Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.

More Newspapers!

February 1, 2017

Yesterday I subscribed (digitally) to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. I already subscribe to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (my excellent local paper) and The New York Times, and I really don’t need more reading opportunities. However, as I think about strategic action in these troubled times, I keep coming back to investigative reporting. We need reporters who dig deep and present facts about complicated matters. (We have plenty of opinions already.) Sorry, TV and the internet don’t do that. Newspapers do. And they need money!

I look on these added subscriptions just like my annual contributions to the Yosemite Conservancy and my local public radio stations and Amnesty International. They are for the public good.

What To Do  

December 16, 2016

A lot of us are alarmed about the state of America, and many are asking what they can do. Here’s my answer: subscribe to a newspaper.

There are so many issues that require good reporting. Just to name a few, we have questions about whether the FBI or the CIA has been politicized, questions about whether, how and why Russia tried to influence our election, questions about the future of healthcare. None of these can be answered by pontificating partisans on TV, let alone by Twitter. They need careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting.

A bigger question is whether America has become a post-truth society, with citizens who think the world is just a big reality TV show. At the least, we are drifting that way. Countering these tendencies requires citizens who read careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting, and don’t get their information from TV talking heads and tweets.

Good reporting and reliable sources of information start with newspapers. Nothing so far has surfaced to replace them. Yet newspapers are economically imperiled, and their readership has dropped. Therefore, a very practical contribution to these difficult times is to subscribe. That way, the newspapers get your money to pay their reporters; and you get better access to information.

Predictions

November 11, 2016

No more gridlock! With Republicans controlling all three branches of government, we will see action on all kinds of fronts.

I realize that making predictions is a fool’s game, but I’m writing down what I expect to see in order to test myself. Nothing would delight me more than to be wrong on many of these prognostications… but we’ll see.

Health care. Obamacare is toast. Mostly we will revert to the status quo ante, which was not good. The one piece I can’t quite foresee is whether Republicans will repeal the law requiring insurance companies to insure everybody, regardless of pre-existing conditions. The one piece I am sure of is that they will repeal the mandate that everybody buy insurance. Without that mandate the economics of the insurance-based system don’t work, especially if the insurance companies have to insure everybody. Obamacare tried to patch up the existing system; it was questionable whether it could succeed even if encouraged. We’ll never know! I predict that health care will be in crisis within Trump’s first term. Eventually (in the next decade) we will end up with single-payer insurance, which we should have had in the first place.

Trade. Not much will change. There will probably be a show of saber-rattling, maybe with China, but Republicans are the party of big business and business interests are strongly for maintaining the status quo. .

Immigration. Not much will change. There will be an early show of building a wall—a Potemkin wall about 10 miles long somewhere in Texas. Immigrants, legal and illegal, will continue to come, but there will be a great reduction in the number of refugees accepted through legal processes. The millions of immigrants living without papers will continue doing as they have done; they will not be deported—business and farming interests will make sure of that–nor will they be given a path to citizenship.

Tax reform. Taxes will be cut, especially for the rich along the lines of Paul Ryan’s proposals. This will result in huge deficits, which will result in legislation cutting programs for the poor. The deficits will continue to mount until we reach a financial crisis.

Infrastructure. We will finally get money for roads and bridges. This will last until huge deficits catch our attention, probably in 2-3 years.

Regulation. The regulatory apparatus of the federal government will be reduced in every area, but especially regarding banks and financial institutions, consumer protection, and the environment. The impacts of these changes will be diffuse and hard to measure, except regarding banks and financial institutions, where they will inevitably create a crisis that will require a bailout. How long before this happens is hard to predict, but that it will happen is as close to a sure thing as we know. Banks and financial institutions have not learned how to regulate themselves; and Republicans both hate regulations and love banks and financial institutions.

Climate, coal, solar. Attempts by the federal government to slow climate change will end. Problems with climate change will continue to grow (as they probably would even if we did our best). I can’t foresee how cataclysmic the problems will be, nor how soon they will become cataclysmic. The coal business in America will continue its death spiral, as fracking spreads (with less regulation!) and keeps the price of energy low. Solar and wind energy will grow due to their efficiencies and also because some large states (California) will subsidize their use.

