Random Thoughts On People’s Economic Lives

I just came back from Boston on Sunday and got into discussions with friends. All of them had something to say about housing, of all things. They were talking about owning a home for the first time. They weren’t complaining. They were, in fact, proud of themselves for making the move. The conversation then got interesting. Since each of them was single, there was no need for a 3 Bedroom house or an acre of land to put it on. They could buy small. When I asked how much they were going to pay for their little place in Boston, numbers between a 1/4 to 1/3 of a million dollars was what they said. In my mind, me being married with kids, they weren’t even buying a house. They were buying a garage or an in-law unit or a condo-sized place. These were intelligent hard-working people, and in my mind, they were paying way too much for way too little. My days working with the homeless sprung to mind, and I explained how the problem with, say, losing your job, was that it cost triple to move back in to a place — first month, last month and security deposit. Each of us understood that, in Boston, anyway, that was about $5,000!

Who can live like that? One tragedy and you’re not coming back economically. People don’t save money because they don’t make enough as it is. One hit and it’s all over without a lot of help. I’m not sure, but I would have to guess that the IQs of these people are above average. They work hard and continuously, and they have good jobs — or reasonably good ones anyway. If they’re above average, then people who are average can’t even afford that. The American Dream — a house, a car, 2.2 children, white picket fence — is so far out of reach as to make it the American Fantasy. Housing is a basic need. I don’t know how anyone in Boston can afford their basic needs.  The same is true, of course, in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, which are more expensive than Boston.

There is something terribly wrong when people can’t afford to their basic needs. 

Beyond that, though, so much of the American Dream aka “normal life” is simply unaffordable to most Americans. Included there are:

  • A pro baseball game with the family
  • A pro football game for one or two
  • A pro basketball game
  • A movie for the family
  • Snacks for the movie 
  • One ticket to a Broadway play
  • A concert at a club or arena. 

At even $15.00 per hour, you have to work a full day to take the family out to the movies for two hours!  Now, you can’t afford your basic needs and it costs too much to avoid the fact. 

Cars now cost 25 or 30 thousand dollars.

Health insurance can cost that same amount every year, and cost $5,000 in medical bills (deductible) before it kicks in.

Medications are so expensive that if we didn’t have insurance, I couldn’t afford mine

My family is ok. Most of my friends are ok, I think. In the context of poverty, though, lives simply don’t work economically. 

Does racism or sexism or homophobia matter? Well, if you can’t get or keep a job because of them…. yes, it does. Why would a woman stay at a job where she’s harassed? Let’s see, hmmm….

Put this against the agenda items that Congress and the President are pressing for and see why people gave up on government or are so angry about so much. 

I don’t have solutions, but I know where the problems are. Just saying, I noticed.

Resisting with Peace,

John


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That’ll Teach ‘Em! — I Hope Not

If there is one thing everyone agrees on regarding Barack Obama, it is that he is Black. Some will point out that he’s mixed race, so “not totally Black”, but few, if any in America, are mad at him for his being White, so I’ll stick with my first statement. Bill Clinton not withstanding, Obama also really is the “first Black President of the United States”. Love him, hate him, agree with him, disagree with him, it is true that he was the President of the United States.

Donald Trump, according to the historian at NBC News, is the first President in American history to try to actively undo the work of his predecessor. It is now widely believed that Trump’s entire agenda — at least the parts he’s been successful at — are all related to destroying Obama’s legacy — from the most inane to the most extraordinary achievement. From the Paris Climate Accords to Obamacare and the Iran Deal to the restrictions on the mentally ill owning guns and the removal of flooding regulations, birth control, DACA and so on, Trump is trying to pummel Obama’s legacy into submission.

For those who believe in such things, Obama is the ultimate example of an “uppity n-word”. He is an example of how far we had come in American diversity/race relations. He was the classic example of what a Black Man can achieve in this society, the ultimate proof that African-Americans are not only human, but someone for all Americans to aspire to. Intellectual, kind, decent to those who are not like him, scandal-free and so on. If you can think of a Black stereotype, Barack Obama’s existence denies its reality.

