What It Means To Be An American

Both major political parties have now held their national conventions in advance of the fall election. During those conventions, two divergent views emerged of what it means to be an American. Of course, within each party you'll find those who disagree with the prevailing viewpoint. Nonetheless these are the two visions of America that I observed:

One view: We are a declining, threatened tribe losing our way of life and in danger of actually losing our lives. To become great and safe again, we must expel and eliminate any perceived threat.

The other view: We are an increasingly diverse community, made stronger by our differences. By working together in a spirit of hospitality and generosity, we become safer, healthier, more prosperous, and a more perfect union.

One view defines patriotism by who is excluded.

The other view defines patriotism by the breadth of inclusion.

The former defines oppression as anything that threatens their privileged status. The latter views oppression as the fruit of systemic injustice in which we are all complicit.

The first ideology looks for scapegoats to demonize as the cause of our woes and seeks a savior to deliver us from the evil ones.

The latter perspective looks in the mirror and seeks to take responsibility for selfishness, fear, and bigotry in the hope of awakening millions of saviors, each doing daily acts of justice, courage, and generosity.

An example of the difference is seen in Khizr Khan's speech to the Democratic National Convention and the reaction to it. Khan spoke of his Muslim-immigrant son, a U.S. Army Captain, who was killed when he sacrificed his life to save fellow soldiers from a bulldozing taxi carrying 200 pounds of explosives. He said his son and the sacrifice he made represent the best of what it means to be an American. His take on Mr. Trump was that his view of what it means to be an American is skewed because he has sacrificed nothing and no one.

Monday on CNN's "New Day", Mr. Khan continued his line of thought, "Communities coming together is the solution. We are as concerned as Mr. Trump is about the safety of this country. We need a leader that will unite us, not disrespect, not by derogatory remarks...That's all I wish to convey to him. That a good leader has one trait...empathy."

In response to Mr. Kahn, Mr. Trump enumerated his sacrifices: built structures, created thousands of jobs, and made money.

I have no illusion that either party will fully live up to the best of its values. Both political parties are prone to hypocrisy and pandering. But a core question has emerged from the conventions. Is being American about:

  • Exclusion. Self-obsession. Fear. Looking for scapegoats?


  • Inclusion. Self-sacrifice. Empathy. Looking to collaborate?

Which view of what it means to be an American more closely aligns with your own?

Fear or Love in America

A couple of weeks ago, I joined activists to gauge a local politician's support for a permanent, year-round, emergency shelter for those who live on the streets. The lukewarm response from our local official centered around the fear that more services attract more homeless, which makes prosperous residents feel unsafe and heightens anxiety that their property values will decline. As I left the meeting, a bit discouraged, I headed up the hill back to my office. I noticed an older man mesmerized by his reflection in a mirror-polished black Porsche. He looked up and told me about how he used to restore old cars back to their original condition. He talked about how much he loved cars and how much joy he felt working on them before his accident and head injury.

His speech and thought patterns were jittery, his appearance disheveled, but nothing could dim his infectious smile. I told him that my grandfather had also restored cars in his retirement years. The man reached out his hand, grabbed mine, looked me in the eye, and said, "God loves you. Jesus loves. And I love you. You have a most wonderful day." He turned around and walked downhill.

Joy filled my heart. This man,  most likely homeless, made a home for me in his heart. I also giggled at this "wink from God".  I thought I was doing some good for those living on the streets, but it was someone living on the streets who did me good and uplifted me. I felt encouraged to continue the uphill climb.

The man I met on the street chose to respond to his hardship by embracing love and exuding it. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but isn't that the same essential choice we face?

We have all been shaken by recent violence. Our national reaction to such savagery typically veers toward fear and anger, which is expressed in vicious rhetoric and action.

These immediate feelings of fear and anger are normal and unavoidable. What we do with these feelings, however, is a choice. What if we chose love?

The kind of love I’m talking about is not primarily an emotion. It’s a decision. It’s an act of will.

True love engages in difficult conversations without knowing the outcome in advance, pauses and reflects on our own biases and privileges that harm others, and builds bridges of understanding with those who make us uncomfortable and those living on the margins.

Love sees a stranger, particularly one whose face surfaces our buried fears and bigotries, and looks deep enough to see the face of God.

This is the version of love that Christ lived. It is not soft.  Love stands up against injustice but does so without becoming spiteful. Love resists violence through tenacious non-violence. Love, acknowledging the heart's fear and anger, chooses to be engaged and courageous rather than create scapegoats and hide behind walls of faux-security.

