Sep 062011

I sent the following letter to the Mayor and each of the Tampa City Council members as they are again revisiting and effort to ban panhandling in Tampa…because, you know, we can’t actually be asked to look on the poor in our midst.

You all once again take up the cause of the poor attempting to eke out modest subsistence in a world where jobs are few, the need is great, and many have reached a point of desperation. Charles Darwin wrote, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

I attend, and often teach, a wonderful adult Sunday School class at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. We have recently finished a study on the parables right on the heels of a study by the Prophets. I’m struck by how often God and Jesus was forced to call out the Pharisees for how they treated the poor, and alas, we are guilty of the same in our time. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says about poverty, “The root cause of poverty is social injustice and the bad government that abets it”

I have worked with the poor volunteering often in a homeless shelter in whatever city I lived. I know the argument is often that people make a choice; that they are just panhandling for drug money; that if we didn’t help them, they’d go find a job. I know these are some of the reasons people are on the street corners, but I assure you I also know the truth if far more nuanced. My roommate’s car broke down just last week right on Gandy Bridge. I took him my car and waited on the tow truck driver. As we talked while driving back home he talked about how glad he was to have just gotten this job. He rides a bicycle to and from work each day nine miles each way for a minimum wage job. He said had it not been for this job, he was close to having to go on a street corner to feed his wife and child. Best selling author Richard Bach wrote, “All we see of someone at any moment is a snapshot of their life, there in riches or poverty, in joy or despair. Snapshots don’t show the million decisions that led to that moment.” This person was neither a drug addict nor a lazy free-loader. This was a man reduced to have the last bit of pride beaten out of him so that he was about to be reduced to begging to feed a family.

I’ve heard the arguments about how these pan handlers pose a threat to safety. I live in South Tampa and often pass through the Gandy/Dale Mabry intersection. This is certainly one of the busier intersections in Tampa, and there are typically panhandlers on each median. I have never once seen them pose a hazard nor had them impede traffic. The unfortunate reality is that we simply don’t want to have to see this kind of poverty in our own neighborhood. We don’t want to be reminded of how many people are hurting, and how badly they hurt. We are simply afraid to look in the eyes of these people. It makes us uncomfortable, and we want to banish them so we no longer have to see what we have wrought.

We bare responsibility for the conditions we have created. We all wanted everything to be cheaper, so our manufacturing jobs are not sent off-shore. We want to make villains of the unions who have fought for a living wage and to keep jobs here, and so now we have the poor reduced to invading our sacred places…our streets and intersections, where we wish to float through with our windows up and air conditioning keeping us comfortable and secure. We don’t want to have to look into the face of poverty.

John Berger writes, “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.” Mother Theresa best summed up what how this has happened. She says, “The trouble is that rich people, well-to-do people, very often don’t really know who the poor are; and that is why we can forgive them, for knowledge can only lead to love, and love to service. And so, if they are not touched by them, it’s because they do not know them.”

We claim to be a Christian nation, founded on and abiding by Christian principles. We are just embarking on another study on the Beatitudes. I’m sure you’re familiar with the beautiful passages in Matthew in which the gospel writer quotes Jesus tell the multitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The Greek word for “poor,” pto- choi, implies that they are not merely low on funds, but miserable, oppressed, humiliated. So the miserable, oppressed, and humiliated are blessed? You may not be as familiar with a similar set of Beatitudes in Luke. Here Luke has Jesus speaking primarily to the Apostles and he’s far more blunt and concise. He says, “Blessed are the poor.” And goes on to say, “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to your that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” Just like having to see the poor in our midst, these words ought to make us uncomfortable. We have not fulfilled our obligations to bring about peace and charity and hope to all people, and your actions are about to chop away even the last vestige of hope for some.

We are a nation born out of a desire for freedom. We are free to pursue happiness, but it was never promised by the founders. They never wrote a law or document that would forbid us having to see things that made us uncomfortable. That is not the American spirit nor do I find it to the Christian Spirit.

I heard one proposal from someone who said, “We’ll pass this, but then we must address the cause.” The basic sentiment is right, but it’s backwards. Do not take away some people’s last resort to feed their families before working to help them lift themselves. ““Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings” is how Nelson Mandella put it.

I am blessed in my life, but I’ve known some times of hardship. I’ve come home during periods of unemployment to find the power turned off, and I’ve known the humiliation of having to call a friend to borrow the money to get it back on. I am lucky to have never fallen as low as to have to panhandle, but I don’t think I can imagine the humility and humiliation it must create in someone. Don’t take away even that last little shred of hope.

