Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Vocabulary - How hard it is

What follows is a follow up to my previous post about the mean old God vs. the loving new God.  If you haven’t already, you might want to read that first before taking this on.

Vocabulary.  We can express ourselves only with the vocabulary we have.  To put it another way, we cannot say something using words we don’t know.  In like manner, we cannot ask others to express themselves in words they don’t know or with meanings they don’t have.  You would think it’s obvious, but, in theology as in life, one of the biggest mistakes we make is to put our vocabulary into the mouths of others who have never heard the words, nor have words of their own that approximate our meaning. 

Many years ago in seminary, a group of us spent hours debating what Paul’s letter to Philemon had to say about slavery.  We tried hard to make Paul say something that complemented our understanding of slavery, particularly as we knew about it in American history.   We even imagined that he did, but it was not so.  We could not force a 20th century American vocabulary into Paul’s mouth.  It’s a small example, but it’s related to the subject of my previous article about the mean Old Testament God vs. the loving New Testament God.  How is it that the loving God we know through Jesus Christ can be the same cruel vindictive God we read about in the Old Testament?

The question we have to ask ourselves is, What vocabulary did the ancient Israelites have to talk about and understand God?  How did that vocabulary change as the centuries unfolded?  It’s important because how can God reveal God’s self to a people except through the vocabulary they already possess?  What, in any given era, did they know about the characteristics of gods?  There were plenty of gods to provide examples.  What words and meanings were available to them to begin expressing knowledge about a new god, JHWH?  What we know for certain is that the nature of God as revealed in Jesus was not known to them, although the progressive unveiling of God’s self revelation throughout scripture always moves in that direction, introducing new meanings into old words and bringing new words into play one small step at a time.

We don’t say anything in the usual Sunday school curricula about the dynamic development of revelation of who God is, or about who we are as God’s people, and precious little about it in most adult Christian education programs.  Many of us still use Luther’s small catechism, or its cognate, to teach teens preparing for confirmation.  Five hundred year old German ideas about God may have enduring value, but how well do they communicate with contemporary American experience?   It leaves faithful, life long Christians trying to force 21st century meanings onto words our English bibles use to tell the stories of peoples who lived thousands of years ago in cultures far different from our own.  It’s unfair to those ancient ancestors.  It’s unfair to today’s faithful trying to understand who God is.  It creates an impossible roadblock to inquiring minds of non Christians who may want to know more about us.

It’s a problem.  Not only do we have to begin teaching adults about scripture using the vocabulary they already have, we also have to help them understand that those living two, three, or four thousand years ago had a different vocabulary with different meanings from our own.  Then begins the slow task of introducing them to a new vocabulary that can lead to a deeper understanding.  I’m surprised at how hard that is to do.  I used to teach a weekly class at the local rescue mission where few of the participants had graduated from high school.  They were eager to learn, but I had to start by using words they knew well, introducing new vocabulary with care, and struggling to find ways to express myself in words they were accustomed to using, all without being condescending.

I’ve often made the mistake of assuming that my well educated parishioners did not need the same care, forgetting that their religious education stopped in the sixth grade, or sometimes earlier.  College educated people using grade school words and meanings to talk about God!  Good Grief!  Moreover, more educated folks appear to be quicker to assume that the ancients had and used the same vocabulary we do to understand God.  Not so many years ago, it came as a surprise to those in my parish bible study group that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not Jews practicing the Jewish religion as it was known to Jesus.  They were honestly unaware of the developments that took place over the course of the scriptural record, but believed that words used to understand God and humanity in the oldest stories were the same as words used in the most recent stories.  Even among clergy colleagues there is a tendency to impute early 21st century ethics and morality into the words used to describe how faith was understood in biblical times.  When it doesn’t fit, they are a little too quick to condemn those ancients for their failure to have the morals and ethics of a modern liberal Christian.  How impatient we are!  I wonder if our descendants will be as unfair to us as they wonder at our ignorance about what is so obvious to them.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The mean old God vs. the loving new God

Not for the first time, I had a conversation recently with a life long Christian, consistent in attending services, who was confused about the angry, vindictive God of the Old Testament and how that related to the kind, loving God revealed in the New Testament.  Where do you suppose that comes from?  Is it a faint echo of Gnosticism, of which few know much about?   Is it the byproduct of overly simplified Sunday school lessons taught to children who quit learning anything about our faith after the fifth or sixth grade?  For some it could be one of the popular workbook bible studies where you are required to fill in the right answer.  Maybe there are televangelists proclaiming half truths that reach beyond the ears of those who tune in.  Is it my own preaching?  Could be.

Those of us in liturgical churches practice reading the bible out loud so that faithful worshippers will hear most of it time and again as the years go by, but hearing words mumbled out loud in the midst of hymns, prayers, sermons, and the Eucharist doesn’t sink in very far or last very long.  I guess that’s why adult Christian education has been my passion, and my great frustration.  I’ve been at it a long time with little to show for it.  Nevertheless, it is critical to keep going.  Church literature and leadership are full of handwringing over the decline in church attendance, and even fuller of scatter-shot proposals for what to do about it.  We need, they say, more and better evangelism, but not of the conservative evangelical variety that has given such a bad name to Christianity to all the ‘nones’ out there.  But how can the church go forth to tell the story if the troops don’t know the story well enough to tell it, and are deeply conflicted about what they think they do know?

In retirement, a few times a month I serve a small rural congregation thirty some miles distant.  Most of what I can offer in the form of adult education takes place on Sunday, or in writing, I wrote the following to my friend in hopes that it might help reframe the question about how God is represented in the Old and New Testaments.  See what you think.  Would you have said something different, or in a better way?  By the way, I’m well aware of having skipped blithely over important nuances, but it has always seemed best to start with the basics in as uncomplicated a way as possible.  So here goes.

Dear ………,
What we were taught about the bible as children can be a stumbling block many of us encounter on our way to a deeper understanding of our faith.  You brought up the notion frequently taught in Sunday school that the Old Testament God was angry, judgmental, and vindictive, while in the New Testament he is gentle and loving.  We also stumble over wanting people who lived three or four thousand years ago to use and understand language the same way we do, preferably in English.  I want to suggest another view.

