Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Uncomfortable Thoughts about Privilege

Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.
Deuteronomy 8:11-15

The recent heat wave was unpleasant (some of us think it was very unpleasant) in Rhode Island, but it was much worse in other parts of the country. After enduring several summers in Philadelphia without air conditioning, my daughter, Carolyn purchased a small room air conditioner last week. That evening she described her Facebook status this way:

"It's so hot, and I am so relieved to finally have AC. This kind of extreme weather reminds me of how privileged I am to have good shelter. Safety from the elements should be a right, but unfortunately it is often a luxury..... (This sermon brought to you by my heat-addled brain - apologies, Facebook friends)"

Privilege is a word that grates like fingernails on the blackboard. When I was in grade school, if someone seemed to be claiming an unfair advantage, someone else would ask sarcastically, “What do you think you are, privileged?” To be “privileged” was not a good thing.

It is ironic; of course, everyone (almost) wishes to have special privileges without being thought “privileged.” We want people to know that we have worked hard for the things we have.

But it is a good thing sometimes, to reflect on how privileged we are.

One of the young families in our church is expecting another child at any moment. Last Sunday in our worship service, during the announcements, we had a good laugh when I called out to the two physicians in the congregation to be on alert in case the baby decided to arrive during worship. I have several friends who are physicians and are always willing to help me navigate the healthcare system. I do not call them often, but when I do I am aware of how different my life is from millions (billions) of other people.

That’s what it means to be privileged.

Acknowledging privilege is not denying hard work. It’s just being honest about where we are.

Years ago in another church I was counseling with a teenager who was planning to drop out of school as soon as she could, because it seemed to her a waste of time. As I talked about the value of education, I mentioned the practical applications of what she was learning. I told her that without learning fractions it was impossible to know how much things cost (this is even more important when the “unit prices” are so often wrong or misleading).

She had no idea what I was talking about. “We just buy whatever is cheapest,” she said. I was confused. How can you know how much something costs unless you can compare pound for pound, or gallon for gallon? She repeated her answer, “We just buy whatever costs the least.” They were buying milk by the quart, because a quart cost less than a gallon or a half gallon.

Between my life and hers, there was a vast socio-economic gulf. Some of it can be explained by choices, and some of it can be explained by effort. But part of it was the result of where we started. I did not grow up with money. Our family was on the lowest rung of the middle class. (We pause now to reflect on how I am writing about privilege and I cannot help saying that my family did not have much money. If you press me, I will engage in a spirited but highly refined game of “one down-manship” in which I will attempt to prove just how far I have advanced beyond my humble beginnings.) But I grew up in a stable family, with secure food and shelter, and I was blessed by parents who believed in education and taught the values of thrift and hard work.

If you are reading this, then you have access to the internet. And you can read. And you have time to read on the internet. And if you have that access and can read, and have time, then you are privileged.

Some of us are more privileged than others. And we should be aware of the differences. But when we reflect on our own privilege, we reflect on the ways in which we have more than others, and our concern is directed toward those who have less. When we reflect on our privilege, we don’t worry about those who have more than we do, we worry about those who have less.

We do not reflect on our privilege to make ourselves feel guilty, but to help ourselves live with gratitude and compassion.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Building Is Not Just a Place to Be

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable,
always excelling in the work of the Lord,
because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
I Corinthians 15:58

On Sunday morning August 31, 2008, after an all night prayer vigil, we began worship at 214 Main Street and concluded the morning in our new church at 1558 South County Trail. It was a bittersweet moment for many of us, saying good bye to the building that had been our church home for 175 years, and beginning a new journey in a new place.

As the song says,
The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.

“We Are the Church.” But buildings matter. The church is not a “virtual” reality. It is flesh and bones. It is a body, which we believe is the body of Christ. And it exists in time and space. It is concrete (or wood, or brick . . .). The building is just a building. If there is no congregation, then it is not a church. The people, on the other hand, are a church even without the building. But buildings matter.