Social issues. Abortion will continue unabated, though perhaps the Supreme Court will allow more restrictions in Southern states. Gay marriage will be universally accepted. There will probably be more latitude for people and institutions to discriminate by, say, refusing to bake a wedding cake or make facilities available for gay marriages, but people will care less and the issue will all but disappear. Marijuana legalization will continue to spread; problems with illegal drugs like heroin will also continue to grow. Over all, America will continue to move toward more liberal and hedonistic values, as seen on TV.

Social Security and Medicare. There will be benefit cuts. Social security’s finances will be stabilized, probably by raising the age of retirement; and Medicare will continue to grow hugely more expensive, prompting even more cuts. See Health Care, above.

Foreign relations. Not much will change. There is no appetite for “boots on the ground” nor for a policy that enables Iran to build a nuclear bomb. The world will be slightly friendlier for dictators, but they weren’t doing badly before. Terrorism will continue unabated for the foreseeable future; the problems of the Middle East will continue and the refugee crisis will grow.

The unknown. By definition, the unknown cannot be predicted, except for this: we will be confronted by problems that we do not anticipate. Some possible areas: financial meltdowns, events of nature (storms, earthquakes), cyber disasters, terrorism, war. But there may well be categories that we don’t even know exist. How will the new Republican/Trump administration respond? That is hard to foresee, but recent history does not encourage a rosy view of Republicans’ ability to cope with reality. For the last eight years Republicans running Congress have majored in outrage, not in governance. And President Trump has no experience in governance at all. He does not seem to be a calm and measured person. The category of “unknown” is by far the most frightening of all—as it always is.

 

 

After the Nightmare

November 10, 2016

 

The election results were a nightmare to me. I mean a real nightmare, the kind where you flee shape-shifting monsters and can’t escape. It took me a long time to get to sleep after the result sank in. The sun did come up this morning, and I feel better. Numb, incredulous, but pretty sure I am going to live.

I have no wish to rehearse all the reasons for fear. Better commentators than I have done that ad nauseum. Almost half of America chose to ignore those reasons. We live in a democracy. We honor our constitution. Time to move on.

But how do we do that? How do we behave, going forward?

I don’t want to duplicate what Republicans did to Obama. The quest for power through tearing down and obstruction is an approach I can’t respect. I want our country to prosper, whoever is in power.

I plan to pray for President Trump, persistently. It is not impossible or unknown for someone to become a better person.

Also, I think it’s imperative that we stay politically engaged, because there may be places where constructive engagement can result in positive action, and there may also be places where vigilant, forceful opposition is necessary. For example, maybe we can fix our roads and bridges. For example, I will do anything in my power to ensure that our authorities do not return to the practice of torture.

Finally, the practice of our personal lives will be, I believe, the most potent of all our responses. We all have the opportunity to care for poor people in our communities. We can strengthen our neighborhoods through cooperation in everything from Little League to hiking clubs. We can treat each other with kindness and respect despite our differences. I’m a believer that the political regime ultimately reflects the people’s character, lived out locally. We build from the bottom up. If our communities are rotten, degraded, violent, addicted, angry, that will be reflected in our leadership.

I’ve toyed with the thought that our troubles as a nation—our divisiveness and rancor, particularly—stem from the fact that we have abandoned God. I realize that’s old-fashioned. In the past I’ve tended to scoff at sermons that treated every problem as a symptom of religious failure. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no doubt that much of America—the left, in particular—has discarded faith and looks on religion with condescension and suspicion. It became obvious in this election that conservatives also—evangelicals in particular—have abandoned God, else they could not possibly go against everything they say they believe to support a serial liar and bragging adulterer for President. The truth is, I think, a lot of us have abandoned God. Some of us want him to disappear, others to co-opt him as a useful prop in our quest for power.

If things are going to change, it’s useful to review what God says that he wants from us: “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) That applies under all political regimes, and it is primarily local.

