Tag Archives: Just a Little Bit More

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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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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Faith, Inequality, and the Pursuit of Common Good

I’m looking forward to the fall season of presentations on “Faith, Inequality, and the Pursuit of Common Good.” I’ll be presenting in Austin and Beeville, Texas. One of the presentations in Austin will be in Spanish (on Thursday, November 17) coinciding with the release of the summary version of Just a Little Bit More in Spanish. Solo un Poco Más, expertly translated by Lilia Martínez, reaches out to Spanish speakers with the goal of explaining the American cultural history of wanting and needing “just a little bit more” – both its positive and negative aspects.

jablm-promo-austin-oct-11

Legend says that John Rockefeller Sr., history’s first billionaire, was asked the question “How much is enough?” His purported answer aptly describes a widely accepted and practiced American way of life: “Just a little bit more.” American ingenuity, drive, and accomplishment – flowing from the spirit of “just a little bit more” – has made the world a better place many times over. When this spirit of attainment goes too far, however, social and economic inequalities exacerbate and common good suffers. The spirit of “just a little bit more” has its rightful place in American and other societies, but it must be harnessed. How can it best serve the common good?

The presentation of “Faith, Inequality, and the Pursuit of Common Good” furthers my work that started with the publication of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good in 2014. The fast-paced interactive presentation spiced with history, sociology, religious wisdom, and modern cultural understandings will introduce you to the Caddy Man and the Hungry Ghost – among others. You’ll be glad you came and I trust you’ll be inspired and encouraged to consider what you might do alongside your neighbor to uplift common good for community, society, and world.

“T. Carlos Anderson is an American treasure. He knows this country’s history well and uses it to promote common good. Time flew by during his presentation as he wove his book’s message with humor and kindness.”

Lanny Wilson, MD, Hindsdale, Illinois

“Anderson’s presentation is lively, open, and engaging. Hopeful and personal, this conversation nudges us away from our habitual competition in the culture of excess and into thoughtful commitment to the common good—into being neighbors.”

Dawn Silvius, pastor, San Antonio, Texas

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 Octubre de 2016!

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The Donald for Class President – or Not

A friend teaches US history at a local middle school (6th-8th grades). He is of retirement age, but he told me he wants to teach one more year in order to process the 2016 presidential election with his students. “It’s just too interesting to pass up,” he said with a smile.

I agreed with his assessment of the upcoming election and ventured the opinion that “Trump is like a seventh-grader running for class president.” His response: “Exactly!” My teacher friend knows the territory quite well.

Young%20Donald%20Trump

Don’t get me wrong – I have respect for many of Mr. Trump’s supporters and know a few who will vote for him in November. As is well-documented, Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders both tapped into the malaise of many lower- and middle-class Americans. Trump is no isolated, rich aristocrat. He’s in touch with what a number of Americans feel in their gut: things aren’t as they should or could be.

Whereas Sanders took the high road – not denigrating those he blamed for the malaise (“1 percenters”) or demonizing opponents – it didn’t win him a party nomination. Trump, on the other hand, ran his primary campaign as would a seventh-grade bully. Stereotyping in large strokes, name-calling, and fear-mongering with bravado flair – these helped him win a nomination. The tone of his presidential campaign continues on the same trajectory. Being the bully (or the most anti-politically correct candidate), however, won’t win him November’s big prize.

Attacks on Mexicans, Americans of Mexican descent, and Muslims in America; the condoning of violence at campaign events, and the enticing of violent reaction (if he doesn’t win the election) aren’t very presidential in manner or form. Personal attacks and threats of violence are reactionary devices that come straight out of a seventh-grade bully’s playbook, and in the end, they won’t help The Donald get to the Oval Office.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I describe the current era of excess that began in 1980. Extremism, one of the era’s hallmarks, manifests itself politically (gridlock), financially (increased inequality), and socially (anxiety). Only during an era of excess could someone like Mr. Trump actually pass as a legitimate candidate for president. In an era of greater egalitarianism, candidate Trump’s overstatements and sweeping stereotypes would not have garnered him or his campaign any traction with voters. Additionally, his braggadocio concerning his financial bottom line (“I’m the most successful person to ever run for the presidency”) would have disqualified him because during eras of egalitarianism fewer people consider great wealth to be a societal virtue. Historically, Trump is one of the least philanthropic of wealthy Americans. Son Eric outdistances his father substantially as a philanthropist.

