Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Time of Shame

President Obama and Republicans in Congress appear willing to continue the national pastime of pandering to the wealthy at the expense of the needy. According to news reports, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate are willing to support legislation to extend unemployment benefits for workers that are to expire on December 31, 2010 if President Obama and Democrats will support extending the "temporary" tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush for all taxpayers, including individuals earning $200,000 or more and couples earning $250,000, that are also scheduled to expire December 31, 2010.

Such a deal should offend anyone who cares about justice. People making $200,000 a year don't need a tax break nearly as badly as people who've been out of work for months need unemployment benefits. President Obama surely knows this. So why would he agree to such a deal? And why, to add further insult to injury, would his administration agree to exempt estates valued at $5,000,000 from taxation? Why agree to add $900 billion—almost a trillion dollars—more to the federal deficit by giving tax breaks to the rich?

The political answer is that some lawmakers won't agree to extend the benefits for unemployed workers unless people with jobs and high incomes get tax breaks. Tax breaks for the wealthy is the price Republican and some Democratic lawmakers are demanding and Obama seems willing to pay so unemployed workers can buy food, provide shelter, and otherwise care for their families. This situation is happening during Advent season when Christian congregations are joyfully singing and preaching about a time when the Messiah will rule the world "in truth and grace."

We are warned at Psalm 146:3 to not place ultimate trust in rulers—no matter what their political party or philosophy may be—but in God. The drama being played out in Washington over extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers shows that politicians are dealmakers. Their primary concern is not justice for the poor, weak, and vulnerable, but the campaign contributions and support they can garner from the wealthy and powerful.

So why aren't religious leaders talking about this issue? Could it be that we, like the politicians, are more concerned about money, church pledges to capital campaigns, and budgets than to how our vulnerable neighbors are treated? Are religious leaders and congregations becoming like the politicians the Psalmist warned against trusting? Are we so much "at ease in Zion" that we're more interested in charity for the affluent than justice for the vulnerable?

I don't expect politicians to think and act like prophets. But it isn't asking too much of preachers and congregations who claim to be God's servants to demand that politicians use public money so unemployed people can have food and shelter. It isn't asking too much of preachers and congregations to challenge and criticize politicians who would rather create more public debt to give tax breaks to wealthy people than protect people oppressed by unemployment. And it isn't asking too much of preachers and congregations to challenge ourselves about how much we cater to wealthy people.

The Biblical prophets had a sensitivity about and compassion for suffering people that inspired them to hold rulers accountable for the plight of poor people, immigrants, children, and others who were vulnerable. They called on rulers to relieve suffering, not exempt the powerful and affluent from the duty to help care for the less fortunate. When rulers ignored the divine mandate of justice for the poor, weak, immigrant, and outcast in their societies, prophets challenged them, criticized them, and condemned them. And when priests sided with insensitive and oppressive rulers, prophets condemned the priests along with the rulers.

Have the preachers and members of congregations supposedly devoted to God and divine justice forgotten this biblical history and forsaken our calling? Sadly, we seem so addicted to materialism and popularity that we can't and won't condemn policies and politicians that violate the biblical imperative to care for vulnerable people.

Shame on us for thinking we glorify God while ignoring how rulers treat people Jesus called "the least of these"! Shame on us for honoring the wealthy and disregarding the needy! Shame on us!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Airport Screening and Howard Thurman's Hounds of Hell

©Wendell Griffen, 2010

What if you were required to pass through a scanning device any time you drive on a public highway? Would you consider that requirement intrusive? Would you object to being scanned and insist that government agents have some specific factual basis indicating that you pose a risk of harm to others before they interfere with your travel and scan your body and effects?

Would you object less if required to permit government agents to frisk you and rummage through your belongings before you can travel? Are body and container scans and frisks justifiable because people use the highways to commit crimes?

If you value your freedom to travel without mindless suspicion and your right to privacy, you should find this hypothetical disturbing. Yet this process happens every day to every person engaged in commercial air travel in the United States. All persons who board a commercial airplane must first submit to body scanning. The latest body scanners provide images in graphic anatomical detail that are viewed by a TSA employee. Some frequent air travelers are concerned about the health risks associated with undergoing routine body scans.

Persons unable or unwilling to submit to the full body scanners must submit to pat-down frisking similar to that performed by law enforcement agents on suspected criminals. Many persons, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have expressed objections to the pat-down searches.

However, there has been no reported outcry about the requirement that every person seeking to board a commercial airplane be scanned. TSA personnel needn't have a reason to scan or frisk other than the fact that a person is travelling by commercial airliner. Persons traveling from private airports are not required to be scanned, frisked, or otherwise detained for surveillance and search before they board aircraft.

