"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Politician's New Year's Resolution, 2012

Elections are right around the corner. Let the hilarity begin.

A Politician's New Year's Resolution, 2012
By Ruben Rivera
Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good blog©
31 December 2011

I resolve not to be the lackey of deep
pocket interests, but to serve the common
people who still believe their vote actually
matters. Though I do owe favors to the
special interests without whom I would
not be here. But as soon as I take care of
them, it's all about the people, so help me,
or may my right hand sprout mushrooms.

 I resolve not to sell out my values to
every trade wind of political expediency
or the corrupting lure of conflict of
interest enrichment opportunities.
But I am also a realist. After all, the
world is thus and thus must we live
in the world. That aside, I shall preserve
my values inviolate, or may my taste
buds switch places with my bile ducts.

 As a politician who's been an outsider
in Washington for years, I resolve to
take the politics out of politics and
work with my colleagues across the
isle for the good of the country --
after all, the things that unite us are
greater than the things that divide us --
assuming I can find someone from the
other party with a brain-stem. These
I resolve to fulfill, or may my tongue
forever be forced to speak the truth. 

On the even lighter side, see here.
Pictures: free clip art 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Crazy Gift

By Ruben Rivera©
Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good blog
22 December 2011

The gift that
was too big
too small
not the right color
not the famous brand
deemed obsolescent
in a society of planned obsolescence

The gift with
no material face value
like store coupons 
that will get you half off 
on milk and honey but are 
not exchangeable for money 
why don't they just give us the money

The gift waiting
in long lines for a refund or
exchanged for what we really want or
accepted from the giver with a diplomatic smile
then promptly disappeared like some political dissident
and years later we can say
with a straight face that we still have it

The gift from
that crazy God
crazy and crudely in love
like the child that makes a clay handprint
crude as all get out and wrapped even more crudely
yet the most cherished object on the parent's mantle

A crazy gift
for this crazy world
that has everything and nothing
the only gift you can
take with you

Friday, November 18, 2011

"...As makes the angels weep."

Ruben Rivera, Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good Blog©
18 Nov 2011

Last week I spent several days at a conference in Baltimore, Maryland on developing intercultural competency. Let me show you why this is important with some visuals.

The question here is not whether you (the reader) find this ad personally offensive. But if you work for Nivea's ad agency, the question is whether you have a clue that other people might find this ad offensive. If you don't, why not? If you do, why did you do it any way?

The Nivea skin care advertisement above is a good example of intercultural incompetence. It offended so many people (I'll leave you to guess why) that Nivea issued an apology: "This ad was inappropriate and offensive. It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again."

"This ad was inappropriate and offensive." How then did it get by all the ad creators and final decision-makers? There are only so many possible explanations: (1) Fact: the vast majority of people in high echelons of advertising are white folks. I don't say this to put them down. But it does mean that some of them may not have intercultural experience that might have clued them ahead of time that this ad would not sit well with many people. (2) One cannot assume that just because there may be some people of color in advertising that they are automatically interculturally proficient. In other words, if there were people of color that contributed to this ad, they obviously needed a clue too. (3) The powers-that-be knew they were pushing the envelope of propriety but risked it any way (more about that later).

Here's another one.

Why might this ad be troubling to some people? The response from many folks is in the connection of the words "Visibly more beautiful skin..." with the above picture of progression from less to more beautiful skin which goes from left to right: black to middle (Latina?) to white. Is this just "reading to much into this"? Perhaps. It could be an attempt to include diversity and that's not a bad thing. But if you know anything about the multibillion dollar global "beauty" industry, you know that the standard of beauty that has dominated the world is Caucasian, and people of color all over the world spend loads of money to rid themselves of their non-Caucasian ethnic features. (Check the annual "Erasing Ethnicity" reports, for example here.) 

In fact many household name "beauty" companies have commercials overseas that tell you relentlessly: the whiter you look the more beautiful you are and the better your life will be. Don't believe me. Check out this skin ad from India.

Yeah, probably would cause a bit of ruckus in the good old US of A. In fact it is a big controversy in India itself, a land were most people are darker in complexion. 

There are "beauty" ads like this over much of the world; and there is so much money to be made on the get-white industry that other issues such as the racialization of what it means to beautiful, or human at all, will likely not be discussed in company board rooms.
But I am asking for a discussion. Is there a difference between trying to keep yourself clean, groomed and healthy and erasing your ethnicity because you don't think you are good enough, human enough, beautiful enough the way you were born?

Another one.

Summer's Eve has long pushed the envelope when peddling their "feminine hygiene" products. This ad series was dubbed "Hail to the V." And no, "V" does not stand for extraterrestrial "Visitors" who turn out to be would-be reptilian conquerors of earth. Let's leave aside the pretty creepy idea of using a hand positioned vertically to represent a talking you-know-what. 

The other thing is that when the advertising creators used a black and Latina woman in their commercials, they racially stereotyped them. The back woman's voice is reminiscent of 1970s blaxploitation films. The Latina begins, "Ai-yi-yi, another layover. After traveling all day, you expect me [V] to feel good, seriously?" in, of course, a stereotyped accent.

And what about the white hand/person in the ad? She could have hailed from Germany, but she doesn't speak in gutturals or mention sauerkraut, lederhosen, or Otto von Bismark. So why stereotype the other two?

