Category Archives: justice

Finally: Corporations are People too!

There were many in the evangelical world of my youth (read: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et. al.) who decried the ‘liberal courts’ for overstepping their bounds by using the court as means of legislating, rather than limiting their responsibilities to ‘upholding the constitution according intent of its framers’. They viewed Roe v Wade as an example of, not merely ruling on a case, but of using a case to create and impose a new ethos that was far beyond the scope of the case at hand. How dare those liberals do that!  If only conservatives ruled the court things would be different, right?

Apparently not. The court used the case of “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission” as a means for overturning a century of campaign finance laws, ushering in an era whereby corporations (both American, and foreign ones with US subsidiaries) are granted the same freedom of speech rights as individual Americans. The McCain/Feingold law that sought to limit the degree to which companies could influence elections (and thereby, influence elected officials) was overturned with this ruling.

So, as Stephen Colbert mockingly said last night: “Now my bank, “Morgan Stanley” has the same rights to contribute their voice to policy making in Washington as my barber, “Stanley Morgan”. Each one can donates hundreds of millions to campaigns and then, by virtue of their generosity, have access to, and influence over, the policy makers. It’s a fair battle. And may the best man win.”

All sarcasm excluded, isn’t it obvious to everyone that granting free speech rights to multi-national corporations is 1) far beyond the intent of our founding father’s intent, 2) dangerous in it’s opening that will now grant foreign companies influence over American campaigns, 3) marginalizing to common citizens, who will never be able to match the scope and wealth of large corporate spending and influence, and 4) the very kind of ‘legislative over-reach’ that conservatives have been angry about for years.

This is precisely why there’s so much anger and cynicism towards American politics. Apparently the religious right, and political conservatives weren’t really angry about the Supreme Court’s over-reach in the 70’s, but angry that the over-reach didn’t favor their ideology.  As Dobson himself has written:  “tyranny by judicial fiat is destructive to our democratic institutions.”    Now that the recent court and ruling is in line with their goals, the right has fallen strangely silent about “the intent of the framers and the tyranny of judicial fiat”.  I guess it all depends on the ruling.

When the rhetoric dies down over this ruling, the thing that will have changed is this: corporations can buy as much time to exercise ‘free speech’ and thus influence the vote, as you and I can. This isn’t good news for salmon or eagles, people who use banks and have loans, water tables, topsoil, small farmers around the world, or the artic wildlife refuge.

But it’s good news for multi-national corporations because now, when we appeal to our constitutional rights by declaring, ‘we the people’, they can spend 150 million dollars crying back: “I’m a person too!”

The quake: shaking our assumptions?

David Brooks excellent article about this week’s quake in Haiti is a must read.  Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, he shines a light on a problem that absolutely must be addressed:   There is no formulaic relationship between $$ aid and economic development/autonomy.  Haiti is the ongoing recipient of immense investments.  By some estimates, they have the highest per capita ration of NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision) in the world.  In spite of this, Haiti has remained locked in poverty, and it is this poverty that prevents the kind of infrastructure (building codes, sewage systems, access to water, hospitals, schools) from developing.  What do I mean?

  • The government is not able to provide the resources to educate the nation’s next generation.
  • The unemployment rate is over 80%.
  • More than half of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day.
  • There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests.
  • About 60% of the population lives in abject poverty.
  • Less than 20% of Haitians age 15 and over can read and write.
  • Fewer than 75% of children attend school.
  • 40% of the Haitian population does not have access to primary health care.
  • The United Nations estimates 6% of Haitians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The highest rate in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 30,000 people die of AIDS every year.
  • One in twenty Haitians is infected with HIV/AIDS and there are over 150,000 AIDS orphans.
  • When things begin to shake, the underlying social and economic pathologies are revealed, and the devastation is exponentially greater than would be the case, were there adequate infrastructure present.

    So why is it that infrastructure doesn’t develop?  And how can we, who are opening our wallets, invest our dollars in the best way to assure that we not only triage the damage, bury the bodies, and provide acute care to those who need it now, but also begin addressing the systemic issues that have kept Haiti stuck for so long?

    Brooks declares that beginning with the assumptions that all cultures and beliefs are morally equal is the height of folly.  Ideas have consequences, and the tragedy of Haiti isn’t just that there’s poverty, it’s that the poverty is interwoven with deeply held beliefs and practices.  Until these beliefs change, the poverty will remain.  Brooks says it this way:

    In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism….It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

    When WWII ended, the German government sent hundreds of young people who’d been raised in the ethos of the Hitler Youth movement, to Capernwray in England for moral re-education.  International Needs is taking a similar strategy in Romania.  This, it seems, is the path in Haiti offering the greatest light.  But such a strategy swims against the popular current that eschews any challenge to another culture’s world view.

    We’ll take an offering at our church on January 24th for Haiti as part of the important effort to contribute to the acute crisis of the moment.  But it’s vital that all of us with means think long and hard, not about whether to invest, but about how to invest, so that our investment leads to changed lives and changed cultures, not just handouts.

