IT'S A WARM September morning, and roughly 20 women are gathered in a women-only coworking space in Brooklyn. After brief introductions, a poem honoring the first month of the Muslim calendar, and a hymn from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (widely known as the Mormon church), Abby Stein speaks about the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days.
Stein grew up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community and was assigned to be male at birth. From a young age, she says, she knew she was a girl, but didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what she was feeling. Gender roles were so strict in her community that, according to Stein, the concept of being gay or transgender simply didn’t exist.
“Forget separate roles,” Stein tells me. “Men and women aren’t even supposed to interact.”
For several years beginning when she was 9, Stein prayed every night that God would make her a girl while she slept. She began questioning her belief in God: “How can I trust my parents and teachers about something as big as God and religion that touches our entire lives when they could be mistaken about something so existential as who I am?”
Stein got married, was ordained as a rabbi, and had a son. But by her early 20s, it wasn’t working. She watched YouTube to learn English (she’d previously spoken only Yiddish and Hebrew), studied for her GED, and eventually left the community. She came out as transgender while an undergraduate at Columbia University and is now an activist in both transgender and formerly Orthodox communities.
Stein has found a new home in several LGBTQ-inclusive Jewish spaces, but she finds them limiting. “All of these communities, even the ones as progressive as they are, they still follow a very set tradition,” she says. At the September gathering, Stein discusses the biblical story of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, who share a deep love that some consider romantic. “If you ask me,” says Stein, with a half-joking grin, “everyone in the Bible is queer.”
Things are different at Sacred Space, a multifaith gathering that meets on the first Sunday of every month. The gathering is both a refuge for women who have left their religious traditions and a seminar for those who still hope to change their faith communities from within. No one religion is playing host. Everyone is welcome to bring their own traditions; only sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of exclusion are off the table.
WHEN I TOLD my oldest son I was writing about universal basic income (UBI), he said, “All I know is that the Silicon Valley guys are pushing it, so it must be bad.” And he had a point. UBI has entered U.S. political debate most prominently as Silicon Valley’s favorite solution to a problem mostly of its own creation—massive permanent job loss due to artificial intelligence and robotics.
Under a universal basic income policy, all U.S. citizens would receive from the government a regular, permanent payment of, say, $1,000 per month, regardless of their other income or employment status. It wouldn’t get rid of the grotesque income inequality in the U.S. In fact, it wouldn’t even guarantee each person a decent standard of living. But it would get everyone up to the official poverty level.
Tech industry UBI proponents include Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla founder Elon Musk, and Amazon kingpin Jeff Bezos. But the idea is most identified with former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who made it the defining issue of his long-shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Still, UBI is an idea much older and bigger than any of its shadier supporters. While the term “universal basic income” is of fairly recent coinage, the idea that every human deserves some share of the earth’s bounty is an old one. In 1797, one of America’s founding philosophes, Thomas Paine, wrote that “the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.” But, Paine continued, “the system of landed property ... has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.”
Paine proposed a single payment at the attainment of adulthood as compensation for the loss of our natural right to the earth. Paine was echoing the ideas of some of the earliest Christian teachers, including St. Ambrose (340-397 C.E.), who wrote: “God has ordered all things ... so that there should be food in common to all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few.”
So universal basic income is not just the latest Silicon Valley fad. It’s rooted in an understanding of the origins of wealth and of our obligations to each other that is consistent with both our democratic and religious traditions.
But that still leaves plenty of room for debate about whether UBI is the right solution for America’s most pressing social and economic woes.
How Would UBI Work?
ECONOMIC DEBATE OVER the past 50 years has offered a variety of UBI-type proposals, from Richard Nixon’s negative income tax to the social wealth dividend proposed by some contemporary democratic socialists. The best-known and most-debated current UBI plan is the one proposed by the Yang campaign. This version of UBI rests on three pillars:
First, it is “universal.” Everyone gets it, without conditions—from Warren Buffett down to the apparently able-bodied guy with the “Please Help” sign at the exit ramp. That, of course, raises the first blizzard of objections. Why give money to rich people who don’t need it or purportedly irresponsible people who might waste it?
Paying for UBI would almost certainly involve new taxes on the wealthy, so Warren Buffett wouldn’t be keeping his $1,000 per month. As to the fear of aiding the “undeserving poor,” it’s true that historically most of the meager social benefits offered in the U.S. are means-tested (for those with the very lowest incomes) and conditional upon some form of good behavior (hours worked, clean drug tests, etc.). This has helped create a culture that stigmatizes public benefits as “welfare” and brands beneficiaries as, if not sinful, at least defective.