Bullying gets results in the short-term and thrives in an environment where it is hidden or underexposed. But once a sufficient number of people organize and leverage their power to expose the bully and the bullying, the game is over. As Trump’s message and antics go nationwide, they are exposed as simplistic, sensational, and lacking of substance. His poll numbers trend down, evidence that he now alienates more voters than he attracts.

Seventh grade, as we all know, doesn’t last forever; and neither does a bully’s day in the sun. Things in our country could and should be better, as Mr. Trump claims. But that better day, if it comes, will not be forged through bullying, violence, or rage. We’ve learned these important truths in our history classes; it’s not time to abandon these valuable and hard-earned lessons now.

 

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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Gun Nation

America has more guns overall, and more guns per capita, than any other nation. Most estimates claim that Americans own as many guns as there are residents – 320 million. Other nations with higher percentages of gun ownership don’t come close to America’s dominating rate of 100 guns per 100 residents – Serbia rates at 75; Yemen (54) and Switzerland (46) are next closest. Neighbors Canada and Mexico are estimated, respectively, at rates of 30 and 15. US domestic arms sales have been robust since 2008, but concentrated among a smaller group of owners. Fewer American households today have guns (estimates range from 33-40 percent) than was the case in the early 1970s (50-55 percent). Rural life in America has always been associated with gun ownership; increasing urbanization helps explain the decreasing household gun ownership rate.

In my book Just a Little Bit More I detail the rise of the current era of excess that began in 1980 – more profits for the owner class, greater debt for the working class, more polarization, more inequality. The National Rifle Association’s “all or nothing” quest, dating to the mid-1980s – defining any attempt at gun control legislation as an attack on the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights – fits in the same category of excess. The NRA has a legitimate voice in our open democratic society, and can serve to help the society maintain a proper balance as concerns gun rights and restrictions. For many decades since its inception in the late nineteenth century, the NRA has served that purpose. It’s more than ironic, however, that the NRA’s generation-strong stranglehold on all congressional Republicans and some Democrats enables homegrown hate mongers – Omar Mateen, the latest – to slay fellow Americans with legally purchased assault-style rifles. There are numerous responsible gun owners in America who fully support the Second Amendment and don’t see the need for citizens to own AK-47s or AR-15s in order to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.

More is not always better; the plethora of easily accessible weapons in the US simply means that these types of mass-shooting events will continue to occur. Some of these events will be thwarted, yes, by well-meaning and heroic gun owners. But the long list of mass shootings beginning with Columbine in 1999 won’t be ending any time soon – as long as this society allows for the status quo to continue.

More than 30,000 Americans die yearly by gun violence; each day more than thirty die by homicide and more than fifty by suicide. Gunfire injures an additional 240 Americans per day. A colleague of mine recently commented that “America is a society addicted to violence.” Call of Duty, the best-selling war-based video game, is played by youngsters all across the US. Learning the art of war, unfortunately, is a necessity in our world of disagreements, disputes, and evil intentions. Perpetuating a culture desensitized to violence and killing, however, is not necessary.

Twentieth century Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (credited with writing the Serenity Prayer, used by twelve-step groups) wisely opined concerning human progress: “There is therefore progress in human history; but it is a progress of all human potencies, both for good and evil.”

It’s a good thing when an armed American woman is able to protect herself from sexual and physical violence from a perpetrator. This current progress wasn’t a reality in previous generations. We’ve made progress in another area, lamentably: the ease by which we can kill one another.

CainandAbel

Fratricide is one of the first stories in the Bible – Cain killing his brother Abel. The prominent place given to the story speaks to its universality. Humans will continue to kill one another, acting upon the angst that lurks in our souls. Because of this ever-present angst, human community is a continuing challenge.

