Peculiarities of the Fiscal Cliff Deal

Photo Credit: Flickr user rogerblake2, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user rogerblake2, used under CC license

We’ve watched repeatedly as the conservative right sheds concern for the “least of these” to improve the lives of wealthy Americans. Like any other financial bill making its way through Congress, there are a few items that we should take note of in the “fiscal cliff bill” that reveal the true powers of our society. Spoiler alert: It’s not the people.

Given the GOP’s close ties to conservative evangelicalism and the overall religious bent of those in political offices, financial decisions that impact our community are closely tied to our religious ethics.

As you work your way through the fiscal cliff bill, it is not difficult to see the compromises made by each side of the senate, but you’d be surprised by some of the winners of the bill that result from these partisan compromises.

These are a few items that Brad Plumer discovered at the Washington Post; you can read the full bill here.

You’re probably already aware of the extension of the Bush tax cuts for household incomes under $450,000, but how about the $9 billion in tax breaks to multinational companies to compete overseas? According to a report from Dan Eggen, companies like JP Morgan and GE receive breaks for certain types of overseas business (read job creating overseas). It’s not a coincidence that they also spend a great deal of time and money lobbying for this lucrative tax incentive.

We’ve come to expect big business and Wall Street to insert itself in financial policy and to receive special treatment, so that one probably didn’t catch you off guard. But how about NASCAR?

The fiscal cliff bill extends tax breaks for NASCAR to build new racetracks to compete with theme parks. This inclusion is expected to cost more than $40 million this year.

Another $75 million will subsidize Hollywood film industry when they film %75 of a movie on US soil.

Almost $550 million will be taxed on rum this year, and then the money will be returned to the rum industry in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Seriously.

All of this money looks suspicious when conservative congress members fight to keep tax breaks for the wealthy, NASCAR and JP Morgan. Then, to cover for the big business, they toss under the bus those who really need it: those in poverty, seniors, unemployed, underemployed, etc.

Our Christian call is to care for these people in need that Jesus calls “the least of these,” so why do so many support the policies and political figures working to do them harm?

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When in Texas…

Photo Credit: Flickr user M Glasgow, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user M Glasgow, used under CC license

In Fort Worth, Texas for the Christmas season, we found ourselves sitting in the midst of the heightened gun control debate following the recent Newton shooting.

We were trying to get to a pajama party at a museum with a special Omni screening of The Polar Express for the kids, but we couldn’t make it through the sea of trucks gridlocked in L.A.-like traffic within a 2 mile radius of the museum (and conveniently the convention center hosting the Lone Star Gun Show). According to later reports, this gun show had record numbers that rivalled the opening hours of Black Friday shopping.

Blown away by the number of military style assault weapons being carried down the street in plain sight by average people, my thoughts naturally turned to crime, gun control, the debate, and their connection to the highly political Christian right.

I live in a strange place, between worlds and worldviews. I grew up in Fort Worth, where the 2nd Amendment is biblical, where personal liberties are biblical even at the expense and danger to the broader community, and where the gun show is the only show more popular than church. Currently, however, I live and work outside Vancouver, BC, where they are quick to give up personal liberties for the safety and security of everyone.

The distinctions between the two show up in a number ways, and I find myself fighting internally over the line between personal liberties and how they impact the broader community. Often I’m concerned with how someone decides what is best for me or how I should protect myself, but I’m keenly aware of how my actions and the actions of others impact our community.

David Heim responded to these recent debates with a quote from Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar, who wrote, “Just as it is forbidden to sell idolaters articles that assist them in idol worship, it is forbidden to sell them articles that can cause harm to many people—for example, bears, lions, weapons, fetters and chains.”

It seems common sensical to him that it is your business to care for the community first, regardless of the cost to your own wealth or liberties. He speaks to a specific people, called to a different ethical standard than the rest of society. His comments understand that others will sell and collect things that bring harm to their community, but your role, as God’s people, is to care for your community and to minimize the potential harm.

We would like to argue that the Bible defends our personal liberties, but truthfully the Bible is a communal book concerned with communal activities. The laws provide ways to naturally care for the community, particularly the vulnerable. The prophets speak against the abuse of the powerful, who forsake the betterment of their community for their own wealth and power. Jesus returns dignity and worth to individuals outcast by society, and the early church takes to communal living in way that cared for one another as Jesus had taught.