It is also well-known that Mr. Obama was merciless in his roasting of Trump at a White House Corresponence Dinner a few years back. Reality TV star Omarossa, now on Trump’s staff said, in essence Mr. Trump didn’t like that humiliation and wanted revenge for Obama saying what he did … after Trump had lied and berated him for months about “not being born here”.

To sum up: Barack Obama is Black, and was President — a problem for racists everywhere. Trump apparently hates him, and is doing anything to remove examples of Obama’s power he can. Here’s the tricky question, though: Does Trump hate Obama personally or racially? The answer to that question determines the moral of the story and the narrative for a whole country.

If Trump only hates Obama, then he’s just petty, vengeful, and spiteful. If Trump hates Obama because he is Black and was President, however, the moral becomes something very, very different.  In that case, the lesson Trump is trying to teach American Blacks is that Whites can — and will — erase any attempt at racial “uppity-ness” you can come up with, because we can erase the best of you. Go ahead, believe in yourselves and we’ll remove any trace of you.  In that case, Trump becomes a racial vampire, sucking the life out of a whole culture. In the words of Bob Marley, “every time that I plant a seed, he say ‘kill it before it grows’”.

The first option is horrible, contemptible and beneath the dignity of a PresidentThe second one can not stand. It simply cannot be left out there, like a flowering weed, if America is to live up to its full potential. We must remember all of the things that our former President has done for the country — and more than Trump wants us to forget. We need to tell our children that a Black man can save the earth if he pays attention to science, that he can decrease violence in the world with his actions regarding guns,  that he can save the country from bankruptcy, both after a crash and before a storm. We need to tell out children that a Black boy can be a leader, can be compassionate, can do the right thing with the stroke of a pen, or with arms that held parents after the Newtown massacre. We need to tell our children that a Black father can stick around, and raise two brilliant and decent daughters. We have to remember them, because they are all true and because they matter. 

It occurs to me as I write this that Hillary Clinton is the same symbol for women that President Obama was for Blacks. Trump, the Republican men and some women, are trying to undo any gains the women’s movement has made and Hillary is the perfect example of how far a woman can go in this country. For the same reasons as above, we must tell the stories and remember the successes of women to prove equality to men. Trump hates Hillary as much as he hates Obama. Let him not steal the souls of little girls, teenagers, or adult women simply because he can demean them or grab their genitals.  If we are to have the strengths that women bring for our country, we cannot let this man or any other one boil her entire time in office to Benghazi and Monica Lewinsky. We must tell the true stories of everything she has done in her career. We must tell our children that girls can be Senators and Secretaries of State, that they can defend democracy, that they can make a difference in keeping people healthy, that they can change the world.

We must remember and tell the truth, as much as Trump and cohorts want us to forget and deny. Truth and gifts are too important to lose.

Resisting with Peace,
John

An Island In The Stream

[Editor’s note: this is e-news “blast” for First Church of Christ, Congregational UCC, in Goshen, CT, where I am an interim minister.  I’m sharing it with the wider world because I think we all need it.]

One of the unique parts of my time here (in my third interim) is the fact that frequently I have had to have two sermons, one “regular” and one related to a crisis. I believe that this has happened three times in my 10 months here. One was after the events at Charlottesville, one was after hurricanes, and this week would have been the third, after the massacre in Las Vegas.

I have been at a loss for words after this one because it happened so fast and  in the midst of so many other things going on in the world – things which moral people should all have an opinion on, and a faithful response to. With regards to the Las Vegas shooting, I have had absolutely nothing to say until my drive here today, as I listened to various podcasts (hour-long news programs that I download daily).

So here’s what I have:  The world is crazy now, full of impossible-to-predict tragedies. We usually like to “get out in front of them”, see what’s wrong, and correct it before disaster strikes. We can understand, for instance that pollution ruins our environment, so we take steps to avoid catastrophe. We worry about carbon emissions, so we try to decrease them.

When storms in life like hit Houston, or Florida or this most recent tragedy in Las Vegas, there is no way to prepare for them because they have never happened before.   We humans have become – through little choice of our own – reactors rather than actors. If we don’t see tragedy coming, there is nothing we can do but be.

That’s where the church comes in. If nothing else, the church can be. It can exist as an island in the floods of bad news like, like a hospital where people can get immediate care, like a beacon of hope and comfort for the world around us.

