Neighborhood ministry is about bonding first…

Here’s a small excerpt from my reading recently that lept off the page at me. It is so so so so obvious upon reflection, but that’s the importance of wisdom, right? That it makes clear what has been hidden through ignorance or through intentional avoidance? Church is about building God’s kingdom on earth, and that begins where we live and primarily gather. Do we know our neighborhood? People’s names? Ethnic health or distrust? Lifestyle challenges?

We must first go beyond the idea of neighborhood ministry which can keep us “safe” from messy relationships and embrace the practical realities of needing to know our neighborhood in order to truly be church where we are.

“Effective ministry is rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the communities where we live and serve.  Learning about a community occurs through a variety of means and represents an ongoing process.  Foremost, it must begin with bonding ourselves to the community where we will be ministering.  As Manny Ortiz writes, ‘Bonding may be a strange term for many of us, but it is an extremely important concept for learning the urban context…The best analogy to describe this process is that of a child being born and entering a new environment, a new culture, with new experiences, smells, and sights.’  Incarnation, sharing the world of our neighbors, calling where we live home, must be the guiding strategy to shaping a ministry agenda.”

– Mark Gornik, Noel Castellanos Restoring At-Risk Communities pg 220 –


An ode to Half Nelson

Half Nelson is one of the most important movies in my life.

I have to skip over a couple parts for the sake of my integrity as a husband and a man,
but nothing rivals Half Nelson.

Social justice,
desire for change,
lack of change,
empty liberalism,
burnt-out hippies,
surface rallies that change nothing (but help white people feel good),
Ryan Gosling’s excellence,
a little bit of change.

Half Nelson is one of the most important movies in my life.

John Mackey, health care, Friedman, and wisdom…

The problem with the free market is that the profit motive trumps all other concerns, which leads to monopolization of societies by powerful corporations. – Me

I’ve been pretty hands-off with the whole health-care debate in more public settings.  I don’t shy away from talking about it around the dinner table at our community house, I talk about it with friends on the phone, and I listen to wise people like Tom Ashbrook and Howard Dean and Bill Frist talk about it on the radio.  I watch interviews on major news outlets.  I watched President Obama’s major speech before both houses of Congress and spent time reflecting on it with friends.  I’ve even read some of the legislative language of bills being considered.  But I haven’t taken a strong stance on the issue for several reasons.

1.  I just know health care reform needs to happen, but I don’t know specifics.

2.  Bethany and I have opted out of insurance to some degree by joining a Christian healthcare sharing co-op, so this isn’t a terribly “present” thing for us (to be more specific, we joined one Christian healthcare sharing group, but were unsettled by newsletter after newsletter warning us of “socialism” and “big government” and all sorts of Obama conspiracies.  I thought I was reading Fox News rather than reading Christians with wise, reasonable perspectives.  So we switched to a group much more even-handed and wise in their approach to the issue of reform).

3.  And this is the big one.  I’ve just been too involved in trying to stay afloat in the series of challenges that have followed moving to Cincinnati to spend a whole lot of time reflecting on larger issues.  It’s been hard enough to be intentional thinking about larger issues, let alone processing those issues outwardly in blog form.  After several years of being out of whack (reflecting much more often than acting), I’ve slid to the opposite extreme here in the short-term (acting not reflecting).  This post, however, will be an attempt at thinking more deeply.

The real instigator for choosing to write is this intriguing op-ed Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote in the Wall Street Journal.  When I heard that a whole lot of mess was going down around this op-ed, I read it with the eager expectation that the CEO of a company committed in some ways to a more sustainable, more just economy would have something substantive to say, something to draw us deeper as a society.  And a couple things he said do make sense, but they struck me as isolated and disconnected from the larger problem; like driftwood aimlessly floating on the ocean’s surface.

My heart fell when Mackey started with a nifty context-setting quote from Margaret Thatcher, that “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”  “Seriously?” I thought.  “He’s going to perpetuate that either/or stuff further?”  The amount of leaders in our country willing to abandon the “we’re drifting toward totalitarian communism!” every time something is discussed with the role of government involved is extremely, extremely low.  I could go through a list of them, but the most compelling quote in recent memory for me calling us beyond the either/or extremes of total socialism or total free market was Obama’s in the health-care speech.  Wherever we fall on the political spectrum, this statement deserves serious reflection;

“You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem.  They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.  But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.