More guns and more access leads to more violence in the same way that more television programming and more access has led to more tv viewers for more hours. It is an ethical question: do we concern ourselves with our liberties or our communities?

A Week in Review

Here are some interesting reads that I found valuable throughout the week…

Religious-Political Rhetoric: Where’s the line?

The religious rhetoric seems to be at an all time high in the political campaigns of Republican presidential hopefuls, and interestingly, there is no evangelical to be found. Rick Santorum, however, is filling in quite well.

Last weekend Santorum made a media splash when he criticized Obama’s “phony theology.” The firestorm of responses from the media and the public required Santorum to “clarify” that he wasn’t attacking Obama’s faith, but only his worldview, which puts the value of the earth above the value of humanity. You can be sure that his highly charged language achieved their aims, and his conservative base heard the statements clearly, further engraining their skepticism of Obama’s faith. Similar to a lawyer leading a witness (and the jury), it can be stricken from the record, but the damage has already been done. Even if stricken from the record through clarification, the intention to cast doubt on Obama’s faith, or orthodoxy-ness, has already taken root (especially given Santorum’s history of similar comments regarding Obama.).

It may be one thing to talk openly about your faith informing your political decisions. Turning the political debate into a theological debate is quite different and is more appropriate in an elders’ meeting.

The Huffington Post Religion ran a great piece earlier this week that highlighted the first presidential candidate attacked for religious beliefs, Thomas Jefferson. What was Jefferson’s response to the accusations of being an atheist and a heretic? For the most part, he simply ignored the accusations, believing that his policies, actions and leadership would speak for themselves. He felt his personal life (and personal faith) should be of little concern to the American people.

Faith is certainly an indicator of decisions a candidate will make in the Oval Office, but Jefferson may have had the better campaign strategy here. If Santorum has crossed a line with his religious rhetoric, it will ultimately cost him a presidential election primed for the Republican Party.

Dirty political campaigns, especially when charged with theological and religious rhetoric, make great news and even better SNL skits, so I’ll watch with eager anticipation if Santorum gets the nomination.

That’s Not Restorative Justice

Last week the U.S. military court system made a step toward embracing restorative justice practices when they accepted a plea deal wherein a soldier’s testimony was exchanged for reduced charges. There were no victims present, there was no truth, and there was no justice. Sounds nice for him…but that’s not how restorative justice works, or any justice for that matter.

In 2005, a roadside bomb in Haditha, Iraq hit a Humvee, killing one Marine, a tragedy no doubt. In response, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich ordered five Iraqi men out of their car, shot and killed them at close range. Then claiming to hear small gunfire from a nearby house, the squad, led by Wuterich, entered three houses, killing nineteen more innocent civilians…men, women and children as young as two years old. Investigations show that these murders were committed by close range, targeted fire in the chests and heads – as in an execution – not by shrapnel or miscellaneous fire.

Following the incident Eight Marines were charged by the U.S. military, ranging from dereliction of duty to obstruction of justice, and four of those eight were charged with unpremeditated murder. Six of these men had all charges dropped, either in exchange for testimony or another reason; one was acquitted of all charges, and Wuterich was brought to trial. The victims’ families, loved ones and the Iraqi people watched in horror as these men were released from responsibility one-by-one, and they all (we all) waited for justice in the wake of the Haditha massacre, now almost seven years past.

Instead the U.S. military court delivered one final blow to the value placed on an Iraqi life. In exchange for admission of “guilt” (dereliction of duty) and his testimony, Wuterich’s charges were reduced from “unpremeditated murder” to “dereliction of duty.” Read that again…from “murder” to “dereliction of duty.” The punishment also shifted from jail time to reduced rank and docked pay.  The lives of 24 Iraqi men, women and children has been valued at a reduced rank and docked pay by our justice system. And that admission of guilt was no more than a dismissal of guilt wrapped in sympathetic words as he passed the buck: “When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat. And my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive,” Wuterich said.  “So when I told my team to ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ the intent wasn’t that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy.”