Is it that these ad folks think that we are too dumb to understand that people across nationalities and ethnicities need to wash down under unless we see and hear it in racial stereotypes?

The pièce de résistance: The Axe cologne "Even Angels will Fall" ad.

Axe Excite ad showing angles about to smash their
halos and, well, you know.

This tv ad depicts sexualized female angels who have fallen to earth. What in the name of all that is holy could have happened? 

The great Medieval Scholastic theologian St. Anselm famously described God as "the that than which no greater can be conceived" or the "Sum of all Perfections". But apparently he was mistaken. The honor of that title goes to a men's cologne. For angels tell God to take a hike and they come down (or are cast down?) to earth so that they may "know" (as in, "Adam knew his wife Eve and begat Cain") the cologne wearer. I suppose a sequel to the commercial would show churches all around the world with bronzed bottles of cologne on top of their steeples. People inside are wearing (you guessed it) little bottles of cologne around their necks, and the "worship service" is unorthodox to say the least. Instead of parishioners rolling in the isles, they're rolling in the.... Well, you get the idea.

Now this ad is not so much an instance of incompetence as contempt for the sacred beliefs and feelings of others. For even the company's so-called apology was released with the intent to offend. 
"We have…made sure...the seriousness of the matter is understood by our angels. Those who continue to use Axe Excite hoping to entice the angels, please keep in mind – although there is no individual risk [of] disciplinary action from the ASA [Advertising Standards Authority], angels have been known to come at a great speed, and to use Axe Excite is entirely at your own risk." [Note: I believe the ASA did pull the ad due to viewer complaints that it was offensive.]
Demographics are changing rapidly, in the world in general and in the United States in particular. Some businesses understand this and actively promote intercultural competence among its employees. Others, like Axe, simply play to what is most base in human nature in what I can only assume to be a cynical belief that what is base is what has won in society. They can do that if they want. It may even make them rich beyond all the dreams of avarice. But let's not kid ourselves. A society that relentlessly tells the majority of the world's peoples that you are not fully human and beautiful the way you were born (and, if I might add, the way God created human diversity) has something wrong and oppressive about it. And a society that tempts the very angels to fall does not bring heaven to earth. It brings something quite the opposite.

    But man, proud man,
    Dressed in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As make the angels weep.
          Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. Act ii. Sc. 2

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Bible According To Whatever

By Ruben Rivera
Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good Blog©
26 Oct 2011

 Well it had to happen: the open political polarization of the interpretation of the Bible. After all, if you believe all the nonstop banana oil your hear in this country, there are absolutely no other worlds in the universe possible other than the cosmic dualism of the extreme wings of the Republican and Democratic parties.

After countless denials from Fox News that it presented unvarnished "news", anchor Chris Wallace admitted in an interview with comedian Jon Stewart (June 2011) that Fox in fact was presenting a so-called counterbalance to news outlets that they felt were dominated by liberals. Important as this is, tv "news" only deals with mundane temporal events.

But what about the eternal news?

Now, The Conservative Bible Project has set up a Wikipedia type web site "utilizing the 'the best of public' to render God's word into modern English without liberal translation distortions." http://conservapedia.com/Conservative_Bible_Project

Don't get me wrong, Bible translation has always been a mine field and the Conservative Bible Project is correct in pointing out that influences like gender, modern liberalism, socialism, evolution and more can work their way into the translation work done by scholars, either deliberately or simply because a person's social location, politics, intellectual convictions and other "leanings" filter into the things they do even if they are not aware of it.

The importance of the matter is impossible to overstate, since when one reads the Bible assuming it is God's word, he/she may not be aware of the extent to which it may not be. Yet all of life (here and hereafter) is said to hang on the Bible.

Page from The Jefferson Bible. Notice what it was
about Jesus that Jefferson felt mattered most.

Thomas Jefferson (whom many modern evangelicals mistakenly claim was evangelical too) compiled what has since become known as the Jefferson Bible in which he cut out miracles. Why? Because as a true son of the Age of Reason, Jefferson no longer believed in them. 

The modern "quests" for the "historical Jesus" have always revealed at least as much about the era and worldview of the person on that quest as the Jesus they claim to have "rediscovered".

A "Feminist translation" is declared to be a corrective to the male domination of the Scriptures (both in the "original" and in translation) so that women's subordination to men becomes as universal and non-negotiable as belief in the resurrection of Jesus is essential for someone to be Christian at all. All this, the feminist argument continues, courtesy of the illogical, prejudicial and heretical making of God in the image of the patriarchal culture from which said God emerged in the first place, and which continues to be perpetuated in translations by men. But then among some correctives is to start referring to God in feminine pronouns and characteristics, raising the charge of feminist bias, and pushing off the table any discussion about the possibility of any sound points made in the previous scholarly argument.

So, as I said, The Conservative Bible Project (CBP) is correct in pointing out how cultural, social, political, intellectual and other kinds of bias influence Bible translation, let alone Bible interpretation. I just wish they would focus the same critical lens inward. Are liberals, socialists and feminists the only ones who have "tampered" (as the more kind among them put it) with the Bible? Has there been no Bible tampering by conservatives and lassiez-faire capitalists? 