Whatever else it is, scripture is the story of God’s engagement with humanity, and humanity’s struggle to understand God.  It is a  process through which God revealed God’s self to us by engaging with us in our lives.  Inspired by  God, it was written by humans who were limited in what they could understand, and how they could express themselves, by the circumstances of the times in which they lived.  Their work is not without error, and the most egregious of them are corrected by God through successive waves of revelation.  Times change, and over the two thousand years of the Old Testament story, humanity’s ability to understand God, and their relationship with God, changed dramatically.  That’s true for us also.  The words of scripture may remain the same, but our ability to understand them is always changing.

It does not begin with Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden.  It begins with Abraham, whose story exists in historical time.  Everything in the book of Genesis up to the introduction of Abraham is pre history, what many theologians call myth, not myth as fairytales, but myth as stories told to help explain something about basic human nature, who God is, and what our relationship with God is called to be.  The truth that lies within them is very deep, and worth probing.  Abraham’s story is set in times known to human history.  In it, he was the only person on earth, it is said, who had a personal relationship with a new kind of god, an invisible god, a god who cared about him and with whom he could converse.  No one else did.  

Having said that, the bible then lurches forward in confusing ways.  The God of one person became the God of a  small family, then the God of a few tribes, then forgotten for hundreds of years.  Moses was reintroduced to God and, in God’s name, brought the tribes of the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took forty years for them to become a people willing to follow this strange God.  Jahweh was the name given to him, and one of the strangest things about Jahweh was that he invited conversation.  You cold negotiate with him (I’m using ‘him’ as a generic pronoun).  He was a God of the people and for the people, which was not at all like the other gods that existed all over the place. 

The books of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) help us understand the process, often a painful one, of an entire people who knew only about the gods of Egypt learning about a new God, an invisible God, who was to be their God in a new land.  Moreover, they had to learn about each other.  The tribes were not known to get along very well: a lot of infighting and backstabbing.  The laws of Moses that make little sense to our ears turn out to have been a brilliant way to form a new society in which justice for the people was important, and violence against each other was discouraged.  An eye for an eye, for instance, put a lid on the escalation of violence.  It’s important to recognize that while the early Israelites accepted Jahweh as their God, they were well aware that other people had other gods, and they were happy to turn to those other gods when the need arose.  Baal, for instance, was an agricultural god, and if you were a farmer why not give Baal a chance to help out?  We humans drove God nuts with our constant disobedience and wandering ways, but God always gave us a way out and a way forward.  It’s also important to recall that in those days everything that happened was caused by one or another god.  Earthquakes, floods, invading armies, all were the fault of some god who was messing with humans.  Jahweh said to them, If you keep doing what you’re doing really bad things re going to happen to you.  The only way they could understand that was to hear God say, If you keep doing what you’re doing I am going to kill you.  That’s what gods did.

The historical books that follow the books of the Exodus move from a wandering bunch of marginally affiliated tribes into and through the development of a nation with its civil wars, wars with other nations, and defeats by the empires of the day.  The books don’t always agree with each other about the details, but they do agree on the general themes.  They read like adventure stories filled with danger, heroic deeds, intrigue, betrayals, murders, love, and all the rest.  Throughout, God inspired ordinary, often deeply flawed persons to guide the people forward.  It didn’t always work.  Some rejected God altogether, leading the people to disaster.  It was always a struggle for them to accept that God desired to move them in the direction of greater inclusion and love of others.  Nor was it easy for them to understand God as a God of love.  After all, none of the other gods were gods of love, except for some fertility goddesses, and the love they offered had more to do with sex.  As for all those bloody sacrifices, no one ever worshipped a god without bloody sacrifices.  There wasn’t any other way, and it never occurred to anyone that there might be another way.  So God used the tools at hand to work with them.  

The books of the prophets, included in our bibles from longest to shortest rather than chronologically, step away from myth and history to form another beginning.  They begin the process of enlightening the people about a deeper understanding of who God is, and what kind of lives we should lead in order to enjoy the fullness of life God would have for us.  Here is where we see huge pushes toward an understanding of God’s inclusiveness that goes beyond family, tribe, or even nation, to encompass the entire world.  It is also here where it is finally made clear that there is only one God: there is no other.  The prophets did the groundwork that prepared the way for Jesus.

Two thousand years of learning who we are, who God is, and what our relationship with God is about. That’s what the Old Testament gives us.  Think about it.  It’s been two thousand years since Jesus.  Consider how much we have changed in that time.  They changed in their time too, and it wasn’t always pretty.  The bible doesn’t whitewash any of it.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are right there for us to study.  I believe that knowing the Old Testament well is essential to fully understanding the New Testament.  By knowing it well, it becomes so much more clear how Jesus is not a repudiation of the God of the Old Testament, but the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament led up to. 

Hope this is of some help.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

It Happened Last Night

The jazz combo was about half way through its second set when all my early warning radar went off.  There were maybe thirty of us in the small wine bar having a great time.  Most of us knew the members of the combo, so it was all friends and family.  Except for the inebriated old guy of uncertain age who wandered in off the street, ambling his none too straight way to the bar for a long schmooze with the bartender, gaining nothing out of it.  It didn’t matter.  He loved the music, so he  greeted each of the band members, in the middle of a song, before taking up his place just behind the piano player, where he kept time with a little impromptu dancing.

Dancing!  For the son of one of the band members, who was sitting with his mom not far from us, dancing is his most favorite thing to do.  He had spent most of the first set dancing with more energy than I thought possible, even for a six year old.  So when he saw the old sot dancing, he hopped off his stool, ran up to the front, and began dancing with him.  There they were, a six year old boy and an old drunk off the street, dancing away with unbounded joy, which they did until the set ended and it was time to leave, but it wasn’t quite over.  The old guy wandered through the small crowd shaking hands and introducing himself with a mumbled name no one ever quite got.  Who knows, it might have been Raphael?

Sometimes the innocent exuberance of a six year old is more profound than the suspicions of an adult.  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews.  “When you give a [party],” says Jesus, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  Maybe he could have added, “and the old drunk off the street who likes to dance.”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Narcissistic Millennials

Several commentators on a local Internet news site slammed millennials for being entitled, narcissistic, and lazy.  Not all of them, just the majority.  Amazing!  I would love to take a look at their data source.  Millennials are an ill defined group of older teens and those in their twenties who are said to form a cohort of similar social attitudes and behaviors.  It’s part of a name game begun a few decades ago when we began naming Gen X, Gen Y, and so forth.  I guess it started with the naming of the Baby Boomers who were those born of Greatest Generation parents in the baby explosion following WWII.  The advertising industry loves to use this sort of pseudo scientific psychographic jargon to sell their wares to their clients.  If it makes any sense at all, it is as a shorthand way to describe shifts, imagined or real, in whatever it is we define as normative social values and behavior.  I used it myself in my consulting days.  It made our clients feel like they had a better handle on the confusing times that lay ahead of them.  Shoot, it made me feel like I really knew what I was talking about.  Smoke and mirrors, but we believed it. 

