Here’s What You Can Do

Whenever I speak about social justice and social action, this question invariably pops up: “But, what can I do?”

20190212_111001This morning, we met Lois Martin, an 84-year old who moved to Tucson 10 or so years ago to work on immigration justice.  She is a member of No More Deaths, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.  No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona working to end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands through civil initiative.  Their work focuses on direct aid (such as water drops in the desert), witnessing and responding, cons iousness raising, and promoting humane immigration policy.

Lois is an amazing person.  She has traveled extensively through Central America and has served as an election observer in Honduras and Guatemala.  She minced no words – the violence people are fleeing in these countries came about and continues because of American support of illegal regimes.  For the last century, groups like the United Fruit Farmers and a handful of wealthy landowners have terrorized the compesinos into fleeing for their lives.  And the U.S. has used these countries as staging points for immoral acoins in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

She taught us about our government’s goal to criminalize migration and to deter migration through death and imprisonment.  She explained how people caught by the border patrol agents (who perform police functions without proper police training) are remitted to the criminal justice system, not the immigration system.  Border patrol can hold migrants for 72 hours with no guarantee of even the basic services such as bedding. Claims of asylum are ignored and victims are processed through Operation Streamline, which results in a criminal record and immediate deportation.

Since the hearings take place in federal court, victims are not provided any translators but Spanish.  As a result, defendents (who may be members of many indigenous people’s with their own dialects) may have no understanding of what is happening to them.

We then spent the afternoon at the federal courthouse watching close to 100 people led into the courtroom in shackles.  Looking confused and frightened, shuffling because of the ankle chains, groups were led before the judge charged either with misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry after removal. Pleading guilty to the former means immediate deportation and a criminal record.  All of the latter cases made plea bargains resulting in dropping the felony charge, but serving 30 to 180 days in prison.

20190212_161651Only after the hearing are migrants remitted to immigration services, where claims of asylum may be heard.  But, often the only person who may hear the claim is the bus driver taking them to Nogales, or an officer who simply chooses to ignore it.

The futility and inhumanity of this charade of justice was brought home by one man.  The judge asked if he had been in her court before.  He affirmed her recollection.  She told him, “I don’t want to see you here again, because next time it will be a felony.”  He replied, “Not anymore…what’s the point?”

What is the point?  What can you do?  See.  Think.  Plan.  Act.  Reflect.  And repeat.

The Elephant

Americans marched last week. Across the country, millions expressed fear of a neo-Fascist in the White House, and solidarity in seeking change in our political system.

ct-womens-march-national-pg-20170121People marched for many reasons. They marched for equal rights for women, People of Color, immigrants, LGBTQIA individuals, and others. They marched for our planet, recognizing that human action harms our global climate. They marched for a fair and just society that truly offers complete access to the American Dream for all.

And many marched for reproductive freedom – the issue that represents the key lynch pin to every political discussion in this nation. People will vote against their own self-interest when it comes to taxes, jobs, immigration, schools, the environment, even national security. But the one issue on which most voters will not compromise is abortion. Any candidate claiming to be “pro-life” running against another candidate labeled as “pro-choice” can count on thousands of committed votes regardless of any other political stand they take.

The majority of white American women just voted for a President who believes women are property to be mauled, who mocks the disabled, who opposes living wages, and who casually banters about nuclear war. But, he claimed to be pro-life, and he now sits in the White House.

“Pro-Choice” is a myth

In my experience, women who support reproductive freedom do not simply support abortion on demand. In fact, many would like to see the need for elective abortions reduced to zero. However, our laws and social systems remain heavily anti-woman. Abuse of women remains at shockingly high levels. The objectification of women in the media trains girls and boys from an early age that striving toward an unachievable norm of beauty defines a woman’s worth. The continued acceptance of our rape culture leaves women living in constant, daily fear of discrimination, molestation, assault, and worse.

American men take little responsibility for sexual relations. We routinely expect women to control the use of contraception and yet men often overrule women to suit their desire for sexual gratification. Birth control is expensive, hard to access, and has many side effects. We label men who bed many women as virile and desirable role models. We label sexually active women as promiscuous sluts and whores unworthy of marriage and motherhood.

planned-parenthood-about-us-who-we-are-mission-1920x1080Even when women take every possible precaution, this pernicious double standard too often produces pregnancies where the men bail out and leave the woman alone to bear a life-long responsibility with little if any support. The legal system does little to hold men accountable as equal partners in procreation, but hurdles mountains to control a woman’s body and medical choices.