Achieving and maintaining balance between self-protection, constitutional rights, and the question of who can possess firearms is the hard work of common good. There are no rights that are unlimited. That’s a modern reality in progressive, democratic societies – unlimited rights exist and existed in autocratic and monarchical societies. While politicians in Washington DC are mostly inactive and stymied on the intertwining issues of gun control and gun rights, progress moves forward in communities across the nation. Recent legislation for tighter gun controls in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York are giving evidence that the NRA is no longer the sole dominant voice in the gun debate at the public square of Gun Nation.

 

 

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

isbn 9780991532827

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

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

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide 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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“Faith and Inequality” Presentations

In a world of fluff (supermarket tabloids) and misplaced immaturity (presidential candidates commenting on the size of certain anatomical features of an opponent), it’s good to have other options of information gathering and personal interchange. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to converse with others on important social issues such as childhood poverty, the causes of inequality, and the pros and cons of economic growth. Building on these themes and others explored throughout Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I’ll be making presentations at points near and far in the next number of weeks. Enlightening and purposeful conversations will continue in support of common good construction.

“Faith and Inequality: Seeking Common Good and Kingdom Connections” will be presented in San Antonio and Fort Worth, Texas; Fairfax, Virginia; and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks to the church-related groups that have extended invitations to present and to many who have joined in conversation via book study groups on JaLBM themes. The “Faith and Inequality” offering covers a diverse set of related topics – faith development, American social and economic histories, poverty, the pursuit of common good, among others – in seventy-five minutes (or so!) of presentation and discussion. Join us!

Abiding Presence Lutheran Church, San Antonio, Texas  –  Wednesday, March 30, 7 pmJABLM Promo San Antonio V1

Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fairfax, Virginia  –  Tuesday, April 5, 7 pm

Gettysburg Seminary, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  –  Thursday, April 7, 7 pm

Faith Lutheran Church, Fort Worth, Texas  –  Wednesday, April 20, 7 pm

Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and many indigenous traditions agree: management of the natural human propensity toward greed is a main task of religious activity. Failure of a group or society to keep its appetite for greed in check contributes to its demise. Intriguingly, our various religious traditions formulated these ideas long before the proliferation of capital. While the Industrial Revolution has arguably been a great blessing to the human family, greed management is more crucial now than ever before. We live in an era that makes the case that more is always and exponentially better. I argue, to the contrary, that our traditions have a strong and united message against the spirit of more as always better.

While I’m grateful to Lutheran groups extending me (a Lutheran pastor) an invitation to speak, I’m more than ready to venture beyond. Other Christian denominations and other congregations within the broader faith community have plenty to contribute to this important conversation. The “Faith and Inequality” conversation is intended for all persons of faith, uniting various and diverse voices together in pursuit of common good in our midst.

For Christians, the possible connection between common good and what we understand as “kingdom of God” merits exploration. The Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th century – born during Gilded Age inequities – offers guidance. The 21st century needs to make its own response to social and economic inequalities. Join me and many others as we respond to significant inequalities social and economic with energy, smarts, and compassion.

 

Special thanks to the congregation I serve, St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran Church, Austin, TX for the opportunity to go to Washington, DC where I’ll participate in continuing education events. I’ve never been to the nation’s capital and am looking forward to networking with leaders in the movement for social and economic justice.

And thanks to my publicist extraordinaire daughter, Alexandra Anderson, for her work on the above promo image!

 

I’m planning to do similar “Faith and Inequality” presentations this fall in Austin and Houston – and open to invitations elsewhere!

 

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

isbn 9780991532827

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

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

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide 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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What Phil Gramm and Mr. Krabs Have in Common

PhilGrammKRABS_EA_copy

The following post is adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

 

Congressional Republicans and Democrats differ in a number of ways, but they are essentially united when it comes to uncritical acceptance of the ways of Wall Street. Whereas roughly 1 percent of Americans are millionaires (as of 2010), 50 percent of US representatives and senators are categorized as such. Phil Gramm, who retired from the Senate in 2002, was a card-carrying member of the millionaires’ club while serving on Capitol Hill. He most memorably was on record naming Wall Street “a holy place.” To be wealthy is not an indictment; but to imagine one’s wealth does not affect the way one votes, especially concerning issues involving personal financial interests, is naïve. As an old Russian proverb states, “When money talks, the truth is silent.”