While Christianity used to be a huge piece of land in our culture, it’s now, just an island for many. Still, we need an island of safety, a place where we can get together and heal, a place where we can simply rest from the storms, a place where we can feel the calming presence of God in the middle of chaos, a place where we can simply hold each other until the storm passes — a place where we can get our lives together once again. When we have done that, we can return to the world with a stance and a plan.

          For a long time in this country, people have talked about the decline of the church, the decreasing size of congregations, and the loss of givers and care that seems to go along with it. We feel it all around us as our children go off to this or that sporting event on a Sunday. As bars open so people can drink and malls open so people can shop, people go elsewhere to “just be”.  But it is a hollow form of community, based on alcohol and/or money. There is no meaning in a bar, there is no way of life to be found in owning the latest fashion. There is no healing in competition.

But for people in this little town in the middle of nowhere, all of those things exist. You can come here with no money and be fed in all kinds of ways. You can hang around with a crowd and make sense of your life. Your kids can learn about and practice love.  Within these walls, you can expect to find comfort, healing, community, friendship, great music, and faith in something bigger than yourself and – with any luck – a good sermon, too!  These are the things the Spirit provides. That is what the Church does. That is why the church exists.

We’ll never kick you out if you’re not prepared, if you don’t have money, if you don’t agree with everyone’s politics. You don’t have to do anything to be here but be in times like this. Since human beings often can’t do much of anything to cope with modern life’s tragedies, that’s a good thing. To the extent that it’s possible, and  to the extent that you feel led to, share your Self and your gifts here. Make pies. Teach a kid to dance. Learn to pray. Pass the Peace of Christ. Teach forgiveness, donate time and/or money.  The world needs this little island of faith because it needs the God who lives here. Simply by existing, the church says “there is another way to do life” – we don’t have to be violent, we don’t have to be hateful, we don’t have to be isolated. As people like you let their lights shine, the world will know that it can change, and it will.

May God bless you this week until we meet on Sunday for worship. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

 

Peace,

 

Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau

Democracies Don’t Have A Ruling Class…

Legend  has it that my friend Mike, boyfriend of my friend Dianne, on July 4th, 1976, raised a glass and said, “F… the king!!”. Yes, he was drunk. But, after Dianne gave him grief for swearing, she laughed and gave him a hug on that bicentennial day. We were, indeed, remembering the day we would have no more kings in America. 

There has always  been a tension between those who believed that some people were elite and those who believed we were equals under the law. The American Revolution was started even though 1/3 wanted to leave England, 1/3 liked the king and believed in unity and 1/3 of the people couldn’t care less. When the first 1/3 convinced the last 1/3 that it was a good idea, the revolution started. They had had enough of “taxation without representation”, pain without control, some people being able to impose law without that same law applying to them.

I was listening to a podcast the other day where the pundits couldn’t understand why both Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters had such energized bases. Clearly, The Right and The Left had nothing in common, they said. The groups’ policies were nothing alike. Republicans and Democrats were nothing alike. There were whiny millennials and uneducated rednecks, they implied. There were the intellectual elite and the irrational lower class, they said. 

As pundits often do, they missed the point. The point is all of the things that started the revolution are applicable today, and the populous is angry — thus, the populism of Bernie on one side and the “national” populism of the Trump supporters. In America today, with the government we have, we pay a lot — in taxes, in costs to stay alive, in costs to become something better or different than we were as individuals, and frankly in everything else.  We work harder than ever, we have both parents working harder than ever, American productivity has gone up for years. American wages have not. We work harder and we get less.

Our government sent us off to war, even though many of us suspected it was under false pretenses. We went from having a surplus to a huge debt to pay for the war, and were told we weren’t loyal (“Real Americans”) if we didn’t agree. What did the get out of it? Nothing. What did bomb makers and Pentagon contractors get? They got wealthy and demanded their money. What did the bankers get? They got wealthier because they made the rules. Once again, in what once a country with more than enough to go around, we were told we couldn’t educate our children, couldn’t spend time with our families, couldn’t afford to keep a home. Once again, the military had enough and we were holding bake sales for education. Once again, bankers who had crashed the economy got to keep their money, while the rest of us had to “be nice”, “play by the rules”, and “be loyal to America”.

