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Archive for February, 2011

Jesus said that in order for us to enter the Kingdom of God, we had to become like little children. In our modern society, we have a tendency to interpret this as being innocent, full of faith, and having a love of life. However, if we look back at the ancient world, this was not the way they viewed children. Much of the ancient world did not see children as the little, sweet, precious blessings from God. They saw them as little to nothing. In fact, in much of the ancient world, the children would have been allowed to be sacrificed up to a certain age with no real qualms from the community. Though this was not practiced in Ancient Israel, children were not viewed with much value. Perhaps, this is why the disciples forbid the children from coming to Jesus.

It must have shocked them when Jesus said that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, you have to become like a child. The statement doesn’t have the same effect in our culture; we worship youth and our warmest love is often reserved for our children. However, Jesus was telling them they had to becoming nothing; they had to move from a position of power to a position of powerlessness. If you study the history of the Christian church, this is where the message of Jesus really first took off-among the powerless: the slaves, outcasts, sick, and poor. Jesus was telling us that in order to really share in him and his vision for the world, we have to release ourselves of our own pride and self-reliance and come with empty hands running into his arms.

How does this apply today? On a social level, Jesus identifies especially strongly with the outcasts and the powerless, the poor, the sick, and the immigrant. When we identify and favor these groups, we are simply following in the path of Jesus. When we disregard these groups, we are ignoring and rejecting the face of Jesus in front of us. On a more spiritual level, we have to be willing to give up the notions of our own power, goodness, and worth and trust in the transformative, redemptive love of our Savior who gave himself for the sins of the world.

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Sometimes people believe certain ideas no matter what proof and evidence proves that it is inaccurate or wrong. A perfect example of this is the theory of trickle-down economics or “Reganomics” which George H.W. Bush once described as voodoo economics. He was straight on, because it has no basis in reality.

The basic idea is that if you let the outrageously rich people keep most of their money, it will actually greatly help out the poor and middle class. Though you may have to cut the benefits for the lower classes, with more money in the hands of the rich, more jobs and opportunities will be given to the poor eventually. George W. Bush greatly subscribed to this belief, and it was his basis for his large tax reductions for the rich. However, as we have seen, since the Bush tax cuts and an increase in trickle-down economics, there has been a huge rise of unemployment, an even greater increase in income disparity, an outrageous deficit, less innovation and entrepreneurship, and overall economic decline. Trickle-down economics has been tried and it has been found wanting. More than being found wanting, it has shown to be an immoral system that hurts the bottom 98 percent at the expense of the rich and powerful in power.

However, many conservatives will hold to this theory no matter what. We heard it in the last tax debates- “Just give tax cuts to the rich and the economy will grow.” There is no proof to this, but proof and evidence is irrelevant to the true believers in trickle-down economics. There is no point to even have a rational argument about it. Reagan economics is like an irrational and false religion; it has disastrous effects, because those who are dedicated to its cause will spread its ideas no matter what basis it has in reality. I love how one of the richest man in America, Warren Buffet, put it, ““The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you, but that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on.”

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We are always in the process of wanting something more; that is what our economy thrives on. It thrives on people not being satisfied with what they have. There is always a better house, a bigger car, a grander vacation, and a better club membership. Is this perhaps this reason why we have allowed our society disintegrate to a point where the gap between the rich and the poor is too great to even compromise? In this modern age, we have more than enough food, supplies, and clothing to meet the needs of everyone on the planet. However, the greed for more has led much of us in the west to bathe in excess while others are starving around the world.

While we know we are doing a disservice to those poor and oppressed people around the globe, are we not also doing a disservice to the rich and wealthy? We are feeding their greed-and it is something that can never be satisfied. Perhaps, this is the reason why the richest tend to give the smallest percentage of their salary to charity. Wealth, just like poverty, can bring enslavement. It creates an unsatisfied feeling in our souls that does not allow us to be happy with the simple blessings we encounter everyday. Maybe that is why the Bible so wisely states that is preferable to be neither rich nor poor.