My son and I went to see the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie when it came out in 2004. He was twelve years old; the movie had something for both generations, as the theater was evenly populated by kids and their parents. SpongeBob is the main character in one of the most popular animated cartoons of the first decade of the 2000s. The series features a number of lead characters (all sea creatures); a handful of Internet bloggers revel in the alleged representation of the seven deadly sins in seven recurring characters of the show. Restaurant owner Mr. Krabs (who is, yes, a crab) is especially fond of money, both its procurement and its retention. In the movie, Mr. Krabs decides to open a second restaurant adjacent to his original one. At its grand opening, he confesses his love for money with an interviewer, as he is asked what inspired him to duplicate his efforts. He answers the question instinctively with one word: “Money.”

Sometimes it’s a jolt that comes from a change of scenery – in this case a cartoon – that helps one to hear the truth loud and clear. The implied mocking of Mr. Krabs’s greed drew one of the largest laughs in the theater that day; even children are able to recognize that the inordinate love of money skews a person’s – or a crab’s – perspective.

Phil Gramm cosponsored the 1999 repeal (proudly signed into law by President Clinton) of the landmark Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that had separated the activities of commercial banks and security firms. The repeal is now widely considered to be a primary culprit in the 2007-08 economic swoon. Gramm never anticipated the economic demise that he helped create. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with opening a second business or wanting to construct an environment where jobs and capital proliferate. But to be shrewd to the ways of greed is an elusive wisdom.

Gramm was blinded by his love for money – that which he has in common with Mr. Krabs.

 

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

isbn 9780991532827

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

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

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide 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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Pastor Brad Highum on “Just a Little Bit More”

Brad Highum, a pastor at Abiding Love Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, highly recommends you and your congregation do a book study of Just a Little Bit More. As he emphasizes in the video clip below concerning social immobility, rising inequality, and elevated childhood poverty, “We have to know how we got here, in order to begin to address ideas about how we move from this place, how we move forward.”

Pastor Brad has been a passionate supporter of Just a Little Bit More from its very inception. Back in 2011, we lunched over gyro wraps at Phoenicia Bakery on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin. We sat on a picnic table outside in the hot fall wind (Phoenicia, abundantly stocked with Greek and Arab staples, doesn’t have indoor seating) and went back and forth about the 2007-08 economic swoon – and how our faith confronts what it has brought forth. Brad’s enthusiasm let me know that my thinking was on the right track.

The culmination of a three-year process, Just a Little Bit More, was published in May 2014. My own congregation, St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, and Brad’s were the first congregations to participate in a book study of JaLBM. We conducted the studies concurrently with the purpose of compiling feedback and notes that would contribute toward a study guide for other faith communities.

I especially appreciate Brad’s comprehension and dissemination of JaLBM‘s message. Our faith does have something to say in mitigation of economic and social inequalities. Brad is absolutely “on point” in this video clip as he encourages others in faith communities to look into a book study of JaLBM.

I first met Brad Highum when he was a student at the Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest (LSPS). While studying for ordained ministry (and previous to), he was serving as minister of adult education and programs at Riverbend Church in Austin. Brad is an excellent teacher and preacher. His scripture knowledge and recall are superb; his interpretation is progressive. His fluid articulation pulls in listeners to understand the message being shared.

Pastor Brad and I both conducted seven week studies of JaLBM at our respective congregations. Halfway through the study, one of Brad’s congregants walked into the Sunday morning class at Abiding Love and gave Brad a knowing look. “Pastor Brad,” he offered, “this book is not a light read.”

Brad responded with a wink and a smile: “It’s not a light topic.”

Pastor Brad’s got a quick wit, too.