HANNAH ARENDT SAID we can ask of life, even in the darkest of times, a “redemptive element,” and art can be that—an affirmation of right, light, truth, some beleaguered beauty. But note well: Art is no escape from the problems of the world but, rather, a repurposing, a resistance. And, of course, this phenomenon of violence into art can go both ways. Michelangelo’s bronzes, including his colossal papal statue of Pope Julius II, were melted down into cannons and other weapons during the French Revolution. It’s our choice.
Here are four artists who chose to turn trauma—civil war, natural disasters, apartheid, and female genital mutilation—into sights to behold.
Ralph Ziman, South Africa
Designed and put into service in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the so-called Casspir, a mine-resistant and ambush-protected vehicle, has been subverted. Says South African artist Ralph Ziman: “The Africanization of the Casspir seemed to take away the terror it once evoked ... people felt comfortable to approach it, touch it, and share their stories and memories.” He elaborates on his intention: “To make this weapon of war, this ultimate symbol of oppressing ... to reclaim it, to own it, make it African, make it beautiful, make it shine.”
Born in South Africa in 1963, Ziman grew up in a strict system of institutionalized racial segregation and political and economic discrimination—“apartheid,” which translates in Afrikaans to “apartness.”
“I have vivid memories,” he says of his first sighting of a Casspir. It was April 1993. Charismatic leader Chris Hani had been gunned down outside his house in a Johannesburg suburb by a white nationalist. The artist drove to the funeral and saw columns of Casspirs descending the dusty streets; heavily armed police fired tear gas, shotguns, and automatic weapons. More of the same occurred the next day in Soweto, where police and army units parked their Casspirs along the highway and exchanged gunfire with members of the African National Congress. “Tear gas and smoke burned our eyes and into our memories, along with the sight of armed men on the Casspirs ... for me, covering this beast with beads is catharsis,” says Ziman.
INSPIRATION AND ENCOURAGEMENT can come from many places. For some, they’re found in a lifetime of work from a literary giant. For others, they emerge, unexpectedly, from an indomitable 16-year-old prophet with preternatural vision and determination. And many of us are heartened, and challenged to see differently, by the inspired imagination of artists—from a poet who urges us to “discover the truth of wonder and rejoice in the silent voice of God” (p. 39) to creatives around the world who transform the tools of trauma into affirmations of healing, redemption, and resistance.
Blessed Are the Merciful
In Clemency, Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden preparing to oversee her 12th execution. Viewers enter Williams’ mind as she grapples with executing another prisoner. A film with emotional weight and pertinent themes, Clemency raises important questions.
BECAUSE OF PRESIDENT Trump's order to increase tariffs on imports, Christmas shopping this year could be more frenzied than usual. That last shipment of Chinese-made items is selling fast at Walmart, so you’ve got to shove your shopping cart into the fray if you want to preserve our constitutional right to low prices. Not to complain about Trump’s attempts to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., of course. We look forward to our factory smokestacks once again belching the sweet soot of freedom, but it probably won’t be in time for Black Friday.
I got a jump on shopping this year by buying that new acupuncture cell phone app. Just released, it’s really [ow!] great, although you have to [ow!] hold it just right or [ow!] it doesn’t work. Okay there ... that pressure point ... No more neck pain. Unless I get a phone call [ow!]. “Hello?” [ow!]
We’re especially looking forward to the holidays this year, since getting to Christmas means we made it past Thanksgiving, when for the first time in history the president declined to pardon the White House turkey and, instead—at the urging of adviser Stephen Miller—cooked it and its entire family.
WE ARE LIVING in a moment of ruptured imagination brought on by the growing specter of deadly violence, which has triggered in many a crisis of faith. But these lectionary readings say to Christians, “Wait a minute, not so fast!” A promise-bearing deliverer has come to topple competing kingdoms and bring distress to wielders of death. Matthew’s message is, “Keep awake.” And the prayerful petitions of the psalms outline the marks of righteous governance: defending the poor, giving deliverance to the needy, and crushing the oppressor (Psalm 72:4).
Salvation comes in the form of a child and angels act as divine emissaries—quieting fear in one instance and stirring up disquiet in the hearts of others (Matthew 2). Were it not for an angel allaying Joseph’s fear about Jesus’ atypical paternity, life as a teenage single parent would have been Mary’s lot. Had an angel not appeared to Joseph in a dream urging him to flee to Egypt, or had a dream not disrupted the course of the Magi warning them to not return to Herod, the scriptural record would have unfolded very differently.
The promise of coming joy and peace reveals much more than incarnational presence. Jesus’ coming brings to our expectant minds the essential nature of a God who wields love and salvation. God always provides a way to secure such provisions. Angelic envoys, as Matthew narrates, stand ready to do God’s bidding.
WISDOM RARELY SURPRISES. More rarely does it shock or scandalize. Yet, with The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, aims to do both.
