Monday, August 31, 2009

Missing Ted

I miss Ted.

In our family we were not Kennedy fans in the beginning. My parents and grandparents were Massachusetts Republicans. Leverett Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge. Francis Sargent and Elliott Richardson. Ed Brooke. Joe Martin had a summer home half a mile away.

And within the Kennedy family, Teddy seemed far behind Jack and Bobby. He got his Senate seat because his brother was President.

He was, as everyone knows, a deeply flawed human being. Before Chappaquiddick he was thrown out of Harvard for cheating (although he went back and graduated after two years in the army). And after Chappaquiddick, there was the womanizing and the drinking.

His speech at the Democratic Convention in 1980 was one of the best I have ever heard. Though he was conceding the nomination, he promised that, “The dream will never die.” And it was a good dream, of equality and justice, of lifting up the poor, of peace and community. But after the speech, when he had the chance to embrace President Jimmy Carter and give the clear signal that he was backing his party’s choice, he held back and his reticence helped to elect Ronald Reagan.

I miss his clear voice on issues of social justice. Ironically, Ted Kennedy became the voice of conscience.

On a variety of issues, Ted had no fear of taking up an unpopular cause. He did not need a focus group to tell him what he should say or how he should say it. On everything from gay rights to the minimum wage, he would not waver. It didn’t hurt that he was so popular in Massachusetts, but there are plenty of popular leaders who seem to live in constant terror of losing their popularity.

For Ted, health care was a moral issue. It has been his issue for forty years. It would be good to hear his voice in the national debate.

As I listened to the speakers at his memorial service and then at his funeral mass, it was wonderful to hear the stories of friendships that transcended political boundaries. He respected those with whom he disagreed, and he was willing to work with them to do what needed to be done. In legislative matters, he was willing to take less than perfect in order to do something good. But he maintained his principles. Strategy was flexible. Principle was not. With Ted, everyone knew where he stood.

At his funeral mass, the Gospel lesson was from Matthew, chapter 25. It was Jesus’ description of the final judgment. Ultimately, says Jesus, the question is about what you have done for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the outcast. As his parish priest said so eloquently, that was Ted’s vision and passion as a legislator.

Jack and Bobby’s little brother left a very large legacy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Morality and Health Care

Recently on the Lou Dobbs program on CNN, Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, was featured in a "face off" on the health care debate. Adam was asked to present the moral argument in favor of universal health care. He was countered by Bishop Harry Jackson arguing against the morality of universal care.

Two interesting (amusing) points.

1. You'll notice that Lou Dobbs seems to have trouble with Adam's name. First he calls him "Leonard," impatiently asking "Leonard" to answer the question. I assume he is confusing him with Leonard Hamilton, who is head men's basketball coach at Florida State. Maybe Lou is an FSU fan, or maybe he remembers when Leonard Hamilton was coaching at Miami. Or maybe he's just a basketball fan. Later he calls him "Alexander," for Alexander Hamilton.

2. Bishop Jackson's argument against universal care is quite remarkable. He says that a few years ago he had a life-threatening bout with cancer. Because he had good insurance, he had the best care and he was cured. If we had universal coverage, he might not have received the limited expertise of the best doctors. Those who have the resources to pay for the best care should get it.

I have pasted the transcript below.

You can also go to Adam's blog and see the whole video at:

LOU DOBBS: Well, supporters of the president's health care plan are arguing that the government has a moral responsibility to provide health care for all Americans. But does it? That is the subject of tonight's face off debate.Joining me now is Reverend Adam Hamilton. He is a senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. Reverend Hamilton says the government should be providing affordable health care for everyone.Reverend, great to have you with us.

