A clear-headed, moral economic understanding…

I’ve been doing some reading for a class I’m taking at Xavier, and in the midst of a wonderful essay by Wendell Berry, I found one of the clearest statements about the present economy and our economic goals. So often, you have to read the words of brilliant writers and thinkers ten times through, looking up their million-dollar words in dictionaries, to finally get their meaning. This writing, however, is clear, accessible, and easy to understand with a little bit of work.  If we apply the same energy to thoughts like these that we do to clearing out our schedule to watch the X-Factor, we might find our intellectual capacities expand beyond where we thought we were previously capable.

Enjoy, chew on this gift from Wendell Berry, and let’s practice this vision of a better economy together!

We live, as we must sooner or later recognize, in an era of sentimental economics and, consequently, of sentimental politics.

Sentimental communism holds in effect that everybody and everything should suffer for the good of “the many” who, though miserable in the present, will be happy in the future for exactly the same reasons that they are miserable in the present.

Sentimental capitalism is not so different from sentimental communism as the corporate and political powers claim.  Sentimental capitalism holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the “free market” and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to “the many”- in, of course, the future.

The economic theory used to justify the global economy in its “free market” version is again perfectly groundless and sentimental.  The idea is that what is good for the corporations will sooner or later- though not of course immediately- be good for everybody.

That sentimentality is based, in turn, on a fantasy:  the proposition that the great corporations, in “freely” competing with one another for raw materials, labor, and market share, will drive one another indefinitely, not only toward greater “efficiencies” of manufacture but also toward higher bids for raw materials and labor and lower prices to consumers.  As a result, all the world’s people will be economically secure- in the futureIt would be hard to object to such a proposition, if only it were true.

The “law of competition” does not imply that many competitors will compete indefinitely.  The law of competition is a single paradox: Competition destroys competition.  The law of competition implies that many competitors, competing without restraint, will ultimately and inevitably reduce the number of competitors to one.  the law of competition, in short, is the law of war.

This idea of a global “free market” economy, despite its obvious moral flaws and its dangerous practical weaknesses, is now the ruling orthodoxy of the age.  Its propaganda is subscribed to and distributed by most political leaders, editorial writers, and other “opinion makers.”  The powers that be, while continuing to budget huge sums for “national defense,” have apparently abandoned any idea of national or local self-sufficiency, even in food.  They have also given up the idea that a national or local government might justly place restraints on economic activity in order to protect its land and its people.

Unsurprisingly, among people who wish to preserve things other than money, there is a growing perception that the global “free market” economy is inherently an enemy to the natural world, to human health and freedom, to industrial workers, and to farmers and others in the land-use economies; and furthermore, that it is inherently an enemy to good work and good economic practice.

A courageous stand for sustainability

I sat down to read Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossroads alumni magazine tonight at my parents’ home.  The focus of this specific edition is on sustainability and EMU’s commitment to sustainability as an essential lifestyle.  I was struck by the message just inside the cover from President Loren Swartzendruber that sums up in a beautiful and straightforward way what sustainability means to EMU and should mean for Christians.

“This issue of Crossroads highlights more than 100 EMU alumni who are making major contributions to the sustainability movement around the world.  We believe that caring for God’s creation is a theological and faith imperative, as well as a matter of good science, and that sustainability practices should not be dependent on one’s political persuasion.  We do not believe it is God’s intention that humans should take a cavalier attitude toward the environment, a point on which we may differ from some segments of the faith community.  We believe that sustainability practices should begin with how we care for ourselves physically, organize our family and community life, and promote a healthy approach to living that encompasses every aspect of human existence.”

– Loren Swartzendruber, President –

That’s a good, courageous, truthful word, brother!

I deeply appreciate the leadership President Swartzendruber has provided EMU, and this statement is a further confirmation for me of his wisdom and integrity.  I’m proud to be an alumni of an institution that models this courageous stance.  I hope this quote is widely disseminated, reflected on, and acted on.  My post in my small corner of the universe is a part of that desire for others to see and hear.

Life and death, joy and sorrow

Human beings usually see life and death in a rather short perspective.  What meaning can the birth of spring and the death of autumn have for this grass?  People think that life is joy and death is sadness, but the rice seed, lying within the earth and sending out shoots in spring, its leaves and stems withering in the fall, still holds within its tiny core the full joy of life.  The joy of life does not depart in death.  Death is no more than a momentary passing.

Wouldn’t you say that this rice, because it possesses the full joyousness of life, does not know the sorrow of death?