Pro-choice does not equate to pro-abortion. Many women – and I believe most women – see abortion as a tragic last step necessary only because our country lacks proper education and affordable access to birth control. Most women accept the necessity of abortion only because our commitment as a nation to the rights of men over the dignity and worth of women leaves women without viable alternatives.

In a perfect world, elective abortions would disappear because the circumstances that lead to unwanted pregnancies would not exist. What would this world look like?

  • No man would ever dream of forcing himself on a woman.
  • Women and men would be true equals from birth through school to the workplace and into retirement.
  • Beauty would be defined by one’s character, goodness, authenticity, and conviction – not body shape.
  • Every child would know the facts of human reproduction, and learn the complexities of loving relationships.
  • Government would play no role in determining what any person chooses to do with their body.
  • Individuals’ personal religious beliefs regarding personhood would be respected, but no one would be permitted to discriminate against others on the basis of those personal beliefs.

So, “pro-choice” does not mean pro-elective abortion at will. Pro-choice means supporting a society with reproductive justice – the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.

“Pro-Life” is a myth

ireland17For years, Congressman John Moolenaar has staunchly defended what he calls the “sanctity of life.” This week, Harvard researchers revealed that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement program will result in 44,000 unnecessary deaths each year. It is irrefutable fact that more than 20 million Americans will lose their health insurance if Republicans repeal and do not replace the ACA, an action Moolenaar voted to approve.

Can a person legitimately call themselves pro-life if they only apply their moral standards of sanctity of life to fetuses? No. In fact, voting to repeal the ACA without a replacement represents an “anti-life” action. Other anti-life attitudes include:

  • Sending men and women into combat, but fail to provide them world-class mental and physical medical treatment once they return from the trauma of war;
  • Using drones that indiscriminately kill innocent men, women, and children in search of a possible enemy target;
  • Murdering prisoners convicted of crimes, given the inordinate number of mistakes that have been made in capital punishment sentencing, its inherent racism and classism, and the cruel processes used to take those lives;
  • Cutting funds for food stamps, school lunch programs, early childhood education initiatives, and public education of equally high quality for all, when more than enough is available in our bloated federal military budget to easily meet these needs;
  • Passing into law the most intrusive and medically unnecessary invasion of a woman’s body, while offering young people little realistic education about sex and obstructing their access to birth control;
  • Denying victims of incest, rape, and medical complications threatening the life of the mother with means to terminate those pregnancies;
  • Failing to speak out in opposition to “slap on the wrist” punishments for rapists and those committing domestic violence and sexual assaults on women, and excusing the behavior of beasts for violating a woman by blaming her for the crime; and
  • Failing to be repulsed that this nation has done absolutely nothing to create mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, or to limit access to weapons whose sole purpose is the mass murder of humans — and not pressuring you legislators to do so.

If these apply to you, then stop calling yourself pro-life. You are not pro-life – you are pro-birth and anti-woman.

Reclaiming American citizenship

The seeds of America spread wide through the soil of injustice and tyranny. Our ancestors fought for a host of freedoms and civil rights. They proclaimed those rights publicly in documents central to our national core. For the Founders, being American meant supporting the full American agenda, a social system unmatched in history.

How long would America last if citizens based their vote solely on a single issue? That kind of thinking led to a bloody civil war that decimated our nation. That kind of thinking condoned the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples whose descendants still suffer our oppression. That kind of thinking normalized the incarceration of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, along with the theft of their property and livelihoods. That kind of thinking supported segregation, lynching, Sundown Towns, and continues supporting a racist criminal justice system.

Make no mistake; Donald Trump is unfit to serve as President of the United States. If you voted for him because Hillary Clinton supports a woman’s right to choose, then you have contributed to the possible decline of our nation and our way of life. I understand your feelings about the unborn. Most people do. But electing a President already committed to destroying our environment, eliminating key safety net programs for the poor, taking health care away from millions, and dismantling industry regulations is an act of social suicide.

If you marched last Saturday, I implore you to reach out to those who oppose abortion. Engage in dialogue with them on the realities of conception, fertilization, fetal anomalies, and religious belief. Help those seeking to defend the rights of the unborn understand that you agree with their cause as part of a larger package of social programs that defend the right of all persons to life.

2013-02-08-perezIf you opposed the march last Saturday, I implore you to look at the broad picture of what it means to be an American citizen. Standing up for the rights of those who cannot defend themselves is courageous, noble work. But the defenseless include not only fetuses, but refugees, children of undocumented parents, innocent people dead due to excessive police violence, and victims of institutionalized racism, gender bias, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.

