This week an online ad informed me that Monsters University has finished first at the box office for two weeks running. I’m convicted by the statistic; I saw it somewhere between Northfield, Minn., and the Twin Cities on the “Largest Movie Screen in Minnesota” last week while visiting my brother. But it struck me that the movie presents – probably quite by accident – an opportunity to talk about a deep moral reality. So what follows will only begin obliquely by talking about cute monsters. And it will contain (mostly minor) spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Brazil and the World Cup are in the news now, but not in the way that pleases the Brazilian government. Crowds are gathering in the streets around football (soccer) stadiums where Confederation Cup games are being played but not to buy tickets or get autographs of their sports idols. They are congregating to protest against the 2014 World Cup coming to Brazil. Brazilians protesting football? Upset about hosting the World Cup? Something has gone seriously wrong. This is like the French boycotting wine or Italians accusing pasta of undermining family values.
Even Americans, confused as we are about why the rest of world insists on calling soccer “football,” know that the outcome of a football match can launch an entire nation into elation or despair. But no matter the sport, fans around the world follow the same emotional pattern: they are up when their team is up and down when they are down. World Cup championships played out on a global stage provide the winning nation with an outsized cathartic event for the pent up frustrations that accumulate with the stress and strains of daily life. And even without streets clogged with protestors, if you are a football fan living in one of Brazil’s major cities, the typical daily grind is almost unbearable. Here’s an account from an Al Jazeera reporter who lives in Brazil:
It is 8am and a bunch of people line up to get on a bus on Faria Lima Avenue in Sao Paulo. This may be their third transfer in the daily ordeal of travelling to work from the outskirts of Sao Paulo. When the bus slows down, people start to nudge right or left, hoping not to be left behind. Once they get on, it is so full that finding a little space to stand is only for the truly crafty.
After a one-hour journey through the infamous Sao Paulo traffic and pothole-ridden roads, crammed in with 100-plus people, it feels more like a ride on a rodeo horse than a means of transportation — all at a cost of 3.20 Brazilian Reals ($1.50) and your dignity.
People of faith and immigration activists around the country have their eyes fixed on Congress this month as both houses take up immigration reform. The bipartisan proposal being considered in the Senate would bring hope and opportunity to 11 million new Americans who aspire to be citizens, doing much to fix our broken immigration system.
While the path forward will be difficult, there is some good news this week that will influence the way policymakers think about this issue.
Conservative lawmakers have long been worried about the future costs of immigration reform, which they predicted would come from federal programs designed to help the poor such as Medicaid. They asked the Congressional Budget Office – a non-partisan government agency tasked with evaluating the cost of all legislative proposals – to give them a report far into the future to make sure that these costs were not hidden in their analysis.
In reality, the CBO found that bipartisan immigration reform in the Senate would trim nearly $1 trillion off the federal deficit, while spurring the economy and creating jobs.
Eleven years after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, more than 50,000 people rested in homeless shelters and on the streets of New York City last night — nearly 45 percent of which were children. As numbers have reached an astonishing height within shelter population, New Yorkers are hoping the next mayor elected will provide permanent shelter and resources for families and children in need. The New York Times reports:
The next mayor will have to do better by them than Mr. Bloomberg. He once proposed energetic and aggressive initiatives on behalf of the homeless. Now he speaks of them with resentment: “You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport,” the mayor said recently, “take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter.”
Read more here.
New York Times op-ed columnist, David Brooks, responded, this week, to an intriguing article in the Washington Post about Jason Trigg, a recent MIT graduate, who chose a career on Wall Street as a way to redistribute wealth.
Trigg’s plan is simple. Make lots of money. Live simply. Give lots of money. It’s not far from John Wesley’s advice of, “Earn all you can. Give all you can. Save all you can.” Actually, it’s almost identical.
Brooks perceptively sees the dangers and pitfalls in the road ahead. Most specifically, wealth and the surrounding environment can have a corrosive effect, no matter good our intentions. Brooks writes:
…the brain is a malleable organ. Every time you do an activity, or have a thought, you are changing a piece of yourself into something slightly different than it was before. Every hour you spend with others, you become more like the people around you.
Gradually, you become a different person. If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment.
