economic inequality

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.

Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?

jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

Stained glass window depiction of Palm Sunday in the cathedral of Brussels, jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

Protests in Ferguson, rallies in Hong Kong, and the Occupy Movement: People challenging systems and structures clamber for my attention. But faithful followers of Jesus shouldn’t get involved in these political and economic wrangling, should they? Sure, we ought to pay our taxes and vote; you know, give to Caesar and all that. But Christians should only be concerned about the spiritual transformation of individuals, not gallivanting around to rail against political and economic systems. After all, Jesus never protested political or economic policies did he? If we transform enough people, won’t the rest of the systemic issues work themselves out?

I have heard this challenge to Christian involvement in social movements numerous times, and it holds a certain appeal for someone like me who is allergic to politics. I’m the no-bumper-sticker, no-yard-sign guy who would just as soon steer a discussion away from upcoming elections than face the discussion of large-scale political or economic issues. I’d much rather focus on individual spirituality. After all, Jesus never did march on Rome or speak out against Caesar’s cruel dictatorship. He doesn’t mean for us to get mixed up in social, political or economic activism.

Or does he? I am learning to re-examine the cultural lenses by which I encounter Christ in scriptures.

Ebola Is an Inequality Crisis

Ebola precautions taken in Guinea, © EC/ECHO / Flickr.com

Ebola precautions taken in Guinea, © EC/ECHO / Flickr.com

In the past few months, the world has witnessed the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was first identified in 1976 — it has already claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people. But while the first cases in the U.S. and Spain have stirred fears over the past week, we don’t need to fear an unstoppable epidemic in developed countries. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim aptly put it in a piece for the Huffington Post:

The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.

Dr. Kim makes the crucial point here — the current Ebola outbreak is much more than a public health crisis — it is an inequality crisis.

Economic Equity and Gender Equality for South Africa: A New Agenda for a New Generation

Dawn in Cape Town. Image courtesy Denis Mironov/shutterstock.com

Dawn in Cape Town. Image courtesy Denis Mironov/shutterstock.com

In a township called Khayelitsha, a woman wakes well before dawn to catch a bus that will carry her to the beautiful home in Cape Town where her employer/boss/master wants his tea in bed by 7 a.m. That is what “post-apartheid” South Africa still looks like today.

I just returned from a remarkable month in South Africa—the country that changed my life. I’ve often said that I learned my theology of hope from South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle I was thrust into as a young man. South African church leaders invited me in years ago. I got to see and experience the costly movement for freedom in the 1980s, witness the miracle of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in 1994, and later join a wonderful reunion of South African activists, many of whom had been in exile or in prison, along with some of us international allies. So when I set out on a South African speaking and book tour 20 years after the new democracy, I didn’t know what to expect.

This time, I brought my family so they could see the country that had meant so much to me. What I discovered was a new generation of South African leaders ready to define their own vocation and mission as they help build a new nation. I quickly came to understand that making a deep connection with them was the real reason that I had come back. It’s tough to be in the shadow of a heroic generation of leaders like Desmond Tutu whose agenda has been the political liberation of South Africa—accomplished to the amazement of the world. On this trip, 20 years later, I saw the incredible freedom of movement now for all the former racial categories—but also how the systemic geography of apartheid was still painfully evident.

Economic inequality in South Africa is now greater than it was even during the days of apartheid, and gender violence is rampant. So these are the new agendas of a new generation: economic liberation and gender equality, with a commitment to lead on both in the churches. The rainbow of young people who turned up in such great numbers at all of our events truly want a new South Africa— a society yet to emerge.

Occupy Good Pasture

Wall St., Delpixel / Shutterstock.com

Wall St., Delpixel / Shutterstock.com

The interesting thing about human nature is that even among the oppressed, people will seek supremacy, a pecking order. We human beings have great capacity for tenderness and compassion, and we’re also the meanest things in the world! And even when we are oppressed together, we will try to find some advantage or superiority over others.

“As for you, my flock, saith the Lord, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” 

In other words: Do you have to get what’s yours and at the same time mess it up for others?

Time to Stop the Train: Keeping Our Young Brothers of Color

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Obama announces 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”

That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.

While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific. 

In the Shadow of 'Citizens United'

Money in politics illustration, Elena Yakusheva / Shutterstock.com

Money in politics illustration, Elena Yakusheva / Shutterstock.com

Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individual humans as guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The political repercussions of Citizens United include the rise of “Super PACs” — political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, independent of direct campaign contributions, to influence politics. The power yielded to such corporations, as well as indiscriminate spending allowance, has deleterious effects upon our democracy.

Because money talks, big money will talk a lot louder, drowning out the voices of average Americans trying to exercise their own civic rights. Politicians are undoubtedly more apt to respond to the requests of companies that shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars on supportive campaign politics than to the needs of a college graduate or working family who donated 10 bucks. Doesn’t exactly smack of sound democratic governance.

Is Poverty Killing our Kids?

Child sitting alone, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Child sitting alone, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Despite all the modern conveniences of the 21st century, our information-saturated culture, an exhaustive supply of self-help books, and giant advances in medical technology, doesn’t it seem like our society is more stressed, our anxiety higher, and more of our kids prescribed behavior modification drugs?

What if one of the reasons for our strung-out culture was the social, emotional, mental, and physiological outworking of the effects of poverty?

In the latest release of the Shriver Report, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the California Pacific Medical Center’s Bayview Child Health Center, has found through medical research and experiences of her patients that the stress of poverty can be manifested in alarming behaviors and predispositions.

'Flowers in the Attic' and Women on the Brink

Flowers in the Attic first edition cover, Simon & Schuster

Flowers in the Attic first edition cover, Simon & Schuster

(Spoiler—and imperfect analogy — alert to anyone who wasn’t able to sneak these books when they were pre-teens)

If there was one book series that defined my childhood/pre-adolescence, it would be V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series. OK, maybe that wasn’t THE book series—after all, there were the Baby-sitters Club books and Sweet Valley High—but in terms of helping to destroy what little innocence I still had, Flowers in the Attic gets top ranking. I mean, I probably didn’t need to be reading books about incest, child abuse, and religious fanaticism when I was 10 years old. But that’s a story for another time.

The Lifetime network has made a film version of Flowers in the Attic that will debut on Saturday night. In anticipation of the remake, I decided to watch the 1987 version starring Kristy Swanson. Besides being struck by how dated it was — think fuzzy lighting, a lot of beiges and pastels, and 80s bangs — the premise seemed outdated even for that time. A recently widowed stay-at-home mother of four finds herself unable to care for her family and must return to her wealthy, estranged parents and beg to get back into her dying father’s good graces (and will). As a condition of her return, she must consent to have her four children locked in the attic and subjected to her mother’s abuse and neglect.

I sometimes forget how much the world has changed in such a short period of time.

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