Whether you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life, you are an American. Our American principles demand of us a high standard of citizen participation. We are called to resist authoritarian rule and defend the civil rights of all. We are called to expose acts of foreign agents seeking to undermine our most precious liberties. We are called to hold our elected officials accountable when they lie, obstruct the search for truth, hide pertinent information, and behave in foolish and reckless ways.

Resist those who would divide and conquer us. Refute the false dichotomy of pro-life/pro-choice. Replace stereotypes and unfounded generalizations with facts and grounded beliefs acceptable to all. Let us unite as Americans, agreeing to disagree when needed, but in solidarity regarding the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dear Mr. Trump

Congratulations on your upcoming inauguration. Many of us voted for you despite your lack of experience holding public office. So, on behalf of the hundreds of millions of us you now serve, I want to take this opportunity and offer you some advice as you enter the Oval Office. Please forgive us if some of these suggestions sound simplistic, even obvious. Given your public discourse to date, however, we have confidence that you will find value in them.

trump-meryl1. Think. Our mothers taught us, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” We Americans can be obnoxious, even rude. But, we look up to the Office of the President largely because it stands for the highest level of decorum and class in our society. Our President should be better than us, and should model for us the best human behavior. We all understand the satisfaction derived from beating someone in a war of words. But, we need our President to rise above personal pettiness and insulting retorts in response to criticism.

2. Listen. Like many of us, you have decades of life experience. But, you can now access thousands of people with unbelievable knowledge about every topic imaginable at a moment’s notice. You are smarter than most of us – otherwise you would never have succeeded in the election. You are still a human being, however, and we do not expect you to know everything. Please listen to people the way you expect us to listen to you.

3. Review. We admire your spontaneity. In a complex world, however, every word spoken by our President matters. When you tweet without subjecting your words to careful review…you frighten us. We don’t see grammatical mistakes, factual errors, and statements revealing a lack of knowledge of basic governmental functions as amusing signs of a delightfully quirky leadership style. They scare us. They scare us because they are mistakes that we would make – but we are not President. We fear the consequences of your unedited statements, and need to see that you understand our feelings and the power your words wield.

4. Respect. We respect the Office of the President like no other position in the world. Likewise, we need the person filling that office to respect us. We elected you. So, we logically expect you to respect our intelligence and wisdom. When we feel disregarded by our President, we can delude ourselves with false hopes; we begin forming unrealistic expectations of a nation already responsible for unprecedented historical achievements; and we allow our fears to override our reason. The American people will follow your example. We need you to display the respect for us that you expect from us in return.

5. Awaken. Citizen Trump owned every privilege available. Unlike most of us, you were born a white, straight, male, Christian, healthy and wealthy American citizen. But we need President Trump to represent people of color and women; gay and transgender people; Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Atheists; and people suffering from physical and mental illnesses. We need our President to serve all the people, whether they live in mansions, houses, apartments, or packing crates. Whether we work as executives or lawyers, nurses or plumbers, cashiers or migrant farmers, we must feel that you empathize with our lives and acknowledge our inherent worth and dignity.

6. Mature. To be honest, many of us voted for you because you acted like us. You said things we might say and acted in ways we might act. But we know that we don’t always say the right things, or act in the right ways. Candidate Trump was an adolescent – a malignant narcissist and expert self-promoter. And many of us loved that persona. We now need President Trump to heed the lesson we learned on TV from that great philosopher Spock of Vulcan, who said, “Having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting.”

You wanted our ultimate position of celebrity and we gave it to you. But with ownership comes tremendous responsibility. Billions of lives across the world now depend on you owning every attribute of a great leader, qualities such as wisdom, integrity, and humility. Perhaps most important, we need you to show the courage to make decisions that might make you unpopular, but that are morally correct choices. Sadly, there isn’t a kinder, more gentle way to say this. Now that we have entrusted you with the most important office in our nation, we need you to grow up.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Every one of your constituents – regardless of skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, theological persuasion, ability, or legal, social and economic status – can agree with these sentiments.

His letter continued. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

7. Love. Mr. Trump, on the morning of January 20, you will gaze into that golden mirror you caress so often. Our nation, all of us living and yet to be born, and the planet Earth that sustains us need you to see the full reflection of a President. We need that mirror to reflect a thoughtful, considerate, careful, respectful, aware adult. We desperately need that mirror to project an image of love. We know you love yourself and your family. We know you love your fans and supporters. As President Trump, we need you to share that love with every person equally.

trump-reporterWe need you to love every Black man looking in the rear view mirror at the flashing lights of a police car; the woman entering the Planned Parenthood office for a cancer screening because her insurance won’t pay for her to go to the local hospital anymore; the young gay man cast out of his parent’s home because of who he loves; the woman wearing the hijab being berated for her religious beliefs; the man publicly mocked for his congenital disability; the mother living in her car because her employers pay poverty wages; and the hard-working, courageous man seeking the same American dream for his children that our own ancestors sought.