Would having less and living more simply actually make us happier and more satisfied with our lives? Would it allow us to live in a form of community which we so often miss in our western culture? I love how the author Jamaica Kinkaid put it, “This calamity calls for a simple life; eating true food that has been grown for someone I know or someone who doesn’t live too far away from me; better would be growing it myself; wearing the same things over and over again, making the old clothes new, wearing the old clothes as if they were new; living in a sturdy dwelling that doesn’t cost too much as it accommodates the elements; walking more and driving less; finding delight in the things right next to me; minimizing conflict by accepting the person next to me, even if the person next to me is completely stupid. All of that I can do.” Perhaps, going back to a simpler life would not only create more justice, less poverty and hunger, and a more peaceful world, it also could allow us to be happier from the snare of always wanting more.

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The disturbing trend that has taken power away from workers and given it to the rich and powerful is nothing new in U.S. History. In the late 1800’s it was called the Gilded Age or the Second Industrial Revolution. The leaders of industry were making insane sums of money while their workers were barely being able to support their families. As a result of this, the labor and progressive movements really took off in the nation. The masses finally realized they had power in numbers. Presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt start to limit the power of big business and gave more rights to the common worker. Another example of this was in the 20’s with its excess and the 30’s with the economic downfall that followed. The working and middle classes had enough of the excess wealth and inequality in society and decided to make major changes. They elected FDR who gave much more power to labor unions and also help the stage for the many social programs and business regulations we have today.

Today, we are faced with a similar struggle. Since the 1980’s with the election of Ronald Reagan the country has gone further and further in favor of business leaders and the wealthy and taken away more and more rights, opportunities, and wealth from the middle and lower classes. In fact, the income disparity now is the greatest it has been since the 1920’s. Perhaps, it is time for another age of progressive and labor movements. Those in power will listen if enough people rise up against the greed that has come to define our system. As we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia, the masses do have power in numbers. It is time to quit buying into the lies, fears, and false promises of those seeking to enrich their own wealth. Let us follow the path of history and limit the power and strength of the modern day robber barons. As the famous Labor Leader, John Lewis, so greatly stated, “Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.”

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Did you know Ancient Israel had a form of welfare, debt cancelation, and a complete redistribution of land? If you find yourself studying the ancient world, you will find that the nation of Israel had a care for the poor and a sense of economic justice far beyond most nations of the day, and I would contend more than most today.

According to the Torah, 1/3 of all the tithes in the country went to help out “the aliens, the fatherless, and the widows.” In a time in history where most poor and needy were left to die or fend for themselves, ancient Israel was commanded to help out the poor and needy among them. Amazing, even by today’s standards, all debts were forgiven every seventh year. Debt was considered a form of slavery, and the idea of people living their whole lives paying off debts to others was not considered congruent with justice. Any collateral “deposit” that needed to be taken for the land was also given back to the original owner whether he had paid back all the debts or not.

All the landowners were required to allow the poor among them to gather some of the crops from their land. The land owners were not allowed to take up all of their own crops; that would have been considered unjust towards the poor and immigrants among them.

The most amazing and revolutionary idea was the concept of Jubilee; every 50 years, all land had to go back to the original family and tribes that originally owned the land when the Israelites had come out of Egypt. No matter what had happened economically, whether you had done very well or very poorly, every 50 years the land would be redistributed so that every family and tribe was a given a fair chance to start again. Can you imagine this happening today? Every 50 years there is a massive redistribution; the rich have land taken from them, and the poor and needy have land given back to their family.

I have been reading this book called Generous Justice by Tim Keller which is really a great read and deals greatly with this subject. Keller states in his book, “The poor man was not to be given merely a token “handout.” Rather, credit and help were to be extended until he was completely out of poverty. The generosity extended to the poor could not be cut off until the poor person’s need was gone and until he reached a level of self-sufficiency. Now we can understand how the passage could say, “There should be no poor among you.” God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass.” Perhaps if our society practiced just a small portion of this we wouldn’t have the disgusting inequality and injustice that so often prevail.

