Monthly Archives: September 2015

Jesus 2016 – Social Egalitarian Party

The Donald leads, but is not a lock, on the Republican side of the presidential primaries. Hillary boasts similar standing on the Democratic side. What if Jesus were running for highest office in the free world?

Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke not only for his fellow disciples, but for the early church. His answer “Messiah” – God’s chosen one – has stood firm for two millennia. jesus politico

Jesus’s question hasn’t gone away. I answer it today like this: “Jesus, you are my social egalitarian Lord.”

Granted, social egalitarian sounds a bit silly. It’s about as silly as Jesus running for POTUS.

Bear with me, however, and let me unpack the phrase social egalitarian. Egalitarian is a biblical concept, as exemplified in Exodus 5 – “let my people go” – and Galatians 3 – “for you are all one in Christ.” Both the American and French revolutions were fueled by the concept. The word itself has been in use for some 150 years; its root is the French egal (equal), yet it goes beyond equal quantities, measurements, or values to a deeper reality. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of specific inequality—dominance-subordination. Egalitarianism is political in nature: a group or commu­nity engaged in the struggle of self-determination within the larger community or with a competing community seeks, at­tains, and maintains a balance or equity with its competitor. The spirit of egalitarianism opposes unfair advantages; it’s biblical and American to the core.

As for the social aspect of the phrase, we remember that Jesus was pretty good at spending time with all sorts of folks. He spent face time with religious leaders, the outcast, the well-to-do, the sick, the connected, the lame. He also spent time, oftentimes shocking his own disciples, with women and children. Additionally, while travelling, Jesus led his disciples through foreign territories. This was untypical behavior; Jesus’s disciples were accustomed to avoiding certain foreign areas and peoples.

While traversing boundary lands in Mark 7, Jesus and his disciples are confronted by a foreigner – a Syrophoenician woman. She knows something about Jesus and wants him to heal her daughter. Jesus shows typical human behavior in this encounter; he tries to put her off. He seems to know enough about her – that she is a foreigner.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The dogs? That’s blatantly derogatory. This time, at least, Jesus’s reaction to a foreigner is no different than that of his disciples.

“But even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs that fall.”

It’s as if she says to him: If you are who they say you are, you need to pick your game up.

And he does pick up his game. “Woman, be on your way. The demon has left your daughter.”

Jesus was human. We tend to see Jesus as having an ever-present halo hovering over his head, indicating his perfect behavior and all-knowingness in all things. But that’s unrealistic and it’s not true to Scripture. To be human is to be limited. Like the rest of us, Jesus had to go through processes and experiences in order to learn and better understand the world and its peoples. This woman showed him something that he needed to learn. He was an advanced social egalitarian before this encounter with the woman; after the encounter, even more so.

To be a social egalitarian in American society today is to traverse boldly against the grain. It is to spend face time with those who are “other” rather than only interacting with those who look, think, and value similar to “us.” American society is highly segregated – perhaps not as racially segregated as in previous eras, but certainly so in terms of socio-economic differences. Unquestionably, wealth is a blessing and (more often than not) a reward for hard and smart work. Wealth can serve as a bubble, however, isolating well-off Americans from other Americans – those who work for minimal wages, have little or no health insurance, and/or struggle under debilitating circumstances.

Do you know anyone – on a friendship level – who lives in poverty? Or anyone who speaks English as a second or third language? Or anyone who practices a different religion than yours?

Politicians – regardless of party affiliation – who negatively stereotype “other people” (including immigrants) are not worthy of the highest office in the land. This society doesn’t need more separation into “us and them,” it needs more interaction between its inhabitants. This society is the world’s richest in terms of diversity, experience, and capabilities. It’s time for us to delve deeper to see where we can trust one another. Fear of the “other” might be good enough to win a party nomination, but it won’t do much good for the society as a whole.

Even Jesus didn’t want to have to deal with a woman who wasn’t part of his regular community. But as she confronted him, he stopped. He looked into her face and into her eyes – and was changed. This is the spirit of social egalitarianism. It is to encounter the other as an equal in God’s eyes and to act upon that conviction.

Jesus, my social egalitarian Lord. This is the one I will follow.

 

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.

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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Connecting the Dots Between Extreme Weather and Economic Growth

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2013

Three generations of my family have been to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), which lies north of Lake Superior and borders Canada within US National Forest territory. The BWCA consists of close to one million acres of lakes, streams, ponds, woods, and portage trails; inhabitants include moose, black bears, loons, eagles, walleye and northern pike. The BWCA’s surface area, incredibly, comprises 20 percent water. No motorboats, no roads, no cars, no cabins, no phones. Your canoe, paddles, map, and compass team up to transport you and your travel companions to and from campsite destinations; your tent, gear, and food – ensconced in backpacks – glide gracefully over the water. These necessities jangle weightily upon your back, however, when you portage them over land. No worries – your canoe comes equipped with shoulder rests. When you turn it upside down and carry it to the end of the portage trail you engage in a workout not replicable on any exercise machine at Gold’s Gym. It’s a great feeling when you throw down your canoe at the end of the trail and simultaneously feel the spray of water upon your legs and hear the boom of the canoe as it bottoms upon flat water.