Restorative justice has been around for thousands of years, but our modern civil justice systems consider crimes to be against the state rather than individuals and communities. Restorative justice seeks to heal the wounds and brokenness in humanity caused by the perpetrator by opening up lines of communication between victims and their offenders. Rather than the simplistic idea that we can pay our debts to society through individual and isolated punishment, restorative justice requires the difficult and honest road of accepting responsibility, restoring humanity to your victims and building new relationships instead of reinforcing old hatred and chasms.

In exchange for truth and testimony, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee offered amnesty to many guilty of crimes against human rights during the apartheid in South Africa. The TRC heard testimony from victims and perpetrators in an effort to allow victims to reclaim their dignity and to begin a process of reparation to the brokenness within the community and state. This process offered a new way of peace for everyone to address their emotional and spiritual wounds caused by more than 30 years of institutionalized racism and apartheid.

Still today, many crimes of lynching and race-related murders in the southern U.S. have gone unresolved and unaccounted for after some 50 years have passed. Entire communities withhold information of murders to protect individuals and groups that committed these heinous crimes. Victims’ families live without resolution, without closure and without justice. Organizations like Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR) have worked toward ways of restorative justice to offer amnesty to those who will come forward, take responsibility and share the truth, allowing everyone to finally begin a restorative healing process.

The world was watching on January 24, 2012. We had an opportunity to illustrate the value of life, a value we flaunt in our political campaigns and a value we parade when we push democracy on the world. We had an opportunity to demonstrate justice in spite of the implications and complications, a value we expect to be upheld in our justice system and a value we demand when we are the victims.

The world was watching on January 24, 2012, and we gave them exactly what they expected…a ruling that reinforced our elitist attitude lacking concern for genuine justice or genuine reparation. In some veiled attempt to discover truth (a selfish truth at best), the military court attempted something that looked like restorative justice…but there was nothing restorative about it…there was no truth…and there is no justice.

Cheapening Faith for National Debt

Recently, evangelicals have solidified their political seats next to right wing fiscal conservatives through a new avenue that doesn’t fit the traditional social issues they lean on heavily. That issue? National Debt.

As both mainline parties race to offer solutions to the growing national debt in an attempt to gain the support of the wavering American public, religious and moral obligations have quickly been incited to up the ante of this high-stakes debate. It is an interesting shift that is unfolding, to watch first the Tea Party push hard line national debt rhetoric followed by religious rhetoric and biblical usury addressing the same crisis.

The growing U.S. national debt is exceptionally problematic as it reaches the $14.3 trillion dollar “ceiling,” but is it a “spiritual issue” as some television personalities and certain evangelical leaders are wanting us to believe? Turning political issues into spiritual issues can be quite dangerous, and we need to walk with caution when we implore our Christian heritage, our sacred texts and our faith to do our political bidding.  Your Christian faith should inform your political views and actions, as it should the entirety of your life; however, it is critical that the reverse is not occurring, that your political views are not informing your Christian faith.

Before proceeding, we need to take a deep and honest look at our motives, because we are treading the line between faithful theological application and abusing our faith to grasp at worldly political power and to manipulate fellow Christians for political gain. Take this seriously!

Biblical Use

A number of different texts have been used as proof-texts to defend the recent statement equating the national debt with spirituality. This is of primary concern for me as many debates on “theological issues” include the misuse or abuse of our sacred texts.

Nehemiah 5:3-5 is cited by Billy McCormmack, founding member of the Christian Coalition of America, as being the clearest textual guidance in this discussion. Nehemiah 5, however, is a social justice text oriented toward power-laden, unethical and oppressive lending practices. You cannot stop at verse 5 to avoid Nehemiah’s anger with the wealthy and powerful who were charging their own people interest, and you cannot skip verses 1-2 that shows borrowing necessities based on hunger, life and death. The lesson may be applied to predatory lending practices, oppressive powers and others, but it is a stretch to hinge concern for the growing national debt on Nehemiah 5.

Passages from Deuteronomy have been quoted as “borrowing from none, and lending to many,” which is a lovely statement out of context, but it was in reference solely to the prosperity of Israel and not applicable to our current discussion.