The answer is, overwhelming, yes they have. Can we not admit that the Bible is frequently whatever people need it to be? Biblical justifications for slavery and segregation were once common. Yet what evangelical today would support either?

 Image of Jesus most people under Western
influence grew up with.

Image of the likely features of Jesus 
(i.e., a 1st century Aramaic Jew) based on 
forensic anthropology and biblical texts.

To prove this everyday abuse of Scripture by those who claim most to revere it as God's inerrant word (remember, those who don't believe that, don't even bother to have this kind of discussion), I often ask Christian groups the following questions after reading several verses from the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5. I quote from the New International Version or NIV. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony in picking one translation over another for the purposes of this discussion. But that doesn't matter here. It is the responses to the readings that is important.)

I've seen lots of Jesus toys. But it's the
"Glow-in-the-Dark" hands that got me. 

1. "I tell you the truth...not the smallest letter or stroke of the pen shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Mt 5:18)
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Everyone raises their hand. This is no surprise coming from people who believe that the Bible is God's Word and can therefore have no error and must be obeyed.

2. "You have heard it said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oaths, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.' But I say to you, do not swear at all....All you need to say is simply yes or no. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Mt 5:33-37).
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Fewer people are now raising their hand.

3. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven." (Mt 5:43-45a)
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Even fewer people are raising their hand.

 Like a lot of pictures on the web, this one was hard to
trace to the original source and intent. If it's a joke, it 
worked on me. I roared laughing. If it's a real
advertisement, there's something a little sick about it.

4. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also. And if anyone wants to sue and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles." (Mt 5:38-41)
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Very few people are left raising their hand. One time I did this and only one person in a room of well over a hundred people raised their hand for all four questions.

Oh, and by the way, you can pretty much predict how people will answer those questions depending on what is happening in the larger culture around us. If we are in a time of peace and prosperity (both personally and nationally), more people will raise their hands on questions about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek. During economic hard times and conflict, very few if any will raise their hands: The Bible according to whatever is happening or needed.

A Jewish author who asks: "What Jewish
sources agree with my Christian friends?"
I include this here to illustrate that Christians
aren't the only ones politicizing God and the Bible.

So while I laud the attempt by Conservatives to point out how non-Conservatives may tamper and pick and choose from the Bible, may I make a suggestion?
Physician heal thyself.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Prophets Are Easy to Admire From The Safety Of Historical Distance

By Ruben Rivera© 6 Oct 2011

 Left to right: MLK, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy: 
founders of the SCLC

On Wednesday, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth died at the hard-fought age of 89. There are obituaries everywhere that describe the life and legacy of this great civil rights leader, the last of the movement's "Big Three" founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC (1957) to pass away.

Here I want to point out briefly a few things that stand out to me about Shuttlesworth and the work of racial reconciliation and social justice.

First of all, there are many ways to do that work. Lots of whites back then hated King, but a lot of whites liked him much more than Shuttlesworth. King struggled constantly to be as conciliatory with whites as possible, to enlist the better angels of their nature in achieving racial equality in America. Shuttlesworth was much more confrontational both in his preaching and his social activism, demanding racial equality now, whether whites felt consoled or not, and at times this put him at odds with King.

"Shuttlesworth and King were the two major axes of the SCLC part of the movement. Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory. The two of them together formed a dialectic that drove the movement forward." Diane McWhorter, 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Carry Me Home."

Shuttlesworth, said Diane McWhorter, was just as important to the civil rights movement as was King. Two different men, and two different approaches. But both contributed to a freer America for which I am grateful.

Second, the work of racial reconciliation and social justice is NOT over. Shuttlesworth understood this and in 2004 he tried to reinvigorate the Southern Christian Leadership Conference calling for greater social activism. With studies showing that the current decline of the middle class, home ownership and financial net worth impacts blacks more than whites, or that whites get job call backs at twice the rate of equally qualified blacks -- even by government and private employers that advertise, "Equal Opportunity Employer", one can understand Shuttlesworth's belief that the work of civil rights is not over.

Third, the civil rights movement is not what it used to be. An example of this is the fact that the SCLC ousted Shuttlesworth's and his vision for greater activism.(1) The SCLC ousted one of its founders. Would that qualify as ironic?

Fourth, it is always easy to admire non-conformist prophetic persons from the safety of historical distance. What Bible-believing Christian will say that the Hebrew prophet Amos was not a true prophet of God for social justice? But would we want him to appear and preach to America today?

Do we not admire William Wilberforce who fought long and hard to end the slave trade? But would we have admired him if we had lived during his time?

The former female slave Sojourner Truth traveled and preached against the discrimination of women in voting, employment and more. That was something that even recently freed black men weren't ready for. But she is acknowledged today as an important figure in the vanguard of abolition and equality. Of course she is. She is no longer dangerous.

The 16th century Spaniard Bartolome de las Casas arrived to the New World as a conquistador. But he became a monk and champion of the love of God and protector of the Indians against his own oppressive countrymen. Today he is admired as the great "Apostle to the Indies" and so is his missiology or theology and methods of missions. But in his own day, nobody wanted him around, and his writings were placed on the official Catholic list of banned books.

On Wednesday, the 5 of Oct 2011, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth passed away. The world can rest easier now. For Shuttlesworth has now become another in a long line of historical prophets of social justice. He is part of history. He is now safe to admire.

