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John_the_BaptistIn the book of Luke, John the Baptist is in the wilderness baptizing people and calling them to follow the path of repentance. The people were touched by his message and wanted to know what a real change in their life would look like. John responded by telling them that if they had two coats to give the other away and to do the same with their food.

John hits on a common theme that is found throughout the Gospels, the accumulation and hoarding of wealth and possessions is immoral. It is a pretty shocking thought in our western world, where the more that we are able to obtain is seen as being more blessed. However, the Gospels call us to a different road which is radically and uncomfortably different than the materialistic values we have come to accept.

Excess of goods is wrong for a number of reasons. For one, it causes us to take our eyes away from God and instead put our faith and hope in what we have obtained. We cannot have an excess of possessions without beginning to serve and even worship them. This is why studies have shown that overall the more wealth people have, the lower percentage they give away. Wealth has a way of creating a level of greed that we are unable to begin to comprehend.

Excess is also wrong because it means that one person has much more than they need, while another person does not have their basic needs met. On a personal and society level, we should be concerned that everyone has their needs of clothing, food, shelter, and health met. It is shameful for a society to have such excess of wealth and still have people who are barely struggling to get by. Such a society reflects one that has not taken the real message of repentance seriously.

 

This is a truth that we are so unwilling to accept because it goes against everything that is taught to us in our capitalistic culture. What I have earned is mine, and I deserve it. However, that is not the message that John taught, neither is it the message that Jesus taught. They taught that in order for us to really follow the message of the Kingdom of God we have to renounce excess and live a life where those without are granted true societal justice.

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0701_010501In the late 19th Century, the U.S. was going through an Era which Mark Twain famously termed the “Gilded Age”. It was an age where government and business acted as one against the rights of the workers and consumers. It was an age of overwhelming corruption where monopolies and trusts controlled the Congress and government regulation was almost non-existent.

However, there became a strong movement against this beginning with the Populist and Labor Movements and later on taking root in the Progressive Movement. People realized that the corrupt system where a few profited while the majority suffered could simply not continue. There needed to be major reforms: worker’s rights, an end to child labor, consumer protections, industrial regulations, and destruction of harmful monopolies.

Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson are considered the three progressive presidents. However, the real source of change came from the grassroots movements which were willing to face enormous odds and stand up to a system that was so deeply corrupt that it seemed impossible to change. Because those individuals did stand up for the rights of the common people, some of the worst excesses of the Capitalist system were tamed. The fact that we have a limit on our work week, some type of government oversight of our food and medicine, and basic safety standards is due largely to the Progressive Era.

The problem is that we have forgotten about the progressive reforms which were made. We have taken them for granted. We are slowly drifting back into another Gilded Age where the rights of the workers and consumers are stripped, and a powerful oligarchy (just think of the Koch brothers) is taking control of the nation. Amazingly, there are many in the middle and working class which are indifferent and even applauding of these changes. There is no memory of what life was like before some people had the courage to taken on the corporatized system of 19th Century America. However, if we do not choose to look back we should not be surprised if we find ourselves losing all the gains that our ancestors worked so hard to claim.

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download (2)For some reason, once again Hillary Clinton has been “deemed” the front runner for the Democratic nomination in the next presidential election. While I think she is a wonderful individual on many levels, I think she is a very poor choice for president in 2016. What the party needs is a strong, economically progressive fighter, not a moderate who will be bought out by corporate money.

The party needs someone like Elizabeth Warren. It does not necessarily have to be her, but it should be someone like her who actually stands up for real economic reform that seeks to protect the consumer, middle class, and poor against the exploitation of the wealthy elite and Wall Street interests. We need someone who is going to stand for the students in the growing student loan crisis. We need someone is going to say enough to bank executives getting away with massive fraud and receiving a little less than a slap on the hand.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton represents the establishment middle that has bowed again and again to corporate interests. Clinton actually once served on the board of directors of Wal-Mart. Her husband, despite his large popularity, played a vital role in our current economic woes by championing deregulation and free trade. Hilary Clinton has already spoken at Goldman Sachs for large sums of money. Is that really someone we think is going to stand up to the banking elite in the society?