The same thing that happens to rice and barley goes on continuously within the human body.  Day by day hair and nails grow, tens of thousands of cells die, ten of thousands more are born; the blood in the body a month ago is not the same blood today.  When you think that your own characteristics will be propagated in the bodies of your children and grandchildren, you could say that you are dying and being reborn each day, and yet will live on for many generations after death.

If participation in this cycle can be experienced and savored each day, nothing more is necessary.  But most people are not able to enjoy life as it passes and changes from day to day.  They cling to life as they have already experienced it, and this habitual attachment brings fear of death.  Paying attention only to the past, which has already gone, or to the future, which has yet to come, they forget that they are living on the earth here and now. Struggling in confusion, they watch their lives pass as in a dream.

– Masanobu Fukuoka “The One-Straw Revolution” pgs 161-62

Shining thoughts on leadership and social change…

…from civil rights leader Andrew Young, reflecting on the legacy of his friend Martin Luther King.

“Today, almost three decades later, Martin’s legacy looms even larger than we thought possible in the days immediately after April 4, 1968.  And as the details of his travails, his struggles, and the atmosphere of turmoil and contention have receded into broad strokes of black and white, Martin has become a larger-than-life symbol, almost a deity, rather than the flesh-and-blood man I knew.  There is a danger in this.

We should not lose our sense of how the civil rights movement happened, because if we do, younger generations, along with ourselves, will lose a sense of how new opportunities were fought for, and won.  In blurring, or ignoring, the context of the struggle, the veneration of Martin Luther King becomes devoid of depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is lost.

In these days of “everything for me,” Martin’s decision to devote his life to social change seems almost of another age.  But if his life teaches us anything, it is that real leadership must be grounded in the interest and institutions of the people, and leadership must appeal to the most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature.  This can only come from a process of continual questioning, the capacity to overcome mistakes, and the ability to follow a path courageously once it is chosen, all of which was Martin King’s essential nature.”

–    Andrew Young, An Easy Burden, pgs 473-74

I appreciate Young’s reflection here for many reasons, but especially his point that King has become venerated in such a way that all the surrounding context of what made him meaningful fades to the background.  It is no surprise that this has happened, since powerful interests would like us to forget the most successful grassroots advocacy movement to come down the pike in a long, long time.  President John Kennedy claimed he didn’t have the votes to pull off comprehensive civil rights reforms; the Birmingham campaign led by King forced action.  President Lyndon Johnson claimed he didn’t have enough political capital to pass a voting rights bill so soon after the civil rights legislation; the Selma campaign led by King forced action.  Through SCLC’s continued action that dramatized the great inequalities and sinfulness of the status quo in America, great social reforms were accomplished.  So, let us heed the warning from Young that “in blurring, or ignoring, the context of the struggle, the veneration of Martin Luther King becomes devoid of depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is lost.”  Let us practice the opposite, to “sharpen, and pay careful attention to the context of the struggle, so our admiration of King becomes rich with depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is enhanced.”

And I deeply appreciate Young’s reminder that “leadership must appeal to the most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature.  This can only come from a process of continual questioning, the capacity to overcome mistakes, and the ability to follow a path courageously once it is chosen.”

How often are we being shaped in our society to embrace our most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature?  Does, for example, the most relevant example of the rise of the Tea Party in America follow this path?  It is clear that Tea Party leaders are galvanizing a group of people for change, but change in what direction?  Are people being led to the values of Andrew Young here?  Are his values wise?

And how often are we taught that leadership emerges from “a process of continual questioning”?  I have most often been taught that leadership is about firm decisions and the appearance of solidity, even if it appears the opposite is true.  Is it true that wise leadership is in fact much more flexible, more relational, more in touch with our limited nature and limited understanding of truth?  Is it in fact more about a courageous path, mistakes along the way, confession when we were wrong, and shared glory when we’ve gotten it right?

Robert Kennedy Jr on a sustainable future for our society…

I’m ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of Robert Kennedy Jr until about a month ago.  Not a single thing, to my great detriment.  By the way, he’s the guy on the left in the picture above, not the one on the right who cut his workers’ pay across the board last year while giving himself a several million dollar raise.

Since hearing Robert speak at a rally in Charleston, WV against mountaintop removal of coal (and specifically, FOR a sustainable future and jobs for Coal River Mountain, WV), where he absolutely gripped me with his moral and economic good sense, I’ve pursued getting to know him better.  Thankfully, there are a number of media outlets (thank God for independent media, especially! Literally, thank you God!) that carry his message and have provided a forum and a vehicle to speak good sense and a healthy future for our society.

