“Just a Little Bit More” Gets Airborne

bish and jim
Bishop Mike Rinehart and Jim Sorensen*

An unexpected thing happened last May on a plane bound for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A group of ten adults was travelling to the historic East African country to work with the organization Water to Thrive. W2T is a faith-based non-profit dedicated to fighting one part of the global water crisis by bringing clean, safe well-water to those who need it in rural Africa. Jim Sorensen, a former missionary in Ethiopia and a W2T board member, went on the trip to serve as an experienced guide for the group. Mike Rinehart, bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod (ELCA), was a first-time participant wanting to learn more about W2T’s work in order to inspire greater support for W2T’s mission upon his return to the Houston area.

Mr. Sorensen and the good bishop were seated near each other on the Boeing 777, and as they settled in for the fifteen hour trip, both reached in their carry-on bags and produced – did you guess? – brand new copies of Just a Little Bit More. They exchanged glances of surprise; this was more than mere coincidence. They had independently received a copy of the new book, and unbeknownst one to the other, had the same reading plan for the long flight over the Atlantic and the mid-section of the African continent. In just its second week of publication, JaLBM was making its way to Africa with two travelers committed to fighting the debilitating effects of lingering poverty.

It took me the better part of three years to write and publish Just a Little Bit More. As a matter of fact, I picked up the first one hundred copies fresh off the digital presses of my printer in Austin (Ultimate Imaging) on Friday, May 2, 2014. The Southwestern Texas Synod Assembly (ELCA) convened in Austin the very next day, and Bishop Ray Tiemann was kind enough to announce to the gathered group that my awaited book was available. A number of colleagues and assembly attendees purchased copies. The next weekend the Gulf Coast Synod would gather in Baton Rouge for their assembly meeting. Good friend and Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest rep David Johnson attended the assembly and delivered a promised copy of JaLBM to Bishop Rinehart. Mike promised me he’d give JaLBM a read and tell others about the book through his website. That same weekend back in Austin, good friends Paul and Marsha Collinson-Streng hosted a book signing party. A number of other good friends came to share in the festivities; we ate, drank, visited, and listened to a reading. Pastor Lynnae Sorensen was at the party; she had originally purchased a copy at the Austin synod assembly meeting, but wanted one more “for my dad who is travelling to Ethiopia on Sunday.”

Jim Sorensen finished reading JaLBM before the group got back to the States – less than two weeks. Jim says that JaLBM is “a great book; like a lesson on what creates poverty, and how we end up perpetuating poverty! A must-read for all Christians who care.”

Bishop Mike put up a review of JaLBM last August on his blog. “Just a Little Bit More engages in a critique of the god of mammon, lamenting that the concept of the common good, so central to American history, has fallen out of favor. T. Carlos Anderson believes liberty and egalitarianism need not fight with one another. They can coexist in such a way that all can have enough.”

Both Jim and Bishop Mike get gold stars – as do a few hundred others – for reading the smaller font first edition of JaLBM. With a larger font, the second edition of JaLBM came out in October 2014 coinciding with the release of the ebook version. Close to 750 copies of JaLBM have been sold and distributed in its first year of availability. A big thanks goes out to people like Jim and Bishop Mike who have given their support to the book and its author! The purpose of the book’s publication and dissemination is to spur conversation and action that uplifts the common good in our midst, and in places throughout the world, like Africa.

The summary version/study guide of JaLBM is now available. At fifty pages with probing discussion questions at the end of each eight chapters, it’s the perfect accompaniment to the full length version to facilitate conversation and exchange in group study settings. Seeking common good and kingdom connection is the JaLBM motto, as seen in the good work of a great organization like W2T!

 

*Picture of Mike and Jim taken at 2015 Lutheran Legislative Event in Austin.

ELCA stands for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a national church organization of 4 million people and 10,000 community congregations.

Please visit the Water To Thrive website to learn more about the organization and how you can participate in its work.

 

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. The summary version is available for $7.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase full length paperback from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

Monday Matters Book Club Studies “Just a Little Bit More”

The Monday Matters book club, based at Triumphant Love Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, has been gathering for discussion and shared insight more than twenty years. The group originally met in the house of Ted and Velma Ziehe; the first book studied was Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, its debut conveniently coinciding with the group’s formation in 1994. The initial group, consisting of Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists, liked Borg’s depth of critical scholarship within a faith perspective. Borg’s journey from a naïve, unquestioning faith to one of maturity and authenticity was a positive struggle shared by many in the group. The group decided to keep meeting. The lure of Velma’s cookies and the conversation promised by the study of other good books guaranteed the group’s viability for many more years.

Five years ago, the group started to meet at Triumphant Love. Engineers, pastors, teachers, nurses, and entrepreneurs comprise the group. While neither diverse ethnically nor socioeconomically, the group colors the political map blue, red, and purple. It’s good for Democrats, Republicans and independents to be in conversation with one another in a religious setting: all are reminded that theology is to inform politics, and not the other way around. We might not see eye to eye politically, but we can be in conversation with one another on how best to love and serve our neighbor in God’s name – together.

monday matters
Monday Matters book club – Triumphant Love Lutheran, Austin, TX

Thanks to Norb Firnhaber and Leroy Haverlah who suggested that the group study Just a Little Bit More. Group convener Doug Nelson graciously told me more about the group and helped distribute copies of JaLBM. I introduced JaLBM themes to the group on February 16 – including the dominant religion in America as represented by the Caddy Man (you need to get to know him if you don’t already) – and they took it from there. They convened five sessions to discuss chapters one through eight and invited me back for a closing session on April 6. It was good to meet new folks and see others that I already knew – Ralph and Ellie Erchinger, Dorothy Kraemer, Jim and Kris Carlson – and to be in meaningful conversation with them. Doug Nelson says JaLBM brought out “the most vibrant discussions” the group has had for some time.

