economic inequality

Prophetic or a Burden? The Dilemma of Divinity School

Image via Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Image via /Shutterstock

Recently I experienced a wave of frustration related to my student loan debt. This happens from time to time, and really anything can set it off. Debt is stressful, as most of us are aware. Before I dive in, though, I’ve got to say that I’m more fortunate than many; I’ve been able to steadily pay on my debt for a while now. It’s still sizable enough to haunt me, but at least it isn’t a Poltergeist-style terror. That’s not insignificant.

Nothing so far is unique. Thousands of former students are dealing with the exact same thing, though in varying levels of distress or ease. What makes it slightly different is what degree I went into debt for.

I received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School. So we’re talking about 1) a graduate degree, as opposed to a bachelor’s, which is widely regarded as necessary in this country to participate in the job market; and 2) a professional degree, meant to lead to practical ministerial work for the social good.

Reaching Across the Divide

Image via urbanbuzz/Shutterstock

Image via /Shutterstock

I was raised in Atlanta during the heyday of the civil rights era. I went to high school with some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children. And I didn’t know there was a racial problem in my city. Because for me and my people there wasn’t. It was somebody else’s problem. Across town. Somewhere else.

The black maids and gardeners rode a tidal wave into my white neighborhood each morning, tended babies, fried chicken, and manicured lawns. And then the tide washed them back out again. We didn’t often ask where they landed for the night and whether it was as sumptuous as our digs, or whether their neighborhoods were even safe. We just dropped our bath towels on the floor and figured that somebody would pick them up again in the morning. Life was good.

From the remove of 40 years and 600 miles, I see it differently. But it took more than time and distance to reckon with my own cluelessness about race. It took what it always takes for barriers to fall between “us” and “them” — getting to know some of “them.” I’ve gotten as far as being able to name that I am on one side of many different divides, including the dinner counter at the Mission, and I’m usually on the less-shitty side. And it’s through no merit of my own. In fact it’s where people like me, white and privileged, have long been and have little questioned.

Engaging the Powers: The Promise of a New Civil Rights Era

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street gathering in 2012, gabriel12 / Shutterstock.com

In the past few years, a new era of civil rights organizing has emerged out of the depths of tragedy and despair. The list of names of young African Americans who have died at the hand of police, out-of-control vigilantes, and hate-filled white terrorists has fostered profound lament and intense anger. The simple phrase, “Black Lives Matter” has galvanized activism, mobilizing, and organizing.

This new civil rights battle includes legislative battles at state houses like South Carolina, leading to the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds. There is work to do in D.C. as well. Yet the real front of this new era will be on the corporate scene, on Wall Street and with economic power brokers and corporations. It is time to go “over the heads” of politicians and enter into dialogue and debate with corporations over the value and dignity of dark bodies, and how to reconstruct a moral economy that is not profiting off of people of color.

Celebrate Resurrection by Selling All Your Possessions

Photo via art4all / Shutterstock.com

Photo via art4all / Shutterstock.com

Inequality is a relentless blight. The hopelessness too often engendered when a lack of resources aligns with insufficient educational access, the easy prejudice of one's neighbors, and the ubiquity of oppression is dehumanizing and crushing.

In recent days, much of our political discourse has focused — at least in words — on economic inequality. From the left and right alike, laments arise about the shrinking of the middle class and the widening and yawning gap growing between those who are thriving in a rebounding economy and those left behind by a rising Dow.

The next presidential campaign will likely be dominated by questions of economic justice and the American promise that hard work and perseverance can yield a better life. Is this dream a myth or reality? How we answer this question will say much about our hope in the future, our trust in one another, our faith in a God who promises life abundant, though an abundance that comes in a form we might not expect.

A New Voice Against the Corrupting Influence of Money in Elections

The United States made from a $1 bill. Image via AuntSpray/shutterstock.com

The United States made from a $1 bill. Image via AuntSpray/shutterstock.com

The movement to give every American an equal say in the government decisions that affect our lives gained a “great new ally with a worldwide voice” last week. I’m referring of course to Pope Francis, who when speaking to an Argentine magazine said, "We must achieve a free sort of election campaign, not financed. Because many interests come into play in financing of an election campaign and then they ask you to pay back."