So what do we know about millennials?  Wikipedia has a lengthy article about them that cites several studies, notably from the U. of Michigan, which is known for its social research.  Apparently high school seniors and college students do not score as well as their predecessor generations on instruments intended to measure things such as altruism, desire for wealth, interest in politics, etc.  How much weight can one give to measurements of teenage social values as predictors of adult behavior?  What high schools or colleges were included in the studies, and how representative were they of the greater population of others the same age?  Apparently most of it was conducted among white, affluent, suburban raised youth in, or applying to, elite colleges.  The same age group from other ethnic, cultural, or economic circumstances displays the greater diversity of characteristics one might expect, at least according to the limited research I noted in a very quick and superficial look.  

There is no doubt that the nation is experiencing shifts in what are acceptable normative social values and behavior, as it always has.  Nothing new there.  As they age, generational cohorts, if there are such things, carry the shifts from cutting edge, to established mores, to declining values, but it’s a messy process that defies easy generalization.  Or as one wag put it, “Today’s radicals are tomorrow’s stuffed shirts.”

Has there ever been an older generation that has not derided the younger generation for being soft and lazy?  I am a member of the Quiet Generation tucked in-between the Greatest and the Boomers. We were not supposed to have amounted to much of anything as we lolled about in the shadows of our Greatest parents while being overwhelmed by the booming numbers of those younger than us.  Now we’re the old goats with all the money the younger generations hope we will leave to them when we die.  We have no plans to do either.  Commentators critical of the lazy, entitled millennials who will some day run the place seem to forget that they were members of the drug and sex crazed hippie generation.  Flower children, every one of them, and not a decent blossom in the bunch.  Sure not going to leave our hard earned cash to them.

I have limited exposure to those in their late teens through mid thirties.  What I have seen gives me confidence that my old(er) age will be in good hands – if the complainers get out of their way. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Circle is Broken. The Center will not Hold.

By now you have probably heard about the band of elite British detectives who never forget a face.  My wife is like that.  Once introduced to someone, she never forgets their face, and usually remembers their name and something about them.  It’s an amazing gift, one that can be a bit awkward from time to time.  Months or even years later she might see that person somewhere and greet them by name, only to be greeted back by a confused look of wonder about who this person might be and how she knows my name?  It doesn’t bother her.  She just reminds them of her name and where they met.  It helps that she is relatively well known in town, with a reputation as a community activist and well regarded  artist.  

I, on the other hand, have a hard time remembering faces, or names for that matter.  I usually have to meet someone several times before I get it down.  Sometimes it’s hard at first glance to differentiate one face from another.  When we first arrived here I started participating in a Wednesday morning men’s bible study, and it took me just a little too long to be clear about who was who.  At first it looked like a table surrounded by identical white fringed bald heads.  Not true, of course.  No two were alike.  Not all were bald.  In time they were as individual as possible, each a good friend.  Yet, if I see someone I know fairly well, but out of context, I may have trouble remembering the face, remembering the correct context, and making the connection.  On the other hand, once I’ve got it down, it sticks.

Most people, I suspect, are somewhere in between.  Where do you fit?

What if it’s not as much a matter of seeing and remembering as it is of not seeing at all?  What if others are simply invisible?  I don’t mean invisible as if hidden under Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, or eerily transparent.  I mean invisible in the sense of being plainly there yet unnoticed and unremembered for ever having been present.  It was brought up last Sunday as we talked about the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years and was healed by Jesus’ touch.  She reminded me of the people who come and go, recognized only as objects of no special interest who, if at all, elicit only momentary curiosity.  Jesus saw her.  No one else did.  It’s not that they were unaware of her presence. They were.  She may have even been a familiar presence.  But they didn’t see her.  She was, in that sense, invisible. 

Jesus saw her.  He saw her as someone whose face and name he knew, whose story he knew, whose need, however unspoken, was known to him.  She was among the marginalized who populate the gospels.  To be at the margins is to be on the outer edge of whatever is at the center.  The presence of the marginalized may be known, even catalogued, but ignored, unless they get in the way of those working their way farther toward the center where they might find recognition as being somebody.  The marginalized are nobodies to those who desire to be somebodies.   

Nobody wants to be a nobody.  I remember a particular nobody moment when attending a crowded meeting in a posh place.  I heard a loud but indistinct question aimed in my general direction, so I said, “Did you ask me something?”  She looked me up and down and said, “Your’e a nobody.  I don’t talk to nobodies.”  Obviously I was among the marginalized at that gathering.  Never did learn who she was, but she was sure to have been a somebody.  It was an uncomfortable moment, but only a moment. It even makes a funny story when I add appropriate embellishments.

The unnamed woman, the nobody whose name was known to Jesus, had spent her life as a nobody.  For us, she is representative of all who are nobody, including entire populations of people that spend their lives on the margins.  Even the marginalized have margins populated by their own nobodies.  Consider the Samaritan woman at the well, the sick man who had laid for thirty-eight years by the Bethesda pool, Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors.   And so it goes.  Our human ability to marginalize the other seems to know no limit.  

As recorded in the gospel narratives, Jesus consistently engaged those at the margin, offering them the respect of having being seen, recognized, known, and embraced.  Jesus restored them to dignity of life in which a new life was possible without regard to humanly imposed margins.  Jesus, who is the center of creation, keeps bringing nobodies into the center of attention of somebodies, dissolving margins even as they are reformed.  Social patterns of somebodies and nobodies are dissolved, reformed, dissolved, reformed, and dissolved again.  Jesus will not let the marginalized remain marginalized.

We have a hard time with that.  We want stability.  We want to know who is who, and where they fit in the scheme of things.  Even in our benevolence we are inclined to act as somebodies gallantly bringing the nobodies into our circle, but it’s still our circle, and we expect them to become as one of us.  Jesus will have none of it.  The circle is not unbroken, it is dissolved.  the marginalized are brought into the center, given new life with a new center, and sent out again, leaving the old center without standing.  It’s very unsettling.  It leaves one wanting to cry out, “Where is the center? Quit moving it!”  