If you have a group at church, synagogue, or temple that appreciates meaningful discussion on the important social and economic issues of the day – without falling into well-worn blue and red ruts – take on a study of JaLBM. The book challenges readers with a perspective that cuts against the grain of today’s accepted conventional wisdom of money as highest good. As Peter Steinke says in the book’s foreword, JaLBM benefits its readers by showing “how we have shaped the system we are a part of and what can lead to a new way of doing economics that embraces the common good.”

The summary version of JaLBM with study guide questions is now available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. The study guide version summarizes JaLBM‘s eight chapters and poses questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. Whether reading the full length book or the summary version, all present in a group setting can enter into meaningful discussion and conversation, just like the Monday Matters group at Triumphant Love did for seven sessions.

For those groups in Austin and its vicinity, I am available for presentations to lead JaLBM discussions on the topics of egalitarianism, social mobility, economic democracy, and common good – all from a faith perspective. I’m confident the discussions will be worthwhile and influential.

———————————————————————————————————–
“Anderson’s book is an extensive chronicling of the people, movements, and streams of thought that have led us on the quest to want just a little bit more. In the role of a theologically aware social critic, he reminds me of Niebuhr. He is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, but has listened carefully to many other voices and thus speaks a reasonable, balanced, and authoritative public word. Anderson shows us the way back toward a commitment to egalitarianism that has become lost over the last century.”
Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Texas Lutheran University

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook. JaLBM Summary Version and Study Guide is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

 

 

Deja Vu – Say It Ain’t True – Another Subprime Loan Debacle Emerging

Who can forget the 2007-08 economic swoon brought on, in great part, by greed and over-extension in the subprime housing loan industry? File the following under the We Haven’t Learned a Blame Thing from Recent History category: it looks like the same exact thing is happening in the subprime auto loan industry.

You might have heard that 2014 was a good year for the US auto industry – its best year since 2006. Lower gasoline prices have certainly helped sales, but the industry push to get people with poor credit into cars is the main driver. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). You’ve heard, haven’t you? No credit, bad credit, any credit – you won’t be turned away!

bad creditOne-fourth of all car loans – new and used – now go to folks with poor credit ratings, double the rate since 2010. The duration of loans is at an all-time high mark of 5.5 years, with 7 and 8 year loans now available. Really? Eight years? Some people will be doling out payments on a car they will no longer possess or that will no longer run. On top of this, wages of most of those taking subprime car loans are flat. And on top of that, Wall Street has been securitizing these loans at record levels in the last two years. Predictably on cue, the delinquency rate on subprime loans is rising as the auto repossession rate soars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There is nothing wrong with people who have poor credit getting into houses and cars. Credit is a powerful tool for social and economic mobility. All who have “made it” have been the recipients of blessed financial credit many times over. (No one can justly claim to be “self-made” – to do so is to play the part of Pinocchio.) There are people who rightfully deserve a poor credit rating, reflective of bad decision making. But there are many who have poor credit ratings due to uncontrollable and difficult life circumstances. Sometimes people need a helping hand. Having a house to live in can be a significant stabilizing factor in the life of a family – much more so than having to move from apartment to apartment chasing affordable rent payments. Having a car for transportation is a near-necessity in much of the American job market.

There is something wrong with large banks – no longer enjoying the hyper-growth and ill profits from the pre-2008 housing market – looking for similar type gains from the subprime car loan market of today. During the housing market fiasco, lenders encouraged loan applicants to fudge their stated income upward in order to facilitate closings. Concerns abound that the same type of lax administration is fueling the subprime car loan boom.

The underpaid American lower economic classes need transportation to go to work, buy groceries, and take their kids to the doctor. Easy targets for the subprime loan industry, they are vulnerable to being pushed into overpriced vehicles via loans that are predatory. Ah, the new American way for lenders: make big bucks by stuffing folks from low-income communities into cars they can only afford by being put on the hook with insupportable debt.*

In a society of rampant consumerism – what’s not to like? People who need cars get cars and lenders and investors rake in cash. Forgive my decidedly old-fashioned sentiments: Is there anyone in the lending community with a conscience yet intact?

Wells-Fargo, one of the principal subprime car loan leaders, is showing such signs of moral sense. As of March 1, Wells-Fargo is capping its subprime loans to a ten percent ceiling of all its car loans. This is significant; Wells-Fargo is announcing to its banking competitors that it has learned something from the 2007-08 swoon. Whether or not its competitors follow Wells-Fargo’s lead remains to be seen.

Fortunately, the subprime auto loan industry is only one-fiftieth the size of the pre-2008 subprime housing market. All the same, let’s hope a hard-earned lesson from the 2007-08 economic swoon is not forgotten: the uninhibited pursuit of wealth and gain oftentimes is a moral hazard that damages societal common good.

 

This blog post is representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

*Bruce Cockburn, They Call It Democracy (1986).

Winthrop Rockefeller’s Steak

Two free-spirits ramble into a New York City restaurant bar looking for a drink. It’s late afternoon and the bar is darkly lit; even though the year is 1972, the décor and ambiance of the establishment is Mad Men to the core. The two young men order drinks at the bar. Hippies by appearance and mindset, they plan to get something cheap to eat – elsewhere – after soaking in their drinks.

Behind them, seated at a table, an older establishment type enjoys a steak dinner. Alone, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, handsome and self-assured, he slowly savors his meal while reading a newspaper. His presence in the near empty restaurant is unmistakably fitting; like a lion on the savannah, he has no competitors. Eventually, he pushes his half-finished meal aside and sits back farther in his chair and continues to read. The considerable remaining steak calls the attention of the two hungry hippies at the bar.