And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves.”

“There are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.”
“The danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.”

These words are the kind of political leadership we desperately need when we have such big issues to grapple with as the American public. To shape the conversation in wise ways. To be a constant voice for wisdom and good conversations where we hear one another well even as we disagree and try to find commonality. It is because of a desire for that kind of leadership that my heart fell with the Thatcher quote coming first in Mackey’s op-ed. I read further with a heavy heart, expecting it to be one of “those articles,” the ones that could’ve been written just as easily in the 60’s in the heart of the Cold War. It was.

While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment.

In these initial remarks, Mackey established for me that he doesn’t understand the health care issue very well. By casting the issue as fundamentally about government takeover vs. individual empowerment, Mackey showed himself either to be dangerously naive or immorally pretending to ignore the elephant in the room. John Mackey should know just as well as any other educated citizen that the heart of the issue is not government vs. individual. The heart of the issue is, first, that health care is a for-profit business in our society. And second, in a much deeper sense, that business (in general) is defined almost purely by financial profit at the expense of any other factor. I’ll deal with these one after another.

1. Health care is a for-profit business in our society.

What this literally means, in strict business understanding (and the raw numbers and incentives of health-care corporations will bear this out) is that human beings are considered no different than, say, coffee mugs. They are a cost-bearing object in a system that seeks to minimize cost and maximize profit for the good of the company. Shouldn’t that strike persons with any moral sensibility as deeply wrong? And shouldn’t that change the national conversation about “rationing care” (usually cast in terms that “the government will ration whether you receive treatment”) so people understand that health care companies ration care every day in our society in order to maximize profit?

Pure free-market advocates proclaim that a purely free-market system would minimize cost and inefficiencies, streamline the process, and provide the best quality service for whatever issue they’re speaking of. Mackey is one of them, and says here

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges.”

That all sounds well and good in theory, but when we get down to the nitty-gritty, we are forced to confess a simple foundational fact.  The human being’s actual health care is the cost to be minimized in order for the health care company to be successful and profitable.  So the business that is founded on care seeks to minimize care. The fact that this isn’t a bigger, more obvious issue to us is utterly absurd.  Utterly, utterly absurd.  And even more absurd is our lack of awareness that free-market advocates (like Milton Friedman himself) believe the “invisible hand” has no moral responsibility. It is not the business of business to decide what is moral or not.

But health care is a different kind of business, when human lives are directly at stake. And when humans are in fact a cost to be minimized rather than people to be dignified and served, we have lost our way.

2.  Business (in general) is defined almost purely by financial profit at the expense of any other factor

I’ve stated above that health care should not be thought of like any other business, but I believe in a larger sense that business itself, in a virtuous society, should not be defined by financial profit alone.  Milton Friedman’s basic commitment to a completely free market and his interpretation of Adam Smith has led to the state of the American economic system today, and Friedman himself states that his economy runs on self-interest and greed as virtues. Committed Christians, if they’re Biblically rigorous, realize this sort of thinking is insane.

Friedman explicitly stated this perspective in his now-famous 1970 article “ The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” in the New York Times where he stated,

When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the “social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,” I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoid ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.

It is precisely on this point that I find Mackey’s op-ed so disappointing and deflating.  Why?  Because he sounds exactly like Friedman.  Why is that a problem?  Because what’s been lost in all the hullabaloo following the op-ed (with liberals boycotting Whole Foods and conservatives backslapping and thinking Mackey is one of them) is that Mackey is deeply different than Friedman and the average conservative.  In fact, Mackey believes this, that

The most successful businesses put the customer first, ahead of the investors. In the profit-centered business, customer happiness is merely a means to an end: maximizing profits. In the customer-centered business, customer happiness is an end in itself, and will be pursued with greater interest, passion, and empathy than the profit-centered business is capable of.

But the average reader of Mackey’s op-ed didn’t get that, because he wasn’t intentional enough in the words he used to lead them in that direction.  In short, Mackey wasted a prime opportunity to speak truth to the system, and given that he was writing for the influential Wall Street Journal, he is either incredibly dense or has spent so much time in his Whole Foods and sustainable food ivory tower that he didn’t consider the effects of such an article.  I think the answer is clearly the latter.  He was and is naive about how much the average citizen doesn’t “get it,” so he shoots off a few words and thinks he’s contributed well.