Of course, being right thinking orthodox Christians, we are quick to say that Jesus is the fountain of living water, the well of life, the one through whom and in whom we have our being, he is the center.  Which is all true, but he keeps moving.  We say he is the same yesterday and today and forever, and that’s true too, but his peripatetic embracing of the marginalized, dissolving margins in the process, is the chief characteristic of what his sameness is all about.  Ours is a God who will not sit still.  To follow him is to be continually on the move in challenging ways, which brings me back to the nobodies, the invisible ones.  For me, and perhaps for you, the greatest challenge is to see them, really see them, as Jesus would see them, and to do what I can, not to bring them into one of my circles, but to dissolve the margins of my circles.  I’m not very good at doing that.  I like my circles.  I like being a somebody in them.  Those who are better at following Jesus in dissolving margins will someday be honored as saints.  In the meantime, they will likely be ostracized from our circles.  We treasure our margins.  They are the wrong things to treasure.  It's something to work on.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Sounds of the World About Us

I have a favorite bike route.  It’s about ten miles round trip, with two thirds of it along Mill Creek to Rooks Park and back.  The rest is on city streets through neighborhoods and past schools.  Most of the walkers, skate boarders, runners, and bikers I’ve seen this summer have been wearing earphones, not hearing anything that doesn’t come through them.  Some walkers not only wear earphones, but are glued to their smart phones, no doubt in pursuit of you know what, and utterly oblivious to anything else.

Behold, says the nature guide, here is an example of an ambulatory life-form, unrelated to others in our area, and of unknown origin.  We’ve been observing it for some time now, and while it does move, it does not appear to be aware of its surroundings, or participate in the life of other flora and fauna.  We think it’s sensate, and we’ve tried to make contact.  With enough stimulation it appears to awaken to our presence for a brief moment, usually with an irritated look of alarm, but it’s a momentary thing. It quickly returns to a strange, almost catatonic state, except that it moves, albeit slowly.  Some researchers wonder if it might be related to the giant sloth, long thought to be extinct.  We’re looking into it.  If it is a form of homo sapiens, it is a very pokey man.

But I digress.  I don’t want to obsess about alien lifeforms of the extreme variety; I am more interested in ordinary folks who have chosen to shut out the sound of the world about them.  What are they listening to?  I imagine it’s to their favorite play list or Pandora station.  I like listening to music too.  We have season tickets to the Symphony and Chamber Music Festival.  The Walla Walla University Christmas concert is a must.  My car radio gravitates toward jazz, classical, a little country, and sometimes a pop station.  All my favorite music is piped into my ears at doctor and dentist visits, or on the treadmill at the Y.  Music is good for the soul.  

But shutting out the world of sounds while walking or biking doesn’t make sense to me.  There is so much to hear, as there is to be seen.  Along the creek there are the sounds of rushing water, honking geese and quacking ducks.  Children splash in the shallows.  Birds of every kind are in the trees.  Critters scurry out of the way.  Small planes land and take off from the local airport not far away.  The wind in the trees makes gentle music of its own kind.  Frogs sometimes sing in counterpoint.  Taking a break to sit on a bench, the subtle buzz of flying insects makes itself known. There is a lot to hear that adds depth and color to what can be seen.  

Leaving the creekside trail behind, taking to the city streets, listening for the the traffic has always seemed like a good idea.  More interesting are the sounds of children playing, squirrels clucking displeasure, dogs barking, people talking, machines digging, builders pounding, and the silent words of my own thinking about it all.  Shutting out the sounds of the world by drowning them through earphones seems to me like deliberately bleeding the color of life into a washed out shadow of vitality.  What a waste, and to do it on purpose?  I don’t get it.  Maybe you get it, and will explain it to me. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

And Now for a bit of Nonsense in a Squirrelly sort of Way

It’s time for a breather.  Leaving politics and religion behind, let’s talk about something really squirrelly.  

The trees guys were here yesterday to do some heavy trimming in our birches and a honey locust, and a little light trimming in our other trees.  The locust is healthy, but it’s been generating dead branches at an accelerating pace.  It turns out to be related to squirrels.  Urban squirrels have a life span of a year or so, being regularly thinned out by traffic, electrocution, and such.  A healthy squirrel living in a protected area with plenty of food and water can live a lot longer: five to eight years maybe.  

Squirrels can have several litters each year, and they become sexually active at a very young age.  I’m told that eating, sleeping, and sex are their primary activities.  You know all that friendly running around chasing each other up and down limbs?  It’s not play.  It’s squirrel courtship, and it’s hard to tell who is chasing who.  Anyway, the tree lined back yards running up and down our block are a wonderfully safe place for squirrels.  The neighborhood is quiet with little traffic.  All electricity is under ground.  The only squirrel dangers are hawks and a couple of ferocious neighborhood cats.  Of course the dogs would be dangerous if they could ever catch one, but they can’t.  

What about food and water?  We feed birds, so do a few of the neighbors.  Being a soft hearted sort of fellow, I’ve often bought squirrel mix along with bird food.  They eat both, but get special joy out of a mix of peanuts and oily sunflower seeds.  Bird baths, fountains, and lawn watering take care of the rest.  It’s a squirrel paradise.  So how does that affect the locust tree?

Squirrels make their nests of patched together leaves and twigs high in the trees.  Their favorite one is a neighbor’s enormous oak, but others will do.  The nests look fragile but can withstand wind, snow, hail, and ice.  If the trees holds up, so will the nest.  It turns out that the very best stuff for nest building are strips of locust bark, which is easy for them to peel away, and flexible enough to be woven, in a squirrelly way, into a nest.  It wouldn’t be a problem if this wasn’t a squirrel paradise where generations of them can live in comfort, but it is.  Which means that there are too many squirrels ripping up to much bark on too many branches, and that’s causing smaller ones to die.  

The old honey locust has been heavily trimmed.  Birds happily eat out of feeders the squirrels have given up on (so far).  I sat out on the patio at sunrise this morning to watch the world wake up.  Confused squirrels scurried along their arboreal highway only to discover dead ends and cul de sacs where main arteries used to be.  With any luck, most of them will find better pickings at the other end of the block.  We shall see. 

Where is God when it hurts?

