Intergenerational justice

I just received a letter from Evangelicals for Social Action. They are launching a campaign for intergenerational justice, which puts a new twist on government deficits.

The letter from ESA President Ron Sider references the growing US budget deficit, which “amounts to us living off our grandchildren’s credit card.” 

I have grandchildren, and I surely do not want to be a burden to them, especially after I’m gone.

Sider continues: “We want things now that we can’t pay for, and we purchase them anyway, piling up debt that our young people will one day have to pay in the form of increased taxes, etc. This isn’t just unfair–it is unloving, unChristian, and an agregious example of financial irresponsibility. …”

OK, there’s nothing new there, but Sider states it well. What I like is that he has connected this issue with justice, which is big with God, if you take the Bible seriously.

Then Sider adds an important qualifier: “I am not saying that a temporary substantial budget deficit was a mistake in order to avoid a depression. I think that was the right policy.” Then comes the “but” statement. “But we have been increasing the national deficit for a decade, and current projections show it will get worse in the next years.”

Well said. Those of us who supported the Bush and Obama bailouts to avert a worldwide depression can still put our citizenship feet down and say deficit spending needs to stop. And in saying that, some of us older ones need to put Medicare and Social Security on the table for consideration of cuts. Yikes!

But, let’s be honest, none of us want our grandkids to suffer to make it easy on us. Thanks ESA.

Learning to care

Students at H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas used to wear a button on their chests. It had an image of the mascot in the center and two simple words – “I Care.”

Those of us who wore those buttons in the early 1970s were trying to tell the world that we knew life was not just about ourselves. I still have one of those buttons sitting on my dresser almost 40 years later. It’s a reminder to me of the kind of person I want to be, of the kind of person I believe God wants me to become.

I’m so thankful my parents, church and school taught me to care and modeled it. We need more such teaching and modeling today. Jesus was the ultimate caring person. He met all kinds of needs – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. He was not a fawning do-gooder; He was a strong-minded and strong-principled man who confronted evil and proclaimed peace, hope and love. He cared so much that He lived strong and died for the weak – us.

A Jesus revival is needed today. Such a revival of spirit will see more people taking on the mantle of Jesus as they walk through this 21st century world. And if we are revived, we will care like He cared – with strength and with a willingness to sacrifice for those who are weak.

Spruce High School also had a motto that was fixed in tile in the main foyer – “Everybody is Somebody.” Only when we know that, will we really care. Everybody. Literally everybody is somebody in God’s eyes. Shame on me when I see the clothes and think I know the man, when I see the house and think I know the family, when I see the smile and think I know the life.

I want to care. God wants me to care. God wants all of us who call ourselves by His Son’s name to care – to care for everybody, because everybody is somebody.

Sadness and hope behind bars

The size of a prison cell shocks the brain on first site. Nothing in TV and movies prepared me for that simple shock the other day when I visited a prison for the first time. I’ve seen much bigger closets. What does living in a cage do to a man? Many, if not most, of the men probably behaved like animals in the first place in order to end up in such a place. So they surely earned their punishment, assuming they received justice through our courts. But it still hurts to see human beings living such inhuman lives.

Another jolt to the system comes in seeing the old men. One assumes that the older inmates have probably grown old behind the bars. For those of us on the outside, life seems to move so quickly and ends up being so short. I wonder if it is the same for the long incarcerated.

The Texas prison I visited, however, is not all sadness. I visited with a couple of prisoners in regular cells who are Christians. Their eyes look different from the others. There is hope.

Then I visited a faith-based dorm where I saw more than one man not just reading, but studying his Bible and taking notes. These men don’t have to live in the closet-sized cells because they are not a threat to one another. Each man has his own small cubicle with a bed that can double as a couch. The expressions on their faces are different from the others. Some still have the body paint so prevalent elsewhere in the prison, but they are different. These men are being changed from the inside out.

I met one young man named Michael. It doesn’t take long to see that Michael is a man of intelligence and leadership ability. He is articulate, and his eyes are alive even though a tattooed tear is affixed below one eye. He is a believer, and you get a sense that this man has the potential to do great things for God – in prison for now and someday on the outside. And the prison staff was great. A number of them are believers, and all seemed competent, efficient and serious about their business. They have tough jobs made necessary by the behavior of the men now behind bars. And I found myself with a profound appreciation for these men and women.

The prisons and jails of Texas present an amazing mission field for us to consider. When you take into account offenders, their families and the officers who guard them, you are looking at about one-fourth of the population of our state. And this is a population with a lot of hurts and not enough hope. There are many believers among that group, but there are so many more who need what Christ has to offer.