Does the average reader know that Mackey wrote a letter in 2006 to all of his staff announcing that he would reduce his own salary to $1 a year, donate his stock portfolio to charity and set up a $100,000 emergency fund for staff facing personal problems? Do they know that while CEO of Whole Foods Market in 2008, he earned a total compensation of just $33,831, which included a base salary of $1, and a cash bonus of $33,830?  Do they know he’s instituted caps on executive pay at the company?  No, they don’t.  And won’t now, because Mackey didn’t encourage more reasonable thought on health care.

And, in a wider sense, Mackey’s writing is simply naive to the fact that America’s economy isn’t run the way he envisions it. Ours is not “enlightened capitalism” (at least not in the direction of the policy of the last 25 years), but financial profit-centered capitalism.

And what free-market purists overlook often to the neglect of the public they are shaping is that in the free-market system, several companies (and eventually one) will emerge from the dog-eat-dog world of competition because they streamline costs better, are more “efficient” at what they provide, and we will have entered the situation of monopoly. When companies get so big, and they can leverage economies of scale in buying mass amounts of raw products for their service, competition cannot survive. And not only will competition be eliminated through economies of scale (a dispassionate cost-analysis), it will be eliminated through the massive company purchasing all competitors that would challenge their rule and absorbing them into their corporate structure.

In case any reader would think this could never happen, this is a reality in a great majority of American society. Banks, computer companies (Microsoft), news companies (Time Warner, News Corp), pharmaceutical companies (Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer), financial service companies (Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo) and health care companies (Aetna, Cigna) have centralized control of the marketplace, limiting competition while intensively lobbying government for legislation that benefits them at the expense of all others.

When these monopolistic companies with big pockets supply the money for expensive political campaigns, legislators and presidents are beholden to them to at least throw MASSIVE bones in their direction from time to time (President Obama is not exempt from this, by the way, with his biggest campaign contributor being Goldman Sachs). In a supremely ironic twist, the beneficiaries of free market success manipulate governance to ensure keeping their place. They institute with their political minions a corporate welfare system that dwarfs the poverty-targeted government welfare system.  Pure capitalism creates a sort of socialism where the distribution of wealth is continually sucked upwards to the elites, both through corporate profit and governmental payouts.

The reality is that there is very little real competition in the American marketplace, and that most “competition” we observe is not real competition, but different brands of the same company that use different messages to bring business to different brands, while all the profit goes into the same coffers.

So the average consumer is naive to how monopolized their world is.

Which makes John Mackey that much more naive when he is a “captain of industry” and refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Which makes me very, very sad.

Kurt Vonnegut and the Saddleback Civil Forum made me think about politics

Last night, Bethany and I watched the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency for the first time (I’d read some of the Transcripts of the event from before). Something Barack Obama said sparked something in my head that interacted with something I read a week ago that Kurt Vonnegut said in his novel Player Piano I’m reading right now. It’s crazy how different things can come together like this.

When it comes to Vonnegut, I have to confess. I knew very little about the guy several months ago. Some of my friends mentioned their sadness at his death, but I just knew him as a novelist who wrote a book with a weird name that people liked (Slaughterhouse Five). But four weeks ago, everything changed for me; at least everything having to do with Kurt Vonnegut. Bethany and I had just finished watching the stellar movie Sicko and were mindlessly watching the credits and the final credit said: “Kurt Vonnegut: Thanks for Everything” or something like that. In that moment, something clicked, a couple synapses in my brain fired differently than before, and I committed to reading this man’s work.

So Bethany and I traipsed over to the local library a couple days later, and after a conversation with a well-Vonnegut-read librarian, I began with his novel Cat’s Cradle. Maybe I shouldn’t have started with that one, because Kurt flat-out floored me with wit, irony, and powerful points he made in very quiet ways. I’m sure I’ll talk a little about how Cat’s Cradle affected me in the future sometime, but in this post I’d like to quote the section from Player Piano that’s messing with me right now, and put it side by side with Obama’s thoughts I heard last night. These two things have affecting my wrestling with the role of government and my thoughts on wealthy and poverty for the last week or so. I’ll post my more extended reflections tomorrow, but maybe these will spark something for you the reader as well that take you in a bit different direction than me.