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For all the wonderful things about Costa Rica, the dedication to peace and the fame of having no army, universal healthcare coverage, a widespread public transportation system, and a dedication to human rights, there is one thing that is a large problem-the exploitation of the worker. The minimum wage for domestic employees stands at about ¼ that of the minimum wage of the U.S., even though prices here are not much cheaper. It has been recently reported that 40% of employers don’t even pay their employees this very low minimum wage. Though many companies charge the same or higher prices for goods and services, many pay their employees crumbs.

After living in Costa Rica, this exploitation and disregard for the worker tends to rub off on you. One of the most poignant examples is the treatment of the guachiman in Costa Rica. Wachiman are individuals who watch your car on the side of the road to try and prevent them for being robbed. Though they certainly would not stop anyone really trying to rob your car, they do provide some type of deterrent. It is certainly not a highly respected job and many people give the bare minimum to the wachiman in return-something to the tune of 40 to 60 cents. I have found myself in this position as well. I might think, “he hasn’t really done anything”, “I never asked him to watch my car.”; however, I hear another voice calling out to me that says, “Woe to those who oppress the workers.” I see my own greed for what it really is.

The bible clearly speaks harsh language to those oppress their workers. What does this mean? Well on one level, there are government policies that seek to take away worker’s rights and privileges- I believe this is what is greatly happening now in many countries around the world. Conservative policy allows owners to make a killing, while the worker barely suffers to make a living. People who preach “biblical” values are often the ones that push for exploitation of the worker-something which is a very sad irony. I think a very clear example of this are the actions of the new U.S. Congress.

 There are also business owners and CEO’s who need to be careful in this area. They can be easily guilty of exploiting workers for their own greed. However, we should not be foolish enough to think this issue of exploitation only applies to business leaders and politicians; this applies to all of us. How do we pay the woman who really needs help who helps clean our house once a week, the person that mows our lawn when we are out of town, or the man working his third job as paperboy just to make ends meet? How do we treat the people who are helping us? Do we go along with the rest of the society and treat the “lowly” jobs without respect and an exploitative mindset, or do we do our best to create a more just society from the bottom up?

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Have you ever pre-judged someone in your head and then found out the truth which in turn made you feel very small and ashamed? This happened to me Friday with one of my student’s parents. He was an individual from the United States, and he had come into my class to ask about his 6th grade son’s projects; however, the man looked like he was already in his 80’s. I automatically made a stereotype about him that looked something like this- This man is pathetic. He obviously married some very young Costa Rican when he was in his 60’s or 70’s and decided to still have more kids even though he probably won’t live long enough to see them graduate high school. Why can’t he just settle down with someone his own age and retire; does he know how pathetic he makes other people from the U.S. look.

Old men coming down to be with young Latin women is certainly a very widespread phenomenon in Costa Rica, and so I assumed that this was just an extreme example of that phenomenon. However, as I was talking to the man; he said something that set me back. His wife had adopted two boys, because they had absolutely no where to go. They had to have been in at least their early 60’s when this happened. I all of a sudden felt a wave of guilt overtake me. How quick am I to judge? This man was not some divorced retiree who wanted to relive his youth; he was a man who had been willing to make a huge sacrifice at an old age to give two children a home. It is something that is simply astonishing and amazing to think about.

We all have stereotypes about people around us. It could be people we have just met or people that we have known for quite a while. However, maybe we need to set back and realize that we might not know the whole story. We may assume that the person struggling with the addiction is just a selfish imbecil, but maybe they have gone through pain in their life that we cannot even comprehend. Perhaps it is the co-worker who seems to always be in a bad mood. We may think he is just a miserable person, but he may be going through a divorce, death in the family, or terminal illness. We love to judge, but there is usually something behind the story that will alter our perception, or in many case, it could completely reverse and destroy any stereotype we have built up.

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