(1) Elaine Woo, http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-fred-shuttlesworth-20111006,0,752108.story

Monday, September 19, 2011

Answer to a Child's Question

 For Anita:

 Answer to a Child's Question
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Do you ask what the birds say? The sparrow, the dove,
The linnet, and thrush say, 'I love and I love!'
In the winter they're silent, the wind is so strong;
What it says I don't know, but it sings a loud song.
But green leaves and blossoms, and sunny warm weather,
And singing, and loving, all come back together.
Then the lark is so brimful of gladness and love,
The green fields below him, the blue sky above,
That he sings, and he sings, and forever sings he--
'I love my Love, and my Love loves me!'

------  Photo by Scott Thomas, Flickr

Friday, September 9, 2011

Where Has The Truth Gone?

By Ruben Rivera©

Let's leave aside for now Truth with a big T, as in objective, eternal, changeless realities à la Plato's forms, or as in Christian metaphysical "Word of God" absolutes. What happened to truth that allows us simply to trust the non-stop everyday things we are told? Trust, like going to a light switch and knowing that when you flip it to on, there will be light, because that's what normally functioning light switches do.

I switch on the "news" and I expect to get events and developments reported, because that's what (I thought) normally functioning news does. I do not expect or want so-called reporting slanted in favor of one political camp against another. Fox News claims that it "reports" and we the audience can decide if that's true. And in the face of video and document-backed critiques and exposés, Fox has repeatedly claimed that its reporting is not biased. Hence the need for the slogan: "We report, you decide".

Yet in a 2011 interview with comedian Jon Stewart  (in which Stewart attributed his comedic success partly to peoples' disappointment with the news media), Fox anchor Chris Wallace said: "I don't think our viewers are the least bit disappointed with us. I think our viewers think, finally, they're getting somebody who tells the other side of the story."

I may not be the sharpest knife in the butcher block, so I need a little help here. Isn't that an admission of bias? Also, if a key mission of Fox is to tell their bias or "side of the story", isn't their other slogan disingenuous? "Fair and Balanced". The implications of Chris Wallace's admission is that Fox is not presenting "fair and balanced" news, but rather news shaped to counter other views?

Fine, if the NEWS is not factual reporting (and probably never has been), then I just wish it would be called something else. When I want opinion, I read the Op-Eds. If I want propaganda I'll put my brain on coast and listen to talk radio, or watch "reality" TV and commercial ads.

At least we can get one thing clear. Wallace's admission (and I thank him for his honesty) means that we can finally stop pretending that any one news organization is simply reporting the unvarnished "facts". Maybe it would help if "news" programs would keep opinion and propaganda to a special segment:

"And now, time for, Why the Other side is of the Devil. Brought to you by, POM Pomegranate Juice. Cheat Death. Drink POM."
In 2010 the US Federal Trade Commission ripped into POM for "false and unsubstantiated" claims that its juice could save humankind from a variety of diseases from heart attack and cancer to erectile dysfunction.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Eleven Poems To Change Your Life

By Ruben Rivera

This year I have come to love poetry. I read poetry, occasionally, before and have even cherished some. But this time it's different. In the past poems inspired me, comforted me, awakened my heart and mind to the extra- in ordinary, provided an unmatched vocality for the deepest suffering, the highest joy -- every experience, emotion and expression imaginable.

The difference is that then I treated poetry more or less the way that many a pastor has said that too many Christians treat the Bible: as a source to find "your fortune." Such a reading of the Bible, as with anything else (history, contemporary social issues, political debates, even established scientific facts and, yes, poetry), lends itself to seeing that which we expect, want, or must have rubber stamped, instead of what we need. And is it not true that sometimes what "we need", may well surprise, disappoint or contradict? Is that not, as we have all heard at one time or another, how we correct our course, grow more humane?

The difference was illustrated to me just yesterday. A book arrived in the mail that my wife had wanted: "Ten Poems to Change Your Life" by Roger Housden, which I found for pennies online. My wife and I are reading some of the poems in the book, along with author commentary. There is one poem by Rumi, the 13th century Persian Muslim poet, mystic, theologian. It is titled "Zero Circle". It starts:

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
   to gather us up...

It is on page 43 and I'm a little frustrated. Everything is high-lighted yellow and underlined, rendering the book cheap-looking and the purpose of high-lighting and underlining useless. The whole book is this way, along with countless stars penned in the margins, scripture citations, quotations from other poets, and personal comments. Now I know why it cost only pennies.

I often make brief notations in books. But I remark to my wife how silly it is to high-light, underline and star everything. As this only cancels out their value of pointing out the point. For now (unless one has a photographic memory) one must re-read everything to find it again.

Then it hit me. When I judged the previous book-owner's actions, I missed the point. And that is the difference from the past: the fact that I saw it at all, let alone so quickly. This person had chomped on this book. I was getting their chewing gum and I didn't like it. But I failed (momentarily, thank God) to see what a beautiful thing was before me. 

There, on page after page, I saw evidence of a lover of poetry, a person hungry for all that "the examined life" has to offer, a person striving after the fullness of a beautifully conceived image of God.

I read the book now, and I no longer see high-lighter and scribbles. I see the colors of someone's life. I see:  

My safety lies in my defenselessness

"It's not about me." Max Lucado

"Your character shouts so loudly in my ears I can't hear what you say." Emerson

Plato said the unexamined life isn't worth living!

