Friday, November 30, 2012

We Belong to a World Community

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’”
Matthew 25:1-9

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof observes that, “In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.”

I’m jealous.

We didn’t lose power for more than a few seconds during Super Storm Sandy, but folks across town, just a few miles away, were without electricity for more than a week. That’s nothing compared to what happened in New York and New Jersey, but it does make you think. Standby generators are not cheap. It’s easy to spend over $10,000, but for many families, it’s worth it. Power outages are only fun for a short time.

There are at least two problems here. One is the increase in extreme weather caused by global warming. That is a long term problem that needs to be addressed (and it is becoming a crisis sooner than expected). The other problem is our infrastructure, and specifically, the electrical grid. In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers examined our electrical grid and gave it a grade of D+. The World Economic Forum ranks our electrical infrastructure as 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4. Remarkably, neither global warming nor infrastructure got very much attention during the presidential campaign.

This points to an underlying problem: When it comes to major issues we lack a sense of community. In the language of kindergarten progress reports, “we don’t play well with others,” and we don’t know how to share.

I don’t criticize the people who are buying generators, but from a national or global perspective it makes no sense. It’s inefficient and it increases pollution. Ironically, it addresses the problems caused by climate change by adding to the conditions that cause climate change.

But this is where we are in America. Community services are being replaced with private alternatives. Rather than pay for services with higher taxes, we leave it to individuals.

If you are worried about crime, you can live in a gated community with private security. If the public schools have problems, you can send your kids to a private school. If the roads are crumbling, you can buy a bigger SUV. If public parks and recreation areas are not maintained, you can buy a home on the beach. But these “work arounds” only work if you have a lot of money.

We need to think hard about what it means to be a community, rather than a collection of individuals who happen to live in the same country (and on the same planet).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wonder Bread and Prosperity

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
John 6:30-34

Obviously, Jesus was talking about Wonder Bread.

One of the great trials of my childhood was that I never (almost never) had Wonder Bread. On Saturdays when I watched a circus show on TV called (I think) “The Big Top” at noon at Gramma Gibbs’s across the street, she would make me a peanut butter sandwich on Cushman’s white bread, but I still didn’t get Wonder Bread.

Sadly, my mother was into health food long before it was popular and I was forced to carry whole wheat or oatmeal bread sandwiches to school for lunch. As far as I could tell, everyone else had Wonder Bread.

According to the TV ads, “Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies twelve ways!” There were no ads for oatmeal bread, but my mother assured me that it was good for me.

I have been meditating on Wonder Bread since I learned that the Hostess Baking Company has declared bankruptcy (again) and is shutting down. No more Hostess Cup Cakes or Snowballs or Twinkies. I thought Twinkies were eternal.

The company is blaming the unions and there is some truth to that. Apparently one of the unions had a deal whereby they could not be required to carry baked goods and bread on the same truck, which meant two different trucks for the same route. On the other hand, in one of the earlier bankruptcy reorganizations the CEO negotiated pay and benefit reductions with the unions and then gave himself a 300% pay raise (which he earned by negotiating those reductions).

There is certainly enough blame to go around.

Those of us who paid attention to Reinhold Niebuhr are not surprised to find that the tendency to self-interest is found in unions as well as in management. Niebuhr was in favor of unions, not because they were pure and blameless, but because they provided a countervailing force to the power of corporations.

It is worth noting that in the in the Wonder Bread and Twinkie world of the 1950’s, unions were much stronger than they are today. In the mid-fifties approximately one-third of all workers were unionized. Management and workers bargained as equals. And on top of that, the highest marginal tax rate was 91%.

In that postwar environment of strong unions and (relatively) high taxes, we thrived. Middle class income grew dramatically and we enjoyed perhaps the greatest prosperity in the history of the world.

Ironically, there is much more nostalgia for Twinkies and Wonder Bread than for stronger unions and higher taxes, even though we know that Twinkies and Wonder Bread and Hostess Cup Cakes are not good for us. (My mother was right all along!)

There are lots of things about the post-war era that we don’t miss. The disabled were institutionalized and out of sight. Black people rode at the back of the bus. Gays were kept in the closet. And women did not stray from the kitchen.

Restoring the higher marginal tax rates of the fifties will not magically create prosperity (but investments in infrastructure—remember the interstate highway system—can make a difference). And restoring the power of the unions is impossible in the new global economy. But there are still positive lessons to learn from those “Wonder Years.” It is possible to have prosperity without asking those at the bottom to have less so that those at the top can have more.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Different Kind of Christmas

Today is “Cyber Monday.” Friday was “Black Friday,” which actually started on Thursday (the holiday formerly known as “Thanksgiving”). When you stop and think about it, the idea of Christmas shopping is a very strange one. Do we really expect to find Christmas for sale somewhere?

