Macrowave

Seeking Something Bigger

Nearly every semester I teach a course at the University of San Francisco on religion and ethics. I designed an investigative field project to serve as the centerpiece of that course.

Students must select one religious tradition, barring the one in which they were raised. Next, they select a single ethical issue as their lens. To illustrate, last semester a student raised in Buddhism elected to study the morality of euthanasia within Roman Catholicism. A Catholic student pursued the taboo on alcohol within Islam.

Students find the assignment intriguing. When it comes to religion, they value authenticity. Frankly, the students assume hypocrisy until proven otherwise. Their attitude arises not so much from intellectual cynicism as it does road weariness. Perhaps I can sum up their spiritual sensibility best in the form of a motto: Don’t make me a promise unless you plan to live up to it.

I place additional structure around the field investigation to ensure that students dig deep. They have to research how their selected religion has treated the ethical issue historically. Once they have a good handle on the past, they must visit at least one community ritual (for example, a worship service) and interview several members of the community. Then they compare how their field observations align with the religion’s tradition. Does the community follow its mainstream tradition or deviate from it in some way? Finally, I ask students to bring into the experience their own approach to the ethical issue.

The final class presentations are highly entertaining. And I am fascinated by the threads I detect woven through their conclusions:

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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Taking Global Warming to Church

Global warming is not an abstract, future crisis. Human beings generate ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, producing carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat and keep it from escaping into space.

Our earth has arrived at a tipping point, and our own generation bears witness to the impact.

That point is worth emphasizing. A Time/ABC News poll shows that only 44 percent of the U.S. public understands global warming as “a serious problem” today. About 54 percent identify it as “a problem for the future.”

To some degree, the mitigation of the crisis among the general public can be traced to a concerted campaign to sow doubt regarding the scientific validation of climate change. Lobby groups from the energy sector fund pseudo-research and ancillary public relations campaigns to promote the view that climate change is a “theory” that is highly contested in scientific circles. The journal Science, however, published in 2004 a survey of serious scientific studies addressing global warming. Of the 928 research studies that have been published on the subject in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, “none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position” that our atmosphere is getting warmer, and the phenomenon is a consequence of human activity.

This past April Paul Krugman published in his New York Times column a leaked memo that emerged from a 1998 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute. Those assembled—major oil companies and their industry lobbyists—laid out a strategy to offer “logistical and moral support” to individuals and groups that raise doubts about global warming, “thereby raising questions and undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific’ wisdom.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Katja's Story

Economists point to the fluidity of capital as a driving force in global markets. Capital respects no borders or nationalities. It flows wherever investment promises to deliver a handsome return.

Human beings, unfortunately, float—and sometimes drown—in its wake. I’ve met some of those characters.

Earlier this year I paid a visit to London and stayed in a hotel in the city center. I noticed one evening that the member of the hotel staff who served me a cup of tea in the lobby was clearly distraught. Her eyes betrayed a recent cry, and she was stumbling through her work. I asked after her well-being, and she answered quickly, “Life is terrible, but I can’t talk about it.” I let her be.

The next evening, as I was again relaxing in the lobby, Katja came over to my table to thank me for my concern the night before. She went on to share her remarkable story.

Katja is from Poland and had been in London for only eight months. She had to leave Poland for her own safety. The local mafia had murdered her father because he would not cooperate with a corruption racket they were running in Warsaw. She knew the identity of the man who pulled the trigger because he continued to threaten her family after the murder. Katja bravely turned him into the police and a high-profile court case ensued. She subsequently appeared on television many times to denounce the stranglehold that criminals and corrupt police officers had on Polish society.

Sadly, her efforts were like trying to slow a mighty stream with a single stone. Her father’s killer was found innocent, and the local mafia had her number. She fled to London and considers herself lucky to have found a job in an upscale hotel. Life is expensive in London, so Katja shares a flat with several other East European girls with whom she ekes out an existence.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2006
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The HIV Trade-Off

Karl Barth’s prescription for an engaged Christian is often quoted: Keep in one hand the Bible and in the other hand the daily newspaper. I tweak the advice of the famed Swiss theologian for my own discipline and keep in my newspaper hand copies of two highly regarded dailies: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Most folks read the news that reinforces their own point of view. Absorbing a steady diet of adversarial positions and the statistics that accompany them helps us to identify those idols closest to home.