There are no ordinary moments.

Passion for living.

And Carpe Diem! on about ten different pages.

Put all those lines together and I actually got a book that should be titled:

Eleven Poems to Change Your Life. 

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
   to gather us up...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"America, America," by Delmore Schwartz

Edmund Kish to his mother: "You have just seen a genius."

Mrs. Kish: "How much money does he make?"
Delmore Schwartz, "The World is a Wedding"


I am a poet of the Hudson River and the heights above it,
the lights, the stars, and the bridges
I am also by self-appointment the laureate of the Atlantic
-of the peoples' hearts, crossing it
to new America.

I am burdened with the truck and chimera, hope,
acquired in the sweating sick-excited passage
in steerage, strange and estranged
Hence I must descry and describe the kingdom of emotion.

For I am a poet of the kindergarten (in the city)
and the cemetery (in the city)
And rapture and ragtime and also the secret city in the
heart and mind
This is the song of the natural city self in the 20th century.

It is true but only partly true that a city is a "tyranny of
(This is the chant of the urban metropolitan and
metaphysical self
After the first two World Wars of the 20th century)

--- This is the city self, looking from window to lighted
When the squares and checks of faintly yellow light
Shine at night, upon a huge dim board and slab-like tombs,
Hiding many lives. It is the city consciousness
Which sees and says: more: more and more: always more.

Delmore Schwartz

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Gyroscope," by Ted Kooser

I place this within the first order
of wonders: a ten-year-old girl
alone on a sunny, glassed-in porch
in February, the world beyond
the windows slowly tipping forward
into spring, her thin arms held out
in the sleepwalker pose, and pinched
and stretched between her fingers,
a length of common grocery twine
upon which smoothly spins and leans
one of the smaller worlds we each
at one time learn to master, the last
to balance so lightly in our hands.

Ted Kooser, American Poet Laureate (2004-2006). 
This poem appeared in his collection "Delights
and Shawdows," for which he won the Pulitzer
Prize for poetry in 2005.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good Dictionary: Job

Extinct job: telephone operator.
From SaskTel Historical Photos, 1960.
Job (noun):
1. Any occupation, work, task, or assignment done as part of one's employment for an agreed monetary wage, salary and/or other compensation.

Such as in the statement: I had a job at XYZ Corp and before I was laid off, I was doing more work, for less money than I was 10 years ago.   

Or: I'm 55 years old. Now nobody wants to give me a job. So I'm on unemployment and Medicare, but these politicians keep talking about people like me as if I deserve to be poor because I'm lazy and just want to push socialism of the highest order. What's socialism?

2. Any such employment done on a "full-time, "part-time," "one-time" or independently contractual basis for an agreed compensation.

Such as in the statement: I have two part-time jobs, neither of which will give me any benefits like health care. So I'm hoping to get Medicare, which some people call socialism of the highest order. What's socialism?

3. Anything that is considered to be one's responsibility, obligation, call, or duty.

Such as in the statement:  It is the legally constrained duty of the worker to work, and when there are no jobs, to find a job anyway and not depend on any government help or subsidies, as that is just socialism of the highest order.   

Or: It is not the legally constrained duty of profitable businesses that receive government help or subsidies to guarantee that they will create jobs with that windfall in taxpayer money. It would be ideal if they did, but we must leave that up to the free market that will work perfectly on its own if only we can stop government from trying to institute socialism of the highest order. 

Or: It is the duty of the government to continue to give tax breaks even to the über wealthy because they are the "jobs creators," though government should not compel them to create jobs in return for the windfall in taxpayer money, as that would just be socialism of the highest order. 

4. Any such employment no longer available or extant.

Such as in the statement: Sorry, that Bachelors degree is now worthless. There are no longer any jobs available in that field. We had to send them to Irian Jaya, otherwise our CEO could never have bought the state of Montana so he could plink vermin in the wide open spaces he loves so much. May I suggest you get a Bachelors degree in Plinking Vermin. I'm sure that job won't be shipped overseas for at least a year. But I'm making no guarantees, as that would just be socialism of the highest order. And don't ask me what socialism is. That you were born after the end of Cold War is no excuse.
The above writing (clearly some of it done with tongue planted firmly in cheek) is intended to show how confusing is the current debates about the financial crisis, its causes, and the best way to create jobs in America. It is also intended to show how labels like "socialism" or "socialist" are hurled about in these debates in ways and for reasons that actually have little to do with the concerns and intentions of normal Americans who (studies show, are good capitalist consumers) just trying to find consistent, livable employment, and many of whom have paid all their lives into social security and Medicare only to be called social parasites, socialists, or even anti-Christs for expecting that those benefits will be there upon retirement.

Let me end with some questions.
A. How did it become un-American and un-Christian to ask if millionaires, billionaires and wildly profitable corporations can pay a little more in taxes, even though in the last 30 or so years they have enjoyed the greatest wealth accumulation in human history while at the same time having their income taxes decreased by over 10% since 1980, including a tax cut during war time under President G. W. Bush (see 1)? Tax rates for capital investments (that most Americans do not have) have also greatly declined. I don't believe the rich are to blame for every problem in our world. I do believe that government spending and the ballooning of the deficit have gotten out of control.  But both parties are to blame for that, indeed the American people in general, who in poll after poll say they want things like good education, safe bridges, clean water, social security and Medicare, and those things cost money, lots of it. I just think that if people at the bottom have to sacrifice, why not people at the top? They can certainly afford it. Even if all we did was allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, the rich would still enjoy an overall significant tax decrease since 1980, and one of the lowest tax rates among the developed countries of the world.