He starts with the Incarnation. Was it a startling, once-in-eternity event that explains Jesus Christ’s holiness? Rohr suggests instead that the Incarnation is the fundamental pattern for all creation. We live within, and are ourselves a party to, this ongoing incarnation—people, pets, and poppy seeds alike. Nothing lacks the divine impress. In this worldview, “a mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone.”
To underscore this view, Rohr provocatively disentangles the modifier “Christ” from “Jesus.” He reserves “Jesus” for Jesus of Nazareth. “Christ” is for the Divine Presence that has existed in all things since creation, both before and after Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated total, unrelenting acceptance of the divine.
IT HAPPENS TO just about all of us who, in our early adulthood, commit ourselves to a life of globally conscious idealism. We run off to join a cause, maybe commit to a volunteer project for a year or two, come home, and find ourselves overwhelmed by how to create lasting change in a broken world.
Christian writers Jim and Linda Hunt struggled with this question in 1998, not so much as young people but as middle-age adults, after their daughter Krista perished in an accident in Bolivia. Krista and her husband Aaron were three years into their marriage and six months into a three-year service project teaching literacy and microenterprise with the Mennonite Central Committee, when the bus they were in plunged off a ravine.
IN THE ADJUNCT UNDERCLASS, Herb Childress addresses a pressing issue of justice in higher education: the mistreatment of more than half the nation’s college instructors. Childress explores the making of adjuncts—contract workers (like rideshare drivers) who teach on a class-by-class basis, earning a fixed rate that is less than half what a “full-time” professor would make for the same work. Most receive no benefits and no assurance of future classes.
After a boom in college attendance 20 years ago and the foolish assumption that population growth and a robust economy were constants, the higher education system is scrambling to make up for greedy mistakes. The price for those mistakes is being paid by teachers, who should be concerned about educating students, not struggling for survival on subsistence wages. And so the real cost is to education itself.
The Adjunct Underclass is masterfully written and thorough, covering budgets, expansion, accreditation, hiring, and the ambivalence of tenured faculty. Adjuncts offer horror stories of scraping by while waiting on empty promises of an established position. These stories demand moral outrage.
A YOUNG WOMAN armored in her blazer, caffeinated and tethered to the phone line of a Manhattan hedge fund, hardly seems the optimal audience for an artist whose work hinges on stillness and contemplation. And yet—if you saw an enormous book of James Turrell’s installations perched on your desk, how could you not open it?
That was my reasoning as I re-encountered Turrell’s oeuvre, third cappuccino in hand. I didn’t know it then, but Turrell’s artistic framework would provide a new way to think about New York City. More specifically, his clarity of vision vis-à-vis light and space stands in contrast to a city replete with people the critic John Berger describes as “resigned to being betrayed daily by their own hopes.”
The city that allegedly never sleeps is wonderful in many ways, but by the end of my tenure there I was increasingly overwhelmed by the hustle, noise, and collective anxiety around, well, everything. Temping at a capital investment firm, while a welcome paycheck, was not my idea of meaningful work, and sitting like a bird in a glass tower, detached from the people below, even less so. Reaching for Turrell’s book, which was likely deemed politically neutral enough for an office setting, was an act of desperation and belief that I could still be surprised, awed even. And I was.
TERRENCE MALICK HAS long been associated with spirituality. The director’s philosophy background, poetic style, and love of nature results in art that urges viewers to engage deeply with the world: Ask difficult questions, doubt, and believe.
But A Hidden Life, Malick’s latest, may be the most faith-oriented film yet from the director of The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line. Through the story of World War II-era martyr Franz Jägerstätter, Malick explores what it means to wrestle with Christian conscience during rising xenophobia and violence. Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) was an Austrian farmer executed for refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler. For Malick’s purposes, he becomes an audience surrogate as he encounters his community’s reactions to the Third Reich, and later a Christ figure.
Malick spends significant time establishing the beauty of Jägerstätter’s life before the war. We’re given glimpses of his village and farm, witness romantic moments with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and fall in love with them and their home.
IN 1948, A HERMIT was made known to the world by another hermit. Like many Christian holy men, the Jewish-born Catholic contemplative and poet Robert Lax had his early spirituality enshrined in a book: The Seven Storey Mountain, the bestselling autobiography authored by his friend, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
“He had a mind naturally disposed from the very cradle to a kind of affinity for Job and St. John of the Cross,” Merton wrote about Lax. “And I now know that he was born so much of a contemplative that he will probably never be able to find out how much.”
Better known to many for what was written about him than for what he wrote (and he wrote a lot), Lax, who died in 2000 at age 84, wanted, according to his archivist Paul Spaeth, “to put himself in a place where grace can flow.” For Lax in the 1940s, New York City was not such a place. Though he worked with the poor at Baroness Catherine de Hueck’s Friendship House in Harlem, and had enjoyed jazz with Merton, he balked at the gaspingly fast pace and materialism of the city. He was also unhappily employed at The New Yorker.