Every year, 72,000 offenders are incarcerated and another 72,000 are released. This in-flow and out-flow has unique needs and present a special opportunity for those of us who follow Christ.

Jesus himself made it clear that his disciples will care for the prisoners , the orphans, the widows and others in need. Lots of us, I think, could be better disciples.

Beyond paternalism in social ministry

I’m reading When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It is the book everyone who cares about social ministry is reading. I’m not sure yet what I think about some of the book yet, but much of it is very insightful.

Here’s an example of something I really like: The authors say to avoid paternalism in ministry to those who are experience material poverty. “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.” (p.115)

Then they list five types of paternalism–resource, spiritual, knowledge, labor and managerial.

This phrase sums up some good, practical advice for avoiding paternalism: “… just stop talking and listen.” So simple to do but not so easy to do.

Scripture, government and the poor

There is no remaining Garden of Eden in which the U.S. can remain isolated from the rest of the world. –David Gushee

At this week’s consultation in Wheaton, Gushee spoke on “Scripture, Government and the World’s Poor.” His comment about the Garden of Eden resonated. Often, especially in the West, we just want to enjoy our Garden and ignore what’s happening on the outside, in the tougher places. We can’t.

Whether it be global economic activity or global terrorism, we know better today than a few years ago that isolationism will not work. The world’s various systems of economics, government, religion and other systems have linked us with the world outside of our Garden.

So the question is not whether to help the poor but how Christians should advocate, Gushee said. (I’m using italic for Gushee’s remarks because I’m not sure if they are direct quotes.) This was really an underlying premise to the consultation. How should we advocate?

The consultation focused on the role of U.S. foreign assistance for other nations, but toward the end it became clear that foreign assistance is only a piece of the broader issues facing responses the world poverty.

Gushee’s key contribution to the discussion was driving us to biblical passages that explicitly deal with the relation of government to poverty in a context of what God is trying to do.

Psalm 72 is a prayer of support for the king as a channel of God’s justice, Gushee said. Psalm 72:1-4:

“Endow the king with your justice, O God,

the royal son with your righteousness.

“He will judge your people in righteousness,

your afflicted ones with justice.

“The mountains will bring prosperity to the people,

the hills the fruit of righteousness.

“He will defend the afflicted among the people

and save the children of the needy;

he will crush the oppressor. ”

There are obvious differences between the king of Israel and leaders of other states today, but Scripture expresses an affirmation that we all can pray with purpose. We should pray that God will endow governmental leaders with desire to pursue justice, knowing that justice will bring prosperity to the hurting around the world.

And we surely should pray that the fourth verse would be realized, that our leaders would defend the afflicted and save the children of the needy.

National prosperity and royal success are connected to the king’s care for the poor, Gushee said.

Many, if not most, people in America have not made that connection.

Another key passage is Jeremiah 21-22. Jeremiah has a word from God for Zedekiah, king of Judah.

“… say to the royal house of Judah, ‘Hear the word of the LORD; O house of David, this is what the LORD says:

” ‘Administer justice every morning;

rescue from the hand of his oppressor

the one who has been robbed,

or my wrath will break out and burn like fire

because of the evil you have done—

burn with no one to quench it.”

–Jeremiah 21:11-12

Gushee summarized the application of these passages to our own context as follows: When we fail to protect the poor … we invite the judgment of God.

He noted that the United States is a “quasi-Empire,” and the Old Testament treats empires as evil, except for one, the Persian empire under Cyrus. While Cyrus was indeed a world conqueror, our leaders should be more like Cyrus and less like Nebuchadnezzar.

Then Gushee dealt with the familiar passage in Romans 13, and in this he made an important distinction between the Roman setting and our’s today. I did not follow his explanation clearly but let me jump to the conclusion. Monarchs have subjects, not citizens, Gushee said. We, in the liberal democracy that is the U.S., are citizens; we the people are, in essence, the responsible party.

If American Christians advocated for care for the world’s poor, this empire would be exceptional in history, Gushee said. We do not need to have a pre-democratic theology of the state.

Our current economic priorities are profit, efficiency and growth. But those can be be challenged. … Christians need to urge leaders to specific poverty-reducing activities.

Gushee’s quick overview (and summarized even more briefly here) provide some helpful ways forward for those of us followers of Christ who value God’s work in history as recorded in Scripture. This is a framework which, in essence, demands our advocacy for the poor since we have the privilege of living in a constitutional democracy, and our responsibility reaches beyond our national borders and to the extent of all God’s concern–everyone everywhere.

Of government, the poor, and God’s mission

I’m just back from two days in Wheaton attending a consultation with Bread for the World and other anti-poverty groups. It was a great interchange of information and ideas. A group is still working on the written affirmations that will come out of the consultation, but in coming posts I will be sharing some of what I heard.