B. On tax cuts and job creation. In light of all of this wealth accumulation and tax reduction enjoyed by the rich, justified by the argument that this is how the private sector creates jobs, then why has America, as a whole, been steadily losing private sector jobs not just since the Great Recession began in 2007/2008, but for over ten years (see 2)? In fact, if it were not for jobs created by the government, the overall jobs picture would look even more bleak. This begs two related questions: (a) Why do some people so hate one of the net job creators in America: namely, government? (b) Can it be that focusing only on tax breaks for the rich is missing many other factors to explain why jobs disappear and why the middle class is declining? Note this statement in a recent article in "Seeking Alpha":
Corporations and small business alike are hiring temps and part-timers to push for more productivity, while boosting the bottom line. That's why you see record gains in productivity far outpacing the unit labor cost, or the cost of workers per units produced, in the past two years.

Now that companies are used to those nice profits, hiring most likely is not a priority in meeting their quarters.(3)
C. Has anyone noticed that while some politicians try to convince the masses that (in addition to spending cuts) we can tax cut our way back to a prosperous middle class, Madison Avenue advertisers and investment firms are banking on the assumption that this will not happen? Instead, they openly admit that: (a) the undeniable trend in America and other nations (Great Britain and Canada) is toward plutocracy (Citigroup's global strategist Ajay Kapur coined the term "Plutonomy"): i.e., that wealth is accumulating in fewer hands; (b) that there is no such thing as "mass wealth" (i.e., a middle class) in America any more that is the primary driver of wealth creation and consumption as it once was; and (c) that the best bet for savvy investors is to invest in the new primary drivers of wealth creation and consumption: the über rich and the things they luxuriate in (see 4). Thus, there is no concern by Wall Street to do anything about poor, diminishing Main Street. It's simply time to adjust investments.

D. Finally, have we now come to a point where to try to be heavenly minded AND earthly good is seen as being un-American and un-Christian?
(1) Jeffery Sachs, "How the Wall Street Journal Distorts the Truth About Taxes", Huffpost Business (April 19, 2011)  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-sachs/how-the-wall-street-journ_b_851285.html

(2) Michael Mandel, "A Lost Decade for Jobs," Bloomberg Businessweek (June 23, 2009) http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/economicsunbound/archives/2009/06/a_lost_decade_f.html.  See also, Harold Meyerson, "Corporate America's Chokehold on Wages," Washington Post, Opinions (July 19, 2011) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/corporate-americas-chokehold-on-wages/2011/07/19/gIQAL2ieOI_story.html

(3) "U.S. Economy: 12 Years to Fill the 12.4 Million Job Gap?" (Feb 6, 2011) http://seekingalpha.com/article/251018-u-s-economy-12-years-to-fill-the-12-4-million-job-gap

(4) Robert Frank, "Plutonomics," Wall Street Journal (Jan 8, 2007) http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2007/01/08/plutonomics/

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"...all things visible and invisible"

The last few days I have had a heavy heart due to the low morale and political division in the USA right now. To this was added the self-confessed mass murder committed in Norway by the right-wing militant anti-multiculturalist Anders Behring Breivik. But rather than focus on the negative and the stupid, I decided to focus on something positive.
...all things visible and invisible... 

I grew up in a Catholic home. Every Wednesday, after going to public school, I went to catechism class at my local parish where I learned the stories of the Old Testament, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the inspiring stories of the saints of the church from the first disciples down to modern times. I learned the great creeds of the church, particularly the Nicene Creed, so named because it was adopted by the first ecumenical council that was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE and held in the city of Nicaea in what is now modern Turkey.

Of all the creeds, the Nicene Creed is the most widely used by churches both for worship and instruction in the central beliefs of Christianity. In the first sentence of the creed, the Christian declares belief in Almighty God who is the creator of "heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." I learned of course that this meant that God created all there is on both the physical and spiritual plane, and that as a human being living on earth, I was part of the "visible" creation of God. But when I was growing up, I did not feel very visible.

As a Latino person of color from a working class family, I was utterly invisible in the public school curriculum. Most teachers had zero cultural competency in Latino communities and were unapologetic about it. In fact, schools played a significant role in undermining Latino culture, even telling parents not to speak to their children in Spanish: just one of the many ways America welcomed its non-anglo "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

There were no role models who looked like me in America's political culture, the world of fame, fortune, film and fashion. Even the countless billboard signs that propagandized Americans from one end of the country to the other were completely devoid of anything resembling me or my culture. In fact, the only person who looked like me who was well known when I was growing up, was the Lone Ranger's Indian sidekick, Tonto, a name which means "Dummy" in Spanish. You can be sure we wondered if that name choice was deliberate.