We Americans can love deeply. But we will emulate our President. If our President displays impatience, arrogance, rudeness, and resentment, we will do the same. So, Mr. Trump, please model that love for us, for our nation, and for our planet as you become President Trump.

Christmas Message for Modern Times

Billions across the earth celebrate the birth of a child. Some doubt the accuracy of factual details of the event. Others question on the nature of the child and the circumstances of his conception. Centuries of scholarship and spiritual contemplation failed to resolve different interpretations of the child’s purpose and of his eventual actions as an adult.

Nearly everyone can agree, however, on one thing. Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, whether you follow Buddhist, Hindu, or no religious teachings at all, we can all agree on this specific aspect of the life of the man known as Jesus.

Early in his ministry, this wandering rabbi preached a message to the people. He preached from the hilltops and from the valleys. His message resonated with every person largely because other prophets had preached the same wisdom throughout the centuries. And in 21st century America, this message rings especially true.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Jesus lived in a world where the privileged held reign over the oppressed. He foresaw a time when all their wealth, power, and military might could not prevent their eventual downfall.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Jesus called out the hypocrites, the policy makers who dined in fine style while the poor made do with the scraps. He preached fairness and equity for all the people.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

The arrogant leaders, distant from the faith and dedication of the people, thought they controlled the truth. Jesus did not mock or threaten others to serve as an inspirational leader.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Truth is not whatever reality most benefits you. Truth is truth. Jesus showed that true leadership consists of honesty, openness, and candor regardless of the consequences.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Jesus spoke truth to power, never backing away from the challenges of scribes and Pharisees. He never sold his principles for comfort, advantage, or influence.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

The Golden Rule is the single most universal ethical belief of humanity. Jesus lived this ethic and taught others to do the same.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.

Hold people accountable, but always do so with love and understanding. Jesus held malice in his heart for no one and yet stood on the side of love opposed to all oppressive authority.

castingoutmoneychangersNear the end of his ministry, Jesus demonstrated that we cannot achieve justice passively, and that we must sometimes meet oppression with active resistance.  Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying…he said, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

After his active resistance to the corrupt bankers and priests, Jesus taught in the temple and healed those who came to him seeking cures. He told the crowds that the scribes and Pharisees tie up heavy, hard to bear burdens and lay them on the shoulders of others to carry. They exalt themselves, claiming great deeds and the best seats in the synagogue. Jesus called them blind guides and fools, for they valued the gold and not the sanctuary that made the gold sacred. Instead of tithing, Jesus called on the self-indulgent and greedy to practice justice, mercy, and faith.

Prophecy. Christmas celebrates a world-changing event in the past. But Christmas also commemorates the spirit of the man born under that star. Christmas proclaims the message of brotherhood and sisterhood among all people, and compassion for every person, whether poor or sick, hungry or hated.

So, honor the wonder of birth this Christmas season. May you see in every child the promise of a great life of service, a great love of others. Honor the child – wherever and whenever born – as the symbol of hope for billions born into poverty and oppression. Then, honor the person that child then grew and now grows to be; the one who then taught and will now teach the beatitudes of unconditional love; and who will always sacrifice everything to show us the meaning of justice, of mercy, and of faith. May we honor those teachings every day of the year and find the courage to stand up publicly for those principles.

Truth and Meaning: A Top 10 List That Matters

Last week, I talked about our love of top 10 lists. So, this week I offer my list of the top 10 things Americans need to do to restore sanity to our nation.