As with any book, this section may not make much sense to persons outside of the world Vonnegut sets up in Player Piano, but I think this one is more straight-forward, and thus more quotable. This is a conversation between Dr. Paul Proteus and his wife Anita, who are social elites in their town, as Paul is the highest-paid person in town and manager of the most prestigious firm in town (Ilium Works). To provide some wider context, the advent of machines in industrialization, (brought on by the inventiveness of the engineer class of which Paul was a part) caused many persons to lose their jobs at the Ilium Works and thus plunged them into despair. Those who weren’t considered intelligent enough to go to college to be an engineer then had to choose between enlisting in the Army or doing menial labor for the state in what was called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (or, “Reeks and Wrecks” for short). Paul just a couple hours earlier had traveled into a depressed neighborhood called “Homestead” to pick up some whiskey for his friend and those persons who lost their jobs had found out who we was. Here’s the conversation;

Anita said, “Tell me about today.”
Paul responded, “Nothing about today. One more, like all the rest.”
“You got the whiskey?”
“Yes, I had to go across the river to get it.”
“Was it such an awful ordeal?” she chided. She couldn’t understand why he hated to run errands into Homestead, and teased him about it. “Was it so awful?” she said again, bordering on baby talk, as though he were a lazy little boy coaxed into doing a small favor for his mother.
“Pretty bad.”
“Really?” She was surprised. “Nothing violent, I hope.”
“No, Everybody was very polite, in fact. One of the pensioners recognized me from the old days and threw an impromptu party for me.”
“Well, that sounds like downright fun.”
“Does, doesn’t it? His name is Rudy Hertz.” Without describing his own reactions, he told her what had happened.
(persons had stared at him with loathing) He found himself watching her closely, experimenting.
“And that upset you? She laughed. “You are a sensitive darling, aren’t you? You tell me you’ve been through a nightmare, and nothing happened at all.”
“They hate me.”
“They proved they loved and admired you. And, what’s more, they should.”
“The man with the thick glasses as much said his son’s life wasn’t worth living on account of me.”
“You said that. He didn’t. And I won’t have you saying ridiculous things. Do you get some sort of pleasure out of making things up to feel guilty about? If his son isn’t bright enough for anything but the Reeks and Wrecks or the Army, is that your fault?
“No; but if it hadn’t been for men like me, he might have a machine in the plant-”
Is he starving?”
“Of course not. Nobody starves.”
And he’s got a place to live and warm clothes. He has what he’d have if he were running a stupid machine, swearing at it, making mistakes, striking every year, fighting with the foreman, coming in with hangovers.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” He held up his hands. “Of course you’re right. It’s just a h#$ll of a time to be alive, is all- just this g#$%&*n messy business of people having to get used to new ideas. And people just don’t, that’s all. I wish this were a hundred years form now, with everybody used to the change.”

Now, as you reflect on the conversation, I’d encourage you to consider that Paul and Anita are approaching the issue from the perspective of having all their needs and wants taken care of. They live on the other side of town from these persons they’re speaking of, and to even be around them made Paul very uncomfortable. Does our position in life affect the way we think about what is right in the world? Put another way, recognizing our limited experience, shouldn’t we have the courage to put ourselves in the uncomfortable places of our world? Those places where we can’t stand back and sling around stereotypes and labels?

And on another topic, is progress measured by how much persons aren’t familiar with the past, where everybody is “used to the change” and doesn’t ask questions?

Now here’s the clip of the Barack interaction with Rick Warren:

Warren: What’s the most significant position you held ten years ago that you no longer hold today, that you flipped on, you changed on because you actually see it differently?

Obama: I think a good example would be the issue of welfare reform where I always believed welfare had to be changed. I was much more concerned ten years ago when President Clinton initially signed the bill that this could have disastrous results. I worked in the Illinois legislature to make sure we were providing child care and health care and other support services for the women who were going to be kicked off the rolls after a certain time. It worked better than I think a lot of people anticipated and you know one of the things that I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy.

Warren: Ok.

Obama: Not only because — not only because ultimately people who work are going to get more income, but the intrinsic dignity of work, the sense of purpose.

Warren: We were made for work.

Obama: We were made for work, and the sense that you are part of a community, because you’re making a contribution, no matter how small to the well-being of the country as a whole. I think that is something that Democrats generally, I think, have made a significant shift on.