I am grateful to the Catholic Church for contributing to that part of my education concerned with soulcraft, which was largely absent in public school and a wider American culture rooted in values that are first and foremost money-oriented. Whatever shortcomings the church as a whole can be blamed for, my local parish at least was the only community in American society (besides my family, relatives and close friends) where I did not feel invisible.

This was reinforced several years after high school, while attending a very peculiar Protestant church. It was quite a diverse congregation (as I said, unusual) where Hispanics, whites, some Asians and blacks all worshiped together, and I never remember once the Hispanic pastor having to give a sermon to deal with problems of prejudice among us. It was a little taste of multicultural heaven on earth (Revelation 7:9-10); a  heaven that Anders Breivik would no doubt loathe intensely.

It was a wonderful time (not the least of which because I met my future wife there), and I always say that it is because of visible, proven human love, that I came to believe the otherwise unprovable message that I am unreservedly loved by an invisible God.

Unprejudiced love, love without borders, the kind of love depicted on a cross almost 2000 years ago, cured invisibility and its causes. Despite all attempts by the Anders Breivik's of the world, I am visible still.

"...and the Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it." (John 1:5)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Wisdom Does Not Have To Be A Lamp Post

By Ruben Rivera© 16 July 2011
For Elisha

As a child, school was for me what Winston Churchill once called the Soviet Union: "...a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." No, I can do better than that. My experience in public school could be summarized by the word "awesome," in the sense that the Greek philosophers meant "awesome": namely, it displayed what humans could be wonderful at as well as terrifying.

Public school is embedded in an American culture of consumer-oriented youth and a winner-take-all economy that are in many ways hostile to actually getting an education, certainly education as soulcraft, as I have written elsewhere. When I was growing up, many of us kids -- white, Latino, Asian, black --  got trapped in a youth culture that did not see school primarily as an enterprise of education. In this sense, youth in school then were not that different from youth in school today.

To me and most kids I hung around with, school was a social thing. Classes, lessons, bells, books and homework were the price of admission we had to pay, the motions we had to go through, the means to an end: to be with our friends, to play in some form or another.

However, after high school, I realized I had spent far too much of my time doing things -- though "cool" at the time -- that had nothing to do with making me wise, nothing to do with preparing me for where life was going to take me: what it would mean to be a husband, adjusting to an America becoming increasingly hostile to common working people, grinding out what it takes to establish a career and then being forced to do it all over again because market trends demanded it, functioning well outside of my in-group or comfortable clique, learning to resolve differences -- political, racial, gender, religious, etc -- constructively. Back in school, differences were dealt with mano-a-mano; in other words, not at all, stupidly. So it's no surprise that our political parties and their leaders don't know how to overcome their differences either. I read about their dysfunction and cliquish stubbornness every day, or see it on TV and think: "Yep, that's how we behaved in high school."

I realize that one of the most important things we should have learned somewhere between the time we emerged from the womb and the time we start fending for ourselves in the great American experiment -- this Garden of Eden with claws -- is wisdom.

Speaking for myself, I'm sure I had some opportunity to learn wisdom from a few sources here and there: from adults who did more than just tell us what to do, but showed us how to do it; from teachers who dared to engage in education as soulcraft and model it too. But those relatively few examples were like prophetic whispers lost in the howling storm called culture.

For unfortunately, ours was and still is a culture where monied interests rule everything, where Americans are bred to find the reason for their existence in consumption, where schools try to fix every problem by placing more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers instead of courageously addressing our cultural problems, and where youth are too absorbed in what matters to youth to notice any of this.

Ours is a culture where wisdom is equated with age and age is a negative and youth is worshiped -- where many of the young and relatively inexperienced think that no one older than a high school senior can possibly know anything worth knowing. Which reminds me of the bumper sticker that says: "Hire a teenager now, while they still know everything."

Wisdom: honest and critical thinking, maturity, perspective, prudence, selflessness, interdependence, community good. Shouldn't public schools nurture these qualities of wisdom in us, and not just individualism, competition, money-driven values, or the cultural trends and merchandizing of "cool"? Because soon the current generation of children will be the next generation of politicians and CEOs and educators and parents. And because growing old in America does not by default mean growing wise.

In the Jim Carrey movie "Bruce Almighty," Bruce finds his life dreams frustrated. He is driving at night in the rain and finally as a last resort calls out to God.

Bruce: Okay, God. You want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what's going on? What should I do? Give me a sign.

After passing obliviously numerous road signs and other signals from God, Bruce finally grabs some prayer beads on his rear view mirror and prays not just for a sign but a full blown miracle. His car hits a bump and the beads fall to the floor. In the distracted search for them, his car slams into a lamp post. He emerges from the wreck, flings the beads into the roadside lake, and screams in maniacal fury at the heavens.

Bruce: Okay, if that's the way you want it. The gloves are off, pal! Let me see a little wrath! Smite me oh mighty smiter. What, no pestilence, no boils? Come on, you got me on the ropes. Don't you want to finish me off?! You're the one who should be fired! The only one around here not doing his job is YOU! What are we, you're little pet project? A hobby you tinker with now and again? Answer me. ANSWER ME!!!