The Pope is a welcome addition to the growing national movement in the United States that aims to refocus government on fulfilling the needs and concerns of everyday voters, not on granting special favors to big campaign donors. In his first two years since inauguration, Pope Francis has dedicated his papacy to addressing the staggering economic inequality tearing lives apart here in the U.S. and around the world.

His statement on how we finance elections is not a deviation from that mission. It is an acknowledgement that a functioning democracy and economic fairness are two sides of the same coin. For years political leaders have perpetuated a vicious cycle of economic inequality begetting political inequality, and vice versa. The policy levers we pull must reverse this system to create a virtuous cycle of greater economic prosperity and freedom begetting greater political equality.

Pope Francis understands this, and so too do a growing number of religious communities organizing to tackle the problem of money in elections. The Franciscan Action Network, the organization that I direct, leads a coalition of 18 national faith organizations urging the U.S. Congress and President to take steps to reduce the corrupting influence of money in elections. Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Muslims, Quakers, Mennonites, Disciples, and several Catholic organizations and religious orders have joined with others to call out their shared teachings about integrity and honesty, and their belief that a democratic country should actually adhere to democratic practices.

A variety of faith traditions have joined in our call for a constitutional amendment to curtail the role of money in politics. In the sacred texts and writing representing each of our spiritual traditions we find stories warning us about the evils of worshiping money.

In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud states, “A mitzvah is better done personally than done via agent.” 

In the Christian tradition, the Gospel of Mathew tells us, “You cannot serve both God and money.”

These warnings are found throughout all faith traditions.

We applaud the Pope’s efforts in this struggle and encourage him to amplify his call for a more representative system for funding elections when he addresses Congress in September. After all, the American system is a prime example for the world of how not to fund elections. The rise of super PACs and outside political groups have given the billionaire class ever more power to bankroll the election campaigns of our elected leaders. 

Weekly Wrap 3.13.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. SAE, White Thugs, and American Traditions

"I am neither angry nor surprised by these white extremists getting caught doing what white extremists do. This is American tradition. These are the words embedded in the psyches of these white fraternity brothers before they can even speak."

2. This Is What A Little Over A Year Of Religious Women Breaking Down Barriers Looks Like

In honor of Women’s History Month, check out who made this list of top religious women upholding full gender equality.

3. Resisting ISIS

“The global response must be multifaceted. Still, as the international anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States considers nonmilitary options to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, it should focus on empowering local civil society in Syria and Iraq with targeted resources, technologies, and knowledge to build resilience and deny ISIS the moral and material support it needs to wield effective control.”

4. The Conservative Obsession with Moral Values Doesn’t Explain the Plight of the Working Poor

Research on both sides of the aisle has confirmed a quiet crisis in American life: over the last few decades, the social fabric of the poor and working class has come apart at the seams. ...A vocal cadre of conservatives have cohered around a theory of what happened: the post-1960s turn away from traditional moral values. But like any theory, it must fit the available data and it must be internally consistent. This one fails on both counts.”

5. How a Woman Learns to Talk

These things have been silenced: the tremendous spiritual power of sexuality, menstruation, breastfeeding, and birth; the shame-map of internalized emotional violence that holds these powers in check; the capacity — and obligation — of Gospel love to dissolve the boundaries of gender. ...To tell these things has been imund, forbidden. If you tell these things, you may be held responsible for all the feelings of all the people who are shaken in their boots by what you say.”

6. Becoming Jihadi John: How Did Mohammed Emwazi Go from Mild Youth to Islamic State Executioner?

Politico magazine traces the roots of the British man’s transformation to ISIS executioner, examining the difference between ideology-based and poverty-driven extremism.  

7. Nicaragua's Renewable Energy Revolution Picks Up Steam

“Renewables now generate nearly half of Nicaragua's electricity, a figure that government officials predict could rise to 80 percent within a few years. That compares to just 13 percent in the United States.”