Others quote Proverbs 13:22, as a more legitimate source, ” The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children,” and we are certainly failing at that. To be concerned about our children’s sustainability is appropriate and healthy, but even this passage is a long way from the heart of the gospel and cannot explain the intense and immediate passion of conservative evangelicals regarding the national debt.

Christians and the National Debt

Certainly the U.S. should be aggressively attacking the national debt and finding a way to balance annual budgets. It is both responsible and ethical, and it will ultimately make way for a healthier future.

Certainly some Christians have been concerned about the national debt as a religious and biblical sticking point for years. And again it is indeed favorable for your Christian faith and theology to inform your political beliefs and actions, even if we disagree.

It is on the other hand unacceptable to misuse and abuse Christian faith and theology to push your political agenda. The rise in Christian concerns for the national debt as a “spiritual issue” appears in large part to be informed by partisan politics and political gain. The “action alerts” to evangelicals regarding the national debt were absent while President Bush was making large tax cuts for wealthy Americans, and they were absent when he waged costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When your faith informs your life, values, politics and actions, it illustrates consistency, non-partisanship and integrity. When your political agenda informs your faith, it cheapens my Christian title and reputation. When you implore Scripture for political gain, you cheapen the Gospel and the life of Jesus. Take this seriously!

Protecting Faith in Egypt

Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and Koran

Egyptian Christians and Muslims Protesting Together (source: NYDailyNews - Abed/Getty)

One of the most uplifting stories I have ever read:
The NY Daily News reports that Egyptian Christian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square joined hands to encircle and to protect praying Muslims on Friday, the holy day of Islam. When Sunday came, Muslim protesters returned the gesture to Coptic Christians so that they could observe Mass.

You may have to read that again to allow it to sink in. Muslims put their physical bodies between danger and Christians in an act to protect their commitment to faith. Christians stood between danger and Muslims to protect their fellow protesters’ time with God.

Given the less than cordial history between Islam and Christianity, the mutual respect shown this week is a testament to the promise and love that each of our religions calls us to. Always thinking in terms of ‘the other,’ Jesus called us to redefine our neighbor to include also the stranger, and we are to love, care for, protect and respect everyone…regardless.

Community plays a significant role in my theology. As I read and understand the Bible, God’s acts in creation and salvation and the relationship with humanity throughout the scriptures illustrate God’s passion and longing for community. As a relational God, and we being made in the likeness of God, I understand community to be the call of humanity, that is both a community with God and community with God’s creation. In fulfilling our call to community, we are to “love our neighbor as ourself.” When that plays out in the real world around us, our community (local and worldwide) is enhanced with every act of faith as we lift up, help out, encourage, liberate, offer mutual respect and discover ‘the other.’ Not to be lost in that process is our commitment and call to be in community with God. Without doubt when we offer our servitude and humility to all we come in contact with, we also serve and come closer to God.

The events this past weekend provide the epitome of illustrations in living out humanity’s call to community. As Christians on Friday protected the faith and prayer time of ‘the other,’ they extended an unprecedented bridge to community between Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, they were able to provide for that group time to deepen their community with God. Their actions worked in sort of a threefold manner by deepening their relationship with God’s creation, their own relationship with God and allowing others the opportunity to do the same. When Sunday came, the Muslims present were given the opportunity to reciprocate the act of community, and likewise their actions worked threefold in creating and extending unprecedented community. This all of course is without even mentioning their shining example to the world, as this is a story we need to tell again and again as examples of true faith in a world void of the radical respect for one another that we are called to.

It is easy for those of us in the U.S. and other Western countries to dehumanize all Muslims, to strip them of their faith and theology because of our experiences with fundamentalist terrorist groups. It is easy for us to abuse those experiences for political, social and religious gains. It is difficult and trying to “love our neighbor as ourself” and to see the faith and commitment of devoted Muslims. It is difficult to hear and answer God’s call to community through radical respect and love.

Few and far between are the stories of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, but these faithful followers who understand the theology of community and neighbor give us hope for a more peaceful tomorrow. These Christians and Muslims remind us that we are capable of this respect and community, and our influence can be immediate and far-reaching. How can you display this faith in your community? What would our community or our church look like if we could muster the courage to have this faith daily?