I can look away if I don’t want to see the poor and down-trodden in our midst, or I can look them in the face and offer a helping hand. I know some of my dollars go to buy drugs and alcohol, but I also know some goes to buy food for a child, and I’m willing to leave that in God’s hand. He knows better than me who is worthy, and I beg you all to not make judgments of who should be allowed in our communities and who should be excluded. I think we are called to love as described by Saint Augustine, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like” Let us hasten to poor and needy, and not try to shut them out of our vision.

James Dobson Too Big a Coward to Debate Evangelical Agenda

 Gay Issues, Politics, Religion, Right Wingnuts, Science, Society  Comments Off on James Dobson Too Big a Coward to Debate Evangelical Agenda
Mar 132007

From LA Times

Evangelicals battle over agenda, environment

A struggle for control of the evangelical agenda intensified this week, with some leaders declaring that the focus has strayed too far from their signature battles against abortion and gay rights.

Those issues defined the evangelical movement for more than two decades — and cemented ties with the Republican Party. But in a caustic letter, leaders of the religious right warned that these “great moral issues of our time” were being displaced by a “divisive and dangerous” alignment with the left on global warming.

A new generation of pastors has expanded the definition of moral issues to include not only global warming, but an array of causes. Quoting Scripture and invoking Jesus, they’re calling for citizenship for illegal immigrants, universal healthcare and caps on carbon emissions.

The best-known champion of such causes, the Rev. Jim Wallis, this week challenged conservative crusader James C. Dobson, the chairman of Focus on the Family, to a debate on evangelical priorities.

“Are the only really ‘great moral issues’ those concerning abortion, gay marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence?” Wallis asked in his challenge. “How about the reality of 3 billion of God’s children living on less than $2 per day? … What about pandemics like HIV/AIDS … [and] disastrous wars like Iraq?”

A Focus on the Family vice president, Tom Minnery, said he would be happy to take up that debate. Dobson himself, Minnery said, is busy writing a book on child rearing.

“Without question,” Minnery said, “issues like the right to life for an unborn child concern evangelicals far more broadly.”

The public dispute began with the release of a letter signed by several men who helped transform the religious right into a political force, including Dobson, Don Wildmon of the American Family Assn. and Paul Weyrich of American Values.

The signatories — most of them activists, not theologians — expressed dismay that an evangelical emphasis on global warming was “contributing to growing confusion about the very term ‘evangelical.’ ”

In religious terms, an evangelical is a Christian who has been born again, seeks a personal relationship with Christ, and considers the Bible the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.

But Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality.”

The letter took particular aim at the Rev. Richard Cizik, a prominent evangelical lobbyist who has promoted environmental protection as a moral imperative. Citing the creation story in the Book of Genesis, he has called the fight against global warming a directive “straight from the word of God … no doubt about it.”

The letter accused Cizik of “dividing and demoralizing” Christians by pushing this agenda and called on his employer, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, to silence him or to demand his resignation.

“This is, in some ways, a defining moment,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Columbia University in New York. “It’s the old guard trying to hold on.”

The renewed debate on moral priorities came as the National Assn. of Evangelicals – which represents 45,000 churches and 30 million Christians – gathered for a board meeting Friday in Eden Prairie, Minn.

The board declined to censure or silence Cizik. Moreover, it appeared to embrace a broad view of the evangelical agenda, endorsing a sweeping human rights declaration.

The board also reaffirmed its support for a 2004 Call to Civic Responsibility that urged evangelical engagement on seven key issues, including religious freedom, the sanctity of life, justice for the poor, and environmental protection.

Those advocating a broader agenda insist that they’re not trying to downplay – much less back away from – traditional evangelical positions on abortion and sexual morality.

White evangelicals are more united against abortion than any other religious group, including Catholics, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A 2005 poll found 15% in support of a total ban on abortion and 53% in favor of only narrow exceptions. By contrast, global warming is deemed a “very serious” problem by less than 30% of white evangelicals, according to a 2006 Pew Forum poll. Less than 40% accept the scientific consensus that human activity, such as burning coal for energy, is responsible for the Earth’s rising temperatures.

“It’s a mistake to think that we’re all becoming liberal Democrats. That’s not true,” Wallis said.

But he asserted that his followers – especially young people – no longer want the old guard of evangelicals to define their priorities.

When he preached recently at a conservative evangelical college, Wallis said, he was besieged by students furious at the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who recently described global warming as a satanic plot to divert Christians from more pressing moral issues, such as spreading the Gospel.

“James Dobson and the religious right are outside the evangelical mainstream. That’s just a fact,” Wallis said. “That doesn’t mean they have no power…. But their monologue is over. Their control of the agenda is over.”

He and others have sought to re-brand traditional slogans of the religious right, such as “pro-life,” to encompass a range of programs, from working with AIDS victims in Africa to helping illegal immigrants achieve legal status so they can continue to live with their U.S.-born children.