I don't know the answers to the complex global issues we face. But I do know that, whether it's a grieving world or a solitary man living on the streets, choosing the work of love is our best hope.

Where Are Your Wounds?

"Where are your wounds?" This was the question posed by Rev. Allan Boesak, a South African Dutch Reformed cleric and anti-apartheid activist, at the Parliament of World Religions. He said that at the end of our lives we will meet our Creator, and our Creator will ask, "Where are your wounds?" If we have no wounds, we will be asked, "Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?"

"Where are my wounds?" That question sticks to me.

I have psychological wounds, some of my own making and some perpetrated by others. One particular wound I am addressing is the storyline that I am responsible for the emotions and reactions of others. Obviously false, yet the storyline tentacles run deep.

I am learning to take responsibility for my own responses and only my own responses, my emotions and only my emotions. When I sense disapproval coming my way, I stay with my own discomfort and hold my ground until the discomfort dissipates. I send oodles of compassion and self-forgiveness to myself, releasing the layers of over-responsiblity.

In spite of my penchant for taking on too much responsibility for others' emotional state, I also wonder if I am taking too little responsibility.

I make donations, click to sign petitions, and repost incisive paragraphs that cut to the heart of injustice.

But where are my wounds?

What am I sacrificing to bend the arc toward justice?

Does one click on my keyboard absolve me of all further responsibility?

I cannot end violence, income inequality, discrimination, and human-caused climate disruption.  But I can let myself feel more of their emotional weight. I can invite others to do the same and hold space for us to feel the heaviness of what we are doing to each other.

To do so feels like grief work, like a hospice, in which we hold a dying vigil for a familiar way of life that is neither just nor sustainable.

We need rituals, ceremonies and other creative outlets to acknowledge and untangle ourselves from the deep tentacles of what is no longer working.

We need to take action. Sometimes that might be "a click" to support an international effort. More often it is something local, where our work can make a small but immediate difference.

I'm becoming clearer about the nature of responsibility.

I am not responsible for other's reactions when I take a stand. I am not even responsible for the results. My job is not to save the world or even one individual.

  • I am responsible for acting in alignment with the truth of my heart as my heart responds to the woundedness I encounter.
  • I am responsible for continuing to grow as a human being, leading with my strengths and owning up to my shadowy shortcomings.
  • I am responsible for taking care of myself, which includes saying "no" to important work that is not mine to do.
  • I am responsible for using my wounds in service of the common good as I collaborate with my Creator to transmute my pain into compassionate action.

Where are your wounds? What is worth fighting for?

Who Really Speaks for God?

I've been watching Facebook posts by high school and college classmates who quote the Bible in their political tirades. When called out on misogynistic, homophobic, racist, Islamophobic or jingoistic views, their response is, "Don't be a hater. These are God's views too. I'm just repeating what the Bible says. Because it's the Word of God, I have to say and believe these things, and so should you." Actually...

What you are saying is NOT the Word of God. It is your conditioned interpretation of cherry-picked passages from Scriptures composed by men writing about their experience of God from their Iron-Age cultural perspective.

When a position no longer commands logical or moral respect, the last resort is to trot out a Scripture passage. The Bible has been quoted with deep sincerity to support any number of positions which we now deem downright sinful, such as denying women the right to vote (I Timothy 2:11-14), slavery (Colossians 3:22), and a callous disregard for those living in poverty (John 12:8).

While most of my former classmates use Scripture to "prove" right-wing political stances, a radically different perspective can easily find standing in Scripture:

  • What were the Sodomites doing that so offended God that God incinerated them? Ezekiel 16:49 - "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." The sin of Sodom sounds more like a gathering of Congressmen with their behind-the-scenes funders than the elderly lesbian couple trying to get married in your state. If anything, this Word of God would denounce laws and policies that further fatten the wallets of the military industrial complex, oil companies and pharmaceuticals...and thus fatten the wallets of their executives...at the expense of peace, the environment, and the health of the general public. Instead, the true "anti-Sodomite" Word of God calls for a livable minimum wage for all workers.
  • Leviticus 24:22 - "You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God." and “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt." Exodus 22:21.  How should those whose ancestors were once foreigners treat foreigners now? How can those who benefit from a self-created system that legitimizes and rewards their own status treat those who lack any status? In these passages, the Word of God calls for a path to citizenship for all resident aliens (yes, amnesty), the elimination of squalid detention camps for immigrant mothers and their children, the extension of the Affordable Health Care Act to undocumented workers, and a little humility about our own status here in the land of the free.
  • Exodus 22:25 “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest." The Bible does not endorse a specific economic system, but it certainly is no friend to unfettered capitalism. This Word of God would require mega-banks to open branches in impoverished neighborhoods and offer no-cost loans to businesses and individuals trying to rebuild their communities. During the mortgage crisis, the Word of God would have demanded that bailout money actually bail out families struggling to keep their homes rather than enable the ongoing folly of Wall Street's gambling addiction.