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For the congregant at Abiding Love and others who are looking for an easier version of JaLBM to digest, the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. Amazon and the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website offer it for $6.95 (52 pages); ebook version, $2.99.

isbn 9780991532827As stated above, Brad and the folks at Abiding Love (along with my folks at St. John’s/San Juan) helped shape the discussion questions at the end of all eight summarized chapters. Consequently, readers of the full-length version of JaLBM and the Summary Version and Study Guide can join in the same discussion with the purpose of “understanding how we got here” so that we might better – together – construct societal common good.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good – full-length version, 277 pages – is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

 

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The Big Short

“The Big Short,” the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, explains the 2008 financial crisis by detailing the actions of four groups of investors who foresaw the burst of the housing market bubble. Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Boomerang) is in very familiar territory depicting the dark side of Wall Street; his first book, Liar’s Poker, recounted his days as a Wall Street bond market manager in the mid-1980s “when a great nation lost its financial mind.” According to Lewis, not much changed in twenty-five years – save a few names and outlandish increases in the amounts of money bet and squandered on Wall Street.

big shortOur family has been doing a Christmas Day movie for the past few years. Our initial Christmas Day excursion was in 2007 when we took in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” The next year we saw what still rates as one of the best of the Christmas Day pics: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” “Up in the Air” (2009) and “Hugo” (2011) were good, but not memorable. “Anchorman II” (2013) was, predictably, funny in a juvenile type of way. “Les Miserables” (2012) had a great Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier, and . . . a whole lotta of singing.

“The Big Short” is well worth seeing. The movie title refers to the practice of short selling a stock or bond – betting that it will tank. The protagonists bet, correctly, that the housing market bubble would burst. The movie’s two hours plus run-time works continually to explain this and other components of the 2008 economic swoon to both those who have and haven’t delved into its causes. The movie’s narrative, including “breaking the fourth wall” explanations from Ryan Gosling’s character, and cameos from chef Anthony Bourdain, actress Margot Robbie, entertainer Selena Gomez, and economist Richard Thaler, help explain complex derivative trading, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other roll-off-the-tongue market descriptors.

Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for The New York Times, reviews the movie favorably. He is critical, however, of the movie’s notion that no one – save the four groups of protagonists – foresaw the burst of the bubble. Irwin rightly claims that many other people suspected the bubble’s presence as early as 2005; the ferocity of the bubble’s burst is what caught so many by surprise. Subprime mortgage loans’ ability to corrode supposedly walled-off safer securities wiped out dreams on Main Street and Wall Street. American (and worldwide) common good took a beating: jobs and pension funds were lost; properties were squandered; and social and economic inequalities, on the rise for a generation, were exacerbated.

Steve Carell’s character, Mark Baum (Steve Eisman in real life) – haunted and obsessive – doggedly seeks out some sort of justice in the midst of the darkness. He’s a Wall Street player, undoubtedly, but the unmitigated fraud that imbues the financial side of the housing market won’t let him rest. His pursuit of what turns out to be contorted justice gives a glimmer of hope.

As 2016 approaches, we’re still a society that emphasizes fiscal over social policy. A balance between the two categories of policies would be an improvement. The lures of consumerism continue to take precedence over concern for and care of the environment. The realization and acceptance that we can’t continue to burn through unlimited amounts of oil and coal to fuel our desires of economic growth at all costs would be another improvement. And many yet believe that market activity, like a washing machine working a load of soiled clothing, somehow turns our collective greed into good. It doesn’t – and that’s the simple lesson of the 2008 crash well-told by “The Big Short.”

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Understanding the 2008 crash, which had much in common with the economic crash of 1929, is essential knowledge for citizens who care about their families, neighbors, and communities. “The Big Short” – book or movie – is a good place to start. If you would like to understand the larger panoramic view, I humbly suggest you read Just a Little Bit More. Until Brad Pitt contacts me (ha!) to make a movie version of JaLBM (he co-produced “The Big Short”), this linked YouTube short on JaLBM will have to suffice!

 

 

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

isbn 9780991532827

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

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Lifestyle or Materialism Pornography, Part 1

You’re not satisfied with your body, are you? How about your living room? Or your phone? Or your smile?