The Rev. Jim Ball, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, has worked global warming into his definition of pro-life; he argues reducing carbon emissions will cut back on air and water pollution and that in turn will improve the health of pregnant women and unborn generations.

“We’re saying we can be pro-life and take care of global warming,” Bal said. “There’s a strong connection there.”

Friday’s board meeting advanced that view, but the debate is not over.

“The NAE is at a crossroads,” board member Jerald Walz said.

“You won’t find an evangelical who will say ‘I’m for poverty.’ Of course not,” Walz said.

But when it comes to helping the poor, ideas vary; some prefer to work through private charity, while others want government intervention.

Since there’s no consensus, Walz argued, “we ought to be reticent about speaking with force and clarity” on such issues.

Instead, he will keep pressing to focus the agenda on issues he considers “home runs” – namely, restrictions on abortion and bans on same-sex marriage.

Some on the board who share those views are already working on a second letter criticizing Cizik for his environmental activism.

Balmer, the religion professor, says he senses an unstoppable momentum for the new generation of social-justice evangelicals. But though he criticizes the traditionalists for “moral myopia,” he’s not willing to write them off yet.

Dobson and his allies still wield considerable clout; their radio shows, newsletters and e-mail alerts reach millions of conservative Christians.

“They’re still very powerful,” Balmer said. “And they’re not giving up.”

We can only hope these goobers break apart and wind up devouring themselves.

I'm Not Sure I Was Meant To Be Here

 Culture, Religion, Right Wingnuts, Society  Comments Off on I'm Not Sure I Was Meant To Be Here
Mar 062006

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. ~Charles Darwin

I’ve been pondering this post for sometime. I do not want this post to be seen as self-serving, but to point out how poorly we are doing as a society at caring for the least of these.

Some weeks ago it was getting pretty cool here at night. I have lived in the mountains of North Carolina and in Ohio. I know how cold it can get, and I realize the 38 degree lows we were experiencing here at not as cold as some places, but if you’re not used to it, and don’t have a warm place and warm clothes, it would be cold enough to be quite uncomfortable.

I was leaving the grocery store nearest the house. Sitting on a bench just inside the door were a man and a woman. I don’t know if they were married, lovers…I don’t know. They were in their late 40s or early 50s I would guess. I tuned in to part of their conversation when I realized the woman seemed to be close to tears.

They apparently had enough money to either get something to eat, or rent a cheap motel room for the night. The lady was imploring her companion to get the room because she knew it was going to be cold that night. He was bravely trying to figure out a way to get the room and still get “something” to eat.

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Sick But True-Healthcare in America

 Congress, General, Politics, Society  Comments Off on Sick But True-Healthcare in America
Nov 102005

For some time, the conservative "position" on health care has been a stalwart commitment to the status quo, resisting any proposals for sweeping reform. Two new studies comparing global health data — one by American Progress distinguished senior fellow Tom Daschle, another by the Commonwealth Fund — spell out what this position entails: conservatives apparently are content with a health care system that ranks #37 in the world (behind both developed and developing countries); a system that has the highest rate of medical mistakes, medication errors, and inaccurate or delayed lab results of any of the six nations surveyed by Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, German, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom); and a system that forces fully half of sick adults to report cost-related barriers to needed care. This disparity is not simply about health practices or economics; it is about our most basic values as Americans: our current health care system violates our core commitment to the common good, and betrays the simple notion (articulated by Sen. Daschle) that the "world’s wealthiest country should be its healthiest." (The Center for American Progress, unlike the Bush administration, has developed a real plan for making America healthier. Read all about it, or watch the flash video.)

THE MORAL COST OF THE STATUS QUO: The most substandard element of our health care system is arguably also the most morally troubling. As Paul Krugman explains, "Americans are far more likely than others to forgo treatment because they can’t afford it. Forty percent of the Americans surveyed failed to fill a prescription because of cost. A third were deterred by cost from seeing a doctor when sick or from getting recommended tests or follow-up." That citizens must regularly deny themselves and their families medical care is bad enough; that it happens in the wealthiest country in human history is almost unbelievable.

THE ECONOMIC COST OF THE STATUS QUO: Employment-based health insurance "is the only serious source of coverage for Americans too young to receive Medicare and insufficiently destitute to receive Medicaid," yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. The reason? The strain of health care costs for employers is growing, "possibly to a breaking point." The average total premium for an employer-based family plan was $9,979 in 2005, representing nearly the entire annual income of a full-time, minimum-wage worker. The cost of premiums for employer-based plans has outpaced wage growth by nearly fivefold since 2000. According to one report, by 2008, health costs will exceed profits at Fortune 500 companies. Comparing the U.S. system to countries with universal coverage, Sen. Daschle found that "in general, their predictable and broadly-financed costs along with their outcomes — improved health and productivity of workers — tend to benefit their businesses, and give them a competitive advantage over ours."

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