“Excuse me, are you going to finish that steak?” The question is almost as out of place as is the presence of the two hippies in a downtown Manhattan joint in the days of Nixon and Vietnam.

“Actually, no. You can have it if you let me ask you a few questions.” An agreeable bargain, the two hippies join the distinguished middle-aged gentleman at his table. Animated and engaging, the ensuing conversation flows back and forth. The gentleman learns that the young men have been living on a utopian commune in northern California. He wants to know if idealism is truly flourishing among the young these days. And what is the whole back-to-the-land movement about? The two hippies have just as many questions for their inviter as he has for them. They have a sense that the world is going off-track, through pollution, over-consumption and intolerance, and they want to know if someone from the older generation shares their views. More food and some delicious Cabernet is ordered by the lion for his new tablemates and the conversation goes on for an hour or so, longer than either party anticipated. The vaunted generation gap itself seems to vanish before their eyes in the soothing darkness of the bar. Two distinct worlds and mindsets – hippie and establishment – meet and commingle. Questions beget insight, and the two previously distinct worlds are understood, if momentarily, to inhabit shared space. The three men shake hands, and bid adieu; the law of homeostasis – all things return to their natural state – reasserts itself. But a lasting impression is made, and a bond is fashioned as American as Rockefeller and 1960s-’70s era hippies.

rock winthrop
Winthrop Rockefeller
dileo hippie
Michael DiLeo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On their way out of the bar, one of the hippies asks the bartender, Who was that masked man? Oh, that’s Winthrop Rockefeller, the bartender answers. The Governor of Arkansas. Grandson of the original titan, John D. Rockefeller.

———————————————————————————-

Good friend, author, and native New Yorker Michael DiLeo was one of the protagonists on the other side of the table in this story. He related his story to me a few years back when I told him I was researching the Rockefeller family for a book I was working on. I appreciate Michael letting me share his story and its encouragement to have a conversation with “the other.”

Winthrop Rockefeller was a native New Yorker, but developed a fondness for Arkansas during a trip there in the 1950s. By 1966, he was elected the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, philanthropist, and rancher, Winthrop Rockefeller served two terms (2 years each) as Arkansas governor. Later, his son, Win Paul Rockefeller, would serve as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor. Winthrop Rockefeller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after the impromptu meeting with the two hippies in Manhattan. He died in 1973 at sixty years of age.

My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, tells the story of the interplay of two great American traditions: egalitarianism and liberty. The story starts with the titan himself, Winthrop’s famous grandfather, who was the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known. American liberty allowed him to become the world’s first billionaire. Rockefeller’s business acumen was unmatched in his day; his ruthlessness, however, was certain and unquestionably damaging to competitors and innocents within his vicinity. John D. Rockefeller’s legacy is mostly good but it is also complex: his incredible wealth gave American society the permission to leave behind its egalitarian foundations. American egalitarianism, properly understood, is not an equality of material goods or wealth, but the opportunity for the weaker members of society to join forces in order to stand up to or have equal footing with society’s more powerful members. “No taxation without representation” – that’s liberty and egalitarianism working together. America has seen its best days when liberty and egalitarianism balance each other’s excesses – the pendulum does swing in both directions – and America’s darker days have occurred when the two traditions are out of sync or unbalanced.

I argue in JaLBM that since 1980, American society has been out of sync because of the domination of liberty. Today, many Americans don’t know what the word egalitarianism means because its use has diminished significantly in the last decades. American society, since 1980, has become increasingly isolated. The rich live and consort with fellow rich, and don’t know anyone who is poor. As an example, Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe during the 2012 presidential campaign is entirely indicative of the age.

John D. Rockefeller had humble beginnings. But even as he became Rockefeller, he continued to consort with rich and poor alike. Winthrop was like his grandfather in this sense – he actually consorted with others, including a couple of hippies of the early ’70s. He shared a table and genuine conversation, replete with curiosity. He didn’t have all the answers, and consequently was interested in talking to two fellow citizens with whom he had differences in lifestyle and opinion. Even so, conversation and exchange happened – akin to the interplay of liberty and egalitarianism. Two different entities working together can do much more than one alone.

Winthrop Rockefeller was a “good government” Republican who didn’t eschew a compassionate side to his politics. As Arkansas governor, he facilitated prison reform and oversaw the racial integration of the state’s public schools. His last act as governor was to commute the death sentences of Arkansas’ death row inmates to life imprisonment.

What would it be like if Fox News and MSNBC didn’t play into well-worn stereotypes and spent less time on accusations of the “other side”? I suppose ratings would plummet and we’d actually have to talk to one another to hear and understand each others’ opinions and viewpoints.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

– John Lennon, Imagine (1971)

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

 

Lloyd Blankfein Agrees with T. Carlos!

 

lloyd.3
Lloyd Blankfein

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, agrees with me: American society has done a much better job creating wealth than distributing it.  This current era of excess, circa 1980, with its emphasis favoring a top-heavy economy, isn’t getting the job done. In a February 12th interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Blankfein said income inequality is “destabilizing” American society and that “we all need to get together to work on the problem.”

Blankfein has humble roots. Born in the South Bronx in 1954, he grew up in Brooklyn. His family lived in the Linden Houses, a public housing settlement predominantly, at that time, inhabited by Jewish families. Blankfein’s father worked the night shift at the post office, and his mother worked as a receptionist at a local burglar-alarm company. Young Lloyd attended Hebrew school at nearby B’nai Israel, and had his first job (at thirteen) working Yankee Stadium selling sodas as a vendor in the upper deck.

Class valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School in 1971, he moved onto Harvard and garnered a law degree in 1978. He joined Goldman in 1981. He became Goldman’s CEO in 2006.

