Economic Justice

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

The Roman Colosseum, S-F /

The Roman Colosseum, S-F /

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.

An Open Letter to Missionaries

Bible and boots, Paul Matthew Photography /

Bible and boots, Paul Matthew Photography /

Dear Missionaries,

I like to tell people I’m a missionary convert, because I wear this genesis of my faith journey proudly, like a badge of honor. I heard the story of Jesus from your lips, sang the songs of worship in your language, and prayed for the concerns in your heart. You taught me how to be Christian.

I learned from your lavish generosity and boundless love and affection. I also learned how to do Christmas. One day in my freshman year of high school, I asked my Chinese parents if we could find a Christmas tree. This was before Christmas became commercialized in Taiwan, so all I could find was a tacky, tiny, plastic tree, which I set up delightfully in the corner of our living room. I arranged neatly wrapped fake presents under my wannabe tree and meticulously set up some lights. I longed for that warm feeling I felt in your homes, the atmosphere I saw in American movies. I wanted to be like you; if only I could have convinced my parents to do Christmas like you did, with gifts, candles, and prayers.

Little did I know your celebrations were crippled by your overseas living because, like me, you also could only find dinky little plastic trees. When I visited your home country, I saw the full potential of CHRISTMAS unleashed, with real trees as tall as houses and white lights, icicle lights, flashing lights, lights shaped like reindeer, elaborate nativity sets, and ridiculous amounts of presents and candy. I thought, wow, is this how the Christians do Christmas?

Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?

jorisvo /

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

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.

New Report Links Decreased Church Giving to Pastoral Education

A statue of Jesus holding the a book imprinted with Luke 4:18. Photo courtesy of BleColRob/RNS.

Christian researchers tracking decades of decline in charitable giving say the trend will not be reversed until pastors challenge congregants to embrace Jesus’ teachings on the poor.

But that, says Sylvia Ronsvalle, one of the authors of the annual “Empty Tomb” reports on Christian giving, will take a different kind of pastor than the counselors and comforters that seminaries and divinity schools have trained for ministry.

Seminaries instead need to school future clergy on the affluence of American congregations, and remind church members of “God’s agenda to love a hurting world,” the report said.

“The State of Church Giving through 2012: What are Christian Seminaries and Intellectuals Thinking — or Are They?” was issued by Empty Tomb, an Illinois-based nonprofit that tracks the percentage of church members’ income that they give to their congregation.

“Pastors are not being prepared to effectively pastor their people within an age of affluence,” said Ronsvalle, who wrote the report with her husband, John L. Ronsvalle.

Do Black Atheists Have Different Concerns Than White Atheists?

Sikivu Hutchinson, a well-known atheist speaker and member of Los Angeles’ Black Skeptics. Photo courtesy of Diane Arellano/RNS.

Absolutely, say organizers of a first-of-its-kind conference to be held by atheists of color in Los Angeles this weekend. And, they add, it’s about time those issues got some attention.

Called “Moving Social Justice,” the conference will tackle topics beyond the usual atheist conference fare of confronting religious believers and promoting science education. Instead, organizers hope to examine issues of special interest to nonwhite atheists, especially the ills rooted in economic and social inequality.

“Atheism is not a monolithic, monochromatic movement,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, an atheist activist, author and founder of Los Angeles’ Black Skeptics, one member of a coalition of black atheist and humanist groups staging the conference.

“By addressing issues that are culturally and politically relevant to communities of color, we are addressing a range of things that are not typically addressed within the mainstream atheist movement.”

The conference is unusual for an atheist gathering in another important way — its lineup of speakers includes members of the religious community. Hutchinson, often an outspoken critic of religion, described the conference as “effectively an interfaith conference.”

Ebola Is an Inequality Crisis

Ebola precautions taken in Guinea, © EC/ECHO /

Ebola precautions taken in Guinea, © EC/ECHO /

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.

Worshiping a Golden Calf: The Moral Reason to Get Money Out of Politics

A golden calf. Image courtesy In Tune/

A golden calf. Image courtesy In Tune/

To avoid conflict, it is suggested that friendly conversation omits three things: money, politics, and religion.  However, it’s no secret that in current Washington discourse two of these things seem to be indefinitely intertwined. I’ll give you a hint — it’s not “money and religion.”

In the past decade, the intimate relationship between money and politics has infiltrated the public sphere at an alarming rate: corporations set public policy agenda items, super PACS have unlimited reign over campaign finance, and just 0.4 percent of the U.S. population is responsible for funding 63 percent of candidate campaigns, political parties, and PACs.

But what do money and politics have to do with religion? Patrick Carolan, Executive Director of Franciscan Action Network (FAN), explained last week to a group of faith leaders at Catholic University why faith, money, and politics are interconnected.

Second Chances: A Deeply Biblical Value

A dove flies above a cage of glass. Image courtesy Yu Lan/

A dove flies above a cage of glass. Image courtesy Yu Lan/

It’s no secret that the prison population in the United States has exploded in recent decades. We incarcerate our citizens at higher rates than any other developed nation. The federal prison population has increased by almost 790 percent since 1980. The number of children with one or more incarcerated parents has increased at an astonishing rate of 80 percent since 1991.

The mass incarceration of mostly Black and Latino men and women has moral implications in two ways. First, our current “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice has cost taxpayers a substantial amount with little effect on crime rates. These tax dollars could be spent instead on education, mental health, or drug rehabilitation. The way we spend public money reflects our public values. (Sound familiar?)

In addition, there are far-reaching moral implications of the act of naming someone “criminal." This label is inhumane, unjust, and unholy.

The “criminal” label has devastating effects on quality of life and equality of opportunity for many individuals. It is nearly impossible to shake. Most federal education grants are not available to someone with a criminal background. In many cities, access to subsidized or public housing is banned based on arrests or incarceration. Many states ban those with criminal backgrounds from food stamp eligibility. Being forced tocheck the box on an employment application indicating a past felony conviction essentially lands that application in the trash. The Sentencing Project estimates a total of 5.85 million people have been banned from voting because of a past conviction.

But Christians have a unique, biblically-based perspective on labels. In Christ, “sinners” become “beloved ones." The excluded, hated, and oppressed become included, wanted, and loved.