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.