What Happened to Evangelicals

July 28, 2016

I have been thinking a lot about this quite remarkable fact: according to polls the great majority of self-identifying “evangelicals” support a presidential candidate whose world view seems to be borrowed from Nietzche. (This article by Peter Wehner does an excellent job summarizing Trump’s approach.)

Most of my life I’ve been very happy to call myself an evangelical. Without my permission, though, the word has taken on a different definition. To some it now means “right wing bigot,” but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more accurate to say evangelical now means “Republican.”

In the days of the Solid South, before Lyndon Johnson’s voting rights bill spoiled the party, people spoke of a “yellow dog Democrat.” That referred to Democrats who would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican.” Given that evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump, I think it’s fair to call them “yellow dog Republicans.”

How did this come to be? How did a largely non-political movement that emphasized Christian conversion and the Bible come to be so closely tied to a political party? The answer begins with one word: abortion. Though it took a while for evangelicals to join Catholics in opposing the permissions of Roe v. Wade, they eventually did so with fervor. The plight of the unborn captured hearts very much as the plight of slaves did before the Civil War. Most people were happy to brush these lives aside, but once slaves or unborn babies got into someone’s moral conscience they found them impossible to forget. In both cases, Christian faith was the primary gateway into this moral conclusion.

Evangelical opposition to abortion was not initially political, but pretty soon the two parties aligned their positions for and against abortion. From that point on, it was difficult for an evangelical to vote for a Democrat.

Whether you agree or disagree with the evangelical view on abortion, I don’t see how you can avoid seeing it as a principled stand. So when you think of Donald Trump (whose concern for abortion or any other moral issue is squishy) you have to ask: how did evangelicals get from a principled stand that aligned them with a political party, to a stand for a political party that has abandoned all principles?

The logic works this way: Trump is running as a Republican; we have every hope he will support Republican positions on social issues (probably because they do not matter very much to him). Thus, opposing abortion and defending traditional marriage involves holding your nose and voting for Trump. (I am willing to ignore evidence suggesting that some evangelicals are actually enthused about Trump for less attractive reasons.)

Politics often involves such compromises. Ask the supporters of Bernie Sanders who are asked to vote for Hillary Clinton. I can’t fault anybody for making their voting decisions on the basis of such calculations. At the same time, there must be some line we will not cross. Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world, you may recall, for a mere token of support. He declined the offer. I can’t imagine holding my nose tight enough to eliminate the stench of Donald Trump.

Which makes all the more egregious the eager and specifically religious support for him from some Christian leaders.

When I was growing up, Christian pastors didn’t endorse candidates. They drew a line between themselves and politics; it was considered unseemly for pastors to fall into political advocacy, as it mingled a political mindset—full of compromises–with the purity of the gospel.

For evangelicals, those days are long gone. A political endorsement might possibly be acceptable if it favored a candidate whose character measured up to evangelical moral standards. But when the candidate is Donald Trump, the endorsement tells the world that evangelicals are no longer people of conscience whose lives are dominated by the message of the gospel. We have become a political interest group, and there is no limit to the compromises we will make for a share of power.

Plato and Trump

May 2, 2016

This article by Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the best summation of our political situation that I’ve read.

Refugees in Europe

April 20, 2016

As you may remember, I spent several seeks in Europe during January and February, researching an article on the refugee crisis. With photographer Gary Gnidovic I visited Germany, Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Greece on behalf of Books and Culture Magazine. It was a very memorable experience and I am thrilled to report that, finally, the long article has appeared in print. Here’s a link.

We Need a Larger Justice

April 20, 2016

“Justice” is a polarizing word. Progressives have camped on it so much that conservatives have a Pavlovian reaction to its mention, as they do with “global warming.” Inject the word “justice” into a room and you can begin to extract blue from red.

However, the conservative reaction against government overreach also has a foundation of concern for justice. It’s not worries about economic efficiency that fuel white-hot rage against government mandates . It’s unfairness—the perception that it’s unjust for unaccountable pen pushers to rule over personal liberty. “You’re not the boss of me” is also a cry for justice.

Both sides of this divide have this in common: their idea of justice is punitive and accusatory. Somebody is to blame, and justice involves assigning that blame and making somebody pay.