8. How We’re Failing Syria

Twenty-one aid organizations released a report this week detailing the increasing violence, impoverishment, and despair of the Syrian people. It cites, “Huge increases in the number of people in need of humanitarian aid inside Syria; 1.33 million more children are in need and there has been a 31 percent increase among the population as a whole.”

9. Disturbing Fast Food Truth Not Exactly A Game-Changer For Impoverished Single Mom Of 3

The Onion’s satire nails the complicated tensions of food and poverty in the U.S. 

10. WATCH: Mean Tweets: Obama Edition

President Obama joined in on a Jimmy Kimmel classic bit on Thursday, reading aloud a handful of “mean tweets” aimed at him.​

What Can We Expect from Pope Francis' Address to Congress?

Pope Francis in October in St. Peter's Square. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.

Pope Francis in October in St. Peter's Square. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

The Francis Revolution is crossing the Atlantic and coming to the heart of the nation’s Capitol. News broke yesterday that Pope Francis has accepted Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a rare joint session of Congress during his upcoming trip to the United States on Sept. 24.

This is the first time that a pope has addressed Congress and provides a world-class opportunity for the Holy Father to lift up the Gospel’s social justice message to the most powerful legislative body in the world.

So what will the Jesuit from Argentina talk about? Studying his nearly two-year tenure as the Bishop of Rome suggests that Pope Francis will focus particularly on the scandal of inequality and exclusion.

Last April, Pope Francis tweeted that “inequality is the root of all social evil.” The seven-word tweet caused an uproar in American media, but the truth is that Francis had been saying the same thing for years. In his 2013 letter Joy of the Gospel, Francis wrote “just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

With reports last fall suggesting that economic inequality in the United States is at its highest levels since the Great Depression, Pope Francis will likely call on our elected leaders to transform our economy into one where no one is left behind.

Who's in Control?

Peerayot / Shutterstock.com

Peerayot / Shutterstock.com

I just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is held each year. Leaders from business, government, and civil society all gather here to engage each other, make connections, and, hopefully, make progress on the mission statement of the WEF: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.”

I reflected on that mission statement last year in my remarks to all the attendees at the event’s closing session. I said the deeper meaning of leadership is sacrifice and not just skills — and that the most included people on the planet who were sitting in that famous Congress Hall will be morally evaluated by their relationship to the most excluded, who, of course, are never in that grand auditorium. Many individual leaders in attendance wanted to discuss that challenge further, and those conversations continued this year.

One session this year that drew many people off site was called “Struggle for Survival” — an intense simulation of how 3 billion people in our world actually live each day. Half of the global population exists on less than $2 per day. Run by the Crossroads Foundation, Struggle for Survival was a much more emotional experience than the rest of the sessions at Davos.

My wife, Joy, and I participated in this simulation, and the people running it told us that several CEOs seemed quite affected by the very powerful dramatization of real-world injustice and poverty. It took people out of their heads into stunning revelations of how the excluded really live, prompting feelings of guilt, pain, anger, empathy, and compassion — and then a call to commitment.

State of the Union and Inequality: What Are You Going to Do Now?

durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.

The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."

Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

The Roman Colosseum, S-F / Shutterstock.com

The Roman Colosseum, S-F / Shutterstock.com

Last week I spent a few days in Rome with, among others, Tony Jones. As someone who hasn’t ever been to Rome, it was particularly helpful for me to have a Christian historian along. It’s easy enough, having seen one amazing display of ruins after another, or cathedral after awesome cathedral, to lose some perspective. So along the way, Tony would stop and point out the historic significance of various landmarks. Then of course, we’d go grab a bourbon and talk.

Both of us, at one point or another in the week, thought of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian, in which the disgruntled rebels exclaim, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” So of course, some wise guy in the group starts rattling things off, like the aqueducts, roads, education, and so on.

So this led to a minor debate between Tony and me about the benefits of empire. Now, keep in mind that Tony is never one to pass up an opportunity to serve as the antagonist, but his argument as outlined in his blog post cheekily titled “In Praise of Empires,” is that it’s en vogue to trash empire, both present and past.

To put a finer point on it, we chatted about whether Constantine, the Roman emperor responsible for establishing the Nicene Creed, was an ass-hat.

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