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Archive for November, 2010

Perhaps you think I am going out on a limb, but I think the famous story that Jesus told of the Rich man and Lazarus has a very ironic or even comical element to it, while driving home a very important point in terms of our modern society, political concerns, and inequality.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus has been used over and over again by preachers and evangelists to drive home the point of literal flames of hell. I remember this story use to scare me to death when I was a young. However, it has turned out to be one of my favorite parables that Jesus ever told. Essentially, there are two men- the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man has everything in his life, and Lazarus has nothing. In fact, Lazarus just waits outside of the rich man’s gate begging for food. When they die, the rich man goes to hell, and Lazarus goes to heaven. The rich man is so hot and in so much pain that he asks Abraham to send the poor man down into hell with some water on his finger to help cool his misery. I use to read this over without even thinking about it. But just think about a second….the rich man wanted Lazarus to come down into hell so that he could feel some comfort. Even in death, he never got over his disdain for Lazarus, he still saw him as worthless and someone who was just there to serve him. I think Jesus was trying to place an insult right in the faces of the rich and powerful of his day; they were the rich man who had so little regard for the poor man that even in the afterlife, he was asking them to go through hell to comfort them. It was a type of bitter irony or maybe we could say dark comedy.

There is no question that this story applies so much for today. We lose much of this story if we are taking it literally, rather than taking it in the symbolic and powerful way it should be interpreted. The story is not about that the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven. It is about how we treat the poor and needy in our society.  How do we treat those who have been laid off or uninsured? How do we treat the orphans, the widows, and the immigrants (legal and illegal) in our land? It often seems that the more wealth we obtain the more dismissive and agitated we become with the poor. The almost comical disdain the rich man has for the poor must be watched for in our own lives. In the wealthy western world, we are very much representative of the Rich men, yet there are Lazarus’s all around the world who we often just forget about or write off. We can either choose to be kind, generous, and pursuers of justice or we can have be disdainful of them and reap our own destruction. There is no doubt that is a huge issue, not only from a personal perspective, but also from a political and social perspective. Let’s make sure we are not electing “rich men” into our offices who simply pass by with disdain the needy and helpless among us. Let’s not gain our world of wealth and yet at the same time lose our passion, values, and soul.

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I know on this blog that I mainly deal with the issues pertaining to the United States and its politics. Much of that is due to my own background, the audience I am writing to, and my own job as a U.S. History Teacher. However, I think there is a great danger in putting the hope of the world or even this generation on the shoulders of the United States. The world was around way before the United States was formed, and it can continue to go on regardless of what happens in the United States.

This does not mean that I don’t love my country. The U.S. has contributed much to the world with so many of its ideas and ideals. The U.S. was one of the first nations in the world that really supported ideas like the freedom of religion, freedom of conscious, and democracy. I think many of the founding fathers such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison were brilliant and visionary individuals. However, I do think there is a tendency from Americans to associate the fate of the United States with the fate of the whole world, and this is greatly damaging and incorrect.

The United States is only one of many nations, and we should never put our hope or give our complete allegiance to any one nation, tribe, or society. From a Christian point of view, our ultimate loyalty should be the Kingdom of God and its values. You can love your nation without giving it too high of a value. The United States has justified many of its actions in History with this idea of American exceptionalism, whether it was the idea of Manifest Destiny ( that it was God’s plan for us to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific) which propelled us to start wars with Native American tribes and the Mexicans, using third world nations and populations as pawns in our battles with the Soviets, or in our modern War on Terror where we automatically see our side as the side of good, justice, and freedom.

It is easy to blow things out of proportion; I am sure I have done this from time to time on this blog as well. However, ultimately the future of the world does not rest in the U.S. hands, the kingdom of God extends much further than Virginia to California, and humanity is much more important than any one nation. For all the Americans reading this blog; love your country, support your country when it is standing for the cause of justice, oppose the country when it is doing wrong, but ultimately live with a gaze beyond a disappointing and disillusioning nationalism; it will certainly let you down and disappoint. Instead, put your hope in a kingdom that spreads beyond any one country or nation and focus your time and attention less on the blessing of one nation and more of the blessing of the entire world.

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We already know that our growing economic inequality is hurting us socially, economically, educationally, culturally. However, I would also contend that it is hurting us spiritually. From the start, allowing our country to become so unequal shows a great spiritual problem from the start. It shows misplaced priorities, greed, and corruption that often rule our systems of government and society. It shows a disdain for the poor and needy and an unhealthy love of money, which the Bible calls the root of all evil.

How does this inequality damage the spirituality of the rich. Well, studies have shown that the richer a person is, the less likely they are to be generous with their income. It is almost as if the more you earn, the more scared you are to let go of that wealth. It also often leads to great pride and feelings of superiority. You are doing so much better than the rest of society, so it must have been because of something you have done or because of your superiority to another group of people. It usually also leads to a false hope in possessions and less trust and faith in God. As it says in the gospels, it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

How does this inequality damage the poor? For one, it often gives them little time to be able to grow in their relationship with God, because they have to focus all their energy and effort on just making ends meet. It also leads to a more of a propensity towards crime and illegal activities. If the system is unjust and is shutting you out, then you have to find a way to make things work outside of the system. This can be seen greatly in the country I live in, Costa Rica. There is such a wide gap between the rich and the poor, and therefore there is a lot more crime, robbery, etc. People feel that they have been cheated in the economic system, so it gives them little incentive not to cheat and hurt other people in return. While I am not justifying the behavior, I can understand the reasoning and frustration. Also, extreme poverty ultimately results in fewer opportunities for education and personal betterment, which is important for our growth on every level-but especially a spiritually level .Finally, poverty often leads to anger and extreme resentment towards the wealthy.