A friend in deep emotional pain asked where is God when it hurts?  It’s a familiar question with no easy answer.   That doesn’t keep easy answers from being offered.   Another friend posted a bromide on Facebook: “God has a purpose for your pain, a reason for your struggles and a reward for your faithfulness.  Don’t give up.”  She was offended when I said it was sloppy theology, countering that encouragement was a good thing.  Last week a 17 year old girl was killed in a head on collision on a local highway caused by the other car.  I don’t believe telling her parents that God has a purpose for their pain would be encouraging.

Maybe answers can come only from personal experience.  Pain and misfortune come to all of us.  Each incident has a cause, but not always a reason.  Sometimes we know what the cause is.  Sometimes we don’t.  And sometimes it’s just chance.  I have two guesses about God’s role in all of that.  One is that the more we can open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives, the more God’s presence will be felt as something  leading us through the vicissitudes of life into new possibilities.  That’s not the same thing as asserting that God had a purpose, a reason, for either causing or letting it happen.  Moses, it seems to me, might be an example.  It took him a lifetime of maturing from prince to patriarch as he learned to allow himself to be guided by God through difficulties that were bound to happen whether or not God caused them.

The other is that God may call someone to become his agent, knowing full well that he or she will have to go through great trials and suffering, some of which might be due to God’s direct action.  Moses, it seems to me, might be an example.  He was called, reluctantly agreed to it only after vigorous argument against it, and finally went stubbornly through with it, but without a lot of enthusiasm.  The story of Moses has a certain legendary, almost mythical quality, and that’s one reason why it has so much value as a teaching tool.  For a story more akin to the daily life of ordinary people, we might turn to Paul.  My recent essay on Paul the Failure (May 30, 2016) observed that Paul had few successes and many failures to think about as he came to the end of his life.  I doubt that God had a purpose or reason for his beatings, jailings, ship wrecks, and problems with recalcitrant congregations, nor do I think God had a purpose or reason for his final imprisonment and beheading.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that Paul saw in each of them an opportunity to add something to the work God had given him to do.  

So what am I to say to my friend in deep emotional pain?  He is in pain.  Is he angry that God, who is supposed to fix these things, hasn’t done it?  Like Job, does he want a moral answer to a moral question?  Is he blaming God for the trouble he’s caused for himself through his own actions?  Is he blaming God for the trouble others have caused him through their own actions?  Is he uncomfortable with a universe in which chance plays a part in God’s greater plan about which we are not privy?  As Christians, where does Jesus fit into this?  The way I read it, Jesus laid down a path for us paved with love, reconciliation, and restoration to wholeness as the way to life in abundance, but it is not a way that will avoid trouble, tragedy and pain.  It is a path that enables those who walk it to share, however weakly, with others who need it a bit of the light of Christ and the hope of the kingdom of God.  It is not a dead end path.  It may lead into the valley of death, but it does not stop there, it passes through it into a greater life that begins now and becomes more and more real as we take each hesitant step onward.  Can we trust Jesus to have got that right?  If he is, as we believe, the very Word of God made flesh, then there is no one else to trust.

I don’t think you can be told that.  I think you have to experience it.  Maybe the best I can do is offer him the opportunity to try it for himself.  As for me, I’ll take the words of St. Patrick’s breastplate as the answer to where is God when it hurts.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Telling the Story to Who?

Like many small town papers, ours features a Sunday pastors’ column with authors rotated through a list of those who desire to write something.  A recent one was about salvation, more particularly about the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and isn’t that a wonderful thing.  Here’s the problem.  It assumed that column readers have some idea of what salvation is, or might be; an idea of who Jesus is in relation to God, if there is a God; and an idea of how it is that Jesus can offer this gift for free.

Come to think of it, they might be accurate assumptions because the likely readers are the pastor’s friends, family, parishioners, and other pastors eager to critique his theology.  But to carry on from my previous article, an enormous portion of the population has no idea what any of that means.  They have had no religious education, and precious little exposure to Christianity, or any other religion, other than what little they pick up in casual conversation or through the media, which bears so little interest for them that they pay scant attention.  They do not possess knowledge of basic Christian vocabulary.

Salvation.  What is it?  Does it mean something like salvage, which is something like junk retrieved from the trash and piled up for for an unknown future use?  You know, like a auto junk yard?  If that’s it, it doesn’t hold much attraction.  The dictionary says it means to be saved from harm, ruin, or loss, but who reads dictionaries these days?  However, let’s suppose that the population we want to reach does know what the dictionary says.  They may reasonably wonder what they need to be saved from, or saved for.  Saved from sin?  What an old fashioned idea that is.  Saved for heaven?  Saved from hell?  What are they?  There are two popular ideas about an afterlife.  First, there isn’t one, so don’t worry about it.  Second, the soul moves on to something all by itself, and doesn’t require any help from religion to do it.  

What about Jesus?  Christians have this guy called Jesus they say can give salvation as a gift, a free gift.  With the question of what salvation means in doubt, adding Jesus as the giver of it as a free gift simply adds confusion to the issue.  What does it mean to call it a gift?  By what authority is Jesus able to give it?  And why, for God’s sake, do they keep saying he can give it because he died a bloody death?  That makes no sense at all.  Who is Jesus anyway?  In the short time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve it’s possible they will have been made aware that Jesus is the Bethlehem baby called the Prince of Peace, but there is no peace, so he’s not much of a prince is he.  Then comes New Year’s Eve, and the bowl games on New Year’s Day, and all is forgotten. 

Besides, Christians say this ill defined salvation is a free gift.  Free gifts are for gullible people who can be lulled into believing that a Nigerian really wants to share his fortune with them.  It sounds like a scam.  What’s the catch?  After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch!

That’s not far from the thought process of a large part of the culture in which we live.  It may leave life long Christians somewhat bewildered since they remember a time when almost everyone was Christian, at least nominally, at least enough to have internalized the basic vocabulary of Christianity.  We don’t live in that time anymore.  The pastor’s column that joyfully celebrated the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ was well intended, but as a way to tell the story of Jesus and his love to the pagans of our time, it had nothing to offer.  What would?

We need to begin with the recognition that we are not up against a population of hard core unbelieving atheists.  Most people believe in gods, lots of them.  They may not look like Athena or Zeus, but Paul’s proclamation in Athens sets a helpful example of the way in which the story can be introduced to an audience that does not know the vocabulary of our faith, and isn’t very interested in hearing about it.

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. 