To begin with, here are some some general observations from the consultation:

— There are some amazingly gifted and committed Christian women and men working on the issue of how to interface with governments in meeting the great challenges of the poor worldwide. Christians bring an important perspective to this effort, but governments play an important role if we are to be serious about confronting poverty.

— The problems are complex, and finding effective solutions are not easy because of that complexity and because of competing political and economic interests.

— There are success stories in the realm of U.S. foreign assistance programs of which we are not always aware. There are problems, as well; but the problem is not assistance, it’s in how assistance is delivered.

— Listening to leading Christians in countries severely impacted by poverty gives one a whole new perspective on the issues. They challenge our American thinking, and they provide great encouragement as examples of the best in Christian leadership. They are the key to finding effective answers through genuine global partnership.

One thing I am assured of: We must work through the challenges undaunted by difficulties and failures. God has shown through the ages, as revealed in Scripture, that He has a great compassion and concern for the poor. If we are to follow Him, we are to seek His compassion and share His concern.

Going to war on TV

Cameron and I watched the final episode of the HBO World War II series “Pacific” last night. I still have a lot of images from the series flitting around in my head, and I know they are there, as well, for my 12-year-old son.

Some could question the wisdom of exposing a pre-teen to the voluminous use of the f— word. I questioned it myself at times. But I wanted my son to know what war is really like. It’s hell on earth. At least I guess it is. I missed Vietnam and am thankful for it.

Every pre-teen, teen and young adult male in America seems obsessed by the multiple video war games. I have qualms about it, but over the past few months I have let Cameron play the T-rated versions just so he will not be totally out of his cultural loop.

So war is everywhere in popular male culture. I hope shows like “Pacific” and movies like Saving Private Ryan will help give a better picture of reality. And one of the things I really liked about “Pacific” was that it showed the impact of such experiences on young men — it’s devastating, but it can be overcome.

Gosh, I hate war. I hate it so much that I hope the closest my sons ever come to it is a video game and TV screen.

Pulling back the racial curtain

The other day I visited a man in the hospital. He would have preferred a private room, but one was not available so he got the bed nearest the door in a two-bed room. A curtain separated the two patients.

The daughter of the man I had come to visit slipped her dad a note that informed him the other occupant was a black man. She didn’t do this because she had a problem with it; she did it because she knew her aging dad had racial views that had been birthed long ago in his past and had virtually no interracial relationships through the years to challenge those views. And, quiet simply, she feared he might use “the word.”

Gene, the white man, spent the night alone. Sometime about 4 a.m., the black man, Morris, left his side of the curtain and came to the side of Gene’s bed. The phone was ringing, and the white man had not wakened. Morris answered and told the caller that Gene was sleeping soundly and asked if the person could call back.

Morris was half the age of Gene, and the two men became friends of sorts over the two days they shared a room together. In essence, Morris looked after Gene. Both men liked to talk. By the end of their time together, the white man was getting the contact information of the black man.

It’s amazing what happens when two people, despite their differences, actually get to know one another. The differences that divide give way to the things that connect.

“I know nothing,” to quote Sgt. Schultz

When is not knowing better than knowing? Richard L. hester and Kelli Walker-Jones say it’s so when it comes to leadership. At least that’s what I picked up last night in the introduction to their book, Know Your Story and Lead with It.

The not-knowing approach to leadership is counter-intuitive to many people, but my experience is that there is real truth in it, especially when beginning in a new leadership position.

If I may translate the authors, they’re talking about the difference between a leader who thinks he or she knows what needs to be done as opposed to trusting the group to inform the leadership approach. It produces, the authors say, an “organic strategy” for leading a group.

This fits with my natural inclinations as a team-builder, but I find myself wondering if the people I have sought to lead would see me in such a way or not. Generally, no one likes a no-it-all or will follow such a person, but that’s how we often behave as leaders.

Holistic ministry on a napkin

I found a napkin this morning with some good words on them. I, unfortunately, do not know who spoke them so my apologies for the lack of attribution. Here are the notes:

In order to minister holistically in a fallen world…

1) You need a transcendent vision from God. … You must believe change is possible. … You have to have a vision that goes beyond captivity.

2) The vision must come in the midst of concrete historical reality. … It has to speak to your situation. … Context is the interrelated connections.

3) Prophetic integrity. … Sometimes you need to speak from the perspective of God to the structures of society.

4) Incarnational. … Ezekiel 3:13

5) Paradox in ministry (and I have no idea what this was about)

End of napkin. If anyone knows who is the source, please let me and anyone else who sees this know.