This movie, which may not be suitable for children, nevertheless has a lesson for all ages. The signs of wisdom, direction and perspective may well be all around us. God (or, if you are not religions, "wisdom") may be speaking, through parents, through friends, through difficulties, through common sense which needs no miracle, through something as unlikely as a comedy film, repeatedly, so often that we're jaded or unimpressed with the answers: since the answers usually demand ongoing patience and hard work on our part. As a result, we're simply not attentive to the signs, or worse, we consciously ignore them. We're too young or too old, too wired or too tired, too doubtful or too sure of ourselves. If our schools our culture or public leaders are unable or unwilling to be the sign posts on the road to wisdom, we must look elsewhere.

However, at some point we need to realize that the really important question is not, "Where are the signs on my road to wisdom?" But rather, "Will I allow the signs that are there help me to be a wise driver." We could wait until culturally-bred inattentive or even reckless driving habits stop our speeding lives and wraps it around a lamp post, and then get mad at God or the world about it.

But wisdom does not have to be a lamp post.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Faith and the 4th that's unfinshed.

 Norman Rockwell

As July the 4th approaches, I was meditating on its significance. There is much debate on the role of Christianity in the American Revolution. Some downplay or ignore Christianity's role, or see it as negative altogether (part of the reason we needed a revolution in the first place).
  • They point out for example that founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson and others were not Christians but Deists who, once the bullets stopped flying, promptly codified their Enlightenment convictions by establishing the separation of church and state. This observation is correct. 
  • They point out that some Christians supported loyalty to Britain, while other Christians (pacifists like Quakers and Mennonites) supported no warfare at all. This too is correct.
Others, however, argue that Christians contributed much to the revolution.
  • They point out that churches were in the vanguard of developing ideals that we associate with American values of liberty: that the individual conscience (not rulers or states) is the final authority on moral matters; that membership in a church is not a birthright, nor decreed by a government, but is a voluntary choice of the redeemed; that church governments and their representatives are the product of the will of the people. These and other "democratic" developments in the churches were extended to the state.
  • They point out the effect of the First Great Awakening (c.1735-c.1755) on the heirs of the Puritan "City on a Hill": that it was more than just a massive, years-long revival; it instilled the conviction among the revived colonials that Christ was establishing his kingdom in America, and that oppressive British rule was in the way. 
  • They point out that pulpits throughout the colonies, which at the time functioned as a chief source for information and learning, were among the greatest rallying points for independence and the call to arms.
  • They point out that the Calvinist emphasis on the depravity of humankind would be reflected in the future U.S. government with its system of checks and balances and the separation of powers as means to curb innate human selfishness, greed, and tendency to corruption.
  • They point out that numerous speeches and writings which are among the most famous in American revolutionary history were thoroughly imbued with religious rhetoric, or were sermons direct from the pulpit, that painted rebellion against Britain as a holy war.
“Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, peace’ [Jeremiah 6:14] but there is no peace. The war is actually begun....Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”  Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 1775.
Rightly do we celebrate the 4th of July for such a representative freedom as the world had never known that was purchased at the cost of so much blood.

But, make no mistake about it, the liberty won was extremely limited. It did not end slavery (which actually worsened after the revolution). It did not include women. It did not include Native Americans. Even poor white men where often little better off than indentured servants.

It is sad to say so, but the American Revolution established "elite liberty," and failed monumentally in achieving equality. The same thing happened in Latin America's revolution. "The elite," said the great revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, "want liberty, but only for themselves." And we are still struggling for an America that benefits "the least of these" (in the words of Jesus), not just men, or light-skinned people, or the rich.

Before and since the Revolution, many have challenged America's glaring inconsistency in the application of liberty. In a 1773 letter to Quaker Robert Pleasants, the great Patrick Henry himself admitted his own inconsistency: he could not free his slaves from "the general inconvenience of living without them."

Translation? Give me liberty or give me death, but I can't afford to free my slaves.

Henry said he could not justify his conduct and lamented lack of conformity to his belief that slavery was "evil." His hope was that his generation would transmit Christian virtues and "an abhorrence for slavery" to their children, and if they could not abolish slavery then at least they should "treat the unhappy victims [slaves] with lenity [not harshly]" and that this was "the furthest advance we can make toward justice."

If you love America and if you are a Christian, I want you to think carefully and honestly about the inconsistencies in the application of equality and liberty you see around you, or perhaps committed by you from "the general inconvenience of living without" such inconsistencies. Is it inconvenient to treat others as you want to be treated? Is it inconvenient for the ancestors of the old immigrants to see any hypocrisy in their nativism against new immigrants, even the undocumented ones? For what "pioneers" and "progress" were to Europeans was theft and conquest to the Indians. Is it inconvenient to resist financial practices or business ventures that earn you wealth but diminish the earning power and quality of life of working people? Is it inconvenient to pay women the same as men for the same job.

The revolutionary fathers admitted that the American experiment had gross inconsistencies of EVIL (their word). And this was their answer: (1) Let's hope our children will love liberty so much that they'll sacrifice their conveniences so others can enjoy it; (2) or let's just try to soften the evil by being nice to our inferiors.

Maybe it's not the rhetoric of liberty but living the creed, "do to others as we would have done to ourselves" that makes it possible for there to truly be "liberty and justice for all."

If we celebrate the 4th of July without taking practical steps to ensure that freedom from oppression and exploitation (racial, gender, economic, corporate, etc) is not just something we want for ourselves and our loved ones, but for everyone, then we will be just another in a long line of generations that let the 4th go by unfinished.