angels got in the act—my nephew and his best friend brought a pickup truck and picked up and delivered a leather couch and a bed.

Monday afternoon of our Syrian family’s evening arrival came and not surprisingly, we were frantically still getting things together. I found myself in IKEA-hell, knee-deep in slats, grommets, and hardware, hopelessly attempting to assemble a queen-sized bed for the mom and dad. As my frustration began to boil over, Jeff, one of our intrepid welcome team members called to check in. Before I could get too far venting about my predicament, he interrupted to say he had a friend who assembles IKEA furniture for a living. Yes! Jeff made a phone call and before I knew it, an angel named David was there ready to pitch in. Then there was just enough time for me to rush home for a shower. I stood in the living room and took time to say a prayer of thanks for the company of angels who had pitched in and that the five angels who would soon arrive would find joy and happiness in a new life in their new home. I then rushed to the airport.

Which brings me back to where I started, standing at the bottom of the escalator watching Ahmed, Adna, and their precious cargo make their way to greet us for the first time. We were told to watch for their white United Nations tote bags. Sure enough, they were the last ones to come down the escalator. Their long journey had left them exhausted, so we ferried them and their small bags home where a traditional hot meal, a pantry full of food and soft, clean beds awaited them.

In days to come team members got them to the Social Security office, doctor visits, job interviews, grocery stores and even provided a bus riding tutorial. More importantly though, we got to know them, a beautiful family, eager to begin a new life in the United States and who continue to be grateful beyond measure for a new life full of opportunity.

Impromptu English lessons were a blast and left all of us laughing until our sides ached. Over time, we learned their story, leaving everything behind as their Damascus neighborhood became increasingly dangerous, making a difficult journey to Iman, Jordan where they lived for four years applying for refugee status, vetted by both the UN and US State Department, until finally they boarded a plane headed for Austin, Texas.

All these angels have reminded me once again about how in the giving and receiving of hospitality we are all transformed. Early on we found out that a visit with Ahmed, Adna, and the boys involved the ritual of drinking tea, savoring sweet fruit and delicious homemade pastries, and sharing in conversation. Impromptu English lessons were a delight as we learned to understand each other more and more with each passing week.

In early June we all headed to the first annual Austin Refugee Festival where the boys experienced the wonder of the Velcro Wall and a jump castle for the first times in their lives. A couple of us showed the boys how to toss a football and a baseball. Even Adna got in on the act, tying her abaya in a knot at her feet so she could jump rope. Joy and laughter abounded even if we couldn’t completely understand each other. We’ve shared many other great experiences with our family of angels, most recently helping the boys get off to their first day of school. A picture of one of the boys boarding the school bus, backpack in place and thumbs up almost brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve thought often these past few months about these beautiful angels who have profoundly impacted our lives. They are Syrian—they are Muslim—they are refugees. Before all that, however, they are human beings looking to make their way in the world. I want to try to protect them from the kind of hateful rhetoric that demeans and diminishes them and the thousands of others like them who have endured so much. Certainly, they will face difficult challenges, but our lives shared together—Christian and Muslim, neighbors in the same human family—serve as a witness, a testimony, and as good news in angry and fear-filled times.

Maybe in our own small way, all of these angels point us to a path paved not with suspicion and resentment, but with the hope, joy, and love that God wants for us all.

 

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Brian Peterson (pictured) is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, Texas. Along with pastoring, he plays and teaches clarinet. He is the proud parent of two adult sons, Max and Luke. Brian regularly travels to Honduras and Nicaragua to brush up on his Spanish and make connections within the wider human family. Contact him at brianpeterson1965@gmail.com.

 

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 September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

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