After three years, it is clear that our new building makes a difference. We knew it would be modern and convenient. We knew that we would enjoy accessibility and function of the new space. And we knew that it would be wonderful to have acres of parking. But in so many ways it has been more than we expected. The narthex is a welcoming space that is even more inviting than we imagined. The sanctuary, with the wonderful blend of stained glass, warm tones, sacred symbols, flexible space, excellent acoustics, and high tech audio-visual capability, is a sensory delight. The Education area is designed for easy flow into and out of the sanctuary, and the room decorations and Bible verses remind us who we are and whose we are.

And we are not the same people we were three years ago. The great architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, once said, “A building is not just a place to be. It is a way to be.” The welcoming design both reflects and supports who we are. Our new space is comfortable and sacred at the same time. We can feel at home here.

Our new street address at 1558 South County Trail reminds us of what we have claimed as our biblical address. In I Corinthians 15:58, Paul summarizes the meaning of the resurrection. Because Christ lives our labor is not in vain. In the economy of God’s love, nothing is lost. What we do matters, not just for now, but forever. This has been a good lesson for us as we have worked through the long and difficult journey that brought us to this place. We can be faithful and steadfast and do our best to excel, knowing that it makes a difference. Nothing will be lost.

This is a good reminder, because the way is not easy. This is a challenging time to be the church in America. But we can move into the future with faith, knowing that nothing will be lost.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sounds Crazy to Me

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
Matthew 3:21-22

Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God and casting out demons, and his family thought he was crazy. The scribes in Mark’s Gospel were collaborating with the Roman occupiers, and they were quick to support the idea that Jesus was crazy. What other explanation could there be?

At this point, as I imagine the scene, there were drums and loud guitars and Jesus sang a cover of the Billy Joel song, "You may be right, I may be crazy. But it just might be a lunatic you're looking for." (You have to sing it in your head.)

Last I knew, my colleague, Rev. Stewart Lanier was waiting outside a home in Randolph, Massachusetts, trying to prevent Fannie Mae for foreclosing on the residents. Stewart and three others have committed themselves to peacefully blocking the eviction, even if it means being arrested.

I am reasonably sure he believes he is casting out demons and preaching about the Kingdom of God.

Sounds fairly crazy to me.

I don’t know very much about the case. I understand that they have a Community Bank prepared to purchase the residence at fair market value and then sell it back to the family under a new mortgage agreement. And I understand that the family has been trying to pay rent and that their payments have been refused.

And I know that this story, of the mortgage holder refusing to accept payments, is like one I have heard in our congregation.

Mortgage defaults and foreclosures and bankruptcies are complicated. And they raise serious issues. Is it fair to let some people renegotiate their mortgages at lower rates with a reduced balance, when those who have also struggled but have never gotten behind in their payments get no relief? It’s not a simple matter.

So I will sit in my air conditioned office and think about it. And I will remind myself how complicated it all is, and I won’t even have to try very hard not to feel guilty. And Stewart will wait to be arrested.

I want a comprehensive solution. I want something that is fair to everyone (including the banks). The Barzolas family just wants to stay in their home.

And we do need to do something about the foreclosure crisis. Mortgage debt is a major drag on the economy, and there is a huge price being paid in the suffering of families.

Below is a copy of the letter that Stewart wrote to Fannie Mae, explaining his intentions:

Stephen L Harris, Fannie Mae

Dear Mr. Harris:

This is to inform you that on Monday morning July 18, as a direct result of your decision regarding the property at 7 Canessa St., Randolph MA, I will participate in an eviction blockade led by City Life Vida Urbana. I will peacefully block the constable from evicting the Barzolas family and will be arrested if necessary to defend them. I am an ordained United Methodist pastor, and will participate in this act of civil disobedience because of the flagrant immorality of Fannie Mae’s action. I will bring my action, and that of dozens of others, to the attention of faithful United Methodists in the New England United Methodist Conference and to news outlets.

If you are not familiar with this case, Boston Community Capital has offered to buy this property at a fairly appraised market value. Additionally the Barzolas family has attempted to pay fair market rent to Fannie Mae since their foreclosure, while the property is on the market.

You may not know that CBS news did a story on July 14 about Boston Community Capital’s work of buying foreclosed properties and then reselling them to their former owners at current rates. The CBS story was of a family who was able to buy back their home as a result of Boston Community Capital offer. This story had a happy ending.