That’s also why I keep up a subscription to Forbes, the magazine that proudly touts itself as a publication for “the world’s business leaders.” I was leafing through a copy of Forbes recently, and an article caught my eye: “Treating HIV Doesn’t Pay.” The tagline was equally jarring: “It is humane to pay for AIDS drugs in Africa, but it isn’t economical. The same dollars spent on prevention would save more lives.”

The piece penned by Emily Oster, a graduate student of economics at Harvard, applies an economic cost-benefit analysis to a serious social crisis. She pits pouring resources into antiretroviral therapy that may save individual lives against a preventative strategy that would arrest the spread of the epidemic.

Oster does a yeoman’s service by dispelling a widely held myth that AIDS has spread in Africa primarily due to the undisciplined exercise of libido—in simple terms, the idea that Africans have more sex and more sexual partners. While sexual behavior certainly plays into the AIDS epidemic in Africa (as it does everywhere), Oster points out that its transmission can be traced in large part to untreated infections such as gonorrhea and syphilis that create open sores and serve as a hotbed for HIV.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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Spinning Wal-Mart

Nearly two years have passed since the release of Saving the Corporate Soul. In my book I made a strong critique of Wal-Mart, particularly the way it mistreats its employees. At the time, Wal-Mart employees in 28 states were waging legal battle, accusing their bosses of cheating them out of overtime pay. In numerous independent incidents, supervisors ordered Wal-Mart workers to continue working after they had punched out on the time clock.

I recall two strong responses to this section of my book. Agents from Wal-Mart informed me that I had gravely misrepresented the facts and unfairly besmirched a proud company legacy. Social justice activists, on the other hand, let me know what a waste of time it was to apply business ethics with the likes of Wal-Mart. The retail giant, they said, was impervious to change.

A lot has happened in two years to change the terrain. Wal-Mart has come to terms with the fact that its public image is taking a nose dive. According to The New York Times, Wal-Mart hired a top-notch consultancy to gauge the consumer impact of its poor reputation. The results reportedly show that anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers have stopped visiting its retail stores due to “negative press they have heard.” That trend, along with the prospect of Robert Greenwald’s hard-hitting documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, reaching into a mass market, pushed Wal-Mart into a counteroffensive.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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The System is Broken

The System Is Broken

Health-care costs are killing Americans. Sadly, we lack the courage to swallow the bitter pill of radical reform.

No one is immune from this long-standing crisis, not even the church. The national newspaper The United Methodist Reporter ran a feature way back in 1990 detailing how health-care costs would overwhelm the financial operations of its denomination. Projecting the rate of rise of health-care insurance for United Methodist clergy, the Reporter showed that within a decade the cost of health care would outstrip the income received from the annual giving of what was then a 10-million-member global denomination.

In 2004, the Reporter followed up its investigation of 14 years earlier to determine whether it had overstated its case. Unfortunately, the projections were more-or-less on target. Although the United Methodist Church had developed a series of creative and often desperate means to keep its health-care costs under control—including wellness programs, cutting off high-risk clergy, and increasing the payment burden on its limited-income retired clergy, whose original work contract promised them paid health care in retirement—most annual conferences still find themselves in extreme distress over the cost of health care.

Surely you share distress over rising medical costs no matter where you work; that is, if your employer even covers your medical expenses.

Employer-sponsored health insurance is becoming an unbearable burden for employers, according to the annual health coverage survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. The report shows that premiums for job-based health insurance are rising 9.2 percent on average nationwide in 2005, about three times the general rate of inflation.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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Another Vietnam

This past May I spent two weeks in Vietnam.

This past May I spent two weeks in Vietnam. Each year I lead a group of university students on a trip to monitor the effects of globalization. Last year our destination was India, the year prior to that Peru.

My aim is to see firsthand if expanding global markets are creating increased opportunities for the world’s poor. My students and I study how economic markets are structured in a given country, and whether mechanisms in place will lead to economic growth for the many or affluence for the few.

We also focus on how political systems respond to changes in capital investment and new production. Finally, we take a close look at cultural and religious values and whether they are stable or lose their hold on individuals and families in a fast-changing society.

In that frame, Vietnam is the perfect laboratory. The country is one of the world’s few remaining communist political systems. For the past 30 years, both North and South have been united under one government. About five years ago, the Vietnamese government made a public commitment to capital free markets. Once disdained, foreign investment suddenly became a welcome friend; that is, as long as the investment was made in venture with a Vietnamese-based company.