REV. ADAM HAMILTON, UNITED METHODIST CHURCH OF THE RESURRECTION: Thank you very much, it's an honor.DOBBS: And Bishop Harry Jackson who is the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Washington, D.C. He says that there should be no government intervention in health care whatsoever.Bishop, good to have you with us. We appreciate it.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, HOPE CHRISTIAN CHURCH: Good to be with you.DOBBS: Reverend Hamilton, let's begin with you, if I may, as we get this debate started. Why do you believe that the federal government has a moral responsibility to provide health care for everyone?

HAMILTON: I think it has a moral obligation to make accessible, affordable health care to everyone. Not everyone may take advantage of that, but it has an obligation for that. And I think part of the role of government is to offer the safety net needed for the most vulnerable of people in the country. So when I think of the most vulnerable of people, I'm not thinking about people who choose not to work, but people who are the working poor for whom giving up the equivalent of a house payment to be able to provide health insurance for their family is simply not possible.And I have been with people in my congregation who had to choose between making the mortgage payment or deciding to pay for their health insurance, and they choose the mortgage payment, or for people out of work, and certainly right now in this economic crisis, people who have been out of work for some time and their COBRA has run out.And I think we have to ask the question, what happens with these folks.

DOBBS: I'm really asking the basis for your statement that the federal government has a moral obligation.

HAMILTON: I guess the question is --

DOBBS: That's the question. Leonard, that's the question.

HAMILTON: Right. And so what constitutes a moral obligation, though? And a moral obligation is, in my mind, related to justice. So we look in the scriptures and we hear -- from a Christian perspective, we look in the scriptures, we find hundreds of calls for justice.DOBBS: All right.

HAMILTON: And when we think of justice, it's ensuring the rights of those that can't speak up for themselves and don't have access to...

DOBBS: Bishop Jackson, we just heard where Reverend Hamilton is coming from. Your view?

JACKSON: I believe, Lou, that we have a great health care system. A few years ago I was given a 15 percent chance of living, had cancer of the esophagus. And had I been denied or delayed treatment, Lou, I wouldn't be alive today.So one of the problems of this moral morass we're in is if you raise the cost of health care by broadening out all of the people that are going to need to get these services, what you may do is say that you're not going to get to certain people, that people that have urgent situations aren't going to get treated.We're going to be like some of the government that you overlooked or looked over and talked about. Also, I think --

DOBBS: We overlooked a couple, too, but we'll get back to them.

JACKSON: Forgive me for that. But the reality, then, is that my life worth less because I'm worth more in terms of net worth? Do we have the ability to say I'm going to get every homeless person health care even if it means you're going to have other people die?The government is going to have other people figure it out, and I believe historically the church has been the people who have decided that they are going to create hospitals, care for the sick and the needy and the poor, and the government is not known to manage things well, Lou.So I'm concerned that if we change these things, delay, denial means death.And I also want to get, if we get the time, into the issue of paid abortions, which will make it go up by 33 percent.

DOBBS: Let's get into that in just a moment. I want to let Reverend Hamilton respond.

HAMILTON: First of all, Lou, you've been highlighting countries over the last few episodes where they have health coverage available for more people than we have here in the United States, more folks who currently have no health care here.And that's not raised the price of health care insurance. It's actually lowered the price of health care coverage and what's spent per person.I think it's possible for us to maintain our current plan for those of us who are happy with it. I have good health insurance. I'm happy with that.What I'm concerned about, and I know Bishop Jackson has to be concerned with the people in his congregation as well, you know, 15 percent of the population for whom they don't have that access. What about those folks? And the scriptures call on us to speak up for those who can't speak up for themselves.And so I think we have to figure out, somehow we have to solve this problem. However it's solved, it's probably a combination of private and public.

JACKSON: But it doesn't mean endorsing this particular plan. The problem is we're steamrolling a plan that has not been thought out. Its implementation is horrible, and we need to slow our roll, analyze this thing, and do something that is responsible and moral.DOBBS: Let's get to the issue -- I'm sorry.

HAMILTON: I was going to say, to Bishop Jackson's point, we haven't -- I'm not endorsing the current plan either. I'm endorsing the idea behind having accessible health care coverage for everyone.