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2006

My most recent trip to the BWCA, in 2013, was with a high school youth group from the church I serve in Austin, Texas. It was a great trip full of challenges and rewards. At the end of our trip, we came across a US Forest Service worker. Forest Service employees in the BWCA tend to myriad tasks, including trail maintenance. I asked him how long he had been working for the Forest Service – twenty-five years. I then asked him what were the biggest changes he’d seen in that time – extreme weather.

“The storms in the past years have become stronger and greater in intensity.”

Climate change. It’s happening everywhere. Travel writer Rick Steves sees its effects in Europe. Author Charles Fishman writes about the crippling droughts affecting Australia. Haboobs – an Arabic word we now know because of climate change, meaning intense dust storms – hover from the Middle East and North Africa to Arizona and Texas. Straight-line winds in excess of ninety miles an hour hit the BWCA in July 1999 felling an estimated 25 million trees; one person was killed and sixty were injured. Called a derecho (“straight” in Spanish), it was the largest northernmost storm of its type in recorded history to hit the North American continent.

Climate change is now an accepted reality, yet, people still bicker back and forth as to its cause – or whether it’s simply part of the climate variation that has always existed. Will the effects of historically excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (now at 400 parts per million) in the atmosphere doom the planet?

In Just a Little Bit More, I describe the culture of excess that has been prominent since 1980. Three tenets undergird the culture of excess: bigger and more is always better (from restaurant serving portions to silicone breast implants), economic growth is the panacea for all problems (politicians Republican and Democrat agree), and wealth is the highest societal value. (Is anyone ready for a new Rushmore of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Trump?)

Extreme weather events – and accompanying manifestations, like wildfires – have ravaged the planet for a very long time. Yet, the intriguing connections between recent extreme weather and the current reign of the culture of excess beg investigative thought and reflection.

Economic growth, unequivocally, is the maker and driver of the world we call modern. Before the industrial era (when carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million), poverty and life expectancy rates were – by today’s standards – dismal. The changes and capabilities wrought in the last 250 years simply astound. But how far and how long can economic growth continue as is?

In the bodily progression from childhood to adulthood, limitations eventually halt human physical growth. Human development – in wisdom and maturity – continue on (we trust) as an adult ages. Similarly, I argue that now is the time for greater emphasis on economic development – smart, efficient, and purposeful – as opposed to unabated economic growth.

With religious-type zeal, those who oppose limits on economic growth (see George Will’s recent article on Pope Francis) thunder as if to say whosoever shall stand in the way of the divine right to make as much money as possible be damned! Do not mess with the combination of the three tenets of the culture of excess! Yes, people need jobs – the main mode by which to physically survive on this modern planet. But we must steward the resources of the planet, responsibly and wisely, in the process of working, living, and surviving – together.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body tells you via symptoms that you need more sleep. If these messages are ignored, breakdown is certain. The recent extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, snow, drought, and wind could very well be symptoms of a planet that is being transformed by an elevated carbon footprint. As the phrase proclaims – life will go on. But whether or not human life is part of the planet’s future is an open question. Theologian Matthew Fox says that we are the only species on Earth that has the power to control our own destiny; but even so, we’ve yet to decide what to do – whether to live or to die.

The next time you wander out in the darkness – maybe on a canoe trip – and look up and see “the stars pinned on a shimmering curtain of light,” think about Matthew Fox’s statement.*

 

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.

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.

*Quotation from Bruce Cockburn, “Northern Lights,” Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979, True North).

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“Just a Little Bit More” in Chicago

Basketball was my first love. My home church, St. Mark Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, had (and still has) an activity center with a full-size hardwood basketball court. As a youngster, I would lay in bed at night dreaming about making it to the fifth grade. Back in that day, there were no basketball teams or leagues for pint-sized superstars-to-be. Fifth grade was the entry point for organized basketball. We played a competitive church league b-ball schedule for four years up until high school; the last two of those years we played on the church team and the junior high school team simultaneously. Those were the days. I’ve often said that I probably would not have become a pastor without that hardwood basketball court at the St. Mark Center. The center was built in 1969. From my vantage point now having served as a pastor for twenty-five years, I’m pretty impressed that the St. Mark church council and building committee in the ’60s had the courage and commitment to build that center – like I said – with a hardwood basketball court as its centerpiece. Today, the center still hosts basketball games and other activities for youth, and serves as a winter overnight sleeping area for homeless people via the PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program.

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JaLBM presentation at St. Mark Lutheran, Mt. Prospect, IL, September 14, 2015.