We need someone who is going to go beyond platitudes to workers, women, LGBT individuals, and minorities. We need an individual who will actually fight the real economic battles which the majority of the population is currently losing to the interest of en elite few. The Democrats don’t need a candidate who banks are already lining up to donate to. We need someone who the banks and corporate interests are scared of, someone who will actually hold them accountable. We need an Elizabeth Warren or someone like her with strong sense of economic justice.

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downloadSouth Carolina is a state with the 6th highest rate of gun related deaths in the nation. If you turn on the local news, there is story after heartbreaking story of needless gun deaths. Just this past month, there was a tragic shooting at South Carolina State University. In the midst of the violence, so many innocent children and bystanders often stand in the way of a stray bullet.

I remember talking to my wife’s uncle whose sister had once actually lived in the city I currently reside, Greenville, SC. She was sleeping in bed one night, and a stray bullet shot through her wall and killed her instantly. There are so many tragic stories that you might expect in an undeveloped third world nation, not in a developed nation that has more than enough resources to deal with these issues. However, no matter how bad the violence becomes, there are still those who will push blind ideology of the necessity of less gun restrictions over common sense which could actually save lives.

One of the most egregious examples is a new law in South Carolina which would allow people to carry guns in restaurants and even bars. Again, if even a shred of common sense was used, it would be obvious that people carrying guns in bars is not a healthy solution to the large rates of violence in the state. It is very easy for a simple fist fight to escalate into a deadly confrontation. It is a chosen ignorance that refuses to see the horrific effects that gun violence is producing throughout the state, especially in poor communities.

As inner-city leaders in the state are trying to encourage young people to put down their guns, the governor of the state has the shame of publishing pictures of herself at the shooting range and signing the law to allow guns in bars. It might win her points with some conservative members in the state, but it is a betrayal of the values she should be representing. I am one South Carolinian who is fed up with a government that puts extremist ideology ahead of the safety and the good of the people. As a state we already have enough issues without adding a chosen and deadly ignorance to the mix.

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downloadThere has been an idea in the United States going back to at least the 19th Century that if an individual works hard, they can move themselves out of poverty and up the economic ladder. These stories were popularized by writers such as Horatio Alger and became used as a justification for the inequalities that the capitalist system produces. Anyone could become wealthy and successful if they just tried hard enough.

There is no doubt that there have been cases where this has happened. There have been people who grow up in working class or poor families who become extremely wealthy. Andrew Carnegie was the best example of this back in the mid-1800s. However, what we need to realize is that these individuals are the extremely small exception to the rule. Most people born into wealth stay wealthy, and most people born into poverty stay poor. Those who do go from rags to riches usually had a brilliant streak of being at the right place at the right time, as hard work alone cannot account for the change.

This myth that if you work hard, you can become wealthy has always been overstated in the United States. It was exaggerated in the Gilded Age, and it is exaggerated now. In fact, among major developed nations, only the United Kingdom and Italy have less economic mobility than the United States. Any economic mobility we do have is almost exclusively because of public education, government college assistance, and programs to support low and middle-income families. Of course, these are programs that those on the right want to reduce or cut out completely.

While the rags to riches stories may be motivational, they are dangerous if they distort the true social realities and the extreme difficulties of economic mobility. They also can be damaging because they distract from a focus on building a better society to an individualistic dream of excessive wealth.  We do not need to hear more rags to riches stories; we need to see a society where all people are given real tools to succeed and where a nation’s success is shared by all not just a wealthy few.

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2What would happen if people started just staying in stranger’s houses, shared food with them, and learned lessons from individuals from all over the world? This is the opportunity that my wife and I have had for the last year through Couchsurfing both staying with other people and having people stay in our home.

Last summer, Raquel and I were planning to go to New York for a few days. However, we soon realized how expensive it is to stay in a city like New York, even in the cheap hostel, it was easily 100 dollars a night between the two of us. We looked at different options, and then I remembered this organization called Couchsurfing which a friend had told me about, where you stay at people’s houses for free. It seemed abit strange, like some kind of hippy experiment, but we decided to give it a try.