10. Labor – Establish a minimum wage that is a living wage. The endless attacks on labor undermine our economy and our democracy. No one should suffer wage or job discrimination for any reason and anyone willing to work should be able to live above the poverty line.
9. Health Care – Provide a basic level of medical and mental health care to every American once and for all. We should demand that politicians stop using our health and well-being as a political football.
8. Corporate Responsibility – Demand that the private sector pay its fair share of taxes and be held accountable when it misbehaves. Congress should overturn the Citizens United decision. The idea that a corporation has the rights of a person is not only illogical, it is social suicide.
7. Election Reform – Guarantee the unencumbered right to vote for every citizen by removing all restrictions to voting rights and making Election Day a national holiday. Enact comprehensive campaign finance reform and abolish all partisan gerrymandering, replacing current redistricting tools with common sense and reason.
6. Environment – Stop making the irresponsible assumption that petrochemical resources are unlimited. We should plan for a future where all people have access to food and clean water, and where we live sustainably.
5. Racism – Judging people by their skin color, ethnicity, or culture is a concept that has overstayed its welcome. Our mass incarceration of people of color in increasingly profit-oriented prisons is obscene. Immigrants need a clear and affordable path to citizenship.
4. Stupidity – People are free to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence on any given topic. But we should keep such people out of positions of authority and decision making. We have tolerated know-nothings and deniers in our public discourse for too long. The Earth is round and circles the sun. Climate change is real. Sexual orientation is largely determined at birth. Evolution occurs. The world is billions of years old.
3. Guns – End our insane worship of guns. We have allowed violence and killing to be our number one national priority for far too long. We should make universal background checks mandatory and impose strict limits on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Open Carry and Stand Your Ground may have worked on the 19th century frontier — they do not work for 21st century America.
2. Life – We should become a truly life-sustaining nation. That means no more war, an end to capital punishment, zero tolerance for police brutality, and contraception and comprehensive sex education for all so that every child is wanted. More important, it means caring about the born — eliminate hunger, provide equal education opportunities, and provide jobs, housing and social safety nets for everyone.
1. Revolution – We cannot accomplish needed changes through incrementalism. We should seek nonviolent ways to catalyze large-scale changes quickly and effectively. That means grassroots movements for policy change, boycotts, dissent and other tools the people have at their disposal. And it especially means voting for the highest quality candidates and not just for anyone who happens to have a “D” or an “R” next to their names.

Truth and Meaning: Real Love

So, another Valentine’s Day is upon us. My message today is simple. You are loved.

Even if you get no cards in the mail, you are loved. If no one buys you chocolates or flowers, you are loved.

Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Atheist or Jew, you are loved. Whether you are conservative or liberal, rich or poor, you are loved. Whether you are gay or straight, you are loved.

I know this because I love you. As a Unitarian Universalist, I affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and compassion in human relations. Because I love you, I fight for your civil rights and for your freedom from discrimination. Because I love all of you, I advocate for a living wage, better public school funding, and clean air and water. Because I love every person, I dedicate my life to being my brother’s and my sister’s keeper, to justice for all, and for an end to violence and war.

And because you are loved, you do not need the roses or the heart-shaped boxes of sweets. You do not need to buy love at the store. And you do not need to buy the lies sold by the hate mongers and fear peddlers.

Despite the awful tragedies happening every day, the world is a pretty terrific place. In spite of our failures and heartaches, there is much to be said for living. But our lives are only as good as we make them, and we can all try harder to help those who are less fortunate to have a voice and a vote about things that affect them.

The best way to do this is to express your unconditional love proudly and publicly, without any expectation of any benefit in return. Love without judgment. Love with no strings attached. Love simply for the sake of loving.

Do I believe human nature causes us to be hurtful, distrustful and prejudiced? Not for a second. Am I a doe-eyed, naive Utopian? You bet. Love will do that for you. Love helps you see the innocent child in every person before life teaches them to be afraid and angry.

I am blessed to be married to a woman who reminds me every day of the power of love. And I am fortunate to be part of a religious community whose cornerstone is human beings caring for each other and welcoming all spiritual seekers regardless of their identities. May you feel that power within you on this Valentine’s Day, and every other day of the year.

Truth and Meaning: Are You Economically Free?

According to the Heritage Foundation, economic freedom is “the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.” In an economically free society, they argue, “individuals are free to work, produce, consume and invest in any way they please” and “governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely.” As you read this column, you might imagine that they are talking about you. You might logically think that they are concerned with your well being.

But are you truly free economically? If you lost your job tomorrow, how long would it take you to find a comparable job? Do you make enough money to plan for the future meaningfully? Are you really free to produce and consume as you please, or are you having trouble just keeping up with credit card payments, rising consumer costs, house and car repairs, medical bills, student loans and countless other expenses?

The problem is not with your understanding of work and money, but rather the hypocrisy of proponents of this skewed view of economics. Because, in reality, the Heritage Foundation could not care less about you, your home, your children or your future. All they care about are the handful of multi-millionaires who can invest more in one transaction than you will earn in a lifetime without any concern about losing it all. To the Heritage Foundation, you are not a person, you are a unit of labor, a commodity to be purchased, used and discarded.

Last Sunday, Northwood’s Timothy Nash explained in this editorial how America’s economy will suffer if we do not pass more pro-business tax reform and make it easier for the wealthy to trickle down their riches unimpeded. He based his recommendation on his concern that the ranking of the United States in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom dropped from 6th to 12th place in the past five years. Let’s examine this hypothesis.