DOBBS: I think we can all sign up for the idea that it should be something better. From there, there seems to be absolutely no evidence of any kind empirically to support any kind of proposition in any stage of legislation either in the House or in the minds of those in leadership of the Congress or the White House as to what that might be.We have approval and disapproval ratings and the public opinion polls, and we don't even have a plan before us. This is as Bishop Jackson points out.Let me to the point that he raised. And Alexander -- I'm sorry, reverend, what is the morality here of federal funding here for abortion?

HAMILTON: First of all, Alexander was the secretary of the treasury, so maybe --

DOBBS: I did an association.

HAMILTON: But when it comes to abortion, first of all, I also with Bishop Jackson consider myself pro-life. I would not support public funding going to abortion.But everything I'm hearing from both sides is saying that's not going to be a part of this.DOBBS: Do you believe -- let me ask you this as a reverend. Do you really believe what you're hearing from either side on this? I want a real straightforward answer from a Christian good fearing man. Do you really believe what you're hearing from either side?

HAMILTON: I think there are folks who are trying to speak the truth in the midst of it. But there's so much heat and --

DOBBS: Do you go straight to heaven when you equivocate, or do you find yourself a Purgatory or something fancy like that?Bishop Jackson, you get the next one.

JACKSON: OK. Well, I believe that we really need to watch the advocates of this program. It's clearly been politicized.And Lou, it's almost like a sophisticated shell game. Folks are saying we want to do the best for the public, but you don't get to read the details or understand the details. And there are many nuances of this moral approach that we don't understand about.And I go back to the fact that I would not be here, Lou -- I had a 15 percent chance of living only, had the greatest health care in the world. Why do we jeopardize the care from the world's best doctors at a plan we don't even know what it is?

DOBBS: I'm sorry, go ahead, you get the last word.

HAMILTON: I was going to say, Lou, that's wonderful that Mr. Jackson had health insurance coverage so that he could still be here. But what about the people who don't.DOBBS: That's the only outcome we want, I'll guarantee you.

HAMILTON: Exactly.

DOBBS: I'm sorry, your point?

HAMILTON: My point is that we would hope that -- what about the 15 percent of the population who don't have access to affordable care? They wouldn't be standing here with Bishop Jackson.

DOBBS: Then it becomes what about the number of people who, as Bishop Jackson is saying, who, under rationing, because there is a limitation to resources, would be denied health care?This becomes a circular argument I think. I understand your moral position, and I think that each of us is sympathetic to it. The moral quandary, obviously we're going to have to explore that. But we've got a lot of government exploration to do and a lot of government issues to overcome.Thank you very much. I hope you both will come back as we discuss this issue in the day and weeks ahead.

HAMILTON: Thank you, Lou.

JACKSON: Thank, Lou.

DOBBS: And Bishop Jackson, we're awful delighted that the result was, as Reverend Hamilton put it, extraordinary positive.JACKSON: Thank you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pay of Top Earners Erodes Social Security

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
Luke 12:48

Apparently, when it comes to Social Security taxes, the reverse is true. Less is required of those who have more.

An article by Ellen Schultz in the Wall Street Journal points to a largely unnoticed result of the widening wealth gap in the United States. The fact that a lower total percentage of all wages are subject to Social Security taxes has reduced the amount in the fund.

In 2002 executive pay accounted for 28% of all wages. By 2007 that amount had risen to 33% of the total. This means that a lower percentage of total wages are subject to Social Security.

We often hear commentators telling us that Social Security is going bankrupt. We seldom hear them pointing the finger, as the Wall Street Journal does, at executive compensation. Simply put, the wealthiest people are not paying their fair share.

In 1982, 90% of all wages were subject to Social Security. That amount has now shrunk to 83%. This shift results in lost revenue of $115 billion per year. If the Social Security maximum were adjusted to be comparable to 1982 levels, the fund would be solvent for the next 75 years.