This is in accord with the American justice system, which has to do with applying written laws uniformly, such that all wrongdoers are punished and forced to repay their victims.

Much can be said in favor of that, especially by anyone who has brushed up against whole countries where the rule of law is only arbitrarily applied. Indeed we Americans also have a lot to improve on, since our American legal system punishes or rewards some groups more than others, depending on their income or their skin color. Conservatives and liberals can easily agree that this fails the standard of justice.

It seems to me, however, that we need a more expansive view of justice, one that draws on an ancient tradition that is largely forgotten. I have recently understood this from studying the ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible. There one learns of a justice that demands love for neighbor, and welcome for strangers. There one learns of a justice measured by the care of the poor and the vulnerable in society. There one learns of a justice where “trees clap their hands in joy.”

A “judge” in these ancient societies was not someone who had studied the law carefully and knew exactly how to apply it to particular cases. The judge was not a legal technician. Rather, the judge might actually be a warrior, defending an embattled tribe or liberating an embattled people. A judge took tangled disputes and had the wisdom to bring harmony to quarreling people. It is not that the English word “judge” does a poor job of translating the Hebrew. It is that a very different view of the law and of justice is in view.

I recently served as general editor for a Bible (God’s Justice: The Holy Bible) that examined the theme of justice throughout the sacred text. This edition of the Bible was remarkable because of its authors: 55 scholars and activists from all over the world, north and (emphatically) south. It was fascinating to see how they commented on familiar material. Westerners are accustomed to a tradition that reads the Bible as a matter of personal spirituality. That is, of course, certainly in view. But my authors from the global South rather easily pointed out that the Bible has to do with history, that its history constantly comments on alienation from other people and from the created world itself. They saw how often it spoke to the condition of the poor and the most vulnerable—not merely the fact that they got a raw deal in court, but that they were and remained poor and vulnerable. And most importantly: they saw everywhere that a God of justice is determined to set the world right!

What does that mean? In these ancient traditions, setting the world right certainly means setting it spiritually right. But it also means the full flourishing of the whole creation. It means an end to war. It means international reconciliation and peace. It means building beautiful cities and producing bumper harvests. It means nature itself rejoicing in the goodness intended for it from the beginning—nature frolicking! Justice, in these ancient traditions, is beauty and truth. Justice is love, and love is justice. Justice is a flourishing society.

And yes, these ancient traditions certainly recognize the existence of real evil. They speak of the judgment of evil powers. Here too, God is determined to set things right. That means not just punishing evil, it means doing away with it.

Thus our western fascination with crime and punishment is a portion—an important portion—of a much larger picture. The world is intended for good. On the road to that good, we need laws to promote that good, and these laws must be enforced.

However, preoccupation with crime and punishment will not get us very far down the road. Rather we need to be clear on where we want to go, and we must focus not only on what has stopped our progress, but on what we must do to get where we seek to go.

I do not know how to “fix” our current political polarization, the reflexive assigning of people to camps of good and evil that stops all discussion and has, as a matter of fact, put an end to politics that can accomplish anything.

I believe, however, that a fix will come only when we re-learn to focus on what the Bible calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” That speaks not of a filmy spirit reality but of a real and physical society with real people who flourish together. Assigning blame invariably leaves a residue of anger and resentment, and rarely leads to productive encounters. Defining hopes and arguing over how to realize them has a tendency to push us closer together. We will not always agree. Perhaps we will not agree very often. But we will point forward, rather than only doling out scorn on the sins of the past.

The Refugee Crisis

February 9, 2016

I just returned from 2.5 weeks in Europe, traveling with photographer Gary Gnidovic on behalf of Books and Culture magazine. My job is to write a report on the European refugee crisis. Gary and I visited Germany, Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, more or less tracing backward the path for most migrants. I interviewed many refugees and many people helping them; I tried to understand the situation from the ground level. It was an amazing chance to see a world-historical event as it unfolds. I was challenged and inspired  and sometimes depressed by what I witnessed.

Books and Culture has published a couple of short posts I wrote while traveling; here’s one. You can follow that to the other. But the big article comes out in May. I’ll let you know.