If you get a chance, take a look at Peterson’s version of Paul’s speech in Acts, chapter 17 of The Message.  He brings it closer to home by paraphrasing it into contemporary English.  Telling the story of Jesus and his love requires that we find ways to use the vocabulary our intended audience already has before we begin to introduce them to the vocabulary that has has special meaning for believing Christians.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Let's Talk Story

Let’s talk story, and I’d like to start with Stephen’s story told in Acts 6 to the assembled temple leaders.  It seems terribly out of place.  Why rehearse the history of Israel from Abraham through Moses before a crowd of people who knew it by heart?  It doesn’t make any sense.  On the other hand, given Luke’s audience, whom we presume to be Greeks and Romans new to Christianity and strangers to Judaism, it’s the perfect story to explain the Judaic roots of the new faith.  “Let me tell you where we came from, and why that is important to who we are and where we are going.”  It’s a story of origins.

Stories of origin exist in every culture.  I don’t mean stories about universal creation.  I mean stories about where “our people” came from.  Ask any sixth grader to tell the story of America, and they will probably begin with Plymouth Rock, or maybe Jamestown.  It’s an origin story.  If they are American Indian they will have an even better story to tell.  Stories of origin exist for clans, towns, and families because they help explain who they are and why they’re here.  Sitting on a bench with a stranger in Istanbul a few years ago, his first question was “tell me about your people.”  I said I was American.  He said, “No,no, tell me about your people, where are they from?”  Among our friends we entertain each other with stories about our families in the places we grew up, and  the childhood adventures we had that help explain who we are as adults.  Most of it is true.  In counseling couples preparing for marriage, I always ask them to tell me the story of their family of origin, and their life through high school or college.  How can you truly get to know another if they haven’t shared their stories of origin.  How can you be known by others if you have not shared your story with them. 

Stephen’s speech tells a story about the origins of this new faith in a simple, concise way that ends at the very point where Luke’s audience (not Stephen’s) will be enticed to ask, “and then what; what happened next?”  When the story is finished, they will have adopted it for themselves as their story about what it means to be Christian.  Is it important to keep telling that story, but I fear we haven’t.  The old hymn says “Twill be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”  Telling the story in glory might be redundant don’t you think?  What about telling it now to people who have never heard it?

For a long time, generic American Christians did not feel the need to tell the story of who they were, where they came from, and where they were going.  Everyone was assumed to know it, and most did, at least superficially.  That’s no longer true.  The nation is filled with several generations who have no idea what our origins story might be.  The only thing they know about Christianity is what they hear or see reported in the media, and it’s not attractive.  Pastors and teachers are supposed to know the story, but how well do they tell it to anyone outside the church walls?  The loudest outside voices I hear are not ones I trust.  Their stories of who we are terribly distorted, distant from what it means to follow Jesus, or to be agents of his love.  Protest all you want, the data are clear: no religion is preferable to one that is suspicious of science, narrow minded, judgmental, and unforgiving.  And that is the image Christianity has among an enormous portion of the population.

It’s a problem, but it’s not the biggest one.  The biggest one is that regular, faithful worshipers don’t know the story well enough, or in a way simple enough, to tell it to others who may ask, “Tell me about your people.”  The complaint is familiar, “I just wouldn’t know what to say.”  They are right.  They don’t.  Whose fault is that?  At least among those for whom I have provided pastoral leadership, it’s mine.  Adult Christian education has been my passion.  I’ve always been a teaching preacher.  I’ve always led regular midweek and Sunday classes that have been well attended.  I have no doubt that those who participated have a deeper, more profound understanding of the bible and their faith than they otherwise would.  Good for me.  But I never just told the story of Jesus and his love in a way that could become their story, a story they could share with ease, without embarrassment.  Shame on me.  I wonder how many of my colleagues would have to confess the same if forced to do so. 

Well, what’s done is done.  It’s time to get on with things, and the thing to get on with is learning to tell the story of our people: who we are, where we came from, what we believe to be true about God, and what we believe to be true about the way God desires us to live with one another.  You know who told the story to me?  It wasn’t my Sunday school teachers or pastors.  It was Bp. Fulton J. Sheen and his blackboard whom I, a Protestant kid, watched on a small black and white t.v. in the 1950s.  His show, “Life is worth living,” told the story in a way that made it my story too.

It’s time to talk story again.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Center-right, Center-left, and Populists

Note:  This is a follow up to my previous article. If you don't like it, ignore it.

Several commentators have written about the need to restore healthy center-right and center-left parties, capable of negotiating in good faith with each other, to drive public policy decision making in our legislative bodies.  We’ve had too much of fringe politics making progress difficult, if not impossible.  I agree.  At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss altogether what the fringe might be saying that is truly important.

Let’s start with center-right and center-left.  Center-right is cautious about using the powers of government to address social and economic problems, preferring private sector solutions.  It works to keep taxes as low as possible without jeopardizing their highest priorities, which seem to favor defense and stimulus targeted at major industries.  Center-left is enthusiastic about using the powers of government to address social and economic problems.  It is suspicious of private sector control over matters of public welfare, and is willing to raise taxes as needed to fund social services.  Both desire the nation to be a vigorous, even dominant, player in world affairs, including trade.  Both support defense spending, but center-left questions the need for more advanced equipment when basic needs are left wanting.  Each is able to negotiate with the other in the good faith intention of finding an agreed upon workable decision.  The problem is that each is inclined toward the laws of inertia.  It takes a whack of substantial force to wake them up to issues critical to the health and well being of the nation.

On the sidelines are various fringe groups complaining that centrists are just Tweedledum and Tweedledee ignoring the real problems, refusing to listen to the cries of those left behind.  Some are far right, some far left, and some have narrowly defined interests that defy being systematically categorized.   They are the ones providing the whack of substantial force.  But they are not the ones who can be trusted to run the country.  Thankfully, they don’t, but they have managed to gain enough political power to make it difficult to get anything done because they are incapable of negotiating in good faith. 

During the Reagan era (1981-89), conservative and corporate lobbyists began using a new tactic to move the centrist debate outcomes more favorably in their direction.  They announced that because liberals had staked out such extreme positions toward the left, the only way they could balance the negotiating outcome was to stake out a position farther toward the right, which they did.  The thing is, the center-left had not staked out a far left position at all, so the fulcrum was moved way over to the right, and the tactic worked.  The intent was to benefit business, or more specifically corporate, interests, but along the way they picked up fringe movement allies such as Falwell’s Moral Majority that were disinterested in corporate matters, but could see the value in changing the terms of the debate for their own conservative social agenda.  It planted the seeds for today’s tea party inspired polarization in which nothing will happen if they can’t get their way.  I am not impressed by those who try to be fair and balanced by condemning both sides.  As Friedman, Krugman, Dionne, Robinson, and others have noted, the polarizing intransigence has come from the tea party side of things.  