I need to insert two footnotes before going any farther. First, as someone concerned about the national and global economy, I am glad that the early reports on Black Friday show that sales are up. And second, having enjoyed a childhood full of wonderful Christmas presents (though the gifts I got were very modest by today’s standards), I am not about to suggest that today’s children should be denied those self-indulgent delights.

Deep inside the materialistic excesses of our holiday shopping, there is a theology struggling to get out. The tradition of gift giving goes back to the Three Wise Men, who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in the manger. At its best, the gift giving celebration affirms our faith that God is still among us, that we experience Christ in every human hand and face. In other words, every baby is baby Jesus. We give gifts to our friends and family as a celebration of Christ’s presence within them.

Of course, if we are really trying to give a present to Jesus, then we need to ask, “What kind of present would Jesus want?” (WKPWJW?) I’m guessing it’s probably not something you can get at the mall. And though I am pained to admit it, I probably can’t order it from LL Bean.

According to the Gospels, he wants us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to forgive those who hurt us, to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, to work for peace and justice, and pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, to give all that we have, and to follow him.

On the way to accomplishing that (and some of it can only happen in God’s time and by God’s doing), what Jesus wants is changed lives. And he wants that, not because it’s good for him, but because it’s good for us.

When people ask that absolutely essential question of the season, “Are you ready for Christmas?” what they really mean is, “Have you done your shopping?” The question is meant to be harmless and fun.  And it is.  We would be shocked to get a serious answer, but think for a minute about what that might sound like.

"Are you ready for Christmas?"

"I’m ready for a different kind of Christmas.  During Advent I try to begin each day with a few minutes of Bible study.  I read the familiar texts from Isaiah and Luke.  I try to let it sink in, and I try to read it every day as if I had never read it before.  I try to envision what the world would be like if we really lived out those scriptures. Then I pray for my friends and family.  Some of them are going through difficult times. And my own life is not as bright as the Christmas lights. But mostly it's just a simple prayer that we slow down enough to really enjoy the season and be thankful for one another.  How about you?"

That might lead to a very interesting discussion, or a long silence.  What do you think?  Are you ready for a different kind of Christmas?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Have You Heard the One about the General and the Biographer and the Socialite and the Other General and the FBI?

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.
II Samuel 11:2-4

Raise your hand if you thought General Petraeus was a likely candidate for extramarital sex.

The story of King David is much more straight-forward than the story of CIA director David Petraeus. A woman in Florida complained to a friend in the FBI about emails she was receiving. The FBI friend started an investigation, which led to the discovery that the women sending the unwanted emails was having an affair with General Petraeus. Eventually, the FBI also found that the woman receiving the (allegedly) nasty emails was also having an (apparently or possibly) inappropriate correspondence with another general. In the meantime, the friend at the FBI was taken off of the case and then complained to a friend in congress because it was going too slowly. And maybe he is now also under investigation? You can’t make this up.

The whole story is tragic. It is especially tragic for the spouses and the families. It is always painful to have one’s trust betrayed, but to have that betrayal played out as the lead story in a never ending news cycle must feel like one has been sent to a special place in hell. But in a different light, it is also tragic for the principal actors. No one is immune to human frailty

Our modern David has no shortage of folks willing to make excuses for his behavior. An unnamed former colleague described Paula Broadwell as “a shameless self-promoting prom queen,” and apologized for the general by explaining, “You’re a 60-year-old man and an attractive woman almost half your age makes herself available to you – that would be a test for anyone.” News stories focused on Mrs. Broadwell’s wardrobe, her eyes, and her well-toned muscles in an attempt to rationalize the general’s fall from grace.

When in doubt, blame the woman.

One of the more remarkable things about the story of David and Bathsheba is that all of the blame, human and divine, falls on David. When we think about the patriarchal culture of those times, it is surprising that Bathsheba was not portrayed as the temptress and the seducer.

We blame the woman in part at least because we know there is no limit to the needs of the male ego. On the short list of powerful men who had affairs with worshipful younger women we find Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, and John McCain.

The problem is not new. Half a century ago when Allen Dulles was CIA Director and his brother, John Foster Dulles, was Secretary of State, the standards were quite different. According to his sister, Allen Dulles had hundreds of affairs, including Queen Frederika of Greece, and no one thought much about it.

The Book of Proverbs provides wisdom for married men in the form of a blessing:

Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
1a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Proverbs 5:18-19