Blankfein has had a few moments of infamy as Goldman CEO. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 2010, he claimed Goldman Sachs had “no moral obligation” to inform clients that Goldman was actually taking leveraged positions against the financial products they were selling. I doubt that Blankfein learned that rationale when he was in Hebrew school.

In 2009, Blankfein gave The Times of London a far-reaching interview. The most memorable line of the interview, however, was an off-hand comment that Blankfein later retracted, saying he was only joking. He described himself as a banker “doing God’s work.” The line buttressed his previous comments in the interview concerning the social purpose of the high-end banking industry. It reminded me when Ivan Boesky threw in the comment, deviating from his prepared notes at a 1986 graduation ceremony at UC-Berkeley, that “greed is good.” Boesky meant it and didn’t retract it even as he spent time in jail because of his greedy behavior – and there’s no question that Blankfein meant what he said about his vocation having divine implications, even if he did say it with a bit of bravado and irony. Earlier in the same interview, Blankfein conceded that “he could slit his wrists, and people would cheer.” Bravado, irony, and self-awareness.

The creation of wealth and the accompanying opportunity for credit are categorically God’s work. Common folks, like Blankfein’s parents, do not provide for their children and “climb the ladder” simply by working hard. They need credit – credit that is fair, manageable, and available. That’s what banks do. Lloyd is right. Thank God for banks.

Yet there’s more to the God-talk when we broach the topic of wealth creation – we also must consider wealth distribution. Ah, good ol’ wealth distribution and redistribution. Now it’s getting interesting!

After Blankfein’s theological statement in 2009, he’s obviously had a lunch meeting or two with his rabbi and reviewed some previous Hebrew school teachings. He’s been on record since 2011 criticizing American wealth distribution. He defended his comments further in 2012 saying while he wasn’t “a socialist,” he understood that social unrest in the US (Occupy Wall Street) was related to the poor distribution of wealth in “the last generation or two.”

The Hebrew Bible is adamant that the well-off in society have a responsibility toward the poor. Ancient Israel, of course, was a theocratic monarchy, whereas the United States is a democratic republic. All the same, from their related faith systems, Jews and Christians share a common understanding: All good things come not only from the Creator God, but all things are rightly God’s property. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Our proper use of the goods in and of the earth – from wealth and possessions to talents and abilities – is faithful stewardship. And, yes, there are those in God’s green earth that take advantage of good stewards and their good intentions; even more so, the challenge to share the wealth of the earth calls for our very best efforts and strategies.

ta book
T. Carlos

In my book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the traditional religions’ claim against greed as a destructive agent upon individuals and communities. Judaism relates greed to “the violence of the rich” and Buddhism warns of the toxic nature of the “hungry ghost.” I also focus on the social problems that fester in a financially and economically unbalanced society, as we’ve seen in the last generation or two in the United States.

And this is where Lloyd and I part ways. I stand with him for better distribution of wealth, but it will only happen once the folks at the very top are disengaged from their conviction – as if a religiously held belief – that the uninhibited pursuit of wealth is a social value worth living by and teaching our children.

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

Blue Ruts and Red Ruts

My wife and I took in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood last year when it came out. Encompassing twelve years of filming, Boyhood gently breaks new ground as viewers watch its characters grow, develop, and age. In one of the opening scenes, siblings Sam (played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei) and Mason (played by Austinite Ellar Coltrane) seek out their mother’s attention via a good old-fashioned sibling yelling fight. “Mom! Tell her to quit it!” What younger brother wouldn’t yell for his mom to tell his older sister to be quiet when she annoyingly sings and dances out Britney Spears’s Oops! . . . I Did It Again in his face?

brothers2
Mark and Tim (circa 1980)

My brother and I used to pull crap like that all the time; not mugging Brittany, but slamming an imaginary Mike Nesmith axe in the other one’s face, among other pranks. Only 13 months and mere weeks apart, my brother Mark and I used to go at it competitively and contentiously. It’s a miracle we didn’t drive our poor mother out of her mind. (Although, back in the day when embarking on a trip of any sort our mom would instinctively answer our constant query of Where are we going? with the stock reply of Crazy.) But something happened as my brother and I hit our teenage years and headed off to college: we realized we were on the same team. Brothers – family – yes, teammates.

Witnessing the political behavior that emanates from Washington DC (and from other capitols across the country) is akin to watching small children – siblings, no less – fight and argue, kick and scream, and without fail, blame the other. Of course, it’s always been this way and this is how democracy works. Partly true, but things are markedly worse now than they’ve been for a long time. How nostalgic to remember President Ronald Reagan (Republican red) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Democratic blue) in action: they agreed that before 6:00 p.m. it was all politics, and after that designated hour they were to be on cordial behavior. Reagan even threw a seventieth birthday party for O’Neill at the White House. They saw themselves as adversaries, and not mortal enemies. Today’s political hyper-partisanship traces back to Newt Gingrich’s strategy as the Republicans, in 1994, took majority control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. It was a brilliant strategy that brought an end to an entrenched status quo: Destroy the institution to save it – throw the majority bums out. But, unfortunately, that same strategy has been the modus operandi for both dominant political parties ever since, producing ample gridlock which helps maintain the status quo. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (Basic Books, 2012) argue that political polarization is at an all-time high in American society. And that’s going some 150 years back to the time of Reconstruction.