We joined the website, set up our profile, and started looking for people to stay with. Since we had just joined and did not have any recommendations yet, it was a little hard to find someone who would host us, but finally, a man named John, who was a medical researcher let us stay in his house in Brooklyn. The first night we were a little nervous. I mean, who in their right mind just goes and stays with a complete stranger? However, when we got there, John welcomed us in like we were long lost friends; he even gave us his bed, and he slept on the couch. We ended up staying with John for four days. We really hit it off well. We went out with him and our friend Marcella who first introduced us to couchsurfing. We cooked together, drank his homemade beer, and spent hours talking. It was an amazing experience.

When we returned to Costa Rica last fall, we decided that we should return the favor and start hosting people in our apartment. We have had people from Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Slovakia, India, France, Spain, Argentina, Switzerland, Finland, England, and the U.S. We have created great friends, had great conversations, and learned a lot from others. However, more importantly, I feel that we have grown as individuals.

This past summer, we took a road trip out west and all along the way we stayed with people from Couchsurfing. We stayed with people as young as 21 all the way up to people in their 60’s. We stayed with couchsurfers in Mobile, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Columbia, Missiouri, and Lexington, Kentucky.You are able to experience so much more than when you are just staying in a hotel. In San Diego, we were able to meet great friends Chayo and Edo who had just come back from studying in China. We stayed with them the night when they were having their house warming party, so we were able to meet many of their friends from around the area. In El Paso, we stayed with a man named Russ, who had hosted over 250 couchsurfers. He prepared a wonderful meal of salmon, beans, and fries, and told us about his experiences as a young man when he worked in the Fiji Islands. We stayed with Vanessa and Robert in Las Vegas. They showed us the Las Vegas outside of the tourist traps and modeled the real spirit of hospitality that couchsurfing is suppose to represent.

Organizations like couchsurfing allow people to break out of their normal comfort zones. It forces you to trust other people. We have given people our keys, controls, and we even let one couple stay at our house on the weekend, taking care of our dog while we went to the beach. It also shows that people from all around the world can come together and connect around something that is not based on money, profit, or exploitation. It is about sharing your resources and getting to really know people in the area you are visiting. For my wife and I, couchsurfing has really been transformative in our lives. We hope to continue on as we move to South Carolina. Couchsurfing is something that is so completely outside the norms of the consumerist society, and that is exactly what is so great about it.

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3I do not want to personally judge Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney. They might be good people who are simply clueless of the realities that common people in the country face. They may have been surrounded by wealth and those with wealth for so long, that they simply are ignorant to the struggles of working and middle class families.

Though individually they might not be bad people, what they symbolize is an aristocratic money drenched class that continues to rule the country for the good of the few at the expense of the many. Romney’s father was a multi-millionaire and former governor of the state of Michigan, and it seems that his son was able to easily slip into the shoes that his father left him. That is not to say that Romney did not have to work at all to get where he did, he surely did. However, he was given so many more opportunities to succeed than 99.99% of the population. Instead of simply acknowledging that however, Romney often paints himself as a self-made man, the ultimate erroneous symbol of free market Capitalism.

Romney is a symbol of the reality that money buys power. If you are wealthy, you are automatically given a voice in politics. This is even more blatantly seen in the case of someone like Donald Trump, another son of a millionaire who thinks he has an important voice in the political process, simply because he is extremely wealthy.

Romney is a symbol that wealth and power can simply be given from one generation to the next. He is a symbol of someone who was given everything, and because of it, has little understanding of how common people live. It is like a rich and spoiled child. You might be able to friends with him. You might even like him. However, you wouldn’t want him to be your boss, and certainly wouldn’t want him to be your president. The reality is that they have no way to empathize with you and your struggles.

At the end of the day, that is the biggest problem with Romney. Though he might want to empathize with the common person, he simply can’t. He was given everything because of the family he was born into, and he can’t see beyond those aristocratic upbringings to work for the rights and good of the common man.

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