While there are no biblical texts speaking directly to the issue of money in politics, biblical principles are still relevant, and people of faith have an important role to play in the emerging debate about the future of our democracy. Before exploring those principles, however, it is important to understand the serious issues of inequality currently present in our system, and the correlation between inequality and the money flooding our political system.
The richest 1 percent own more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The richest one-tenth of one percent have as much pre-tax income as the bottom 120 million Americans.
In Affluence and Influence, political scientist Martin Gilens concludes that, “The preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which politics the government does or does not adapt.” He details the data throughout his book that clearly demonstrates policy makers are only listening to the wealthy donor class. This situation has been made even worse by the Supreme Court’sCitizens United in 2010, which allowed a huge influx of money to flood our political system after declaring the personhood of corporations.
The Court’s more recent decision in McCutcheon v FEC made matters even worse. Before McCutcheon, one person was able to contribute up to $123,000 to political candidates and parties. In striking down this aggregate limit, the Court paved the way for individuals to contribute more than $3.5 million directly to candidates and party committees. In a report detailing the potential impact of McCutcheon, Demos predicts the decision could result in more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions by 2020.
In one of the screen-saved memories cataloged from my childhood, I sit in the living room, cross-legged, chin supported by two fists, staring up at moving pictures flashing across a small screen. On network television — because we didn’t have cable back then — Moses (aka Charlton Heston) led thousands of his people out of captivity. They just walked out of Egypt — streams of them. And then they reached the Red Sea.
The Egyptian army was at their back, pressing in. In that moment, though they had left captivity, freedom was not a done deal. They still had to cross over. They were still at war. They still had to outrun an army trained to kill or enslave them again.
Heston — I mean Moses — stood straight-backed on the bank of the Red Sea. He lifted his staff and put it down at the edge of the water, and a miracle took place in living rooms across America. The sea parted. I’ll never forget that moment. This moment was crafted before the digital era — before Disney’s Prince of Egypt, even before Star Wars, and yet it was still awe-inspiring. My eyes focused like lasers watching whole families cross a sea on foot.
Moses led. He was not a king. He was a foster child. He was not from the dominant culture. He was from an enslaved people. He was not a great orator. He stuttered, but he led anyway. He said “Yes” to God’s call and leaned into it. And because he did, the people were set free.
Does Jesus love African-American males? Then why aren’t we telling them so?!
I recently held a Town Hall Meeting at my church in my hometown of Madison, Wis., regarding the blaring racial disparity between whites and African Americans. This gathering attracted about 650 people who wanted to hear my thoughts after reading my "Justified Anger ” cover essay in a local newspaper. It appears that when one considers the economic, academic, arrest and incarceration disparities between African Americans and whites in Madison (and surrounding Dane County), there is no bleaker place for African Americans to be in the entire country than Madison. Although Madison — with its great university, beautiful lakes, bike paths, and educated residents — typically receives high marks as being among the best mid-sized American cities in which to live, it is now developing a different reputation about life here. Sadly, our community has been nationally deemed as ground zero for the disintegration of African-American males!
I believe that deep within our being is a longing for a moral compass. For those of us who are moved by the cries of our sisters and brothers, we know that, like justice, the acts of caring for the vulnerable, embracing the stranger, healing the sick, protecting workers, welcoming and being fair to all members of the human family, and educating all children should never be relegated to the margins of our social consciousness. These are not just policy issues; these are not issues for some left vs. right debate; these are the centerpieces of our deepest traditions of our faiths, of our values, of our sense of morality and righteousness.
We must remind those who make decisions regarding public policy what the prophet Isaiah said "Woe unto those who legislate evil ... Rob the poor of their rights ... make children and women their prey." Isaiah 10: 1-2
Martin Luther King, Jr. said 46 years ago in one of his last sermons that if you ignore the poor, one day the whole system will collapse and implode. The costs are too high if we don’t address systemic racism and poverty. It costs us our soul as a nation. Every time we fail to educate a child on the front side of life, it costs us on the back side — financially and morally.
The latest dust-up about the unscripted words of Pope Francis came this week when he tweeted, in Latin, “Inequality is the root of social evil.” Conservative Catholics had their underwear in a bundle, nervously tweeting away about the dangers of addressing complex issues on Twitter, and warning about thinking that “redistribution” would solve global inequities. Some feared this was giving Thomas Piketty’s new popular book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, more press. Liberal Catholics were delightfully surprised, once again, and argued that the pope was doing nothing more than putting Catholic social teaching into a tweet.
Inequality is the root of social evil.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 28, 2014
But this latest interchange, happening of course between Catholics in the global “North,” misses the real point.
"Unmarried moms are rarer in America than France, Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, or the Netherlands" screams yesterday's headline by Matthew Yglesias on vox.com.