    The Roman Road: More than you thought?

    Growing up in the church, I learned that one of the best ways to share the gospel succintly would be take hearers (eager or not, no matter) through what came to be called the “Roman Road”.  In essence, this declaration of the good news find in Christ was, to use a cooking term, a ‘reduction’.  The idea was to boil away the unecassary ingerdients in order to leave the more powerful essence.

    The essence includes about four truths:  1) you are a sinner,  2) the wages of sin is death, 3) God paid the wages through the death of Christ, 4) you can be reconciled to God by accepting this free gift of salvation.

    All these things are true, and very good news indeed.  Increasingly though, I’m convinced that the reductionist model is missing some things that are vital for the gospel, things that, to the extent that they’re missing, contribute to a vast misrepresentation of both the good news and our calling to live it in this time.

    To begin with, Paul calls Jesus, “the Christ”, which is tantamount to calling him “the King”.  This is not only vital news, it’s threatening news whenever any state declares itself to be the highest power.  Caesar is King.  Caesar is Lord.  Right? Isn’t that inherent in declaring one’s allegiance to the state?

    Further, Caesar declared himself to be “the son of God” and his birth was heralded as “good news” (gospel), throughout the empire.  He demanded obedience in the annual event during which citizens of the empire would verbally declare that “Caesar is Lord”.

    When people say the gospel isn’t political, I wonder what they’re smoking.  Declaring allegiance to an ethic and authority other than the state is the ultimate subversive political act.   Paul throws down the gauntlet in the first seven verses of his letter to, of all people, the Romans.  It was a letter to the equivalent of Moscow, or Berlin, or Washington D.C. declaring, at the outset, that there’s a different kingdom underway, a different king.

    Heads of state don’t generally look kindley on such declarations, and Rome was no exception.   Within two decades, Christianity would become the focal point of Rome’s rage, and Christians would become torches for Nero’s parties.

    There’s more.  Paul declares that this higher allegiance isn’t theory or generic.  Rather, he delcares that all followers of Jesus are called to the “obedience of faith”, meaning that they’r called to live differently.

    It’s right here that I wonder about the split between the right and the left among people of faith.  My sense is that all sides, (all of us, in fact, even we who like to think we have no side), are guilty of cherry picking our obedience.  The right gets marital fidelity right, and the call to sexual purity, but somehow thinks hating our enemies and destroying them, and allowing market forces to “raise the living standards for the poor” is the gospel of Jesus.

    The left believes (rightly in my opinion) that God calls us to care for the earth, and find ways to love and care for those who are our enemies, but utterly ignores the more personal calls to higher morality.  Too often, they believe that changing systems will change the world, when the reality is that changes in the world only come about because of changes in the human heart.

    In all of this, it’s also important to remember that Paul never, ever, envisioned the union of political power with the kingdom of God.  Power structures will rise and fall, be allied with the gospel at some points, and run counter – it matters not.  Our calling remains the same:  embody the reign of the king in our communities of faith, and work to actively make that reign visible in our lives, our homes, our cities, and our world.

    This is what I’ll be talking about tomorrow.  I welcome your thoughts.

    Warming up to these ideas yet?

    With a world conference beginning to address the issue of climate change, I found two interesting reads this morning in the New York Times.  The first is about the conference itself, particularly the cries from the far right about the possibilities of dire economic consequences if we actually take steps to address the issue.  Really?  I was in Germany last week, which is cloudy like Seattle, and farther north, and yet while traveling by train I passed dozens of solar farms, acres of solar panels quietly creating energy without carbon emissions.  At least 30% of the houses seem to have some form of supplemental solar heating.  Cars get 40 miles to the gallon and upward.  Farther north, it’s wind that’s energizing the Netherlands.  Yes, it surely appears that Europe is in the midst of a disaster due to their commitment to be green.  In fact, American companies that are working in solar are considering relocating, not because of labor costs, but because the market for their products is Europe and Asia.

    The reality is that we’re in the midst of an economic change in the same fashion that we moved to cars from trains at the beginning of the 20th century.  However, that wasn’t exactly a pure free market was it:  roads, an absolute necessity for cars, came from – tax dollars.  The government intervened and provided infrastructure (surely one of it’s responsibilities).  Why we are afraid of such intervention today?

    And before either the left or the right warm up to any of the proposed health care plans, we’d be wise to consider this material, and much more like it that calls us to address prevention.  If we go down “prevention” road, however, we’ll need to start thinking about so many things:  exercise habits, sleep habits, anti-biotics in food, chemicals in everything.  Far easier, I suppose, to simply try (if you’re on the left) to push everyone into a bigger system that is much the same as what we have now, or (if you’re on the right) let the market take care things.

    I’d advocate that we shift our paradigm towards prevention and building healthy lifestyles through education and incentives. But, like climate change, such an enormous paradigm shift would be unthinkable because the cost to drug companies, the insurance industry, and some medical establishments would be too high.  When the day is done, though we all acknowledge change is needed, I’m wondering if we have the will to make the hard choices on any either important issue, health care, or the environment?