Speaking of which, when the tea party movement took hold around 2009, commentator Rachel Maddow said it was not a true grass roots movement because it was financed by a few wealthy persons (who?), and energized by the professional provocateurs of conservative talk radio and television.  She was wrong.  However financed and provoked it may have been, it was a genuine outpouring of disaffected people who were suspicious of a black president, discouraged about their economic future, and frightened of a federal government government that might take their weapons.  There were enough to them to elect enough state legislators and members of congress to use the old Reagan era corporate tactic to stop everything, or nearly everything, if it didn’t go their way.  Except for Kansas, it hasn’t gone their way, and the result has been deadlock in too many places, especially in D.C. 

With that in mind, it is time for centrists to forcefully reject tea party like tactics, and get back to the business of working out decent workable decisions directing the future of the nation.  My own politics are center-left, and that’s the direction I think we need to go.  From my point of view it means policies that encourage and support a vibrant private sector, but not at the expense of public policies and programs aimed at giving the poor, oppressed, and marginalized whatever is needed for them to participate fully with the rest of us in economic and social opportunity.  Centrists also need to listen with open minds to what the fringe is saying.  Yes, there are paranoid nuts among them, but there may also be something worth hearing.  Let’s call them populists, and leave the term fringe for the truly goofy.  Populists, in their anti-elite, anti-establishment outrage, can call attention to real thorns and sores infecting the community.

Consider a few historical examples.  The Peoples Party (Populists) of the late 19th century raised important issues about unfair corporate manipulation of farm costs and prices, and the instability of monetary policies.  Labor union Wobblies helped raise public awareness of abusive labor practices.  National Child Labor Committees did the same for child labor.  W.E.B DuBois demanded equality ini civil rights for blacks.  MLK brought it to a head.  PETA raised awareness of wide spread animal abuse.  Occupy Wall Street made questions about banking and financial practices hit the front pages.  You get the idea, and can probably add more to the list.  The point is that as uncompromising and socially offensive as populist movements can sometimes be, they also raise important issues that can be resolved only through centrists negotiating in good faith.  That is never satisfying to the populist soul because they don’t want to negotiate or compromise on anything.  

Bernie or Bust and Trump supporters are unrelenting, non-compromising populists on opposite sides of an issue that can rip our society to shreds: income inequality.  Each is anti-elitist, anti-establishment, which gives them their populist credentials.  They have each identified excessive income inequality as an issue that has the potential for undermining the structural integrity of our republican democracy, even if there are dramatic differences between them about what republican democracy is, or what should be done to resolve the issue.  Neither of them is competent to guide the affairs of state, although the Trump gang is going for it.  Parenthetically, Trump and Trump supporters are two different things.  One is delusional, and the other is suffering the illusion that the delusional one is on their side, but I digress.  What we need are healthy center-left and center-right parties willing to work things out because they are competent to guide the affairs of state.  

The Republican Party, as it currently exists, is no longer a healthy center-right party.  Indeed, it’s not a health party at all.  What may be needed is a cathartic cleansing through the overwhelming defeat of it’s populist (and extremist) candidates so that it can rebuild as a responsible center-right party.  In the meantime, the next congress and administration needs to bend to the task of restructuring our system to address the issue of excessive income inequality because it really is a cancer that can destroy us as a nation that prides itself on economic opportunity for all.  

Hopefully, something similar will happen in state houses as well.  I certainly hope it does in my state.  We shall see.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Possibilities for a more robust national economy

Note:  What follows is an attempt to gather a few thoughts that have been shared over the last few years into a more cohesive whole that speaks to what I believe can lead to a stronger American economy.  Do with it as you will.

There is a lot of discomfort over the slow pace of economic recovery, which, nevertheless, has been the longest, steadiest recovery in our history.  Several years ago, as it was just getting underway, I wrote a short piece on my hope that it would be slow paced.  It seemed to me that we needed to position the economy to better resist the cycles of boom and bust that have often characterized its performance.  A slow recovery, I thought, might help because it would give time for entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations to investigate long term opportunities rather than jumping on the next bubble, hoping to bail out before it burst. 

I also hoped that a slow recovery would help Americans begin to recognize that, in an interdependent global economy, we don’t have to be Number One in everything, we don’t have to be the Greatest Nation on Earth, and we don’t have to pretend that we control the ebb and flow of global trade.  We can just get on with the business of being Americans doing the best we can at what we are best at doing, doing well at what we are good at doing, and not obsessing about what we are not good at doing, even if we once were.  Finally, I hoped that the informed public would recognize that a 2 -  3% annual growth rate was a good and sustainable one for a mature economy, and that a return to sustained GDP growth rates above 5% is unlikely.

Not everything has worked the way I had hoped.  It’s hard to tell what the informed public thinks about our economy because I’m not sure we have an informed public of any size worth mentioning.  Most of the small segment of the public I get to talk with seems to think the glory days of some indeterminate prior decade should be the norm.  Otherwise intelligent friends join the chorus calling for the return of manufacturing jobs without any clear idea of what that actually means.  Others seem to be anxious about other countries outperforming the U.S. in this arena or that, in the same way they get anxious about the Broncos outperforming the Seahawks.  When “We’re Number One”, “Make America Great Again”, and “America First” become the rallying cries of the body politic, we sound like spoiled children stomping our feet, demanding attention amidst a global community that is getting very tired of such boorish behavior.  There is serious business to attend to, and such nationalistic childishness not only gets in the way, it diminishes our ability to be taken seriously in negotiations with others.

However, they have a point.  Jobs that were once the foundation of the “American Dream,” offering a dependable path into the middle class, have gone away.  To where?  Are trade and unions the villains, and if so, what can be done?