When a government requires people to be searched without any objective indication that they pose a danger to others, one usually associates that activity with a "police state." If freedom and personal dignity mean anything, people have the right to be left alone by others (including the government) unless there is a specific reason to interfere with that right.

Yes, we live in a world where people carry dangerous objects onto airplanes, including box cutters in their carry-on items and explosives in their shoes and underwear. We can't ignore that some people want to hurt others.

But is it fair and right to conduct surveillance, scan, and search every airline traveler like a potential terrorist? If so, what is left of the Fourth Amendment guarantee that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated?

Searches that lack an objective basis for suspecting the persons searched to be dangerous may be thorough and efficient. Such searches may cause public officials and travelers to feel "safe." However, the searches are not based on reasons to suspect that a traveler is dangerous. Governmental efficiency and irrational fear of strangers do not constitute legally valid reasons to treat people as criminals or enemies.

The airport screening issue involves the fundamental moral concern of whether we'll treat people we don't know as neighbors or enemies. Is the woman ahead of me my neighbor or my potential murderer? What reason do I have to suspect her as a murderer?

Am I justified to consider her more dangerous than myself because I don't know her? Is my suspicion because her clothing, language, ethnicity, or some other obvious feature differs from mine?

Would I be offended if she accused me of being a criminal and insisted that I be searched merely because she doesn't know me? And if I deserve to be treated as a neighbor unless there are objective reasons for suspecting me to be an enemy, shouldn't she and anyone else be entitled to the same neighborly treatment?

In his classic work, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman named fear, hate, and hypocrisy (deception) "hounds of hell" that prevent people from creating community. And Fred Craddock reminds us that how we treat strangers is a question on life's final exam (Matthew 25:31-46). Judging from the TSA airport screening process, we're not creating community and we're flunking the final.

Religious leaders and congregations haven't addressed the moral implications surrounding airport screening. Terrorist attacks and threats don't trump justice for strangers. 9-11 didn't change the final exam.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Clint McCance, Tea Party Bigotry, and the Religion of Jesus

©Wendell Griffen, 2010
Little Rock, Arkansas

I may be the only person in the world who senses a connection between Clint McCance, Tea Party nationalism, and neo-fundamentalist notions about Christianity. Mr. McCance is the Vice-Chair of the Midland School Board in Pleasant Plains, Arkansas who posted hateful comments about gay youth on his personal Facebook page. His were uttered in reaction to people wearing purple in support of recent gay victims who committed suicide after they suffered bullying.

Among other things, McCance stated, “Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way I’m wearin [sic] it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant [sic] believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves [sic] because of their sin.”

Since the time those and other hurtful statements were circulated over the Internet and drawn intense reactions ranging from a planned peaceful protest at a local school in his community to a public rebuke by the Arkansas Commissioner of Education, McCance has retreated into a reclusive silence.

I see a similarity between McCance and Tea Party nationalism. Like McCance, Tea Party activists have demonstrated intolerance and hostility. Although they deny being motivated by racial animosity toward President Obama and profess that they are displeased by his policies, many Tea Party activists have publicly challenged his citizenship, his religious faith, and his patriotism in ways that are hateful and racially-biased.

McCance and Tea Party nationalists appear to share one other feature—a neo-fundamentalist notion of Christianity that strikes out against people because they are considered "strangers," meaning different. In McCance's case, the "strangers" are gay people, particularly gay youth. For the Tea Party, President Obama is the "stranger." Ever since Obama won the Democratic Party nomination during the 2008 presidential campaign, people have been showing up at public events bearing signs and wearing clothing depicting him as a Nazi, socialist, witch doctor, and threat to the United States. Some have even worn T-shirts with Biblical references calling for his death.

Somehow McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamental Christians (who in many instances self-identify as "Christian conservatives") have come to believe that people who are different are dangerous. They reject the idea that human diversity is valid. For McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamentalists Christians, safety, security, and salvation require sameness.

This mindset is fundamentally wrong-headed. Reasonably intelligent people understand that human diversity is a fact to be accepted as part of a healthy world, not a harmful condition from which people and a society can or should be cured. A worldview that defines difference as threatening contradicts reality. After all, we are constantly learning about new species of plants and animals. Variety in people is no more ominous than it is in anything else in nature.

McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamental Christians embrace an arrogant and self-glorifying anti-intellectualism. I doubt I am the only person who detects irony in the fact that McCance, a leader (Vice-Chair) of his local public school board, was so arrogant as to demonstrate his incompetence with English grammar and spelling in his Facebook utterances that have prompted such an outcry. McCance brings Sarah Palin (former Alaska governor, 2008 Republican Party nominee for Vice President of the United States, and now leading promoter of Tea Party ideology) to mind. Palin's anti-intellectualism has become her calling card. We should not be surprised that American children are falling behind children in other societies when we deliberately elevate and celebrate people such as McCance and Palin as the exemplary leaders.

McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamentalist Christians aren't merely wrong-headed about human diversity. They're wrong-headed and wrong-hearted about the religion of Jesus. The Gospels present Jesus as someone who embraced people, especially people who were otherwise shunned because they were lepers, women, children, religious, political, and social outcasts, and sick. The Christ of the Gospels did not inspire the "Christianity" proclaimed and lived by McCance, Tea Party nationalists like Sarah Palin, and other neo-fundamentalist Christians who condemn people because of their sexual orientation, religion, language, and ethnicity.

There is as much difference between the religion of Jesus and McCance, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-fundamentalist Christians as there is between noon and midnight. As a follower of Jesus, I intend to show McCance, Palin, and the people they mistreat as "strangers" that I know that difference and am determined to live it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Calling Out the Hypocrisy of "Fiscal Conservatism" in Current U.S. Political Discourse

Media commentators and U.S. elected officials at the highest levels of government are expressing concern ranging from apprehension to alarm about the federal deficit. Several members of Congress and people who share the Tea Party ideas about government are complaining about federal spending.This concern supposedly was why Congress allowed unemployment benefits for people who had been unemployed for six months or more to expire on June 2.

If the Tea Party, Blue Dogs, and other so-called "fiscal conservatives" such as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Steve Forbes, and others are truly concerned about integrity—fiscal or otherwise—they should be complaining about the billions of dollars spent to wage war in Iraq. According to the National Priorities Project (www.nationalpriorities.org/costofwar_home), the United States allocated $747.3 billion—almost 3/4 of a trillion dollars—for the war in Iraq since 2003. Here is what the same amount of money could have done for Arkansas, my home state:

  • 2,080,756 people—more than the entire population of Arkansas—could have been provided low-income healthcare for one year; or
  • 155,419 police or sheriff's patrol officers could have been employed for one year; or
  • 166,758 firefighters could have been employed for a year; or
  • Scholarships for 1,083,707 university students could have been provided for one year; or
  • 1,261,201 students could have received Pell Grants of $5550 each to attend college; or
  • Head Start could have been funded to cover 1,103,815 children for a year.

Mind you, the $747.3 billion allocated to wage war in Iraq does not include any money that must be spent to treat thousands of wounded and disabled service members. If the Department of Defense website is accurate, 13,982 service members were wounded in action and not returned to duty and 17,915 others were wounded and returned to duty. The Iraq war cost tally also does not include what the nation owes to survivors of the 4417 military and Defense Department civilians killed in Iraq as of August 2, 2010, 10 a.m., EDT (see www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf). We should have long ago confronted the hypocrisy of people who profess to cherish human life but never challenge a war that has claimed almost 4500 American lives, perhaps hundreds of thousands more in Iraq, and permanently scarred countless others.

Long before now, ethically sound people should have dismissed the hypocrisy of people who opposed spending money to help unemployed working people survive the current recession but who have never opposed the seven-year-old war in Iraq. And we should have dismissed as moral cowards or moral frauds those who said "I want my country back" when the nation debated enacting national healthcare insurance reform, but who never thought the country was at risk morally, intellectually, socially, militarily, and geo-politically because of the quagmire called Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When almost ten billion dollars of the money allocated for the war in Iraq cannot be accounted for, people who understand the difference between integrity and hypocrisy owe God and each other much more than hand-wringing and head-shaking about the nation's budgetary woes. We should be outraged about the hypocritical conduct and conversation surrounding it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Missed Opportunities--A Commentary on the Cambridge Review Committee Report on the July 16, 2009 arrest of Professor Henry Louis, Gates, Jr.

©Wendell Griffen, 2010

On June 15, 2010, barely a month before the first anniversary of the notorious July 16, 2009 encounter between Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, a report was issued by the Cambridge Review Committee, a volunteer panel of individuals selected by the City of Cambridge "… for their knowledge of issues in policing and criminal justice, law, race, community relations, organizational behavior, and conflict resolution, as well as their knowledge of the City of Cambridge." The Report, titled, "Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities," asserts that the Crowley-Gates incident was "avoidable" and occurred because "Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates each missed opportunities to 'ratchet down' the situation and end it peacefully."

