A Crisis of Leadership…and Faith

People of faith across Michigan find themselves wrestling with the ongoing revelations that state officials knowingly allowed the poisoning of the people of Flint without warning for more than a year. Every day, more information shows us that Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointees sacrificed the health and well-being of thousands of citizens recklessly, perhaps immorally. As we learn more, we must cope with our immediate response to the crisis while at the same time discerning its cause.

In his State of the State address last Tuesday, Gov. Snyder apologized and vowed to fix the problem. Rep. Gary Glenn told us to accept his apology and move on, a sentiment I share. We should forgive Gov. Snyder and those who reported directly to him responsible for this heinous act. We should not let our feelings of betrayal and outrage lead us to lash out against politicians who may have — somehow — believed they were serving the public interest.

We should release the anger we feel toward Gov. Snyder and his appointees so that the work of reconciliation can begin. As people of faith, however, forgiving Gov. Snyder does not mean that we will not seek justice for the people of Flint. Every child who drank the lead-contaminated water will live the rest of their lives suffering the effects of their poisoning. People made intentional decisions that exposed those children to vile pollution. And they must be held accountable.

The acts resulting in the destruction of the water supply of Flint and the ongoing exposure of its people to toxic, perhaps fatal chemicals, were a sin against every human moral belief system. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew, Atheist or Pagan, the decisions that allowed Flint’s children to be poisoned were unthinkable and evil. And justice demands that those responsible be held accountable for their actions according to the laws of our land.

Consider this comparison. You hire a trusted contractor to build a playground for your children. The contractor completes the task, but knowingly uses rotted wood and rusty nails without telling you. Eventually, the playground collapses, injuring your children permanently. The contractor apologizes and holds you in his prayers. Then he asks for your trust and assures you that he will fix the playground.

We cannot know the nature of eternal mysteries of creation and goodness in the universe. We cannot presume to understand what consequences Gov. Snyder’s actions will inflict on his soul. Therefore, we should leave moral punishments to the Spirit of Life and Love that we call by many names.

We can, however, determine to what extent he and others violated the law and deal with them as we would anyone accused of crimes. If the deaths due to Legionnaire’s Disease were attributable to decisions made by Gov. Snyder and his appointees, then they should be charged with those negligent homicides. Anyone complicit in the poisoning of children should be indicted for the appropriate crimes. And those involved in hiding or covering up knowledge of these actions should be held as co-conspirators. This is not “finger-pointing.” This is a call for justice and for the fair application of our laws to all, whatever their position in our society.

This investigation will also bring to light the many instances of corruption resulting from this governor’s application of the emergency manager law. We must examine its overtly racist application to cities with large minority populations, wherein citizens have been deprived of their democratically-elected representation. We must consider whether our state’s experiment with temporary totalitarianism has been a colossal failure and determine how our cities can survive sustainably in a 21st century environment.

Perhaps most important, as Rep. Glenn reminds us, we must “invest ourselves in finding solutions.” I could not agree more. So I call on you, Rep. Glenn, to take the lead on local relief efforts for our neighbors to the south. Perhaps you could negotiate with local businesses and corporations to provide regular truckloads of water at discounted rates to which we all could contribute. You could sponsor emergency legislation to bolster Flint’s public schools, medical services and civic infrastructure to begin their long path back to health. And, most important Mr. Glenn, show us your leadership by demanding a repeal of the emergency manager legislation and a comprehensive investigation into the actions of this governor and his appointees.

The opportunity for us to live the shared principles of our various faiths lies before us. We need leadership willing to let go of partisan loyalties and commit to the citizens of Michigan. And we need leaders with the courage to show us the way toward justice for the people of Flint.

(originally published January 24, 2016)

The Real War on Christmas

Every year, at about this time, pundits begin the mantra of The War on Christmas. Usually, these dire warnings cite non-Christians as the source of efforts to remove the meaning of the holiday from the public arena. And while I agree that the important and wonderful meanings of Christmas are in jeopardy of being forgotten, I would posit a different source for the conflict.

Early in November, I made an online payment to a department store of $25.00. Unknown to me, my new virus protection software had a tiny bug — when in protected mode, the decimal key on the numeric pad simply didn’t work. So my $25.00 payment went through as a $2,500.00 payment.

Of course, I immediately called my bank and was informed that the payment was already in transit and that I would have to contact the store for the refund. The first two layers of customer service people told me that it would take them 7-10 business days to review the overpayment and issue a refund. Finally, the third person connected me with a different office. This person told me that if the bank faxed information about my account on letterhead, that they could process the refund in less time.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. After several different customer service people with my bank, I found myself talking to a special resolution department in Kalamazoo. He told me that the bank could not send the information because their policies prohibit dissemination of routing and account numbers. Wonderful Catch 22.

More calls and I provided the bank representative with the direct phone number and the email of the store representative. For the following week, calls to both people went to voice mails and were unanswered. Trying again, I got to the fourth level of store management. Now more than two weeks into this nightmare, she told me that the funds were earmarked for release, but that it would now take 3-5 more business days to process the check through a third party vendor. Finally, seven business days later, the money arrived in my account.

So my payment happened at the speed of fiber optic cables in less than a day. The refund took 27 days for processing. Of course, in the meantime, our family finances were a wreck only made tolerable by an incredibly patient landlord. And my money was earning interest for some parent corporation while I faced overdraft fees.

So when you ask me who is behind The War on Christmas, I will tell you. We are. We are all responsible for this war because we tolerate the delusion of capitalism portrayed by the American economic system. We turn away desperate refugees fleeing conflicts from which our military-industrial complex has richly benefited. We demonize people with different notions of God, while coveting people who worship no god but an idol of gold.

Christmas in America was long ago perverted into a commercial travesty of greed and consumer gluttony. A holiday that should bring togetherness instead forces minimum wage employees to work on Thanksgiving while we watch football and overdose on turkey. A holiday that should be about joy instead induces anxiety and the relentless bombardment from businesses telling us what we need to be happy. A holiday that should celebrate the life of a babe and his teachings as a man is instead marked by more mass shootings, more poverty, more bigotry, and more overt discrimination in our supposedly great nation.

Those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation need to wake up. Atheists are not your enemy. Muslims are not your enemy. LGBT people are not your enemy. Your enemy is your own hypocrisy, your own embracing of the privilege afforded you by the accident of your birth to benefit from inherited wealth, skin color and other advantages. Your enemy is your own corporate institutions that put profits before people, and the welfare of the few over the good of society.

Do you want to defeat the forces waging War on Christmas? Then practice the teachings of the man believed born on this day. Help the homeless, feed the starving and clothe the naked. Do this without expectation of benefit in return, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Fight oppression of minorities, women, gays and lesbians, veterans and others suffering from intolerance and mistreatment by an economic system with no incentives for activities that do not produce increased stock prices. And teach your children that this day is about giving, not about receiving.

But most of all, tear up your credit cards. Instead of greeting cards, write letters. Instead of gifts, give your time and attention. Don’t be led like sheep by chain department stores, consumer manufacturers and banks. Remember the true meanings of Christmas — love your neighbors, bring peace to the Earth, and join together in common purpose to make the world a better place.

(originally published December 6, 2015)