And later in the interview, Obama comes back to something that Vonnegut touches on:

Warren: In a minute, in one minute because I know you could take the entire hour on this, tell me in a minute why you want to be president?

Obama: You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and said the one time that she’d get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody or unfair to somebody. She said, “Imagine standing in their shoes, imagine looking through their eyes,” that basic idea of empathy. And that I think is what’s made America special, is that notion that everybody’s got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college…that we care for them too.

Is there a way that our political thinking can have a strong current of empathy?
Are we willing to do our very best to get outside our own experience and consider how government can bring fairness, work to give folks an equal shot?
Can government be more than it is, and can wealthy people get outside of their posh status and disconnection from other social classes that leads to labeling all poor people as lazy, dumb, and therefore undeserving of having their situation elevated?
Can government, in its best sense, draw us out of our selfishness to consider a larger common good together?
Will the rich and the poor sacrifice for that?
Are these questions not as moral as questions of abortion and human sexuality?

These are burning questions I live with. There is no easy answer, but I just don’t think government at its heart is either as big and bad as people think it is or as inept as people think it is. When public perception leans in that way for many years, perception becomes reality and governments become what people expect, I think.

And this post is what happens when different voices all smash together in an ugly collision that I must pay attention to unless I want to be a spineless, cowardly, lazy ninny of a human being. I am committed to reading for change, watching television and movies for change, listening for change, and speaking for change. Nothing or no one I come into contact with lacks the ability to change my perspectives on life. This makes for a tiring, frustrating, complex existence, but the more I embrace that complexity rather than taking the lazy/easier-way-out of a world of me or a chorus of voices that always agree with me, the more my brain gets the exercise it needs to be stronger, wiser, more humble, more receptive, today than yesterday. I feel pretty good about that today. Just don’t ask me tomorrow.

Democracy and Socialism vs. Capitalism

Bethany and I watched Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” the other day, and I have to say I was impressed with his balanced approach to this one (as opposed to the G.W. Bush hate-fest that Fahrenheit 9/11 was).  Aside from my appreciation of Moore’s sarcastic wit and the powerful stories of suffering persons in Sicko, the most insightful and important part of the movie, in my opinion, was Moore’s conversation with former member of Parliament Tony Benn.  I went ahead and transcribed it word for word, and I’ll bold what I thought were the most important insights by Tony.  I found a shorter Youtube video that has a fragment of the interview as well.  His thoughts on democracy and the power of the people to effect change are incredible, and really show how cynical and lazy Americans are in comparison to other places in the world when it comes to working for social change.

Benn:  It all began with democracy.  (Before) if you had money, you could get health care, education, look after yourself when you were old, and what democracy did was to give the poor the vote and it moved power from the marketplace to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot.

And what people said was very simple, “In the 1930s we had mass unemployment, but we didn’t have unemployment during the War.  If you can have full employment by killing Germans, we can have full employment by building hospitals, by building schools, recruiting nurses, recruiting teachers.  If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.

This  leaflet that was issued in 1948 is very straightforward;

“Your new national health service begins on the 5th of July. What is it and how do you get it?  It will provide you with all medical, dental, and nursing care, everyone rich or poor, man or child, can use it or part of it, there are no charges except for a few exceptional items, there are no insurance qualifications, but it is not a charity. You are paying for it mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in times of illness.”

Somehow the few words sum the whole thing up.  Even Margaret Thatcher said, “It’s safe in our hands.”  It’s as non-controversial as votes for women.  Nobody could come along now and say, “Why should women vote?”  People wouldn’t have it, and they wouldn’t accept the deterioration or destruction of the National Health Service.

Moore:  “If Thatcher or Blair said, ‘I’m going to dismantle the National Health Service?’”

Benn:  There would be a revolution, yep…

I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world.  Far more revolutionary than socialist ideas or anyone else’s ideas.  If you have power, you use it to meet the needs of you and your community.  And this idea of choice, which capitalism talks about all the time, ‘You’ve gotta have a choice,’ choice depends on the freedom to choose, and if you’re shackled with debt, you don’t have the freedom to choose.