Thus says the Lord!

Scriptures violate the Spirit that sparked them when they are used to crush the soul, institutionalize oppression, or uphold the status quo at the expense of the common good. Without that Spirit, a semantically accurate rendering of a text fails to be God's Word for us today, and a seemingly literal truth becomes patently false.

The Bible turn us upside down with an experience of God, of Christ, of Spirit that ever-expands compassion, joy, inclusivity, reverence for Mystery, commitment to justice, and a sense of communion with all life. Scripture inspires the embodied knowing that neither we nor anyone else are ever beyond the embrace of the Divine.

Any use of Scripture conflicting with that Spirit is not the Word of God. It's merely a human opinion hiding behind a fading religion.

Trickle-Up Economics

As we await the winter rains here in Northern California, I've been paying attention to the early morning chorus of sprinkler systems in our neighborhood. Like a carefully choreographed game of "whack-a-mole", sprinkler heads peak above ground, disperse water and then return to their subterranean lair. Unfortunately, this type of system sends water up toward the ether where much of it evaporates rather sending water directly into the soil to soak the roots of flora with life-giving liquid. This inefficient top-down watering system is an apt metaphor for "Trickle-Down Economics", which has been the prevailing economic theory for the past thirty years. [Warning: This is not an economic treatise and thus should not be used in lieu of your normal sleep medication.]  The essence of Trickle-Down Economics is the belief that when the richest Americans have the lowest possible effect tax rates, much lower than that of the rest of the population, they, in turn, will create jobs that raise the economic status of everyone else.

It sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, it hasn't work as advertised.  Here are a few sobering statistics:

  • If wages had kept up with increased productivity since the 1970's, then someone making $40,000 today would be making over $62,000. 
  • Only Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon have worse income inequality than the U.S., and the likelihood of upward economic mobility in this country is about the same as in Pakistan (slightly worse than Singapore and slightly better than China).
  • The wealthiest 400 Americans have as much wealth as 80 million families combined (62% of the population).
  • Since 1980 American GDP has about doubled. While wages are stagnant (or even declining) when adjusted for inflation, the stock market has increased its value by over ten times with 93% of that wealth residing in the hands of the richest 20% of Americans.
  • For more information and supporting data, check out www.inequality.is or Robert Reich's new documentary "Inequality for All".

Essentially what we have in this country is "Trickle-Up Economics". The rich get richer, and everyone else treads water or sinks. Over the past few decades, the wealthy few have become exorbitantly wealthy, while the rest of the country has seen wages stagnate or decline (when adjusted for inflation). The result is that millions of ordinary folks have less available income to buy stuff, and that demand for goods and services is what drives the economy and creates jobs. No matter how much he loves to be warm and cuddly, there are only so many Snuggies that Bill Gates is going to buy.

What's bizarre is that the rich would likely fare better in a more equitable economic system by having a smaller share of an ever-growing pie as opposed to a larger share of a stagnant or shrinking pie. As the middle class thrived, they would purchase goods and services from companies owned by the rich, thus not only increasing profits for the wealthy but also providing more capital to hire more workers for decent jobs rather than the McJobs typically created in this wimpy recovery. I'm not advocating communism but rather a somewhat higher tax rate on the rich so that the budget is not balanced on the backs of the squeezed/shrinking middle class and the poor so that they (we), in turn, can heat up the economy.

What's perhaps most startling about Trickle-Down Economics is its unholy alliance with organized Christianity. Despite the clear solidarity of Jesus with the poor (Luke 4:16-19, Luke 6:20-21, Matthew 25:34-36, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 12:16-21, Matthew 19:24, etc.), not to mention passages in the Hebrew scriptures lambasting the wealthy establishment for its treatment of the poor (Psalm 109:16, Proverbs 14:31, Proverbs 28:3 and innumerable examples among the prophets such as Ezekiel 22:26-29), in many Christian circles, God has morphed into a monocle-with-top-hat capitalist who advocates for a totally unregulated free market, no matter how that impacts the most vulnerable.

Former President Jimmy Carter recently weighed in on this unseemly mangling of sacred scripture to support a trickle-up economic system, when he said, "If you don't want your tax dollars to help the poor - then stop saying that you want a country based on Christian values, because you don't." Amen, Mr. President. Amen.