"And honestly, it's no big deal," sighs an exasperated Swiss friend of mine, weary of conservative American Facebook memes. Unmarried mothers apparently do just fine in Switzerland (though admittedly the Swiss rate of 20.2 percent of births to unmarried women is considerably lower than the American rate of 40.7 percent).
Actually, though, it is a big deal in the United States, for several reasons.
In the days before video games, we had tabletop games that were a lot of fun despite their built-in shortcomings. We had an electric football game with a vibrating field; sometimes, the players would go in circles or simply stop in place. There was a hockey game with long rods that were pushed and pulled to make players advance or retreat, then spun to make them whirl and shoot; occasionally, the puck would wind up in a dead space on the board.
At those moments, you had two choices: Call a timeout, or raise your legs a bit to tilt the table and get the player or the puck headed in the other direction.
Naturally, this was frowned upon. It was seen as cheating — giving yourself an advantage. If you got caught raising the table, you were penalized. A tilted table was considered unfair.
In real life, we all sit at tilted tables.
Laying out a blueprint for the issues that are likely to define his papacy, Pope Francis on Tuesday issued a biting critique of capitalism, calling on world leaders to fight against poverty and for the rich to share their wealth, and urging the media to adjust its priorities.
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Francis asked in an 84-page “apostolic exhortation” that is widely seen as a road map for his papacy akin to a presidential State of the Union address.
“How can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?” he asked. “Today, everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
I watched 12 Years a Slave today. The film is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography by that name. Northrup was a free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y. He was lured away from his home to Washington, D. C., on the promise of lucrative work and was kidnapped, transported to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. He was rescued 12 years later.
Some of the questions and issues that the movie raises are: What right do people have to own others? Do money and might make right? Unjust laws — such as slave laws — exist. It just goes to show that something can be legal, yet morally wrong. Still, laws come and go. We must not confuse laws with rights, which are universal and enduring truths that do not change. What is true and right and good is always so. So, too, that which is evil is always evil. Even if unjust laws are overturned and abolished, evil can still return in other guises.
I asked myself as I watched the movie, “Could it happen again?” Some of us may think, “Surely, something like this could never happen in our day.” And yet, people are abducted and sold into various forms of slavery here and abroad on a daily basis. Granted — people are not publicly bought and sold on the slave block in America today because of skin color; however, people are enslaved based on race and class divisions.
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.
I got a glimpse into the politics of scorn this week.
The visual was a photo accompanying a New York Times article on rental properties in Memphis, Tenn. The article itself seemed innocuous, about how foreclosed homes are being scooped up by outside investors and turned into rentals.
The photo, however, was troubling. It showed a young man lazing in a large chair while his two children stared numbly at a television screen and his wife tapped away on a cell phone.
I have no clue into this family’s character. But the visual screamed: “Idle! Lazy!”
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well-known, beloved, and influential portions of the New Testament. As a striking narrative about care and compassion for others, the content of Luke 10:29-37 has reverberated throughout the centuries as a clear and profound call to public love through personal action. All together, the radical hospitality of the Samaritan has sparked various charitable acts and organizations around the world. Thus, one can argue that no other parable has offered a more profound impact on the course of human history.
That's the headline of an article by Elisabeth Rosenthal in yesterday's New York Times. The article includes a chart comparing childbirth costs in seven countries. In the United States, the average amount paid for a conventional delivery in 2012 was $9,775; for a Caesarean section, it was $15,041. Those are the highest prices for childbirth anywhere in the world.
To get an idea of just how high, I made a chart using the figures in the NYT chart. Childbirth costs in the other six countries range from 21 percent to 43 percent of U.S. costs even though American women typically spend far less time in hospital.
South Africa is so dangerous for childbirth that its graph line would not fit on this blog page. For every 1,000 births, there are 56 infant deaths. For every 100,000 births, there are 400 maternal deaths. [Chart by L. Neff; data from WHO]
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 the consequences of social privilege are alarming for numerous reasons, we are reminded that such systematic inequalities are by no means unique to the current day and age. For example, during Jesus’ ministry he encountered a predominant culture that distributed a wide variety of elite benefits based upon gender, class, ethnicity, and other forms of false favoritism. However, one of the primary distinctions of Jesus’ life, which he continually modeled for his disciples, was a prophetic confrontation with unjust structures of social privilege.
As Jesus accompanied women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and others firmly placed on the underprivileged margins of society, he repeatedly sought the reversal of embedded discrimination and disadvantage. In doing so, not only did Jesus promote Good News of eternal life for after death, but he sought to “let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) for the fullness of life after birth.
While Jesus continually endorsed the revolution of unjust social privilege, and although he taught his followers to do likewise in his name, the harsh reality is that privilege based on prejudice is profitable, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for those in power to surrender voluntarily