The problem is, there were two Americas. Those who made the rules and those who played by the rules, those who made the money and those who paid the money. The Citizens United decision cemented the idea that the rich person’s voice could be louder than the poor person’s, and rich people make the rules, because they can elect those who rule, or — in this administration — they can be those who rule.

We have been oppressed and angry for a long time now, and the shining example of American protest for the era, Occupy Wall Street, was people silently staring at Wall Street. 

Now, we have people in private jets, using taxpayer money. We have a supposedly wealthy billionaire making money charging the Secret Service (and us) money to lead. We have a woman who has never work in her life destroying the education of our children, and the leaders who have health insurance forever and a pension/salary for life telling us that we must do without either. 

In short, we have a ruling class and everyone else. It might be time to say “F the King!” once again. Once again, the leaders will say we’re not being “loyal”, and once again they will be right. We cannot be loyal to people who are above the law, who live on a faraway island of their own money, with little or no sense of what it’s like to be us, because they make the rules, and they buy the politicians they want. The difference now is that “the king” is now the president and congress. We need to impeach one and vote out the other. 

The reason for one is the same reason for the other. The rule of law must apply equally to all of us. Trump believes the rules serve him. Congress votes as though politics is more important than people’s lives. They act as if they serve their donors more than they serve the people with one vote each.

Any politician who votes to make the bomb-makers and gun-makers richer while denying education and saying we’re violent must go. Any politician who refuses to keep us alive, who keeps us poor while having anything they want must go. Any politician who inflicts pain, but doesn’t experience pain must be removed — by emplacement or the vote.

When we’re all in the same boat, and all have oars to paddle, we’ll get some motion for all of America. Democracy can’t afford a ruling class. 

Resisting in Peace,
John

The Day The Republican Party Died

Apparently, we stand, once again, at the precipice of large swaths of our population losing their health care. If that happens, if the Republicans do this thing based on the passage of the House bill, it will mark the end of the Republican Party.  Not “the Republican Party as we know it”, but the actual Republican Party. Let’s do the numbers: if only 12% of the population want the bill, no one voting voting for it can say they “did it for their base”. The base in question has to be a majority of voters, and that’s not it. Simply by virtue of the voting booth, no Republican can win. How hard is it to run against the person that voted to speed your parents’ or child’s death? How hard could it possibly be to vote against someone who voted against people’s existence

If one wants to talk about Republican/conservative values, how much liberty can there be if there is less life? How much pursuit of happiness can there be if your loved ones die?  The bill would threaten the lives of seniors who vote, who were promised Medicare would remain safe. It would threaten the lives of the mentally ill, because that’s who Medicare pays to now. In the midst of an “opioid crisis”, that seems like a great plan. So, yes, it will rid the streets of addicts and the crime they contribute to,  but not before addicted and/or mentally ill people attack leaders out of their desperation.  There will be riots in the streets if the bill passes. It’s hard enough in this country to convince people that peaceful protest is valid  now.  Desperate people are a lot less inclined to be thoughtful. If the Congress survives that, voters will be heard in 2018. 

If they survive this, I –and many others — will make it the mission of our dying days to make sure  that no Republican ever gets voted in again. 

So why would anyone be interested in voting for, supporting, or putting forward this bill? I believe that when Donald Trump worked with the Democratic Party, ostensibly saying “because Republicans can’t do it”, Mr. McConnell set out to prove to Trump that they could. That’s why the rush. Republicans trying to get this bill passed hate Democrats so much that they have forgotten the people who elected them, the millions of people who make up America.

The Republicans can pass the bill if they have the votes, but it will be signing their own suicide note.
Resisting in Peace,
John

God Calls To Us From The Storm

There many, many people who look at a storm like Harvey and wonder where God is. The biblical witness is that God spoke to  people often from a cloud: as protection for the Hebrews seeking freedom, as a divider between those who would hurt God’s people and those who care for God’s people.

There are those who believe we “have dominion over” nature, and that means we are above it. The hurricane in Houston has tossed out any notion that human beings are bigger than the world around them. Having a brain, or being human, doesn’t make us more important than the land. It doesn’t make us dominant. It makes us caretakers.