Even assuming the best intentions of the Cambridge Review Committee and anyone else responsible for their effort, the report missed the opportunity to state the obvious. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. should have never been arrested for disorderly conduct outside his own home merely because he accused Sergeant Crowley of behaving in a racist manner. Crowley's decision to arrest Gates for disorderly conduct—nothing else—made the incident notorious.

The 64 page report reads as if Gates somehow was obliged to not express his displeasure about being suspected of being a thief in his own residence even after proving his identity and lawful right to be there. The report makes much ado about procedural legitimacy, police discretion, and other concepts, but says nothing about personal liberty to protest how a police officer behaves. For all its words, the "Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities" report missed the opportunity to unapologetically declare that in the United States a person does not forfeit freedom of speech when confronted by law enforcement.

Sergeant Crowley had no discretion to arrest Professor Gates for criticizing his presence or loudly accusing him of behaving in a racist manner. If the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States means anything, it means that the government cannot prohibit someone from complaining about how its officials behave. There is no discretion for any police officer to arrest someone from complaining about how the officer is performing. The fact that the officer is investigating a burglary call does not render the First Amendment pointless, useless, or void.

Had the Cambridge Review Committee desired to honestly address the Crowley-Gates episode, its report would have made this point. The section of the report that deals with "Police Discretion" would have said that while the police have discretion about whether to make an arrest when they observe unlawful conduct, there is nothing unlawful about protesting police conduct that one considers racially discriminatory, insulting, or otherwise demeaning. Disorderly conduct laws exist to punish civil disturbances, not curb civil liberty. Those laws do not justify arresting anyone for criticizing official behavior, whether by the police or anyone else.

The United States is a free society, not a police state. Strangely, the Cambridge Review Committee missed a clear opportunity to say so.

Friday, June 11, 2010

We Aren't Your Field Hands!

Ben Smith writes for Politico.com. On June 8 after Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas won her runoff election with Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, Smith received a phone call from an un-named White House staff member.

"Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members money down the toilet on a pointless exercise," the official told Smith. "If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November."

That remark demonstrates so much cultural and political insensitivity that it begs for a response. I'm responding as a native Arkansan, an unapologetic Halter supporter, and someone who believes that in a free society people are entitled to choose the people and causes they consider worth supporting.

Bill Halter received almost 48% of the votes in the June 8 runoff election because working people and progressives in Arkansas want a Senator who respects us as equals, not her hired help. Working people and progressives in Arkansas encouraged Halter to run for Senate. We knew it was an uphill fight, and gladly accepted help from around the country.

Workers and progressives are not field hands for Senator Lincoln, the White House, or anyone else. We support candidates whose records and values square with what matters to us. We're concerned about seniors who can't afford their medications. We're concerned about families who can't afford to help their children attend college because government policies helped corporations move jobs out of the country and favored banks over students concerning student loans.

Workers and progressives disagree with politicians who agreed to loan money to Wall Street banks and Detroit auto manufacturers to keep the economy afloat but were unwilling to loan money to working families trying to avoid foreclosure of their homes. We disagree with politicians who realize the need for federally-funded crop insurance for the nation's farmers—a public option that Senator Lincoln has never opposed—but who don't believe that what is good policy for the farm crop should be good policy for the farm workers who produce the crop.

On these and other issues, a Democratic label alone no longer will earn our support. As Jesus said, people are known by their fruit. We supported Halter because Lincoln's voting record doesn't square with our needs and aspirations. That wasn't flushing money down a toilet. It was acting to replace an insensitive politician by supporting someone whose aspirations and values matched our core values.

Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination and the 2008 presidential election because we were willing to "flush" our money and energies this way. Ned Lamont defeated Senator Joe Lieberman for the Democratic primary in 2006 because we were willing to "flush" our money and energies this way. Senator Claire McCaskill was elected to the Senate from Missouri because we were willing to "flush" our money and energies this way.

We didn't toilet our money and energies in those efforts or for Halter. We invested in candidates we embraced. In the Halter instance that investment didn't produce the desired result. Still, it was our investment to make. That's freedom.

If the White House wants to invest its energies more effectively, it shouldn't treat the people who supported Halter's senatorial bid like field hands by talking and acting like plantation owners. That attitude won't help Lincoln win her fall election against Republican Congressman John Boozman, whose campaign coffers will undoubtedly be "flushed" with donations from business tycoons from Arkansas and elsewhere.