Nash’s use of this index provides a classic example of misusing statistics to make a dramatic point. First, the Index of Economic Freedom ranks nearly 200 countries, so a drop in rankings from 6 to 12 perhaps should not unduly concern us. But, who surpassed us in those rankings? Ireland, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Estonia and Mauritius. Do you even know where Mauritius is?

To benchmark the American economy against world peers, wouldn’t you limit the comparison to countries with a comparable economy? In 2013, there were only 15 countries in the world with Gross Domestic Products in excess of $1 trillion. Only two of the 14 countries other than the U.S. rank higher in the Index of Economic Freedom — Canada and Australia. Among the lowest ranking peer countries are Brazil (118th), India (128th), China (139th) and Russia (143rd). Other peers include Japan, Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Mexico. Perhaps before we predict doom and gloom for the American economy, we should first benchmark ourselves only against appropriate peers.

Second, the Index of Economic Freedom includes an impressive array of data elements, all of which have some relevance to examining global economies. However, a longitudinal analysis of a manufactured index such as this must also take account of external events that might skew the numbers radically. This chart shows the Index of Economic Freedom for the United States as well as the average of the other 14 countries with GDP’s in excess of $1 trillion. Note that the U.S. consistently scores significantly higher than our peer group. Also, notice that the index for the U.S. was increasing noticeably until 2008 — the year of the biggest recession to hit this country since 1929. As one should expect, that colossal calamity of criminal fraud and greed took its toll on our ranking — a toll from which we are only now beginning to recover. Lastly, note that the index for the U.S. is now almost exactly at the same level as 15 years ago.

A key problem when using statistics is picking and choosing the numbers that support your assertion and then overemphasizing their importance. In this case, to cry wolf over a drop in economic ranking caused largely by the malfeasance of bankers, venture capitalists and high risk investors is unwarranted especially when we still outrank most of our true peers. And to recommend that America reward the very institutions that facilitated our financial collapse is utterly uncalled for.

Now, let’s get to the real point. The Index of Economic Freedom is not an objective analytic tool — it is a propaganda device to support radical economic views that support a few billionaires off the sweat and sacrifice of the majority of Americans. One hundred economists could create 100 different models using the exact same variables and produce wildly different results. A real Index of Economic Freedom would measure the freedom that workers truly have to change jobs, to learn new skills, to negotiate for better and fairer wages and benefits, and to provide opportunities for their children. A real Index of Economic Freedom would place people over investments, and healthy neighborhoods over quarterly profit statements. A real Index of Economic Freedom would measure the quality of an economy as much as the quantity of its output, the standard of living for the average citizen as much as the return on investment of a corporate “person.”

So, I challenge economists to craft a real Index of Economic Freedom. Included in such an index might be percentages of:
  • minimum wage earners living in poverty;
  • unemployed as well as those underemployed;
  • college graduates unable to find work in their fields;
  • the availability of public transportation and the average commuting distance to work;
  • vacation time, sick leave and paid family leave;
  • workers without medical insurance and other benefits;
  • employers restricting benefits on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • failed privatization efforts and the costs of corruption from privatizing schools, prisons, etc.;
  • income inequality for women and minorities;
  • incarceration of white collar criminals versus other offenders;
  • occupational safety violations and environmental “accidents;”
  • governmental spending on military versus human needs; and
  • individual taxes paid as a percent of actual gross income.
We don’t need to give Wall Street and the ultra-wealthy more freedom to wreak havoc on our economy. We need to give secretaries and teachers, managers and technicians, restaurant workers and occupational therapists more true economic freedom. We need to give women and minorities, and workers in our depressed cities more economic freedom. And we need to give our children the hope of economic freedom to attend college without crippling debt, to raise families without sacrificing leisure time and to plan for retirement secure in the belief that those funds will not disappear into an off-shore bank account.
 
Reject the statistical machinations of the Heritage Foundation and call for an American economy that truly cares about all human beings. Advocate for workplaces where workers are free to organize for their mutual benefit, and a marketplace free from gouging fees and interest rates. Tell our economists that every human person should be compensated fairly based on their labor, not on accidents of their birth and the privilege derived from inherited wealth or physical attributes. And remind our pundits, as people of faith, that human beings matter more than money, and that true freedom is measured by the way a society treats its most unfortunate, not its wealthiest.
 
With nearly one-quarter of the world’s GDP, no one should be jobless, homeless or hopeless in the United States. Parents should not have to worry about whether to pay the gas bill or feed their children. No one should have to worry about being fired because they are gay or transgender. Everyone should be paid fairly regardless of their gender. And no one working a 40-hour work week should be living in poverty. A fair and just society is not about wealth. Feed the hungry, quench the thirst of the parched, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. When we do these things, we will have all the freedom we need.
 