Blue ruts and red ruts. Not only our politicians, but many citizens are stuck in what I call blue and red ruts. Many people are stuck in place not moving forward, like a spinning car wheel stuck in a rut, not able to perform its task of moving the car forward, but only digging the rut deeper and deeper. Many citizens, of course, align themselves with one of the two major political parties. We all have our preferences and heartfelt convictions. But to be hyper-partisan to the point where one side feels as if the other side has no legitimate ideas or input? If you are a committed Democrat, do you truly feel the country would be better off if everyone was a Democrat? And putting the shoe on the other foot, would we be better off if we all were Republicans – every single one of us? How many of us – aligned with one of the dominant political parties – actually have adult conversations (without temper tantrums or name calling) on important societal topics with a friend or acquaintance aligned with the opposing political party? Think about the possibilities for positive change in our society if we turned off Fox News and MSNBC and actually conversed one with another in a civil manner . . . and then acted upon our convictions in public service to benefit the common good.

Diversity – different parts working together, carrying out specific tasks – moves us forward. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims in his book Future Tense (Shocken, 2009), ideology is “the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.” Partisans want to have their way; that’s normal. But they also realize in a big world it’s good to get along with others, share, and not pout (too often). Hyper-partisans, on the other hand, like siblings who can only fight and whine, don’t get along with those who are “different” and certainly don’t want to share or cooperate. That’s not how families or democratic societies function at their best. Getting stuck in a rut – no matter the color – that’s not much good for anyone.

It’s much better to live out and recover the democratic understanding of politics as the art of the possible. Impossible? Time to call out (and vote out when possible) the hyper-partisans who act more like children than adults.

brothers
Brothers Mark, Matt, and T. Carlos

 

If you like what is written in this blog post, you’ll like what I have to say in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014). It’s available at this link, and at other venues where books and ebooks are sold.

Ferguson, MO and Isaiah 64:1-2

Thanks to Rozella White, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Director for Young Adult Ministry, for her November 24th FB post on the ELCA Clergy page calling forth commentary and protest concerning the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson grand jury decision. I wrote the following in preparation to preach (in English and Spanish) on Sunday, November 30, 2014 at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, Texas. What follows is not a word-for-word transcript of my preaching that day (preaching is, or at least should be, a “live event”), but the basis of my thinking for what went into the message that became vocalized.

Almost 30 years ago, I lived for two years in South America. Not only did I learn Spanish and get a thorough introduction to generalized Latino culture, I also learned what was to be one of my main vocational callings: to be a missionary to white folks. Missionary, of course, is an old-fashioned word. It’s meaning, however, is still pertinent in the 21st century world. It’s my mission to bring an important message to people with whom I share common experience and understanding. It’s not that I’m superior to those receiving the message or endowed with special talents; initially and significantly transformed by what I saw and experienced in Perú, that transformation continues as I’ve worked in dual language ministry for close to 25 years in Texas.

2019 will mark the bleak 400th anniversary of the beginnings of slavery in the territory of what is now the United States. Slavery came to an official end in 1865, but its effects still linger. Unarmed Africans/blacks have suffered – including death – under the power and hegemony of whites in these lands since 1619 when the first African slaves came to colonial Jamestown. Michael Brown’s case is sadly a continuing thread in a long narrative. Where I live – Austin, Texas – Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man, was killed during a struggle with white police officer Charles Kleinert in July of 2013. Kleinert has subsequently been indicted for the death of Jackson; his trial has yet to start. Austin – the city that oozes cool vibe with all of its events and attractions – has had a number of similar incidents in the past decade where unarmed young men of color (yes, some involved in criminal activity) have lost their lives on the other side of a police weapon.

Thankfully we live in an ordered society, buttressed by law. Police forces are a necessary part of that order derived from law. We are grateful for those who serve in law enforcement, yet we also recognize that a society that has a long history of prejudice and racism, such as ours, can produce a jaundiced law and order. An order based in injustice is no order at all for a class of persons deprived of power. The power of the dominant race or class must be kept in check; power without accountability leads to domination. Ferguson, Missouri is a community of some 21,000 souls – almost 70% black and 30% white. Its police force of fifty-three consists of three black officers and fifty white officers. Ferguson is one of many ethnically minority communities in the US policed by majority white forces.

I’ve heard white folks say over the years: “Slavery is a distant memory – can’t they (blacks) get over it already?” “The civil rights era has helped transform American society – enough with the protests and riots.” “Now that we have a black president, it’s an equal playing field for all and the age of affirmative action should be over.”

This society has made great strides, socially, over the centuries. Yet, the further we go forward, new light shines to expose many other issues and concerns that need attention and correction. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr proclaimed decades ago, there is progress as time marches forward, a progress in both human potencies – evil and good. Many things are much better than they used to be, but not all things. America is not yet a society devoid of prejudice or racism.

Many people – not just whites – are upset that some in Ferguson responded to the no indictment decision of November 24th with protests and riots that included the burning of buildings and destruction of property. More than a generation ago, non-violence prophet Martin Luther King Jr. condemned riots as self-defeating and socially destructive. However, he also understood why an oppressed minority would resort to rioting: he called it the voice of the unheard.

Isaiah 64:1-2, similarly, is the loud and strong call of a minority voice in search of justice. Here’s a concept that is very difficult for many white American Christians to grasp and understand. Bible stories and histories are told in a minority voice – a voice that lacked societal power in the days of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans. The Israelites and the early Christians that speak, respectively, in the Hebrew and Christian testaments did not speak from a place of political, social, or economic power. They spoke from a place of minority status. Isaiah 64 – from the heart of Israel’s Babylonian exile in the 6th century before Christ – is only understood from a minority perspective, a perspective with which many white Americans are unfamiliar.

