Crossroads

We’re standing at a crossroads.

Donald Trump has the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton (almost) has the Democratic nomination. America is thus faced with a choice. But it goes far beyond Trump vs. Clinton or GOP vs. Dems. This is a choice that may well decide several things. First, it may decide what kind of country the United States truly is. Second, it may decide the fate of the US in general. Third, it may decide the fate of human civilization.

Let’s take that one at a time.

Remember this: the United States was built on racism. It was built on the racism of denying non-white people their land, their liberty, and their labor. Mexican-Americans in Texas and California are in the first category, African-Americans in the second and third, and Native Americans in all three. It was built further on a policy that US needs should and would override the needs of everyone else in the world. Thus democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Iran were all overthrown with US help or approval, in order to preserve profits, and thus Saddam Hussein was our friend while he fought Iran but our foe when he fought Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden was our friend (or at least our fellow-traveler) when he fought the Soviet Union and our foe afterward.

Racism is in our DNA: it taints the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it haunts us still in police violence, economic disparity, and political power imbalance, to name only the most obvious. Continue reading

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Two Ways to be Wrong

I discovered a piece of racist literature on my walk yesterday.

At first glance it looks quite innocuous. The flyer that was up on the lamppost is two-thirds picture, showing a smiling woman holding a smiling child, the woman looking quite modern in shorts and close-cropped hair, the child of indeterminate gender. And under the picture, these exact words:

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children”

Continue reading

Great and Small

(As I expect we will have some new readers shortly, this is both a new post and a guide to some of my recent thinking. Most of the links connect to earlier posts I’ve made.)

It’s quiet in my apartment this week. My partner Adrian is gone on work business, and it’s the first time we’ve been separated since we moved in together, so the daily rhythm that we’d begun to get accustomed to is suddenly gone. I’m not alone in the place, however; our cat, Hannah, is with me. Hannah is a tiny cat—in fact, her official nickname here is “Small One.”

I decided to take advantage of the quiet, and of Adrian’s library, by doing some reading and then some meditation. I picked up a book on alternatives to capitalism, a topic much in my mind of late. The theme dominated my thoughts as I tried to balance on my exercise ball and enter meditation.

I put the query out to the Spirit: “What would you want the economy to look like?”

And the Spirit answered, quite promptly: “Listen, and I’ll tell you.” So I listened. And the Spirit said:

“The great take care of the small.”

Ah, I thought. That makes sense—those with the greatest resources should take care of those with the least. Very Biblical, really. But how is that to be enforced? After all, there are many mechanisms in today’s society where the powerful and wealthy are supposed to look after the weak and poor, but too often they don’t seem to be doing it, or seem to do it so selectively that it’s not generally helpful for most people.

As I pondered this, a plaintive noise intruded on my thoughts. I looked down and saw the cat, trying to climb up into my lap. But since I was sitting on the exercise ball, I didn’t really have a lap, and Hannah was mewing with dismay. Oh, right, I realized. The great take care of the small. And here was the Small One, asking for some help. So I moved to the couch to generate a lap for her.

At first she decided she didn’t want it, after all, and roamed about the apartment for a bit—but before long she came back over and settled down, purring up a storm as we helped keep each other warm. Then the second piece of the lesson fell into place. “The great take care of the small” isn’t just an instruction—it’s a definition. If you don’t take care of others, you’re not great. Simple as that.

Which reminded me of many things: the idea of asking and giving rather than buying and selling; my thoughts on heaven and hell; how you get into heaven, according to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; the laborers in the vineyard; and the story, probably apocryphal but still containing much truth, of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to recite the whole of Hebrew Law while standing on one foot. Hillel promptly stood on one foot, recited “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), put his foot down, and said, “The rest is commentary.”

What should the economy look like, according to the Holy Spirit? One where people take care of each other. The rest is less critical.

Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

The Problem of Evil

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with a simple problem. If there is a god, then that god would have to be all-powerful and all-knowing; any limitations would make such a being less than divine. But if there is such a being, and that being is loving and merciful, then why do terrible events befall the world? Surely a powerful and loving god would step in and do something. I feel, however, that (with apologies to the Bard) “the fault is not in our gods, but in ourselves.” The worst evil and the darkest disaster, such as the storm that has just pounded the Philippines flat and left death and desolation in its wake, is not the fault of any god above, nor necessarily the fault of the lack of such a god, but due to our own inaction. Edmund Burke probably never said “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” But my point remains regardless. If there is evil in the world, it is because we allow it.

Longtime readers will remember, however, that I am not concerned with the proof of God. I will not try to prove the existence of the divine, nor will I try to argue against it. It is, quite simply, not my issue. I don’t care if God exists, though I believe that the Holy Spirit is real—God or not, my actions would be the same. So why am I, so resolutely dedicated to the here-and-now world, addressing a theological debate? I do so because there are real lessons in the discussion for believers and doubters alike. Continue reading

The Economy of Love in Action

I’ve spoken of the Economy of Love as if it were something to be done in the future. But when you look around, you can see hints of it already present. Friends, I encourage you to take these hints as inspiration and build on them.

From the menu of Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe, here in Seattle:

The Community Bowl: We created this bowl to allow those in financial need to have access to nutritive, organic food. Brown rice, black beans, mixed vegetables, tahini sauce and spiced sunflower seeds. Choice of orange or banana. Payment is by donation. No one is turned away. Suggested value is $7. Feed yourself and someone in need for $14 or more. Overage will be donated to a local food bank.”

An Open Letter to the Seattle Times

To the editors, the Times:

I will let Mr. Eaton speak for himself:

“We navigate our way uncomfortably among teenagers who occupy Westlake Park, hanging out with their pit bulls, backpacks and skateboards, lately with their babies, freely smoking their now-legal marijuana. With utter dismay we read the stories of random violence…

“Tragically, fear may lead to resentment of the poor and the helpless.”

Did none of you see the dissonance there?

I value the chance to read points of view different from my own in the Seattle Times, which is good, since you run so many of them. (Go on, print a pro-union piece, I dare you.)

But when you run a piece so obviously lacking in thought, it reflects poorly on the quality of the Times. Here’s a man whose heart is plainly in the right place, and yet is, with equal plainness, falling victim to one of the problems he’s deploring. I’ll give Mr. Eaton the benefit of the doubt and assume that no one pointed out the tinge of hypocrisy in his argument. But since you were presumably editing the piece and should have pointed out exactly that, this does mean that I can’t give you the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. Eaton again:

“I have no expertise in these complicated matters, only a love for this city, a care for the poor and a belief in the power of community… Maybe we start with the trashed flowerpot in front of Macy’s, the gum spots all over our streets or the camped-out teenagers; we begin with the little things.”

When a man can write that he “care[s] for the poor” and then, just a few paragraphs later, puts homeless teens on the level of trashed flowerpots and used chewing gum—when a man can profess love for his fellow humans and then calls them “things” in the next breath—I must be deeply skeptical of his words. And I must be even more skeptical of a newspaper which finds such words worth printing.

Sincerely,

Paul Christiansen

[Addendum: many readers of the editorial will observe other gaping flaws. I elected to stick to a single point in the letter itself, following Lincoln’s policy of giving ground on secondary issues while standing firm and prevailing on the crucial point. I do see Eaton’s lack of compassion, disguised as it is in compassionate language, as the key point. Any number of other issues could be raised with his flawed argument, however:

  • The “broken window” theory has been rather discredited
  • The Seattle Police Force clearly requires greater scrutiny at present, not less
  • Mr. Eaton seems to be demanding action about symptoms, not causes
  • If Seattle is a “broken city” then Detroit must be a war zone, and Mogadishu must be Hell itself
  • The Salvation Army is a great resource for the poor… unless you’re gay

Etc.]