This is not saying that being middle class is without its problems or that there are not specific areas where the rich and poor can contribute something special to the spiritual journey. However, I think it does indicate that the increasing gap between the rich and the poor is not only a economic issue, but it is a deeply spiritual issue. When you hear about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, remember that the spiritual health of the nation is also at risk and economic greed will ultimately lead to spiritual ruin.  

On the other hand, how could a more egalitarian society help us spiritually? For one, it would break down so many of the barriers that divide us in society; perhaps if the rich spent less time showing disdain and fear towards the poor, and the poor had less reason to show hatred and resentment towards the rich, more peace could flow in society. A more egalitarian society would also eliminate the injustices of having some living in absolute lavish abundance while others are starving. Nothing could be further from the heart of God and of the Kingdom. Finally, a more egalitarian system would free up so much of the time spent on class warfare to actual be spent on pursuing justice and creating a better society. I am not calling for a Communist state, but we have to draw back from this dangerous road of inequality we are heading. Our spiritual future is in the balance. I think Solomon summed it up well when he stated, “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.  Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you   and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

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How about this: we make everyone do a strip search before going on an airplane. That would guarantee that no terrorist can bring explosive materials or weapons through. Why don’t we put up cameras everywhere in the society, so that no one can get away with doing anything illegal?  Let’s make mandatory life sentences for all criminals, so no one would even think about committing a crime.

Perhaps these may seem like extreme examples, but this issue of trading all privacy, freedom, and dignity for a little more safety and security is becoming quite a huge issue. The latest outrage in the nation has been dealing with the issue of the airport screening machines which practically produces a nude silhouette of the individual who goes through them. If you refuse to do the screening, you must go through a mandatory and very intrusive pat down.

The reality is that having a free society guarantees that there will be some crime and violence; it is unavoidable. If measures are put in place to stop any chance of crime or violence, you have a totalitarian state. There is very little crime in countries like Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Iran, but would you really want to live there? Do we want to live in George Orwell’s 1984 society? This trading of dignity to stop terrorism is reaching a disturbing level in our society. We have already justified other horrific actions like waterboarding, a preemptive attack on Iraq, and a complete abandonment of our Constitution in the name of stopping terrorism; do we now have to sacrifice our dignity as well? These full body scans are reprehensible, against the ideals of personal freedom, and a shame. If we don’t stand up and say enough is enough now, it might not be too long before you see mandatory strip searches, 24 hour surveillance, and Orwell’s worst nightmares come to past. In the name of protecting life, we cannot give up the dignity and freedom that make life worth living.

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We always hear about New Year’s resolutions. However, I think this year we should make a Thanksgiving resolution. Perhaps, during this time of year we are sitting back and thinking of a few things that we are grateful for; however, it soon seems like we return back to a an attitude of ingratitude very quickly. We love to complain, and we love to make our lives seem much more difficult and horrible than they really are. I am not trying to downplay the real suffering and trials that people go through; however, in comparison to most of the world’s population and compared to most people’s lives in world history, we have it pretty good. The mere the fact that we get to choose what we want to wear in the morning, that we even have an option for a holiday, that we can eat a hearty meal, and then drive back home in our cars is something that many people in the world could only dream of.

I am proposing making a Thanksgiving resolution. What would happen if each day of the year we decided to write down 4 things we were thankful for every morning, before we start our day and go off to our place of employment or our daily responsibilities? How much happier would we be? How much me grateful and generous would we be with what we have been given? The reality is that they we have is a gift; we don’t deserve our wealth, our opportunities, or other the other blessings that in come in modern life. Once we realize this, our grip on these things becomes much looser and we are able to start sharing our lives and resources with others. Finally, this puts in the right direction with our maker. We become more grateful of the God of all good gifts. Let’s decide each day to live in a position of gratitude and grace.

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Patience is not something we are natural good at. We want what we want right now; we also have a tendency to have very little time for those people trying our nerves. We don’t want to have to wait. This could apply to anything: our material possessions, jobs, opportunities, relationships, etc. Perhaps, it is just the small inconveniences in our lives that get us all bent out of shape. Patience is something we have to learn, and it is often only learned through trial, pain, and failure.

In my life an example of this was my first year teaching.  I let the students try my patience, and I think they wore me out. I was constantly on edge, lost my cool, and in many ways lost control of the class. However, I wouldn’t have changed that experience for the world. The trial and the failure helped me to realize the need for patience and self-control. These important lessons I learned in teaching a high school classroom has helped me out in many additional areas of my life as well. We are so susceptible to putting the full force of our emotions into one small incident or slight only to realize that we have a made a bigger deal out of a situation than we needed to.

Leonardo de Vinci put it this way, ““Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs.” Only through learning patience in the small areas of our life will we be able to deal with the greater trials and suffering that are sure to come. As we seek to understand this fruit of the Spirit, let us ask Jesus to help us grow in this area that even in times of pain and suffering we may experience hope, peace, and yes, even joy.

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