The irony of Vietnam’s passage should not be lost on us. Chalk up another point for the futility of war. America sent its young men (and some women) to a far land, allegedly to arrest the spread of communism. The cost was high in human life, regardless of the color of the uniform. Lost in a quagmire, the United States began pulling its troops in the early 1970s and by mid-decade had conceded the South of Vietnam to the communists.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2005
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Forgive Us Our Debts

Based on recent developments in federal legislation,

Based on recent developments in federal legislation, I propose that we tweak the Lord’s Prayer uttered by American congregations each and every Sunday. The words "Give us our daily bread" are as relevant as ever. It’s the subsequent request that needs some updating: "Forgive us our debts, Lord, for surely no one on earth is willing to forgive them."

Debtors, you see, receive scant mercy in America today. Congress made sweeping changes to bankruptcy laws this past March, setting strict rules that block individuals from wiping out their debt.

Chapter 7 long has been a refuge for people who are so deep in debt they have no prayer of repaying what they owe. Under Chapter 7 standards, debtors turn over to the courts all but their essential assets (their shelter, for example, is off limits) in exchange for a clean start. But the new legislation dramatically narrows the gate to Chapter 7 protection, and pushes many debtors into Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead. In Chapter 13, debtors pay off their debt under a stringent schedule, and typically their wages are garnisheed well into the future.

No one wants to see irresponsible spenders rewarded, of course. If my neighbor buys plasma screen TVs and spends winters on a Caribbean isle, I don’t have much sympathy for his or her credit card woes. No question, financial discipline is in order for those individuals whose consumer appetites outpace their personal assets.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2005
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Use the Rod, Spoil the Child

Joey Salvati,

Joey Salvati, a father of two from New Kensington, Pennsylvania, wants to help you raise your children into moral, responsible, Christian adults. A carpenter by trade, Salvati has designed two wooden spanking paddles. You can choose which device better fits your needs at his Web site, Spare-rods.com. With the purchase of each paddle Salvati even throws in a guidebook detailing the number of swats each violation might merit: one for disrespectful behavior, two for cursing, three for cheating or lying. He offers advice for the demeanor of the parent as well: "Use [my paddles] lovingly and NEVER in anger."

"Spare the rod, spoil the child" has long been invoked by Christian parents as a foundation for proper child raising. The concept does indeed have a biblical grounding. The book of Proverbs instructs, "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him properly." Then again, the Old Testament suggests other guidelines for meting out punishment - stoning to death a woman caught having sex outside of marriage, for instance - that we today consider barbaric.

An evangelical justification for the physical discipline of children goes deeper than a few isolated verses in the Bible, however. Many evangelicals believe that because children are born with the stain of original sin, they cannot help but rebel against what is right and good. In other words, it is in the nature of children to do wrong. The threat (and practice) of pain, in this view, is the only tool that will steer children toward the good. James Dobson expresses the view well on the Focus on the Family Web site: "Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to the child because it is in harmony with nature itself."

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Sojourners Magazine April 2005
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What Price Security?

I am running a campaign to station the National Guard at all the grammar schools in my local area. Terrorists from Chechnya proved that our children are vulnerable to attack. On a fateful day last summer, they took hundreds of Russian children hostage, and a good number of the kids eventually died in the siege.

Hence, my campaign is not irrational. It involves positioning heavily armed soldiers at all entrances to our schools. I am also proposing a biometric security scan - fingerprint or retina ID will do - to screen all parents on file.

Of course I am not serious. But it is instructive to push boundaries in order to appreciate the balance that we must strike between security and paranoia. Terrorism is a real threat globally. It is not simply a manufactured bogeyman of the Bush administration, however much Bush & Co. aim to manipulate for their own political agenda the fears that terrorism evokes.

For that reason, we need to engage in a meaningful civic debate about what reasonable security measures would look like. On the other side of that coin, we ought to determine what civil rights and social routines we are unwilling to sacrifice regardless of increased vulnerability to acts of terror. For example, militarizing our schools, as above, offers maximum security, but it also shifts us toward an abnormal social life that most of us would deem unacceptable.

DONALD RUMSFELD must have received his training on civil liberties at the School of the Americas. The Pentagon chief is happy to push the boundaries, and he means it for real. In a late-2004 summit of the hemisphere's defense ministers, held in Quito, Ecuador, Rumsfeld opened his own campaign to reverse nearly two decades of democratic reform in Latin America. Though the summit went largely unreported in the U.S. media, we may look back at it in years to come as a significant political watershed for the region.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2005
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