Instead, Lincoln and her handlers should ponder how to re-habilitate her in the minds of Arkansas voters who supported Halter. Lincoln can't win the general election without our votes. Treating us like field hands isn't the way to get them.

Thanks to the White House staffer who spoke with Ben Smith, we know what Lincoln's White House cheerleaders think of us. We're not your field hands. If you want to lose Lincoln's seat in the fall, continue talking and acting like we are.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


By now most of the nation recognizes that the risks associated with offshore oil exploration are more real than the oil industry, lawmakers, and government regulators have ever admitted. U.S. and state lawmakers and regulators either failed to understand or consciously chose to place blind and unjustifiable trust in oil industry claims about the safety of offshore oil exploration. The same lawmakers and regulators chose to blindly believe oil industry claims that devices to prevent deep sea oil well blowouts will work, or can be effectively repaired before a devastating oil leak occurs following a blowout. Now, almost two months after oil began leaking from the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well more than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, we know how wrong those claims were.

As much as it may hurt, it is time to admit the truth. The oil industry and government regulators gambled that offshore oil exploration would not pose a problem to the environment, or that any problem would be manageable. Americans joined the bet. We lost.

It is important to realize that the gamble was not necessary. It is certainly true that the United States is overly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels for energy needs. President Jimmy Carter warned about that over-dependence during his one term in office, a factor that probably played a role in his unpopularity and eventual defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 thirty years ago. Had the U.S. population chosen to believe President Carter, heed his urgent call to refocus our lives around conserving energy better, decrease how much we rely on petroleum and other fossil fuels, develop new energy sources and supply systems, and rethink the way we travel (such as by relying more on mass transit), the chances are good that offshore oil drilling would not have been permitted so much and managed so poorly.

But national and corporate arrogance combined with political and corporate opportunism led Americans to reject Carter's assessment of the situation and his plan for energy management. Ronald Reagan, with an easy grin, familiar voice, and rosy projections of national life built on distrust for government and blind trust in the supposed virtues of free enterprise, defeated Carter in 1980. Reagan's election ended the fledgling steps taken during the Carter administration to shift the United States away from its addiction to oil. Reagan's vice presidential running mate was George H.W. Bush, a longtime friend of the Texas oil industry. James Baker, the Texas lawyer whose clients included major petroleum companies, served as chief of staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies (1980-1992). Although the United States worked with other nations to craft the Kyoto Protocol calling for global reduction in greenhouse gases caused by use of fossil fuels during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the United States refused to join the Kyoto Protocol after George W. Bush became President in 2001. Then Vice President Richard B. Cheney and oil industry apologists crafted energy policies favoring increased offshore oil drilling as well as drilling on federal land. One of their most bitter complaints was that they were unable to persuade Congress to permit oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And during the 2008 presidential election contest, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona chose Alaska Governor Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin as his vice presidential running mate.

Even now it is interesting to observe how journalists, political historians, and the American public have ignored or pretended to forget this history. The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well was placed into service in 2001. Oil industry leaders and political leaders from oil industry states downplayed the risks associated with offshore oil exploration and production long before then. As late as March 23, 2010, President Obama signaled his administration's approval of continued offshore oil exploration despite objections by environmentalists. Whenever environmental and safety concerns were raised, oil industry officials and their political friends would confidently assert that the risks associated with offshore oil exploration are rare and manageable. The world now knows that the risks are tragically real, that the oil industry, governmental regulators, and our lawmakers cannot manage the damage associated with them, and that we have no reason to expect that to change in the foreseeable future if we continue business as usual.

All of this should point the nation back to its rejection of President Jimmy Carter's effort to redirect the way we use energy and the sources for our energy. Carter was defeated in 1980 by Reagan, whose distrust of governmental regulation helped chart the course for U.S. energy over the past thirty years. Dead birds and fish increase and more land, water, and people are threatened with each passing day because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet the oil industry remains unwilling to admit its environmental arrogance and incompetence and is still somewhat unchecked by governmental lawmakers and regulators. This is the "small government" reality Americans chose with Reagan in 1980, along with Reagan's affable invitation that we embrace what we should now realize was free enterprise idolatry.

American energy policy, one result of that idolatry, now has tar balls washing ashore along the beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast. The families of killed and wounded workers on the Deepwater Horizon platform struggle with tragedies that will never be undone. We face years—if not decades—during which the waters of the Gulf will be unsafe for fish, water fowl, and humans. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, "the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."

It is not unfair to wonder how things might have been different had the nation listened to and trusted Carter's prophetic efforts instead of following Reagan's path.