“Would that you rip open the heavens and come down!” Exile had ripped apart Israel socially and economically. Israel was justifiably mad at Babylon, God, and itself. The raw anger of the prophet’s voice is undeniable. Many of us – regardless of skin color and socio-economic status – have felt this same type of rage and anger as individuals when suffering through one of life’s many tragedies: loss of a loved one, divorce, an injustice. I remember when my three children were quite young, and the personal feeling of parental responsibility that burdened my heart. I can remember feeling potential rage toward God if anything were to happen to one or all of them. Was I justified in pre-loading my anger toward the heavens? Of course not – but sometimes rage is our only recourse when we are confronted with an event that overpowers us (or in my case, the fear of its overpowering potential). Every single one of us, most likely, can personally relate to such a scenario.

The prophetic voice in Isaiah 64, however, was not an individual voice. It was a voice that spoke for the people – for the community. It was a shared experience – the pain, indignation, and humiliation of exile. And here’s where the understanding of Isaiah 64 gets difficult for American whites (defining the term as those who have at least two or three generations of forebears in the country; the circumstances of immigrants – regardless of color – are fraught with obstacles). For more than 400 years, America has been a society where the locus of social power has resided with whites. Barring isolated individual cases, whites as a people have not experienced the social trauma involved with racial bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. When my son – blonde and blue-eyed – was growing up in Austin, Texas, I didn’t sit him down and tell him the dos and don’ts of dealing with police officers. Maybe I should have done so, but it never occurred to me at the time. Do black and Latino parents – who are my co-workers and neighbors – have the same experience with their sons and daughters? They do not – I have verified it in conversation with them – and out of necessity they have to have the conversation of conduct in the presence of law enforcement with both their daughters and sons.

We who are law-abiding white folks have lived our whole lives under and within a system that, generally speaking, has worked. Go to school, work hard, and stay out of trouble is an effective formula for many. We need to understand, however, the very same formula and system has not worked the same way for many of our minority brothers and sisters. Black men are six times more likely to be jailed than white men. The poverty rate hovers around 25% for blacks (as it does for Latinos) and only 10% for whites. It is time not only to question a system that works for some and not for all, but to change it.

The season of Advent would have it no other way. “Oh, that you would come down and fix our very lives and the structures that govern them, O Lord!” For too long, we in the American church have been complacent with the message of Jesus’s coming among us as one only of personal redemption for personal sin. This is to be expected from a majority voice comfortable with the system as is. We confine Jesus’s work to the personal realm, and rob the larger society in which we live of the message’s greater effect. Jesus was and is a missionary to this world; his message is life-changing not just for individuals, but for people groups and societies. This Advent, let us see with new eyes and hear with new ears – Jesus comes not just to save us from our personal sin, but to take on societal sin and its consequences as well. He comes that joy, peace, and hope be real not just for some, but for all. God’s kingdom will have it no other way. Amen.

 

These blog posts reflect the views that I share in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, published in May 2014. It’s available at all the usual haunts, including Amazon. I write under the pen name T. Carlos Anderson; click here to read the humorous and entertaining story about the genesis of the unique pen name.

Just a Little Bit More Updating / Writing and Marketing Processes

Just a Little Bit More is now available on Amazon and the usually suspected places. What a journey – it was more than three years ago that a crazy idea invaded my soul telling me to write a book. To see this idea in book form and now categorized as a leading seller in Amazon (Kindle) categories “World History 21st Century” and “Economic History” is gratifying, if not mystifying. Of course, Amazon aids its own marketing processes with its various categories and sub-categories of descriptions; the categorizations facilitate the search process of finding a book, however, and no help is needed from the Dewey Decimal System. Guess how many books Amazon makes available to its online shoppers? A mere 8 million print books, and over 1 million ebooks. Yikes.

I’m very grateful to all those who have supported me thus far in the book writing, producing, and marketing processes. You are a formidable group; I’m indebted to each one of you. Those who read all 200 plus pages of the “small font” first edition (close to 300 folks) get gold stars for having done so. The consensus was in early and its lead position is unchallenged: the next edition must have a larger font size! Since I’ve been reading theology and non-fiction (almost) exclusively for twenty-five years, I’m quite accustomed to small font reading. (By way of comparison, check out best-selling The Black Swan by Nicolas Taleb – it’s the same font size as JaLBM‘s first edition.) I was happy to respond favorably to the feedback; the second edition of JaLBM is now available – larger font size and forty more pages with the exact same content. The ebook is available as well – font size variable! Thanks to ACTA Publications -Chicago for picking up JaLBM for national distribution; Blue Ocotillo, in collaboration with ACTA, remains the publisher of record for JaLBM.

I also know that some have had to “chew on” JaLBM a few pages at a time. Yes, it does cover some history and development of ideas. Thanks to those of you who wrestled with the issues and ideas presented and gave me your feedback. Special thanks to fellow author Jud Smith who told me, over dinner, that as an entrepreneur and business owner, he approached my work with some skepticism and trepidation. What would a first-time author who works as a pastor have to add (besides the predictable “love your neighbor”) to the societal conversation about work and economics? In the end, however, Jud says he was “converted” to the idea that capitalism – as it is now – can do much better. Special gold stars go out to three JaLBM readers of the first edition. Lee White, who (without being specific) is most likely more chronologically gifted than you are, said the font size was “no problem!” Lee says she remembers, as a young girl, Rockefeller and FDR being discussed at the family table in east Texas as her family lived and worked through the Great Depression and its consequences. Kevin Byckovski of Austin – one of the first to finish reading JaLBM in May, the month it came out – simply said “well-researched and easy to read.” Kevin shares a common trait (being an engineer) with one of my brothers, Mike Anderson, who says he polished off JaLBM in three days this past summer while on vacation. Smart guys in more ways than one!