Moore:  It seems like it benefits the system if the average working person is shackled with debt

Benn:  Yes, people in debt become hopeless and hopeless people don’t vote.  So people say, “Well, everyone should vote.”  I say that if the poor in Britain and the United States turned out and voted for people who represented their interests, it would be a real democratic revolution.  They (the system) don’t want that to happen, so (they’re)  keeping people hopeless and pessimistic. 

I think there are two ways people are controlled.  First, they are frightened people, and secondly, demoralized.  An educated, healthy, and confident nation is harder to govern, and I think there’s an element of thinking in some people, “We don’t want people to be educated, healthy, and confident, because they would get out of control. 

The top 1% of the world’s population own 80% of the world’s wealth.  It’s incredible that people put up with it!  But, they’re poor, they’re demoralized, they’re frightened, and therefore think perhaps the safest thing to do is to take orders and hope for the best.

This is an attack on the black church (and if the black church, then the church at large)…

Jeremiah Wright and Cornel West have awakened me from my middle-class white slumber in the last three months.  Lost amidst all the hullabaloo from 10-second sound-bites yanked from the greater context of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons which news organizations then talked hours on is the greater message Jeremiah is seeking to convey to the American nation. Jeremiah Wright is not Obama’s lapdog, and Obama is not his. Barack Obama is a politician, and Jeremiah Wright is an eloquent, shockingly-honest, sometimes-divisive pastor of God’s church.  The two are very different things. In order for us to understand the experience of the black church and the foundation from which Wright speaks, we need to move beyond the sound-bites and into a good, full listen to him in the videos below; even if, or especially if, we disagree with him.

If you are a person who is sick and tired of news organizations telling us what we should believe and showing us what we should see, please give this man a full listen in the videos below.

And if you want to know, REALLY know, this man that Barack Obama is separating himself from because of mushy political centrism in seeking to get elected, please give this man a full listen in the videos below. Barack Obama is being more and more exposed as a man who used Trinity UCC as a leg up, as a prestige card to play with the black community, rather than a fully participating member invested in attacking the problem of racism head-on. Calling for racial unity is nice and all, but when significant embedded racism still exists in our society, it’s time for troublemakers, rabble-rousers to stand up and speak truth to power, their political careers be damned.

And let this be stated clearly, if you can watch Survivor or American Idol or Dancing with the Stars (“reality” shows) or Lost or 24 or The Office (hour-long escapes from reality into suspended disbelief) or Hannity and Colmes (a show of barking partisan hacks) for hours on end every week, I’m fairly certain you can watch an embattled man (and a fine one at that) talk about something of vital importance for our world today in the videos below.

I’m sitting on some thoughts, but I will write them in the next couple days after wrapping up some loose ends for school. So keep attuned here if you’re interested in catching some of my thoughts on this; I want to contribute to this conversation that is simply not taking place in our society right now. It is DESPERATELY needed, and I want to be a part of it. Even in a little tiny way.

Video #2 of the same speech

Video #3 of the same speech

Video #4 of the same speech

Video #5 of the same speech

Video #6 of the same speech

That’s my boy!

jimmy carter

I don’t know if you had caught this developing story today or not, but Jimmy Carter (a man I look up to very very much) is working hard for progress in the Palestinian/Israeli peace process.  Today, he met with senior Hamas officials in Cairo in the hopes that some common bond could be built.  What made me say, “Attaboy Jimmy!” was the first couple lines from the article,

Former President Carter met with senior Hamas officials in the Egyptian capital today, rankling the Israeli and US governments, which say it runs counter to their policies of not negotiating with terrorists.

Later in the article, the same thing stuck out to me.

During his stop in Israel, most officials- including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert- refused to meet with Carter, angry over his insistence that Israel should talk to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union.

I hope you don’t misinterpret my “Attaboy!” for a blank check endorsement of Hamas as a legitimate governing authority, because that’s not my intent at all. In fact, Hamas has done a tremendous amount of violence and evil on its part over the years that have burned bridges with Israeli people and deeply set back the Israel/Palestine peace process.

My attaboy really has two main dimensions;
1) Jimmy Carter’s got some serious stones to do what he’s doing now

Bigger ones than Ehud Olmert, Khalid Meshaal, or George Bush, at least. Either these “leaders” are so completely blinded to the complex issues that surround seeking peace in this area or are continuing to willfully play off others’ fears, because there’s been plenty of black/white simplistic answers coming from these parties.Jimmy’s in pursuit of solutions and healing, and he’s willing to ask hard questions and meet with the unmeetable because he knows peoples’ lives (both Palestinian and Israeli) hang in the balance. And peoples’ lives are always, ALWAYS more important than the wounded pride and ego of choosing to embrace those you have hated so long you almost don’t remember why.