If Fannie Mae proceeds with the current plan to evict the Barzolas family Fannie Mae will be entirely responsible for a story with an unhappy ending: a family homeless, another empty property on the block, and people who resist based on moral conviction, jailed.

I ask that you kindly reconsider your decision: accept the Boston Community Capital offer, or at least engage with them in good faith bargaining, and/or allow the Barzolas family to pay you rent. Allow this family to live in their home, keep their children in the same schools, and return to a life without daily fear of eviction.

Thank you for your consideration,

Stewart Lanier

Friday, July 15, 2011

Taxing Billionaires

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.James 5:1-6
The Bible is hard on rich people.

The Letter of James is especially hard, but the theme is consistent. When Mary announces the coming of the Messiah, she sings about the poor being filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. Jesus says that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” The rich man does not directly refuse to help poor Lazarus, he simply ignores him. And for that he is consigned to eternal darkness.

The problem is not wealth, but the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, and the disparity between rich and poor.

There are warnings about focusing too much on possessions and not enough on justice, and it’s clear that we don’t really own things; we are only stewards of what ultimately belongs to God. But the biblical ideal is for everyone to have enough, “every man under his vine and fig tree.” No one should have “too much,” but the definition of “too much” is flexible and the emphasis is really on “enough.”

All Christians live with a certain amount of tension on this. We are not called to renounce everything and live in poverty, although some embrace that calling. We are called to live life fully and abundantly, to accept and rejoice in the good gifts of life. But if we are sensitive to issues of global poverty and inequality, then our thanksgiving for our own comfort includes a concern for those who have less. And we need to be good stewards, setting aside a portion of what we have to do God’s work in the world.

Within the United States, the gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically over the past three decades. Almost all of the gains in economic growth over that time have been funneled to the wealthiest among us. The middle class is stagnant. The poor have less. And the rich have more. We have been redistributing income from the bottom to the top.

The richest 1% of Americans have as much wealth as the total combined wealth of the lower 90%. At the same time, the tax rates for the wealthiest Americans are lower than they have been in decades.

Increasing the tax rates for the wealthiest Americans would be a good idea even if we did not have concerns about debt and deficits. A tax increase would slow the rate of increase in the gap between wealth and poverty, and reduce the upward redistribution of income.

Opponents of increasing the taxes of billionaires point out that the richest one percent of Americans now pay approximately 40% of all income taxes. That sounds like a lot until you realize that the richest one percent also have 40% of the wealth. In other words, the amount they pay in taxes is about average. They pay more dollars but they don’t pay at a higher rate. The tax rate for billionaires is about the same as for average Americans.

Raising the marginal tax rate for the richest Americans would make a significant contribution to reducing the deficit. It would be fairer. But it would also be good. And it would be good for the rich as well as for the poor. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

If you offer your food to the hungry,
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58:10-11

Monday, July 11, 2011

Social Security and the Deficit

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28

Early in the Genesis story, when God asks Cain where his brother is, he responds with what he thinks is a rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” According to the rabbis, the rest of the Bible is an answer to Cain’s question. And the biblical answer is that Cain is supposed to be “his brother’s keeper.” We are responsible for one another. Developing the meanings of that mutual responsibility is the work of prophets and teachers throughout the Bible. And for Christians, it culminates in the teachings of Jesus.

I am my brother’s keeper. And I am supposed to love my neighbor as much as I love myself.

Social Security holds a special place in American politics and policy in part because it is one of the most important ways in which we live out our mutual responsibility to one another. It grew out of the Social Gospel commitment to make public policy more in line with the teachings of Jesus.

I realize that for those who fear a theocracy above all else, this makes them very nervous. But I am one of the people who still believes that Jesus’ teachings are our best ethical guide, and I believe it is the duty of Christians to put those teachings into practice. In the public square, others can make the case from other perspectives and on other grounds. And in the public square, we don’t expect our argument to prevail because it is what Jesus taught. But that’s where we get our direction.

Recently, White House sources have suggested that President Obama would be willing to accept cuts in Social Security as part of a deal to reduce the deficit in order to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling.