Truth and Meaning: Christmas Spirit

When my father was a boy, he considered an orange a special Christmas present. And while he grew up in relative poverty, he never considered his family poor. My grandfather was always able to find work that paid a fair wage. My grandmother was a stay-at-home mother. And my father was able to work during the summer and save up enough for college.

http://www.educatingwomen.org/poverty-in-the-us/But, times have changed. People like my grandfather – unskilled or skilled in outdated technologies – have few full-time job opportunities that pay enough to support a family. Fathers and mothers often work several jobs and then have to pay for child care. And young people today routinely graduate from college with massive student loan debt.

Like most of you that read David DeForest’s letter to the editor in the December 12 issue of the Midland Daily News (“No Reason to Work”), I was deeply saddened that such attitudes still exist in our community. Especially now, as we celebrate the birth of a man who loved all people and cared about the well being of everyone, the public expression of such sentiments reminds us of the pain that many feel in this country. The pain of hunger and homelessness; the pain of hate and discrimination; the pain of hopelessness that nothing we do can improve our lives.

My grandfather came to this country penniless, skilled in a trade that no longer existed. And yet, his children grew up healthy and went on to successful lives. Such is no longer the case for many of today’s immigrants. The path to citizenship is prohibitively expensive and takes as long as 10 years to complete. In the meantime, they perform the menial tasks beneath most Americans, living in constant fear that federal agents will burst into their homes and ship family members to undisclosed locations for uncertain deportation.

Especially painful was reading Mr. DeForest’s depiction of Americans living in poverty today. Jesus never asked for any justification when helping the poor or the sick. He simply helped them. Jesus never asked a hungry person, “Why don’t you just get a job?” He simply fed them. And Jesus did not tower over the poor in judgment, condemning them for their need. He simply gave them hope.

Mr. DeForest’s misplaced anger should be directed at the true parasites in this country – privileged rich people who contribute little and consume much; corporate CEO’s who are paid more in one day than a minimum wage employee can earn in a year; bankers who gamble with this nation’s economy with impunity. These leeches cost America billions of dollars each year. Every social welfare program combined does not come close to any such amount.

So, to Mr. DeForest, and to anyone who shares his sentiments, now is the time to re-examine your attitudes. Now is the time to walk among the poor and show them the respect they deserve by learning about the ravages of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and institutionalized poverty. At Christmas time, let us all walk the path of Jesus – the path of sympathy, compassion, understanding and love.

Truth and Meaning: One Question

A crisis looms on our horizon. How we cope with that crisis will depend on your answer to a simple question.

Ignore the media hype. Disregard the irrelevant facts. Set aside unrelated events that may sway your judgment. Look at the evidence yourself and answer one simple question.

  • Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, is playing alone in a park with a toy gun. Someone calls 911 to report seeing Tamir and even says it is probably just a toy gun. Minutes later, a police car roars up to within just feet of Tamir and two seconds later he is dead. Did Tamir Rice deserve to die?
  • Eric Gardner is selling single cigarettes for 50 cents — a petty crime. A few minutes later, he is surrounded by police. One puts Eric in an illegal choke hold. Eric gasps time and again that he cannot breathe. In just minutes, he lies on the sidewalk dead. Did Eric Gardner deserve to die?
  • Michael Brown fits the description of a person reported to have stolen some cigarettes and scuffled with a clerk. Michael is walking down the street with a friend. An altercation ensues with a police officer, the exact facts of which are disputed. Even assuming the worst case scenario, Michael grabbed unsuccessfully for the officer’s gun and then ran away. A minute later Michael is 30 feet away, hands visible with no weapon. The autopsy reports show bullet wounds in his arm, two to the chest that indicate he was falling forward, and the kill shot to the head at an angle indicating that he was nearly on the ground. Did Michael Brown deserve to die?
I have skewed no evidence. I have included nothing in these scenarios about the neighborhoods, the police officers themselves, community relations with the police, national media coverage or subsequent investigations. In the case of Tamir Rice and Eric Gardner, video records reveal the events in real time for anyone to watch. Disregarding all of the irrelevant noise surrounding these tragedies, did Tamir, Eric and Michael deserve to die?
 
Whether you are white or black does not matter. Whether you are Republican or Democrat does not matter. Whether you are young or old, straight or gay, man or woman, rich or poor — none of that matters. Did Tamir, Eric and Michael deserve to die?
 
If you ask yourself that question, and your answer is no, then you are ready to explore the coming crisis in our nation. You are ready to objectively examine the research and data. You are ready to set aside the punditry and editorializing and look at the reality in America for yourself. And when you do, you will see our deeply embedded systems of structured poverty, institutionalized racism and the impacts of privilege in our society.
 