These things can be fixed or replaced new. That’s the message, at least, transmitted to our very souls as colorful, seductive images flood our retinas via TV shows and advertisements, movies, and other avenues of visual communication. And remember, in this day and age, none of these images are touched up to look as pristine and enticing as possible. Ahem.

I live in Austin, Texas and one of the most representative billboards we’ve seen locally in this category is sponsored by a cosmetic surgery firm. It depicts the bikini clad back-side of a tall and shapely female model, probably all of twenty-nine years of age, torso slightly bent forward and leaning on a balcony rail, looking out toward a vast horizon. This image is simply accompanied by the name of the plastic surgery firm (withheld!). Did she have some work done to achieve the assumed bodily perfection projected by the image? Or, do you – who once upon a time blew out twenty-nine candles on a birthday cake – need to get some work done, so you can look a bit more like her?

I understand the need for reconstructive cosmetic surgery for accident victims, cancer patients, and people born with conditions such as cleft lip and palate. Thank God for cosmetic surgery in these cases which restores functionality, dignity, and confidence. But much of elective cosmetic surgery in the United States is an extension of what sociologist Thorstein Velben identified as a new type of consumerism during the Gilded Age in 1899: conspicuous consumption, carried out with the purpose of increasing one’s status and prestige. Oh yes, this type of consumption is also intended to increase one’s overall well-being. And as many of us know by personal experience, the rush of enhanced well-being from a significant purchase lasts about two weeks.

A big difference between Veblen’s day and our day: now our bodies, or parts of them, are things that can be subjected to consumer wants and desires. Your teeth might be relatively straight, completely functional, and cavity free. But, upon closer examination and comparison to pictures of other people’s teeth, they just don’t look good. The solution? Drop anywhere from $2,000 – $40,000 for a better smile. Two dentists (who used to be partners) alternate with regularity their advertisements on the back page of the first section of the Austin-American Statesman. I’m told that ad space goes for about $3,500/day. “Transforming lives, one smile at a time” – business must be booming to cover the cost of the ads. The before and after pics showcased in these ads, especially of older patients with bad looking teeth, demonstrate significant changes. Bravo. The numerous before and after pics of younger adults, only a few having bad looking teeth – do not demonstrate significant changes.

There are folks who are in dire need of reconstructive dentistry work. Again, we’re thankful for good dentists who do good work. And certainly the two dentists I’ve referred to have done plenty of good work alleviating patients of tooth-related pain and restoring necessary functionality. Yet, they do other work – and this is the work advertised – that appeals to conspicuous consumers. From one of the ads: “Walking into (name withheld!) of Austin is like walking into a luxury home” (image of luxurious office provided in the ad, of course). It’s not all that different from plastic surgeons who specialize in today’s most common cosmetic plastic surgery in the US, the boob job. The premise is lucrative: what you have and what you got are not good enough.

Dentists, plastic surgeons, and their patients are free to do as they wish in the realm of commercial exchange. No worries: I’m not advocating a shutdown of their business practices. As if . . .

The examples that I write about here are representative of a society that has its priorities out of whack. Kids raised in this society adopt these priorities, and learn its truth: What you have and what you got are not good enough. Part of this philosophy is good, but when it goes too far, there’s trouble.

Some of us can remember, decades ago, as teenagers, seeing a souped up ’67 Chevelle SS. Va-room, va-room. You said to your dad: “I want to get a Chevelle.” He answered: “Good for you – get a job!” And you did get a job and, back in that day, you could work and save toward reaching your goal. It was a great lesson – and a great car! Times change, however. The earnings of a part-time job today won’t get a seventeen year-old anywhere near a nice, used Mustang. But he, or she, is continually bombarded with visual images that communicate the prominence of conspicuous consumption.

The generic definition of pornography: a graphic image intended to stimulate immediate emotional or erotic response. I want that. I need that! Now!! The images of lifestyle or materialism pornography are all around us, beckoning our involvement in and commitment to conspicuous consumption.

Maybe someday I’ll buy some ad space in the Statesman or pay for a billboard, with the image backdrop of cool blue sky, that says: “Be at peace – You are fine simply the way you are.”

cool-blue-sky_p

 

 

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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