Houston is no different. As it cuts a path of devastating destruction of that city, it also makes plain the distortions of the gospel we have lived under that have made this possible. This isn’t about nature, it’s about us.

Texas, being a border state, is literally on the front lines of immigration policy. For greater than a year now, Donald Trump has talked about “Building That Wall”, separating ourselves from the alien, the stranger, the sojourner in our land. Long before Trump, however, we have been building walls between ourselves — or thinking we could. People on one random side of a piece of land are not better that people on the other side.

There are people who would tell us that “The Chosen” can be identified by their wealth. They will tell you that God makes the “good” people wealthy and keeps the “bad” people poor. Those who actually care what God thinks would say, “That sounds a lot like you talking, not God.” People heard what they wanted to hear. They proclaimed Joel Osteen a “Christian”, a prophet, a true model of what it means to believe. Harvey has shown him for what he is — twice, I think, though I can’t be sure. The first news was that his “church”, which used to be a football field, wasn’t letting people in. There was some fuss, and his people tried to explain that the church was affected as well. The shelters were twice as full as they could be. Mr. Olsteen said, “we’ll let people in when the shelters are full”. This was not a man who wanted to help the people around him.  Since Jesus’ main calls are to “Love God and Love our neighbors as ourselves”, (about which Fredrick Buechner says “to one is to do the other”), Mr. Olsteen has proven that his theology is about him, not God. Prosperity, then, is not a sign of being chosen. Rich people are not better people than poor ones. [I understand now that Mr. Olsteen may have been misunderstood here, but the moral still holds]

There are — and there always have been — people who will tell you that Other-thanWhite people are of less worth than White people. They will say that “to the victor goes the spoils” and since our White ancestors were able to defeat/take Black slaves, they must be better or smarter people.  They will say that their positions of power mean that God chose them, and whatever they say goes.  They start with the premise that White people are better, and, not surprisingly, they come to the same conclusion in the end. When God took the slaves out of Egypt, as we believe, it’s not because the Egyptians were better people than the slaves.  Pharaoh was clearly in power, but that did not make him right. Nazis said the same thing to Jews. Their power did not make them right. When Americans imprisoned Japanese citizens in World War II, it did not prove White Superiority. Power is a responsibility to others, not a free pass to avoid or abuse them. Skin color does not make people better or worse. It’s a color, not a destiny. Powerful people are not different, and certainly not better, than the people they have power over.  

There are those who believe we are not responsible for our brothers’ or sisters’ welfare.  “Freedom”, they insist (especially the freedom to make money without being told “no”) — is more important than the welfare of others. As a chemical plant blows up for the fifth time, we see that there is no zoning (a restriction on business) and no accountability (a budgetary thing requiring thing requiring taxes) which would let people know what’s there, are now costing lives. Lack of a social contract doesn’t separate us. 

The hurricane in Houston has tossed out any notion that human beings are bigger than the world around them. Having a brain, or being human, doesn’t make us more important than the land.

So, what have we learned from this? What does God say to us from the clouds over Houston? God is bigger than us. The environment is more powerful than we are. And when all is said and done, nothing separates us but us — certainly not GodWhen we pull together as one race of humans, things get done. When we separate ourselves, we weaken ourselves and our ability to cope with the extraordinary circumstances that God witnesses every day. When we believe that God says one group is better than another, things fall apart and nothing gets done. When we believe that our “freedom” is hurt by thinking about the needs of others, we are still connected.

There is no better or worse among us. The only “better” is God, and the only “worse” is us. That’s the only hierarchy that matters. There are no “deserving” people and “undeserving” people. There are only people, who have to live under the laws of nature, who live and die when the water is too high, or when chemicals burn their lungs. There are only people who rescue and people who don’t. No one refused help from a drag queen in a boat, or a Mexican man in a helicopter or a Black man or woman in the National Guard. No one checked the genitalia of the person who rescued their kids. No one had a problem sharing dry shelter with gospel choirs. No one worried that ISIS or anti fa or democrats or republicans meant them harm, No one cared about the politics of someone who gave them food.  No one turned away from shelter in a synagogue or temple or Christian Science reading room.