This is painful work. If you are white, male, straight, middle class, you will be tempted to feel shamed — your initial reaction will be that you are being accused of something you did not do. That is a natural reaction, but I encourage you to move through it quickly. Privilege is not the problem. The problem is that too many people with privilege do not acknowledge its benefits and do too little to level the playing field for all.
 
Once you have answered the question and read the research, imagine how you would feel if you were a black man in America today, 50 years after the Civil Right Act supposedly launched us into a post-racial society. Imagine that you are the mother or father of Tamir or Michael, or the wife and children of Eric. If you can put on those shoes and walk in them for just a short time, then your feelings of shame and guilt will quickly evaporate. They will disappear because you will want to do something. You will want to change things so that the senseless ending of young lives stops.
 
Yes or no?
 

Guide to Holiday Conversations


You find yourself at a family gathering. On your right sits Uncle Harold, who voted twice for Nixon, Reagan and Bush (senior and junior). On your left sits your Cousin Gloria, the Prius-driving, recycling, public school teacher. You uncomfortably count the seconds before someone raises a contentious topic. In anticipation of that moment, here is your holiday guide to surviving inevitable conflicts, and to build bridges of love and understanding.

Immigration
Uncle Harold starts. “We need to ship those illegals back where they came from. Emperor Obama should wait for Congress to protect American jobs and keep our borders safe from terrorists, drug dealers and freeloaders.”
Cousin Gloria retorts. “Our ancestors were undocumented aliens who came here and slaughtered the indigenous peoples. No one made them go through years of red tape and expenses. No one broke up our families and deported people without due process.”
You: “We are a nation of immigrants, and people around the world have long viewed America as a land of freedom and opportunity. We can find a way to provide a more efficient path to citizenship while still providing reasonable security at our nation’s borders.

Abortion
Cousin Gloria: “This is my body and the government has no business invading my privacy and interfering with my health care. My body, my choice.”
Uncle Harold: “You are murdering tens of thousands of babies every year and I don’t want my tax dollars supporting godless groups like Planned Parenthood.”
You: “Everyone wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. But being pro-life also means educating our children about sex, and providing them with contraception. We should care about every child by supporting loving families that need help. Every child should receive an equal shot at the American Dream.”

Gay and transgender equality
Harold: “God condemns these abominations. I love the person, but homosexuality and the choices people make to tamper with God’s creation are sins.”
Gloria: “You hate LGBT people. You have no right legislating our bedrooms. Your bigotry just encourages bullying and violence against gays.”
You: “As Americans, we believe in freedom and equality. The research seems to show that sexual orientation is determined at birth. So while I respect people’s religious beliefs, I also support equal rights for all people on the basis of differences that we cannot control.”

Health care
Gloria: “Insurance companies are heartless and greedy. Because of them, thousands of people die from lack of adequate insurance. And now you want to take away the safety net of the Affordable Care Act.”
Harold: “Obamacare is fiscally irresponsible and forces people to pay more for their insurance, and to change doctors with which they have developed long relationships. We should let the free market do its job.”
You: “I know families who cannot afford medical insurance. If we can’t fix Obamacare, then we need to come up with a program that serves everyone, because all Americans deserve access to quality health care.”

Religious freedom
Harold: “America is a Christian nation and no one should be forced to do anything that violates their beliefs.”
Gloria: “Employers have no business discriminating against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. These so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills are nothing but legalized bigotry.”
You: “No one has the right to infringe on another’s religious beliefs. But government determines who needs protection from unlawful discrimination. Religious freedom should be a protective shield, not be a sword used to hurt others.”

Gun control
Gloria: “How many more children need to die to support your right to buy machine guns and to carry rifles into my grocery store?”
Harold: “The founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect us from tyranny and it is my duty to protect our nation, as well as to protect my family from harm, whatever the cost.”
You: “Everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm. Everyone also has the right to walk the streets free from the fear that some deranged gunman won’t open fire on them. We need to sit down and find common sense solutions to protect all Americans’ rights and to reduce the gun violence in our country.”

Gloria: “Fascist!”
Harold: “Communist!”
You: “Both of you stop it! Name calling will get you nowhere. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and free the prisoners. Can’t we set aside our partisan differences and agree on these noble goals — not just as Christian goals, but goals that all Americans can agree upon?”

I hope this helps you survive the holidays, as well as what is sure to be another new year of social, economic and political turmoil that will not end until the great mass of centrist thinkers takes back the moral middle of America.