I will be posting an extended quote of Robert’s below from a conversation on January 21st, 2010 with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.  It is the most forward-thinking, clearly laid out perspective I’ve heard to this point of America’s energy future (for good or ill) and how we can put America’s innovative capabilities to work.  His comments take the general phrase “green economy” that we’ve all heard and know little specific about and offers specific solutions.

Simply put, Robert Kennedy Jr. has now joined the small list of voices I deeply trust to guide and shape my thinking as I live and interact in this society and world.  Here’s his extended comment,

China is going to increase its solar deployment by 2020 by 20,000%. We plan to increase ours by 37%. And understand this. If we don’t switch to renewables right now, and if this state doesn’t think about how to start switching right now, we’re going to be buying green energy technology from the Chinese for the next 100 years, the same way we’ve been buying oil from the Saudis for the last 100.

We need to get out ahead of this curve and start investing…and demand of our politicians, “Build the infrastructure in our states and start subsidizing infrastructures to compete with the huge subsidies we give to the carbon incumbents, to coal and oil.”

I’m in this industry. I’m building these plants right now. I’m on the board of a company called Bright Source, which is building the biggest solar thermal plant in the world. 2.7 gigawatts. The biggest power plant in America. We’re building it in CA, and we’re building it at the same cost per gigawatt you could build a coal plant…but once we build that plant, it’s free energy forever. Once you build the coal plant, we now have to cut down the Appalachian mountains and ship them across the country in coal cars, warp every train track in this country so we can’t have high-speed rail, build the coal haul roads in WV so thick (at taxpayer expense) that it’s costing this state $200 million a year to build and maintain them (another subsidy to coal), then you gotta burn the stuff, poison every river and lake in America, kill 60,000 Americans with ozone and particulates, cause a million asthma attacks a year, sterilize all the lakes in the Adirondacks. These are the true costs of coal. Once you build a solar plant, it’s free forever. The photons are hitting our country every day for free. All we have to do is pick them up.

You could build wind plants even cheaper than you can build a coal plant. And guess what? The Midwest of our country is the Saudi Arabia of wind. North Dakota is the windiest place on the planet. We have enough wind in North Dakota, Montana, and Texas to provide 100% of the energy needs in this country for the next 50 years.

We have enough solar in an area (and this is from the Scientific American (a peer-reviewed study) 75 miles by 75 miles in the desert southwest to provide 100% of the energy needs of this country even if every American owned an electric car. We use about a thousand gigawatts a day during peak demand. 500 of those are carbon. To eliminate those and replace them with solar and wind will cost us 1.3 trillion dollars. That’s about half the price of the Iraq war, we have free energy forever, we never have to give all that money to Iraq, and we don’t have to poison and impoverish the people of Appalachia in order to do it. This is a real solution for our country and we need to embrace it.”

That’s the best sense I’ve heard in a long time from anyone, and helps me wrap my mind around something specific rather than somewhat vague terms like “sustainability” or “green economy” that enable insidiously destructive corporations to deceive persons into believing they’re concerned about our larger society’s health.

Leadership, and “mob mentality”

We read the following passage in our House prayers this morning, and I was struck by something.

“Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles.  And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.  None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem.  Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.”

Acts 5:12-15

I can honestly say I’ve never really “gotten” this Biblical passage, primarily because I’ve been mystified by how it progresses.  “Is the author confused?” I would ask, “How can you say no one dared to join them, yet in the next breath say great number of men and women became believers?  Weird.” And I often left it at that, mainly because I didn’t have the follow-up effort to sit and reflect on it.

Which is stupid because while authors can have huge oversights in writing when certain sections are far apart from one another, this one would have had to be an idiot to place them back to back with one another.

I think I understand it now, and it holds great potential for reflection on leadership.  All I had to do was consider the wider context.  I needed to ask the simple fundamental interpretive question; “What is the social context of this statement by the author?”

These apostles are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus was a revolutionary figure who, because of his willingness to simultaneously challenge the raw power of both the oppressive Roman occupiers and the Jewish authorities, was conspired against by those Jewish authorities and eventually executed “for the good of the people.”  The Jewish authorities may not have taken this step if Jesus hadn’t emphasized loving one’s enemies and giving one’s life for the folks on the margins so much.

After all, the role of the Messiah was to kill their enemies (the Roman occupiers), to unify the nation under one righteous standard (to either bring the sinners within the nation to heel or eliminate them), and to bring Israel  back to the prominence of the days of David.  Because Jesus was teaching and embodying a message radically different than this, they “knew” that he couldn’t be the Messiah, and had to be eliminated.