But, while I echo Brooks concern, I disagree with his ultimate conclusion. He goes on to argue that we should pursue careers that elicit passion (seeming to indicate that hedge funds couldn’t be a passion for some people) and that if we truly care about children in Africa, it’s best to go there – not Wall Street.
The go-to number in American religion is “ASA” — average Sunday attendance. Or as an irreverent colleague put it, “Fannies in the pews.”
It’s a meaningless metric, but it’s easy. Open the doors on Sunday, wait for the stragglers, then dispatch ushers to count the house.
Entire methodologies for church development have been built around this number, as if fanny count dictated how a church should behave. Problem is, ASA isn’t a useful measure of quantity, and it says nothing about quality.
A much better quantitative measure would get at “touches,” that is, how many lives are being touched by contact with the faith community in its various Sunday, weekday, off-site and online ministries — and then, for a qualitative measure, asking how those lives are being transformed.
Those are difficult metrics to track, of course, and that’s why many congregations stick to ASA and shun the harder work of measuring outcomes and impact.
The United States is the richest country in the world, but only three-quarters of Americans have enough to eat.
New data from the Pew Research Center shows that nearly a quarter of Americans had trouble putting food on the table last year — 24 percent is a lot of hungry people in the richest country in the world. It’s not normal, either – most other advanced economies had much lower rates of hunger. We think that the U.S. economy is similar to that of Canada or Britain; our hunger rate is closer to that of Indonesia, South Korea, or Greece.
Numbers like that are shocking, because we prefer to think of ourselves in nationalistic terms. “The richest, most powerful country on Earth” definitely makes us feel better than realizing that things aren’t so great for many of us. One in four of us is hungry.
We don’t like to think about this, but we aren’t doing so well by a lot of standards. Last month, UNICEF published a report on child wellbeing in developed countries. The United States was ranked 26 out of 29, above Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania. Our children were doing worse than those of Greece.
Is this really where we want to be?
While having lunch recently with Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam, I was asked an interesting question.
Putnam is appalled at the radical lack of equality of opportunity in the U.S. today, and he wanted to know if evangelical preachers would dare to say what his pastor said when he was a teenager. Putnam told me that back then, in the midst of Martin Luther King’s great campaign against segregation, his devout Methodist pastor dared to preach that “racism is a sin.”
Professor Putnam asked me, as an evangelical, whether evangelical pastors today would be ready to declare today’s great economic inequality of opportunity a sin. That’s a great question.
I believe that most people are good, decent folks who want to see their community thrive and be healthy. The can of worms with the globalized economic system we live with, however, is twofold. Firstly, it is pathologically designed to function towards injustice, and injustice implicates the exploitation, destitution, and ultimate collapse of local communities around the world, especially in the poorer countries. Secondly, this global economic system does all that it can to make “community” invisible. The vast majority of those coffee drinkers who stop by the local supermarket or coffee shop to buy a pound of coffee have no idea where there coffee came from, who picked it and under what consequences.
Thus, when one is confronted with the inevitability of making a “global” economic choice, my advice would be to take the time to think about what one would want for his or her own community, and then to question how that far-off, distant community across the world where this or that product is being produced is going to be affected. This is not going to be easy for it requires the determination to discover what is purposely being hidden by the designs of the global economic system. But that is perhaps the price we should be paying to be able to enjoy a hot cup of coffee grown thousands of miles away.
I was a nervous kid. Once, I got so freaked out by the prospect of a speaking part in my first-grade school play that my folks thought I had come down with appendicitis. But there were two times in particular that I remember descending into unmitigated panic. Both involved discussions with my dad about my career.
The first time, my dad was telling me about his year-by-year earning trends as an insurance salesman. He went from being one of several agents manning a booth in a Sears store to being the highest-earning employee in his major international company over about 15 years. He added zeroes to his income, and a passel of staffers, including my mom for a while (didn’t work out so well – they divorced thereafter).
At his height, he was earning upwards of half a million a year, and this was in the 80s. His company flew him all over the world, showered him with awards, and held him up as the high-water mark for all other agents to aspire to. I combined this remarkable achievement with the implicit cultural message that all generations exceeded their parents in earning power and went into an emotional tailspin.
How in the hell was I going to make that kind of money?