Commentary

Save Lives? Yes, You Can.

I am one of the lucky ones. Every few months I travel to Zambia and meet people who are dealing with AIDS. If that seems contradictory, let me explain: Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries now receive drugs that have saved their lives and brought hope to their communities. Instead of seeing people being carried to the clinics, emaciated and weak, I see relatively healthy patients walking to the pharmacy to receive their next month’s supply of medicine. I see men and women who are able to work and care for their children. I see children who are uninfected, thanks to prenatal intervention, or who know that, although they will always be HIV-positive, it is not a death sentence.

Since the start of PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) five years ago, more than 2 million people have received treatment; millions more pregnant women have been tested and treated to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus. While other countries have also been involved, the U.S. response has been most significant.

Organizations such as World Vision, Food for the Hungry, and Compassion International have also been on the forefront of the work. The Roman Catholic, Christ­ian Reform, Nazarene, and Metho­dist churches, among many others, have all played significant roles.

The change in the last few years is amazing. No longer do funeral processions dominate the roads or lines form for blocks outside clinics. And perhaps most surprising to me is how I, as a U.S. citizen, am treated. Wherever I go, people tell me, “Please thank the American people for sending us the drugs that save our lives.”

I pass on the thanks to you, to the Bush administration, and to Congress, as well as all the churches and nonprofits who have worked tirelessly to provide help to those they may never meet. But I also offer you a challenge.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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The Path to Peace

The recent trend in Middle East wars is that they are short, brutish, and nasty—and they accomplish little of the ostensible goals for either side.

Israel’s shock-and-awe campaign this winter—aimed at Hamas militants who have been firing missiles into southern Israeli towns, but inflicted mostly on civilian bystanders—is the latest example. Over 22 days, the U.S.-backed Israel Defense Forces, one of the most powerful, state-of-the-art militaries in the world, pummeled the heavily urban Gaza Strip. More than 1,200 Palestinians died and more than 4,000 were injured, many of them noncombatants. Four Israeli civilians were killed by the Hamas rockets.

Almost 300 children in Gaza were killed by the Israeli attacks, and more than 1,000 were injured. Many of rest, according to reports, are severely traumatized—and convinced that violent resistance is the only option for their future.

“If your parents can’t give you safety, kids will look to others who can,” a Gazan psychologist told The Washington Post. “They’re going to want to play the role of the fighter. So the Israeli government is really creating its own enemy.”

If Israel sought to undermine support for Hamas, it failed. Instead, the carnage has helped to beget the next generation of extremists in the battle that seems to have no end.

THE ISRAEL-PALESTINE CONFLICT is complex and difficult not only for the people directly involved. It’s also a challenge for those committed to peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution, in the region and elsewhere. Israel-based groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions have long worked, in the face of much heated opposition, for a just, secure peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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Green Justice

President Obama is walking into some large problems—including war, climate change, and poverty here and abroad—which he had very little to do with, but is still expected to fix. Climate change is one that some might suppose becomes less important during an economic downturn. In fact, the opposite is true: We can use this pivotal time to reduce our carbon emissions and our poverty emissions.

We can do this together and do it well, and the socio-economic benefits will ripple through all aspects of our civic responsibilities. This isn’t even about spending more money; it’s about spending the same amount of dollars in a more intelligent way.

I started the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program in 2003 to create a skilled green-collar workforce with both a personal and financial stake in environmental management. With each successive graduating class, more people come off welfare and clean the environment at the same time. Graduates learn green-roof installation, urban forestry skills, wetland and brownfield restoration, and important life skills that help them keep the jobs they get.

Communities like the South Bronx are everywhere. And it turns out that the same activities that cause global warming also negatively affect people’s health and quality of life—and cost a lot of money to support. Burning or extracting coal and oil and hauling waste and consumer goods with diesel trucks on congested roads cause problems for the people who live nearby.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2009
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It's the Equality, Stupid

... that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. —Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945)

Have we learned the lessons of the Great Depression now?

We are once again, in Tennessee Williams’ memorable image, having our “fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” And the reason is that many of us have, once again, “failed our eyes.”

The lessons taught to the socially and economically sight-impaired in the 1930s have been forgotten or willfully denied, producing conditions in the present decade very much like those in the 1920s that led to the Great Depression. In the ’20s, as in recent years, tax cuts for the rich, in combination with anti-union practices and a lack of regulation of markets, yielded increasing wealth inequality. The extreme gap between rich and poor meant that more money went into speculation (by the rich) rather than consumption (by everyone); consumption is what keeps the economy healthy. Mass consumption and the economy were propped up, but only temporarily, with an unsustainable amount of consumer credit—until the speculation bubble burst and the credit ran out in 1929.

Who most completely failed their eyes? Who are those responsible for creating the conditions that led to the economic meltdown that began in September?

Fundamentalists.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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'The Peace that God Gives'

Do you know the definition of a pessimist?” asks Afif Safieh, head of the PLO delegation to the U.S. He answers with a bitter smile, “An optimist with information.” There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism arising from the peace talks restarted at last November’s Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, and from President Bush’s January visit to Israel and Palestine.

It must surely be progress that, at Annapolis, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to meet every two weeks to continue their high-level diplomacy. And in January, during his first visit to Israel and Palestine, Bush surprised just about everyone by insisting, “These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent. ... Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties.” Bush optimistically said he believes the two sides will be able to sign an agreement before he leaves office in January 2009.

However, as long as the U.S. follows a unilateral approach, hinders the work of the United Nations, and funds the Israeli occupation of Palestine, there is little hope of achieving anything. As Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes points out, while both sides have an equal right to peace and security, “there is a grossly unequal balance of power between the occupied Palestinians and the occupying Israelis.”

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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