“MY SHIFT ACTUALLY starts at 6:30 a.m., but I punch in at 6:25, get my coffee, and then we have a thing called ‘stand up’ where the managers talk about safety, what they expect for the day, and building announcements. They try to motivate people to pick faster. And then you’ll go to your station and you’ll start your job. In my case, it’s picking.
The screens display which item I need to pick out of a particular bin, and I’ll pick that item and put it in the yellow tote. Once the tote is full enough, I’ll set it down and replace it with another tote. That’s pretty much what I do for my whole 10-and-a-half-hour shift.
We get a 30-minute break at 10 a.m., after four and a half hours. Our next break is from 1:30 p.m. until 2. And then we work until 5 p.m. Yesterday I picked 1,300 items the first period. Second period I picked over 900 items.
EACH WEEK IN my immigration-literature graduate seminar, we examine one book that focuses on the immigrant experience. So far, we have read about Norwegian, Italian, and Japanese experiences. Our upcoming texts center the experiences of Polish Jews, Koreans, Nigerians, Senegalese, Mexicans, and Muslims, among many others. Faith plays a central role in each book we’ve read so far, both fiction and nonfiction. In each text, the matriarch of the family brings the faith of her mother country into the United States. The matriarchs are themselves the texts for the survival of the faith in these families.
In my family, my grandmother was the compass for our faith traditions. We grew up Catholic and later became nondenominational. We explored many expressions of faith before we found one that fit. As a family, we retained many of our Catholic traditions, because they are woven into who we are. It’s a complicated relationship, and one that we greatly value.
SINCE MOST OF AMERICA seems to wake up most days looking for something to be outraged by, I try to keep my indignation in check. Still, the news that members of North America’s Hymn Society had chosen “Holy, Holy, Holy!” as the greatest hymn of all time—beating “Amazing Grace” in an early round by a 70-30 margin—struck me as an affront to all that is good and, well, holy. Sure, who doesn’t like singing a resonant Anglican ode to the tenets of trinitarian theology? But up against “Amazing Grace”? C’mon, now.
I’m actually a little used to this kind of hymnal-based resentment, because some years ago denominations began actually removing one of my great favorites, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” As the head of the Episcopalian hymnal committee put it, James Russell Lowell’s great poem, written at the height of the crisis over slavery, was unorthodox because “its basic premise denies the fact that God repeatedly forgives his people and gives them more than one opportunity to amend their lives.”
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I have spoken out more times than I can count under the literal and metaphorical banner of “Silence Is Violence,” my voice growing louder and louder in the past several years.
Yet recently, on one matter, I found myself having fewer words, not more. Gun violence rendered me mute.
The death counts that rise in real time. The fact that before we have comprehended one shooting, another has occurred. The relativizing of value and shifting calculus of loss we have begun to accommodate this “new normal.” The reality—contrary to what one would think based on media attention and political rhetoric—that mass shootings account for less than 2 percent of U.S. gun violence (suicides, by contrast, account for nearly 66 percent).
EVERY EMPIRE IN human history has used the tactics of fear. This fear is evident in the fact that for generations a dark skin hue has automatically made a person at best suspect, at worst a criminal. The empire identifies those whose language and nationality are different as less than human. Dehumanization becomes a tool to justify heinous laws, promoting them as necessary to protect citizens from a horde of savages, criminals, rapists, thugs, or whatever new word is used to instill fear.
Our sacred texts tell the stories of emperors, rulers, and pharaohs who justified mass extermination to maintain power. Herod the Great is one example. Herod was a ruler so deranged and paranoid about losing power that he had his wife, brother-in-law, and three sons murdered to wipe away any trace of royal blood who might challenge his throne.
It is under Herod’s rule that we encounter the revolutionary words of Mary as she proclaims her song of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). For generations, Christians have reduced the Magnificat to a simplistic, spiritual song from a docile, obedient girl chosen by God. The political undertones and demands for justice against rulers and laws that oppress God’s people are rarely elevated.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, I was driving from Peterborough, Ontario, to my home at Six Nations Reserve. The route took me through the traditional homelands of the Anishinaabe.
I began to feel and smell the spirit of the ancestors. On the right were farmlands; on the left, townhouses. In the distance, I could see the metropolis of Toronto. This is where Anishinaabe walked, hunted, gathered, and lived for years before first contact with Europeans. When the settlers came, they built structures to suit their needs. They took over the land by force, trickery, and other means. The concept of buying and selling land is absent from the Indigenous way of life. You cannot sell what the Creator has given you.
Many churches in Canada were built on Indigenous land, first by the Church of England and then the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). Six Anglican churches were built on the Six Nations where I live. They are a part of my Anglican history; I can trace my Anglican roots to the early 1700s. It is a rich history. And complicated.