We live in a global economy that is a different place than it was thirty or forty years ago.  Other nations can manufacture many things cheaper than we can, and manufacturers have located some of their operations in those places, or installed new technology that reduces the need for routine work done by humans.  Those that haven't have stagnated or gone out of business.  Trade agreements are handy scapegoats, but the flow of jobs to other places would have taken place without them.  If anything, they have done at least a little to open up foreign markets to U.S. goods.  Clearly they have done more to protect the interests of corporations than of employees or the environment, but using that as an excuse to oppose them achieves nothing.  Corporations have also used, with considerable success, the threat to move jobs offshore as a way to fight union organizing and elections.  It’s a lot easier to run a business if you don’t have to deal with a union, especially if the union has taken on the role of belligerent, anti-management foe.  In my opinion the big unions blundered in trying to protect jobs that they could not protect while abdicating a more forceful role in trade agreement negotiations.  

It’s worth noting that American job growth has far exceeded job loss attributed to trade, but the new jobs that could have been filled by former factory workers have been in the low wage service sector, or in far away anti-union states.  Higher paying new jobs have often required education and technical skill beyond the reach of displaced workers, and that brings up a related issue.  What has been the effect of technological improvement in manufacturing processes? How much work, at union scale, that was done by hand is now done by machines?  In the 1950s I visited a number of unionized flour and cereal mills where bags were filled and sewed shut by human operators, puffed cereals were truly shot by guns fired one load at a time, and automation of bulk cargo handling was just being implemented.  Decades later I was in a nickel mine operated by less than a dozen miners, and the adjacent refinery was run by one supervisor who monitored the fully automated processes.  Who got paid the big bucks?  The engineers who knew how to create the system, and the technicians who knew how to keep it running, neither of whom worked for the mining company.  A few years earlier I was in a toy factory, the backbone of a small city, that employed hundreds of assemblers paid good union wages to do boring, repetitive tasks.  They were soon replaced by automated production lines in another country.

None of that is morally good or bad in and of itself.  It’s simply the function of a society where rapid developments in technology combined with rapid economic development throughout the world have resulted in painful dislocations that we, as a country, have not handled well.  What we need to do, say some, is return to the economic vitality we had back in the (insert years of your choice here).  Is that possible?

Following WWII America had the only industrial economy in the world that had not been bombed into rubble.  It’s not surprising that we dominated manufacturing and world trade.  We were the only game in town.  Economic resuscitation, aided by American equipment, was well underway in Europe and Japan by the 1950s, and continued for almost thirty years.  Then came the rapid industrialization of nations such as China, India,  South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, and others.  It’s likely that in not too many years to come we will see the same happening in Africa.   It is a global market place – an interdependent global market place – in which large corporations try to play in which ever country is most advantageous to them, and without regard for the people and communities they leave behind.  How dramatic has the change been?  Different sources vary in the numbers they offer, but the point is that in the aftermath of the war, the U.S. accounted for half of the entire world’s income.  Now it’s in the vicinity of 20% and declining, as is natural in a global economy where others are growing into renewed or first time prosperity.  

So what should we do?  The first thing is to stop trying to recreate a world that is dead and gone.  Get over it!  We need to be creative about the new world we are in, but there are some policy changes that might help.  
  • Raise the minimum wage and index it.  
  • Invest heavily in education at every level.  
  • Invest heavily in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
  • Repeal anti-union laws.  
  • Reimagine unions as agents of helpful change rather than combatants in cage matches with management.  
  • Clarify and simplify corporate governance and tax laws to keep them globally competitive and ethically accountable.  
  • Get it through our collective heads that taxes are our investment in the good life now and yet to come.

It would also help to acquire a new national ethos in which corporations value employees as human beings and not commodities, super salaries are signs of moral irresponsibility, and commitments to communities in which they are located are taken seriously.  A revitalized national ethos would reject tea party thinking in its totality, and it would hold governments at all levels accountable for fair, efficient, and just provision of services.  Governments, in like measure, would consider themselves to be in the business of customer service instead of regulatory enforcement.   It could happen.

One way to help it happen would be to dramatically increase the the marginal tax rate on very high levels of income, treating most income as earned.  The current federal income tax system has three categories of tax payers: single, joint, and head of household.  Each is treated in a slightly different way, so for the purpose of argument, let’s stick with joint filers and rough estimates in order to make a point.  Everyone pays 10% on the first $19,000 of income, minus some standard deductions.  The rate on the next $56,000 is 15%.  Then it’s 25% on the next $74,000; 28% on the next $80,000, and so forth until it’s 39% on everything above $460,000.  Given the ability to maximize deductions, or take advantage of special gimmicks such as “carried interest,” top income earners can often pay much less.  What I want to suggest is a gradual increase in the top marginal rates to 60% or 70%  for annual incomes in the millions.  

It will not increase revenue to the government by much.  It’s a crude tool at best, but it would create a disincentive to pay astronomical salaries to just a few people.  There’s no point in giving multi-million dollar raises or bonuses if most of it will be taxed away.  A national policy that says super salaries are essentially unethical would also encourage corporate rethinking about how to more fairly distribute monies available for wages and salaries. 

Over the last several decades major corporations in every industry improved productivity and the bottom line by eliminating jobs and forcing down rates of pay for employees other than those at the top.  At the same time, the American economy has been driven partly by unthinking consumer spending spurred by sophisticated marketing techniques.  The current, and no doubt brief, joy over modest improvements in GDP growth rates is the result of increased consumer spending while consumer income and levels of unemployment have remained stagnant.  A nation cannot simultaneously force middle and lower incomes to remain stagnant (or decline) while encouraging greater savings, paying down on consumer debt and building a revitalized economy on consumer spending.  

An unnamed wire service reporter wrote in a recent article that, “Economists believe that growth in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, will be restrained until incomes start growing at healthier levels.  That is unlikely until hiring picks up.”  At the same time, Census Bureau data show that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households saw their incomes rise 273 percent while middle income households saw theirs go up 40 percent and low income households 18 percent.  The buying power of increase at the middle and lower income levels actually decreased.  It’s a systemic problem, and, as argued above, it’s also an ethical problem that lies squarely in the laps of business leaders and government legislators. 

The sooner Congress and state legislatures can rid themselves of tea party type intransigence, the sooner our legislative processes can begin to work again for the benefit of the whole.  Mindless anti-tax and small government voices need to be exposed for the frauds that they are.  We don’t need small government, we need good government run as efficiently as our democratic processes allow.  We need government committed to creating and maintaining the social and physical community infrastructure needed to establish the most equitable pathways to opportunity for all persons that we are capable of doing.  We need to see taxes as investments, not burdens.  And we need to recognize that we can do all of that while encouraging individual responsibility, and without jeopardizing our constitutional freedoms.