Pastor Brad Highum and the folks at Abiding Love Lutheran Church in Austin enthusiastically took on JaLBM as a book study for six Sunday mornings this past summer. Their input was instrumental in helping put together JaLBM study guides for similar groups and book clubs. Brad reports that one of the classes this past summer started out with a participant comment: “Pastor, this isn’t light reading.” Brad responded with a pastoral wink of the eye and aplomb: “It’s not a light topic.” Social inequality and its causes, the persistence and reemergence of poverty in the US, and how to understand and uplift the common good – these are topics important to every single one of us. We typically have trouble talking about these topics with one another (watch a televised political debate or bring up these topics at the family Thanksgiving dinner – ha), without falling into the predictable red and blue ruts. Political solutions, yes, are needed and welcome – but the hyper-partisan ambiance currently in vogue mitigates mightily against these possibilities.

JaLBM, with help from the study guides, gives the opportunity for adult conversation – free of accusations and demonizing – while broaching these important topics. Why should the hyperbole (most of the time accurately described as such) spouted about on MSNBC and FOX News dictate our thinking and debate on these crucial issues? If you are a member of a faith community (church, synagogue, temple) or part of a book club, I hope you will consider JaLBM as a book to read, study, and discuss. And if so, may the ensuing conversations be fruitful and beneficial to our shared common good.

While I am a pastor of a Christian (Lutheran) congregation, and look at the world through the eyes and understanding of a specific faith tradition, I didn’t write JaLBM as a faith manifesto. The book is imbued with theological perceptions, but it doesn’t use overtly theological language. It’s not meant to be read only by people of faith. It’s meant for societal conversation at the broadest and deepest levels. Thanks to fellow writers (and golfers) Michael DiLeo, Matt Cohen, Bruce Selcraig, and Kevin Robbins for steering me on the right path in terms of intended audience. Conversation between people who are different (in terms of political persuasions, faith and/or cultural traditions, socio-economic levels) is imperative as it conversely dissipates in our midst.

A colleague (Joaquin Figueroa) recently wrote me: “As you say, this story is an old history, but not very well known. It’s about a few enriching themselves at the expense of the many. And the worst of it – the few think they are doing the many a favor. I hope a lot of folks read your book.”

 

For a personally inscribed copy of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, go to Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

Amazon has the paperback and the ebook. iTunes and Nook also carry their versions of the ebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Common Good and Kingdom Connection

I picked up the first printing (three boxes totaling 100 copies) of Just a Little Bit More from my local printer on the first Friday in May – the day before our synod assembly meeting in Austin. That next day, with more than 400 pastors and lay leaders gathered for the meeting, I sold about thirty-five copies of JaLBM. Some of my colleagues knew of the book and anticipated me finally having it in hand and ready for distribution; by this point it had been a three-year project in the making. For all my preparation, there was one thing I hadn’t readied: a go-to phrase when inscribing the book. And, no, I had neither thought to bring a Sharpie . . .

The next day, a number of my congregants at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin were kind enough to purchase the long-awaited tome. To close out the first week of JaLBM’s availability, good friends Paul and Marsha Collinson-Streng hosted a book signing party inviting and gathering other good friends. I sold those first 100 copies that very first week. Still at this early point in the process, I had no go-to inscription. I inscribed those first copies with appropriate words of gratitude and support, tailoring individual remarks as needed.

A go-to inscription is especially useful when an author is signing multiple books in rapid fashion. T. Carlos Anderson is a unique pen name, but any confusion at a large scale book signing event between the small-time, first-time author of JaLBM and a mega-selling author like Malcolm Gladwell won’t be happening any time soon. All the same, a sui generis inscription, besides being efficient and giving the impression of situational mastery, adds an additional touch of character to one’s work.

“Seeking Common Good and Kingdom Connection.” Sometime in June, when I was distributing the second round of 100 books, the tie-in between common good and God’s kingdom* came to me. I immediately googled the phrase and discovered only one other theological commentator using it. A researcher and blogger for the Acton Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, calls for societal common good construction via just laws and conscientious moral choices from individuals. Yes, of course, I fully support such thinking and try to live accordingly. There are a few libertarian ideas I like (less reliance on military interventionism in foreign lands, as one), but the uncritical approbation of the “free market” as the arbiter of all things good and just is simply unacceptable. Such a faith fails to take human nature’s degraded tendencies seriously. In Just a Little Bit More, I name the uncritical acceptance of the free market an ideology and label it a bad religion.

We’ve now been living with and under thirty-five years of the elevation of fiscal policy over social policy in the United States. Consequently, we’ve become a market society where market values and considerations trump other ones. The pendulum does swing back and forth; the long-running New Deal era culminating in LBJ’s War on Poverty exemplified the pendulum’s opposite arc, the welfare society. Is there a better balance to be found between the extremes? Here’s a crucial question: Which do we value more – human rights or property rights? A far-reaching common good, yes, includes the contributions of a wide-ranging and robust market system, but not at the expense of its very participants. Eric Fromm rightly critiqued consumerist society years ago: “We must put an end to the present situation where a healthy economy is possible only at the price of unhealthy human beings.”

Jesus claimed that the Divine Realm is in our midst. When and where the gifts of love, cooperation, reconciliation, and compassion are shared – individually and collectively – the Divine presence is more pronounced, and less ambiguous. The common good is uplifted as well. The connection between God’s kingdom and common good is mostly tenuous – but I think we can say it does occur, especially when the needs of humans come before the needs of capital. Yes, the “free market” has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions, mitigating the effects of poverty for many of these; its veracity and utility are indisputable. But the exaltation of property rights above human rights oftentimes leads to the co-opting of market forces by greed and duplicity, life being defined by one’s possessions (the goods life), and abuses and injustices brought about by the myopic pursuit of profit.

