economic inequality

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.

Pope Francis Is Not a Standard Bearer for the Right or the Left

Pope Francis passes a crucifix in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo:Paul Haring, courtesy Catholic New Service/RNS

It’s one thing to say kind words about gay people and atheists while admonishing those who would bury them in stones.

It’s one thing to walk humbly and call the Catholic Church to compassion for the poor.

It’s one thing to kiss a horribly disfigured man from whom most people would run in disgust.

But apparently, it’s quite another to start calling out growing economic inequality and naive faith in capitalism. By doing just that in his recent encyclical, Pope Francis has touched a third rail in conservative American politics. So begins the backlash.

Yet in the new round of skirmishing around Francis and his supposedly “liberal” views, U.S. political pundits and news media wags — both progressive and conservative — are missing the point about the pope and what he’s up to. Their mistake? They see his words and deeds through the lens of American politics and ideology. What Francis is doing is prophetic, not political, and we should recognize that he’s playing, to his credit, in a whole different arena.

How Can People of Faith Help Students Achieve Their Potential?

Dilapidated school, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

Dilapidated school, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

Most Americans share a common understanding that many public schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t great. It’s rare that I engage anyone who doesn’t know this basic fact on some level. But what’s less common is a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. And sadly, even less common than that? Finding individuals who express a deep conviction that educational inequity can be eliminated. Faith communities are poised to add our voices to this much-needed conversation.

Fifteen million children live in poverty in the United States. Given poverty’s impact, many of these children already face additional challenges in their lives. For many young people, education can be “the great equalizer.” A high quality school can provide students with the necessary foundation to go to college and have a variety of opportunities opened to them. Poverty can become a thing of the past. But students growing up in poverty are more likely to attend low-performing public schools. In fact, only 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent receive college diplomas. And, not surprisingly, given our nation’s historical intersection of racial injustice and poverty, African American, Latino, and Native American students experience some of the nation’s biggest educational inequities.

Inequality Means More than Just Money

Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Robert Reich pulls up in his silver Mini Cooper, quipping that he and his car are in proportion to each other. Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, identifies himself with the underdog, the little man.

His new movie, Inequality for All, looks into the effects of wealth inequality in the United States. Throughout this semi-autobiographical documentary, Reich consistently leans on his self-deprecating sense of humor by poking fun at his own physical stature; he’s 4’10 ½’’ tall. The jokes, however, do lead back to the heavier issue at hand – the American worker is getting squeezed out of the middle class.

On Scripture: Shrewd Christians

Caricature of a penny pincher, AKIllustration / Shutterstock.com

Caricature of a penny pincher, AKIllustration / Shutterstock.com

We worry now, but we’ve been concerned about the economy for a long time. The economic recovery from the recession in America has been slower than we hoped, and people continue to suffer from the collapse of so many industries and jobs and safety nets. Much of the pain seems new for large swaths of the American population. But in reality, we’ve been worrying about money forever.

The August employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a slight decline in the unemployment rate (down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent in July), according to Businessweek. But the drop is largely attributed to a reduction in the workforce of about 300,000. What’s more, the participation rate (number of people working or looking for work compared to the total working age population) fell from 63.4 percent to 63.2 percent, the lowest since 1978. The National Employment Law Project noted that much of the job growth in August was in retail and food service, industries that generally offer lower paying and part-time jobs.

Even though a growing number of economists see modest and encouraging signs in the recession recovery, the slow growth continues to cause trouble for many Americans. Businessweek writer, Matthew Philips, even questioned whether the economy might be “stuck in second gear” without hope of a more robust “third gear” to propel the recovery forward.

The economic health of the nation has long been a concern to people of faith, because we care for the poor, and poverty has been a persistent problem in rural area and urban centers alike. What’s more, we know there are people of all income levels who struggle with money and possessions, and we are concerned about this, too. We worry that people have enough to eat and that wealth not corrupt our best desires and intentions.

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