2) Jimmy Carter’s smart enough to know “terrorist” is just a label that all kinds of organizations throw around, usually to demonize the opposing party in the hopes that your folks will come off smelling like roses, all righteous and stuff. Terrorism is in the eyes of the beholder.

I wrote a few posts awhile back highlighting this fact.

1) One post focused on the reports early in March of a Tomahawk cruise missile attack on an al-Qaeda operative in Somalia.

The Pentagon confirmed that the U.S. military struck a target against a known al-Qaeda terrorist, and I’m sure this was the point at which your average story-reader (especially American) stopped reading. But buried at the bottom of the article, we’re told that the strike destroyed two houses, killed three women, three children, and wounded another twenty people. Now in the bigger scheme of things (beyond the Pentagon thinking they rode in on their white horse, accomplished justice, and rode back out again), how much do you think that missile strike affected that town of Dhoobley? The families of the killed? The injured? The memories that will remain for generations in that small town? The (justified) hatred that Tomahawk will inspire in them? Who comes off as a terrorist organization for the people in Dhoobley? I’ll let you handle that one yourself.

2) Another post focused on a story that emerged April 1 also related to the American government. The story, reporting on a Justice Department memo to Bush, stated

The president’s wartime power as commander in chief would not be limited by the U.N. treaties against torture. Legal counsel John Yoo wrote, “Our previous opinions make clear that customary international law is not federal law and that the president is free to override it at his discretion.”

What would be the definition of a terrorist organization? Maybe one that openly flaunts international law and does what it decides is right, with the good of all over-ridden by their own interests? The U.S. fits the description in this case.

3) And the third post had to do with the very Israeli/Palestinian relationship Carter is addressing right now.

It seems Hamas got a sweet whiff of what might bring lasting positive change in the shattered relationship by choosing not to suicide bomb a marketplace, but instead mobilize the people of Palestine in non-violent protest against the unjust security wall Israel has been building. Israel caught a whiff of this plan, and here was their response;

The army intends to prevent the marchers from advancing on the fence when they are still inside the Strip, using various means for crowd dispersal according to a ring system: The closer the marchers get to the fence, the harsher the response.The army plans to fire at open areas near the demonstrators with artillery that the Artillery Corps has been moving to the area over the past couple of days. If the marchers continue and cross into the next ring, they will face tear gas. If they persist, snipers could be ordered to aim for the marchers’ legs as they approach the fence.

It’s not an un-related point that Israel has been building the security walls inside the borders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while acquiring land for settlements by driving Palestinian farmers off the land, refusing to let them back on, and squatting on the land until they declare it “unoccupied” and thus free for illegal settlers to move on.

It is Israel’s handling of this situation that led to Desmond Tutu calling the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians “apartheid.” I think Desmond Tutu would know. It also led to Jimmy Carter writing a book entitled “Peace not Apartheid.” Both men have been charged with anti-Semitism, a challenge that carries baggage since the Holocaust happened only 70 years ago. In this situation though (with both men being followers of Jesus) Jimmy and Desmond weren’t spitting hatred but speaking truth to power, and thinking of the long-term good of both Israelis and Palestinians.

A good example of what not to do, of simplistic and close-minded thinking came from Condolezza Rice (who could’ve been working on this relationship for three and a half years already), who said she found it “hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is in fact the impediment to peace.” Well, Condi, Hamas plays a role in the problem, yes. But so does Israel in their state terror on the Palestinian people. And so does the United States in giving a blank check to Israel of support. You’re the Secretary of State of the United States of America, and that’s all you can come up with?

*UPDATE TO ADD* Carter made a speech today (4/21/08 ) as a result of his talks in the region that (surprise surprise) includes concessions Hamas would be willing to make as a result of direct talks. Here’s a quote

Carter urged Israel to engage in direct negotiations with Hamas, saying failure to do so was hampering peace efforts.

“We do not believe that peace is likely and certainly that peace is not sustainable unless a way is found to bring Hamas into the discussions in some way,” he said. “The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working.”