God spoke to us from the clouds of Houston, reminding us to be humble, not prideful. God reminds us that we all need each other, that none is more important than another, and that people who care are morally superior to those who refuse to. When we are all on the road to Jericho, it is the one who loves their neighbor that God favors, not the rich, the powerful, the pious. God has spoken from the clouds of Houston, May we all listen.

Resisting with Peace,
John

 

 

 

What To Do? What To Do?

It is one of the tenets of pacifism that violence begets violence.  Clearly, there are people on the far right who have violence in their soul and we have seen their behavior. By “the far right”, I mean people listed below. There are lots of people who are center-right, or at least there were pre-Reagan. Yes, it’s been that long.

Let me be clear here: neo-Nazis, the KKK, and White Supremacists and any administration that supports them are hateful, and I abhor their behavior and their rhetoric. Period. Full stop.

Ok. That said, I worry that anger — even righteous anger — might become hateful rhetoric and hateful speech. I don’t know what to say about the tearing down of statues by a mob, for a number of philosophical reasons, but I’m against the defacing of public property or art or historical statues. I will acknowledge that I don’t feel oppressed by them, and that bias may disqualify parts of my argument. I was always taught that Totalitarian regimes are all the same: They want to control everything… tell their story in glory and begin by removing everyone else’s. I swear with every fiber of my being: we don’t want to go down that path.

I think that if we delete history, we can’t learn from it.  Twenty years from now, if all the statues of the Civil War are removed, some young person will deny that the Civil War ever happened, and say that there were never slaves in America, because “Americans could never be that mean. We’re too decent for that”.  We’re not too decent for that. We need to always remember that evil can be a part of the human condition — even the American human condition. 

Besides the history part, there’s the “art” part. If we can tear down one form of art (statues) because it offends us, what’s to say we can’t tear down any art? Who determines? Any tactic that Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Hitler and ISIS use is not something a civilized country should be doing. 

So what to do? As I understand it, the mayor of Charlottesville was not “taking down” a statue of Robert E. Lee. He was, after lengthy discussion, moving it to another park, and putting it next to another statue to add context. More perspective, more facts, more history is never a bad thing. 

(To be honest, like the statue of the little girl in front of the “Market Bull” with her hand out,  surrounding the Lee statue with statues of slaves giving it “the finger” would seem like appropriate context to me.  I don’t think Jesus would agree, however, so that’s out.) In any case, there’s always more than one choice on how to respond to things. Deciding just using rage, with no intellect at all, is a bad idea most of the time. We need to avoid that.

So, what is a Christian response to the hateful people at Charlottesville? Jesus says we are supposed to “love our enemies and pray for those that persecute you”. I know that’s the goal, but I’m not there yet — right now, not even close. As a temporary measure, though, and one even non-Christians can do, I can love their enemies. Here’s my proposal: For every time that people are bullied, abused, threatened, demeaned or killed by a hateful person, we should support the person (or someone else like them in the case of killing) at least twice. 

For instance, if a Jewish cemetery has ten graves destroyed, we should attend twenty synagogues to further our support. An Asian man is threatened with internment? We should guarantee his safety for twice the length of his possible jail term. If somebody insults a woman, the woman should get two hugs immediately afterwards. Fifty gay people shot in Orlando? One hundred Pride parades ought to help. An African-American is killed, society should take care of the person’s children twice as long as the person remains dead. 

To practice this, let me use a real case. Last week, Rev. Traci Blackmon was in a church praying when a thousand guys showed up with tiki torches lit, scaring the daylights out of her. For every idiot with a torch, we should do two kind things for her, another African-American, woman, or pastor. Two thousand acts of kindness for her or in her name ought to balance things out a bit. 

As I think about it, democracy being a relationship, psychology might have something to say. John Gottman, a world famous couples therapist, says that in order for a marriage to work, for every one negative experience, there must be at least five positive ones! Think about that! One hundred supportive acts for the synagogue, 5 periods of safety for the threatened Asian man, 5 hugs for the verbally abused woman, 250 Pride parades for every gay murder, 5 lifetimes of support for the families of lynching victims, and 5,000 acts of kindness for Traci Blackmon or for African-Americans, women, or pastors! 

Yesterday’s event in Boston is a good start, it seems to me, but there’s still a lot of kindness needed to keep democracy afloat. We should get to work on that now.
Resisting with Peace,

John