St. Mark also funded my seminary education. In the mid- to late-1980s, seminary tuition ranged from $3000-$4500/year, as education costs were significantly subsidized by the larger church. (Seminary tuition currently runs about $15,000/year.) I’m indebted to St. Mark for its support, and grateful for the people of St. Mark who helped shape my faith and understanding of the world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Consequently, it was a privilege and honor visit St. Mark and have a conversation on social and economic inequalities, and the common good. Some forty-five people gathered September 14th for presentation and discussion on Just a Little Bit More themes: Rockefeller’s permission, the dominant religion of the land (the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism), and Jesus as a social egalitarian. It was a good session. I’m grateful for the leadership of Nancy Snell, Dr. Lanny Wilson, Dr. Jean Rossi, and my dad—the original “Carlos”—Carl Anderson at St. Mark as they continue further discussions on JaLBM themes in their adult education book study series. Thanks to retiring Pastor Linnea Wilson and St. Mark’s new pastor, Christie Webb, for their support as well.

Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda, IL hosted a luncheon Q & A session for me and Just a Little Bit More after I preached at the congregation on September 13th. A number of folks at Messiah have read JaLBM and we engaged in fruitful conversation about the common good and the pursuit of justice in the midst of increasing societal inequality. Special thanks to Pastors Dawn Mass Eck and Ben Dueholm (who has written an excellent article on inequality for The Christian Century, linked here) for facilitating a good weekend for their guest preacher at Messiah. I preached on Hispanic ministry as Messiah embraces a study emphasis this fall, “Church in Changing Neighborhood.” The public school district that serves Wauconda, a northern Chicago suburb, has a student population 26 percent Latino; a generation ago there was minimal Latino presence in Wauconda.

It was gratifying to be at “home” again in the Chicago area, seeing faces old and new, sharing some of my JaLBM work and Hispanic ministry experience.

I don’t play basketball anymore, but I haven’t forgot my hardwood court roots. Thanks, St. Mark!

 

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 Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. 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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Donald Trump and the Value We Attribute to Wealth

The Donald is on a roll – a white roll, that is. Mexicans and other Latinos are saying “ya basta” – that’s enough.

I pastor a dual-language congregation in Texas. The Donald has given me, for a number of Sundays now, a comical entry into my Spanish sermón. Don’t get me wrong – we don’t focus or even dawdle on partisan politics in Spanish worship at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, but we do talk about what’s happening in society. And The Donald is happening . . .

America is the land of opportunity. And part of that opportunity has been achieved, up to the current day, on the backs of cheap (or enslaved) labor. African slaves and immigrants, Chinese and other Asians, Irish, Italians, Swedes, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Mexicans, Iranians, and many others have put in long days and nights working the land, the factories, the shipyards, the foundries, the slaughterhouses, the ports, the warehouses, the kitchens, the taxis and shuttle buses. America is the land of slaves who came against their own will. America is the land of indigenous natives who were pushed aside – many of these exterminated. America is the land of immigrants, many who came possessing not much more than sheer will. And still, America is the land of opportunity for many – it’s more than a cliché; it’s a vital reality.

America, a great country and society, is far from perfect. We’ve yet to attain “liberty and justice for all.” But as we continue forward on our societal journey, we seem to be making more progress than not.* We value family and friendships, hard work, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.

But here’s where it starts to get complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value has taken Donald Trump to the top of the polls. Yes, he talks tough and is hitting a nerve with a small segment of our society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he has POTUS potential. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.

Americans equate wealth with success. According to University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, this evaluation can be very narrow and limiting – essentially, anti-freedom. I call it un-egalitarian. Check out this brief, yet insightful interview (linked here) by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson (no relation) on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

Talking about societal values, Anderson says, “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion” (italics mine).

According to Anderson, the primary problem with this single definition of success is that those who are not wealthy are seen to be failures. Secondary problems include overconsumption (by the rich and poor alike, trying to keep up and measure up) and wealth accumulation by questionable means. Value extraction that is harmful to people and communities, and the environment, is permitted because the higher goal of wealth accumulation is served. That’s a problem.

A society that worships wealth accumulation is one in need of a recalibration of its values. Wealth is good, unquestionably; but its unfettered pursuit portends societal decline. A successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.

Teachers, soldiers, nurses, mechanics, child care workers, cops, community organizers, construction workers, kitchen workers, and caretakers will never be paid extravagant salaries. But their work is vital to the flourishing of societal common good. And their work doesn’t extract, but adds value to communities and societies. Our society would not be successful without them, and the many others who serve the common good in their work.

Candidate Trump can harangue Mexican and other Latino immigrants all he wants. It’s unconvincing, however. Most all of the Mexican and Latino immigrants (and their sons and daughters) that I know in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio – and in other places in this country – are adding value to their communities and to this society.

And, in the end, despite all his wealth, the haranguing will not win Mr. Trump a national election in twenty-first century America.

 

*Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Taylor Branch’s Trilogy on the King Years, among other distinguished works of history, help to tell a fuller representative story of American history.

 

 

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 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.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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