(In our hyper-partisan political culture the debt ceiling debate has become dangerously overheated, but it has always been contentious. The party that does not control the White House is always against raising the debt ceiling, because they are not directly responsible for governing and can strike a pose against government spending. This time we have the normal partisanship on steroids. But it has always struck me as an odd thing to vote on. Congress first makes the laws on taxes and spending which cause the debt to increase, and then they vote on whether or not they will allow that increase. It’s like deciding to buy a new car and then deciding whether or not to pay for it.)

Cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit may sound like a reasonable idea, until you realize that Social Security is not part of the deficit. Right now Social Security is in the black. There is a surplus in the Social Security Trust Fund. Of course, it’s a “virtual” surplus, because they money isn’t kept in a separate vault. But right now we are borrowing against Social Security to pay for other government expenditures.

Eventually, we will have to do something about Social Security. According to the current actuarial tables, the fund will be paying out more than it takes in some time within the next decade. And around 2025 payments will have to be significantly reduced in order to avoid bankrupting the system. But it isn’t part of the deficit.

The Wall Street Journal suggested a year ago that the Social Security problem could be solved for the next quarter century by raising the ceiling on Social Security taxes to reflect the increased income among the richest Americans.

Social Security has been the most successful anti-poverty in American history. It is the principal source of income for two-thirds of older Americans, and it provides almost all of the income (90% or more) for a third of all seniors. Over half of all Social Security recipients live on total incomes of $22,000 or less.

Of course, we could just cut the benefits for wealthy Americans. But one of the things that makes Social Security so successful is that it represents shared benefits and shared responsibilities. It is not a welfare program; it’s a retirement program. It’s part of how brothers and sisters, and neighbors take care of each other.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Roger Clemens and Telling the Truth

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5:33-37

Have you heard the latest on the Roger Clemens trial?

Me neither.

In an article in the New York Times, William C. Rhoden asks, “Where is the outrage?” I didn’t read the article but I think he is upset that fans are not as critical of Clemens as they were (and are) of Barry Bonds.

Neither Clemens nor Bonds have ever been beloved by the fans, and neither one has ever tried very hard to cultivate a relationship. But Bonds’ great crime is that he broke the home run record, which is something that baseball fans care about. Passionately. He flew by Babe Ruth’s 714 and broke Henry Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs. Those records matter, or they used to matter. No one cares which pitcher won the most games. That’s not true, some people do care, but the records are not as important.

If Barry Bonds had not taken steroids, he would be embraced by the baseball world in spite of his unwillingness to act like a nice guy. The records would speak for themselves. But he did (or at least we think he did). And now those records are forever tainted and we will never be able to make real comparisons.

But back to Clemens.

There was a time when I thought that Roger got a lot less credit than he deserved for the magnitude of his achievements. How many Cy Young awards did he win? And no one ever voted for him because they thought he was a nice guy.

But Clemens’ unpleasant side was revealed early in his career, when he threatened to quit baseball and complained about how hard things were for the players who had to CARRY THEIR OWN BAGS at the airport.

One of the reasons that no one cares about the trial is that there is no one rooting for Roger. And that’s sad.

But as a citizen, I have to wonder about the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on this. Aren’t we worried about the deficit? How can this possibly be a priority?

Roger is charged with lying to Congress.

Is that not the most absurd thing in the world? If the members of Congress did not lie to each other on a regular basis, Jon Stewart would be out of business (that observation comes from daughter Carolyn).

Two points on this. The first one is social and political commentary, and the second one is theological and biblical.

First, Roger Clemens would not have lied to Congress if a Congressional committee had not been investigating the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. Why was Congress investigating steroids in baseball? How is that in the national interest? Don’t they have enough to do?

Second, his alleged crime is not simply lying, but lying under oath. It isn’t a crime to lie to Congress (or to anyone else). It’s only a crime to lie under oath.

For Christians, truth telling is a fundamental moral imperative, regardless of whether or not we “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It’s not an absolute. We can all think of multiple examples of situations in which telling the truth is just plain wrong. But it’s not about whether or not we are “under oath.” We are called, as Paul said, to “speak the truth in love.” Because truth matters, and it may matter much more in those times when we are not asked to “raise your right hand, and repeat . . .”