The common good is set up by just laws, aided by works of individual and collective charity, and enhanced by positive market forces. Crucially, however, the common good must also be protected from negative market forces (and human destructiveness). The market is not entirely self-regulating. To trust that the market is entirely self-regulating is to endow it with divine-like status. “Seeking Market and Kingdom Connection”? I won’t deny that it’s possible, but I won’t be using such an inscription anytime soon for my book. I already have a much better one.

 

 

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website and through ACTA Publications, Chicago, IL.

* Kingdom, of course , is a word fraught with links to male domination. Empire, as an alternative, doesn’t work for me as it is fraught with allusions to worldly kingdoms and ambitions – Babylon, Rome, etc. I like divine realm best of them all, and use it interchangeably with kingdom.

Civil Religion in an Era of Inequality

I’m a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I was ordained in 1991; my generation of pastoral leaders presides over a precipitous decline in church membership and participation. This is true for all the mainline churches (Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.). Evangelical and non-denominational churches are no longer growing; the Roman Catholic Church in the United States maintains no loss in membership gracias a los Latinos. Times have changed and the institutional church has lost quite a bit of its mojo . . .

Churches in America, yes, once upon a recent time, did have some mojo (status and momentum). The period of the 1950s and early ’60s was the recent heyday of American churches; the civil religion of that day required good citizens to belong to houses of worship. My generation of pastors (mainliners, at least) was educated and trained by seminary professors, most of whose formative years harkened back to the heyday period. Expectations were rightfully lofty; we were to support the church’s dominion even as signs of decline unmistakably surfaced. My generation can be accused of harboring some entitlement mentality; we were expectant of a decent salary, health insurance, and a pension from these established churches. Today, fewer and fewer churches are able to satisfactorily meet all three of these expectations.

It’s a pretty good idea in this current era of diminishment that a minister have a second gig. I know pastoral colleagues who are engaged in the following tasks for pay: music lessons, carpentry, teaching, coaching, writing, managing a call center. Tent-making, descriptive of the Apostle Paul’s second gig and of a pastor working a secular job, has been the norm much more so than not during the Church’s two-thousand year history. All is not lost in this era of precipitous decline. The church has done some of its best work from and within minority status.

———————————————-

Civil religion has deep roots in modern society. Political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (18th century) wrote of the “sentiments of sociality,” the social glue holding a nation or state together. Sociologist Robert Bellah, in our day, wrote of civil religion as the common values that unify Americans. He called the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement the defining chapters of the national narrative. Other items deserving mention include the playing of the national anthem at public events, the president closing out national addresses with “God Bless America,” and belief in the concept of American exceptionalism. Civil religion is a two-sided coin, both helping and hindering societal common good.

 ———————————————-

The ELCA publishes its own monthly magazine for its faithful. No surprises with the name of the magazine – it is called The Lutheran. In the July issue, the cover theme was “Economic Inequality.” Four articles by different authors highlighted this timely topic; The new inequality by Jon Pahl, a teaching theologian working in Philadelphia, was especially well done. Pahl argues that two important responses to this “new inequality” (not entirely new, but a repeat of the inequality of the Gilded Age and the 1920s, and newly present since the late 1970s) is the advocacy of community (political) organizing and the implementation and empowerment of social ministries. Whereas Lutheran Christians have in the past and today strongly advocate social ministries, community organizing seems an entirely different issue. Many of us are comfortable with advocating a food pantry ministry to serve the hungry in our community, but how many of us are willing to dig deeper and ask the question – with the goal of answering it – why there are so many people, including children, who are hungry?

We almost got rid of hunger in the United States in the late 1960s, because of a continued emphasis on social policy coming out of the New
Deal era. In the late 1970s, there were only 200 or so food pantries serving the hungry in the United States. The pendulum swung, however, and something changed as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s. Governmental and societal will embraced the emphasis of fiscal policy over social policy and financialization has been dominant ever since. The size of the US financial sector (measured by percent of GDP) doubled from the late 1970s to 2008. Something else has also increased – exponentially so from the 1970s. Today there are more than 40,000 food pantries and soup kitchens that serve the hungry in the United States. Close to 50 million Americans are food insecure, the majority of these women and children. The emphasis on financialization – the process whereby financial markets, financial institutions, and financial elites are given top priority in governmental policy – is a major factor in the creation of the current economic inequality and its fallout.

When the September issue of The Lutheran came out, the letters to the editor section printed four responses to the articles on economic inequality. Two were highly critical of the magazine for running the articles:

“I do not share your cheerleading enthusiasm that paints economic inequality as demonic injustice.”

“I refuse to be used by people who feel entitled to half of everything others have while they do nothing.”

A part of American civil religion – the social glue that holds this society together – in this era of inequality has devolved into a simplistic “maker/taker” tenet that casually accepts the current rampant inequality as normal. Entitlement, taking on second jobs, poverty (inclusive of an abysmal childhood poverty rate of 23% in the United States), and other social consequences of inequality are crucial issues that cannot be dismissed as trivial.  More harmful, even, is the demonizing of others as entirely culpable and the categorization of American citizens into two groups – us and them.

We pay a high price for the ignorance concerning the causes of inequality and their consequences for the whole of society; the common good suffers as a result. Economist Thomas Piketty forecasts historic levels of inequality for the United States by 2030 if we continue on current trajectories. In the meantime, the soon-to-be minority-status church has a job to do: remind the society in which it resides that the justice of heaven is to touch everyday life here on earth. A majority-status church (as in the 1950s) runs the risk of not being able to differentiate itself from the surrounding civil religion (consider the many US flags in sanctuaries across the nation, as an example). The minority-status church is less susceptible to being co-opted by the reigning civil religion. Point in case: the Divine will carried out on earth includes daily bread, not just for some, but for all.

 

These ideas are adapted from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014) available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.