And the Romans, well, anytime the rabble they occupied got a little worked up, they would just crucify someone and let their bleeding, pain-wracked body sit out for all the public to see.  Effective. So they were more than willing to comply with the Jewish power elites.  The powerful believed this would bring an end to the Messianic expectations of the followers of Jesus, just like all the other false Messiahs.

Jesus, by every major standard (which we still apply today) was a failed revolutionary.

Yet an unexpected thing happened.  This Jesus arose from the dead (that really can happen?  It’s not just a metaphor, a concept, a theory, a belief that good things can emerge from tough situations?  So John Dominic Crossan is full of s$%t?), the God of the universe vindicating his message, and providing this clear example that the Way of Jesus, that loving-one’s-enemies supposed silliness, is backed by a Creator whose power is stronger than death (and certainly stronger than the piddly-by-comparison Romans).

So these formerly crushed disciples now are empowered to follow the teachings and example of Jesus no matter what.  And surprise surprise, they face the same threats Jesus faced early in his ministry, when his words started to seem a threat to the status quo.  This same Simon from before has now become Peter (the rock), who stands before powerful persons and the same crowd that went along with the execution of Jesus and instead of shrinking back, saying things like “On the other hand,” or “I see your perspective,” says things like “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”

The sin of killing their enemy for the sake of the people.  The sin of allowing the wealthy to oppress the poor.  The sin of a religious system bent toward increasing the power of the religious elite at the expense of the common person.  The sin of following the will of the mob even when you know what they’re doing is wrong (as mob common wisdom goes, isn’t survival more important than faithfulness, isn’t ‘getting by’ more important than the truth?) The sin of ignoring the deep wisdom of the Scriptures and creating a folk religion that shapes God in their image rather than being shaped into the image of God.

As could be expected, Peter is commanded to cease this talk, with the ominous implication that something could happen to him and those he cares about.

Yet Peter and the other apostles ignore the threats from the authorities (and certainly the well-meaning warning from their grandmas).

They begin to practice God’s Jubilee economic practices together, modeling a way that exposes the sin of the current understanding.  They create an alternative economy based on meeting one another’s needs rather than holding each other at arm’s length.  They do not allow the wealthy to think this is some sort of voluntary charity opportunity; but instead command them to give up their grip on possessions. God backs this up by striking down a husband and wife who think they can control what they give to the common pot.

These are dangerous activities, starting alternative economies that care for the marginalized rather than stomping on them.  This is how dangerous social movements happen.  This is dangerous talk, offending the civil authorities of a system that everyone accepts to be “the only one.”  And God striking down Ananias and Sapphira threw a whole new dynamic in the mix.  What is happening here?  Why won’t the apostles shut up?  Who wants to associate with folks quickly becoming “public enemies,” according to the authorities?  Yet who can stay away, when people are being healed, and needs are being met?

All of this is the political and social and religious context of the Acts passage we read today, and all of that transforms the hard-to-understand two sentences from before into a perceptive glimpse into subversive fervor and its impact on the common person.

“No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.”

The apostles and the community they led had integrity.  They were speaking the truth and pursuing the truth.  People could sense this, could see it in their way of life.  Yet such a challenge is not comfortable.  For one, the leader of the apostles had just been brutally beaten and executed.  Couldn’t they see the path they were on led to the same end?  “They may be speaking the truth,” some may have thought, “but I’m not going to get my quality of life affected by associating with them.  What about my job?  my reputation? my life? my family?”

So this fledgling church community was highly respected, yet isolated.  Persons were urging them on in their spirits, yet unwilling to take the social risk to associate with them.  The apostles understood that true leadership sometimes requires becoming isolated for the sake of greater unity somewhere down the road.  They understood the tension, the rejection, the struggle of following an alternative pathway.  They understood that they would need to walk this path without many true brothers and sisters, for the sake of witness.  Witnessing to another world with radically different priorities and choices.  They were compelled by God to be a witness, even if it cost them their very lives.

Witness, and faithfulness, are higher priorities in the kingdom of God than survival, it seems.

It seems so often we hide in cowardice behind comments like “Isn’t it more faithful to die of old age and challenge the system in smaller ways, tweaking things here and there?  Isn’t it unfaithful to be so brash and put one’s family’s economic position at risk?”