You can read the full article by following this link:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rick Pitino, Mark Sanford and Big Papi

What do Rick Pitino, Mark Sanford and Big Papi (David Ortiz) have in common?

According to the news reports, what links them together is hypocrisy. Coach Pitino, described as a devout Roman Catholic, had drunken sex with a woman who later tried to blackmail him. Governor Sanford, described as a devout Evangelical Christian, had an extramarital affair. And Big Papi, who told the media during Spring Training that guys who use steroids are ruining baseball and should be banned for a year, turned up on a 2003 list of those who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.


Each is a sad story in it's own way. Even if you don't like Pitino or Sanford (EVERYBODY likes Big Papi), you have to feel for their wives and children. And David Ortiz was one of the guys you really wanted to believe was doing it the right way.

What the stories have in common, is the emphasis on hypocrisy.

Let's be honest. Most of us love this stuff. Gossip is always good, but it is even better if the object of the report is himself (or herself) a finger-pointing, self-righteous Puritan.

But the emphasis on "hypocrisy" says more about us than it does about them.

Rick Pitino has a friend who is a priest and often leads the team in prayer before a game. We'll assume that the prayer is for good sportsmanship and safety, rather than victory, and count it as a good thing. It doesn't become a bad thing because the coach cheated on his wife. We would like people to be less complex, but they aren't.

Governor Sanford is against equal rights for Gays and Lesbians. I think he is wrong on that. But he isn't more wrong because he had an affair. He is wrong twice, but they are really separate issues.

Most of us (I think) are aware of at least some of the brokenness (sin, estrangement, failings) in our own lives. And we take a perverse pleasure in telling ourselves, "I may have my faults, but at least I am not a bad as so and so." If the person we name once had a high standing, then it is even better.

But the comparisons are false in the sense that our own lives do not get better because someone else's got worse. It is as if we thought that life was graded on a curve. If the smart kid at the front of the class only got a "78," then my "C" suddenly became an "A." But it doesn't work that way. All of us depend on God's grace, and each of us is responsible for our own lives.

Jesus asked, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:3-5) Somehow we feel as if finding the speck in a neighbor's eye makes the log in our own eyes smaller, but it doesn't.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Victory Day in Rhode Island

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says that the Bible presents two narratives and asks us to choose between them. One is the familiar story of violence and revenge. He calls it the “normalcy of violence.” The other narrative “presents the radicality of a just and nonviolent God confronting the normalcy of an unjust and violent civilization.” If the Bible presented only the first narrative, of violent conquest, we would not need it because it would give us nothing we cannot get from the world around us. If it presented only nonviolence, we would not believe it. Instead, we find a complicated and interwoven narrative of violent conquest and peaceful non-violence. Our task is to find the narrow way that leads to peace and justice.

These two contradictory narratives, of peace through violence, and peace through justice, are on my mind as I contemplate “Victory Day,” a holiday commemorating the American victory over Japan that ended World War II, which is observed only in Rhode Island.

Yesterday in worship we sang, “I Will Call Upon the Lord.” It is one of my favorite contemporary Christian hymns. It is upbeat and hopeful. The tune is easy to sing. It is a happy song.

I will call upon the Lord
who is worthy to be praised.

So shall I be saved from my enemies. . .
The Lord liveth and blessed by the Rock;
and let the God of my salvation be exalted

But the bright cheerful tone is at odds with the scripture from which the lyrics are taken. It is from King David’s song of victory after he has defeated Saul. If we read further into the text in Second Samuel, this is what we find:

He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your help has made me great.

You have made me stride freely, and my feet do not slip;

I pursued my enemies and destroyed them,
and did not turn back until they were consumed.

I consumed them; I struck them down,
so that they did not rise;
they fell under my feet.

For you girded me with strength for the battle;
you made my assailants sink under me.

You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
those who hated me, and I destroyed them.