So the apostles are walking a Way of danger on behalf of those who respect them but are unwilling to join them.  This explains the comment “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”  The apostles’ leadership has a secondary effect of shifting the priorities of others (even if just on the subconscious level).  And it seems that God does acknowledge that shift in persons, that awakening to what we were created for, even if it’s still buried under layers of cowardice and “common sense” perceptions about what is possible and what is not.  This reminds me of the saying, “God is easily pleased, but never satisfied.”

Is God pleased that these persons are “believing,” even when their belief isn’t yet embodied?  It seems so.  Yet will God allow them to remain there on the sidelines, living vicariously through the brashness and innovation of the apostles?  Certainly not. The way of the apostles, the Way of Jesus, is an echo from Eden of what we all we created to be and do.  God will not rest until this Way comes to pass in its fullness.

So while we can affirm that many “believed” in this passage in Acts, we cannot rip it out of context to extol it as the fullness of faithfulness. The completion of belief is action. And we are to create a community as disciples of Jesus that is so committed to one another that if a father or mother is picked off by powerful people, their family is picked up and carried by the community, and their children are told stories and asked,  “Remember the courage of your father?”  The wives are held in high regard, and told “Remember the faithfulness of your husband?”

Because in a community of resurrection, death is scoffed at, and fullness of life is embraced.  The actions of the apostles teach us this. God’s Jubilee is at hand, and we will not shy away because of a fear of what we may lose.  We will choose this way as a witness. And we will know we may not have many companions on this tough, steep, perilously dangerous way; but how many are standing on the sidelines, watching, wishing they could overcome their fears, their cowardice, their self-protection, their way of life, their “obligations”?

May we be courageous people, in our own unique ways.  And complete our belief by embodying the Way.

Save America’s most endangered mountain

A call to action from the good people at http://www.ilovemountains.org/ .  Please at least read to understand their perspective, let it affect you, and if you feel comfortable, take action through calling or emailing your elected representative.  I share this information not as a disinterested individual, but as a Christian obeying the command to care for God’s creation.  The situation is dire.  As Will Samson writes in his book Enough:  Contentment in an Age of Excess,

“Men and women are stuck with a coal economy that is devastating their job base and leaving little hope for their future.  Children are leaving Appalachia in record numbers, crushing families, some of whom have lived in that area for more than two hundred years.  Throughout the coal-mining areas of Appalachia, in almost biblical proportions, neighbor is pitted against neighbor, friend against friend (Isaiah 19:2).  One family fights to preserve ancestral lands from being take and blown up to get at the coal seams below, while another enjoys ATVs and a new widescreen TV.”  (36)

Massey Energy has begun blasting on Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has stated that the mining operation on the mountain is “actively moving coal.” Workers have been seen moving heavy equipment up to the mining zones, and blasting and plumes of smoke were seen and heard near the Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment.

he Brushy Fork impoundment is an enormous retention pond holding 8.2 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry waste. If the impoundment were to fail due to the blasting, hundreds of lives will be lost and thousands more will be in jeopardy from an enormous slurry flood.

A 2006 study confirmed that Coal River Mountain—the highest peaks ever slated for mining in the state—is an ideal location for developing utility-scale wind power. Local residents have rallied around this proposal as a symbol of hope, a promise of a new and cleaner energy future, but that hope may be destroyed unless quick and decisive action is taken right now.

Please take action today to communicate with Secretary Salazar, Secretary Jackson, and the Office of Public Affairs your concern.

6,000 Acres To Be Destroyed

Massey’s plans for the mountaintop removal operation would destroy over 6,000 acres of Coal River Mountain and create 18 different valley fills, devastating the Clear Fork watershed. Over 10 square miles of the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the United States will be destroyed forever, affecting the lives of the local residents by destroying their homeland and polluting their air and water.

Wind on Coal River

A wind assessment study conducted by Coal River Mountain Watch and Downstream Stategies revealed that Coal River Mountain has enough wind potential to provide electricity for over 150,000 homes and create stable, well-paying jobs—forever.

The proposed wind farm would help diversify the local economy in an area historically dependent upon sparse, temporary coal mining jobs, pumping $20 million per year in direct local spending during construction and $2 million per year thereafter. Destroying the mountain will also be destroying one of the best wind power sites in West Virginia.

This opportunity, however, depends upon the mountain being left intact. If blasting continues on Coal River Mountain, the wind potential—and the jobs—will be lost forever.

And thank you for helping to preserve Coal River Mountain for generations to come.

Contact your district Representative.   Contact your Senator.

And if your Senator is Mitch McConnell, tell him to stop whoring himself out to Big Coal. It’s unsightly to see supposed leaders be such a puppet and lapdog of big business  (Nathan’s words here, not the folks at ilovemountains).