They looked, but there was no one to save them;
they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.

I beat them fine like the dust of the earth,
I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets.
II Samuel 22:35-43

The lines are haunting: "You made my enemies turn their backs to me, those who hated me, and I destroyed them. They looked, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.”

There was no one to save them.

Is that, as we say after the reading of scripture, “the Word of the Lord”? I do not believe that it is. It is part of the Bible. It is even an important part of the Bible. It says something everlastingly significant. But it is not the word we are called to live.

We are called to live in the counter-narrative, which runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures on a parallel course, and comes to life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This counter-narrative proclaims the Kingdom of God as a radical alternative to the normalcy of violence we find in the kingdoms and empires of this world.

During World War II, Harry Emerson Fosdick was a prophetic voice for the Kingdom of God. In February of 1944 he preached a sermon called, “Righteousness First.” Based on Jesus’ commandment to “seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness,” Fosdick argued for the importance of winning the peace after we win the war. Near the end of the sermon, he references the repeated calls to “support our boys” in the war. We should and must support them, he argues, but we need to support more than the winning of the war, we need to support the highest ideals of Christ’s teaching.

They will win the war, --at what cost!—but we along with them must win the peace, and at that point we run again into the everlasting truth of Jesus’ law: we cannot put party first, or economic self-interest first, or absolute national sovereignty first, or imperialistic greed first, or racial prejudice first. If we do, we shall be rightly damned forever in the estimation of our offspring. We must put righteousness first.”

Only a just and lasting peace can justify the horror of war and bring real victory.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 2:4

“War is essentially the denial of everything Christ stood for.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick

This morning I am contemplating Hiroshima and meditating on a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick.

One of our summer traditions is going to the Fourth of July Parade in Bath, Maine. The parade, which is the largest in the State of Maine, is the centerpiece of “Bath Heritage Days,” a festive occasion of craft fares, displays and sales. We always go to the library book sale, and this year I found a wonderful little book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And liberal theology was a captive of its culture. But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time. Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself.

Still, I was put off by the title of the book, “A Great Time to Be Alive.” I assumed that it would be a sugary recitation of happy insights from the 1950’s. Optimism pretending to be faith. I bought it because I have a small collection of Fosdick books, but I did not expect much.

In fact, it is a collection of sermons written and preached during the Second World War. He talks about the challenges facing the Christian Church in a time of war. The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. “Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations do death.’”

He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.

In many ways, we did “win the peace.” The Marshall Plan was an incredible effort to rebuild the nations we had defeated, and it led to decades of post-war prosperity. We have made great strides in race relations. And the United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is still at the center of maintaining peace in the world. In other ways, we are still struggling to recognize the ties that bind us together and embrace the interdependence of God’s world.

For a stark pictorial remembrance of Hiroshima, use the following link:

Tomorrow, August 6th, marks 64 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan by the United States at the end of World War II. Targeted for military reasons and for its terrain (flat for easier assessment of the aftermath), Hiroshima was home to approximately 250,000 people at the time of the bombing. The U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island very early on the morning of August 6th, carrying a single 4,000 kg (8,900 lb) uranium bomb codenamed "Little Boy". At 8:15 am, Little Boy was dropped from 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the city, freefalling for 57 seconds while a complicated series of fuse triggers looked for a target height of 600 m (2,000 ft) above the ground. At the moment of detonation, a small explosive initiated a super-critical mass in 64 kg (141 lbs) of uranium. Of that 64 kg, only .7 kg (1.5 lbs) underwent fission, and of that mass, only 600 milligrams was converted into energy - an explosive energy that seared everything within a few miles, flattened the city below with a massive shockwave, set off a raging firestorm and bathed every living thing in deadly radiation. Nearly 70,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 70,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950. Today, Hiroshima houses a Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum near ground zero, promoting a hope to end the existence of all nuclear weapons.
Boston Globe 8/5/09