Tuesday, November 29, 2005


What Eight Billion Means to Me

All I could think about was eight billion dollars the whole time Terry Wollen talked about Heifer International. Terry and Judy came to Sunday school to share their experiences in mission work. I guess my mind wandering proves how shallow I really am.

Terry currently works as "Vice President for Animal Welfare" or something for Heifer. You probably already know Heifer as the charity in the business of aiding families in developing countries through grants of livestock. Terry and Judy related wonderful stories from their time in Guatemala. I'd rather heard about their time in Nepal with the "mice-eaters" or those other exotic places they've been. One inch deep, that's me.

Judy told how so many people she met lost mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in the war sponsored by the CIA. (I never did understand how killing peasants in Central America supported vital US interests.) Now that peace has returned to the land, people came down out of their mountain hiding places to try to make lives for themselves. A diet of berries and roots must lose its attraction after a while. Life in a country where vast numbers don't own the resources to buy a chicken bears little resemblance to a life of poverty in the U.S. Here we have food stamps; there they have - well, they don't have anything.

In order to send their children to school, family men often leave home and hearth to seek work in the U.S. This affects perhaps half the poor villagers in the areas where Judy worked. These men face a long, expensive and dangerous journey. They risk arrests, becoming crime victims, hunger, cold and many physical hardships. Just imagine walking frGuatamala to California with only the clothes on your back and less than $100.00. The hardest thing to give up is the home and family; these men miss their wives and children, their brothers and sisters. But they know that real power resides in the ability to read and to compute. They usually cannot read or figure for themselves, but they hope to give their children opportunity to learn.

I hope you're wondering about those eight billion dollars. The president wants to spend eight billion dollars on security for our border with Mexico. In fact, he's spreading that gospel even today as I write this. My thought - good news indeed, if you happen to be in the fence business.

Bob asked how many undocumented workers are in the U.S. Terry said between eight and twelve million. Bob, always quick with math, pointed out those eight billion dollars breaks down to one thousand dollars per worker.

Some discussion ensued. Judy said a little over three hundred dollars of investment keeps the men at home. So, for eight billion dollars of investment in Central America, we could keep around twenty-four million undocumented workers out of the U.S. Wow!

"What you people don't see," I thought to myself, "is that eight billion dollars spent in Central America is eight billion dollars not spent in California, Arizona or Texas." We were having such a good time though, I didn't want to depress anyone by speaking my ugly little thoughts out loud.

I hate to go all Milton Friedman on you, but I must point out that eight to twelve million undocumented workers have a huge impact on the labor force. These workers drive the price of labor down. For my very slow Republican reader (you know who you are) "the price of labor" is "wages." Your wages. (I've already preached way too much on this here.) When the supply of something increases, the price falls (other things being equal.) Political rhetoric (like that offered by our potential candidate for governor ) does not affect the economic laws involved; they continue to operate no matter how we feel about them.

One question to ask yourself: who profits the most from depressed wages? Is it the person selling his labor, or the one buying it?

Anyhow, I digress. (Oh boy! I used "affect" and "effect" correctly in the same essay!)

One very nice lady asked if those people didn't really want to all live here? Don't they want to bring their families here?

Judy just said "No." She went on to say, in her personal experience, undocumented workers from Central America do not like life in the U.S.

Now I found this part hard to swallow, but out of respect for Judy, said nothing. But how could foreigners living in the greatest country on earth, among the greatest people on earth, not want to stay here? Did I mention that, not only are we the richest nation on earth, and the most powerful, we are also the most generous nation, and the smartest; we have the best entertainment and medical care in the universe; and finally, we are the best looking. Just tune into Fox news if you doubt it. Why, it's no wonder people risk life and limb to get here!

Judy said they don't like the weather, they're always cold, and they miss their homeland and their extended families and stuff. Like they don't want to be rich like real Americans.

If I can digress again, I read a great quote in this month's Scientific American (print edition.) A Chinese representative of one of their green NGOs said, "If we wanted to live like Americans, it would take the resources of four worlds to do so." I guess I can digress after all; so much the worse for you.

Well, now you know what eight billion means to me. I wonder if I can get some stock in a fence company?

Friday, November 25, 2005


The Best Known Bible Verse that Isn't

A survey shows that the best known Bible verse in America is "God helps those who help themselves." Some 82% of us think that's in the Bible.

Anyone reading this knows the Bible doesn't say that. Not that those who are not reading this think the Bible does say that; but they might. Now, I don't want to offend my 6.446 billion non-readers by accusing them of ignorance. On the other hand, kudos to my readers - both of you - for knowing what the Bible actually says.

Hasty conclusions about the moral decay of a culture that elevates a selfish maxim to Biblical proverb tempt one like chocolate twinkies. Bemoaning the Biblical ignorance of Christians - something I indulged in here - is all too easy. And fun, too.

I first read about this survey over at every thought captive . Mr. Steiger reacts by asserting that we must all admit to original sin, and that only God can save us. Not exactly a turn-on, but I agree with half of his program. (By the way, exactly where in the Bible is the term "original sin?" Leviticus?)

But have Americans always been so ignorant? Was there a time when virtually everybody went to church? When everybody read the Bible and went to Sunday school? How long ago was that, and what happened? Is there some way to pin this on television?

Probably not, so I blame the conservative right wing movement.

Biblical ignorance actually represents the fruits of a right wing Republican plot. The hugely wealthy benefit most from the elevation of this false maxim to Biblical proverb.

Just think about it. The data shows that the bulk of the nation's wealth is controlled by a very small minority. The top 1% of the nation's population controls nearly 40% of the nation's wealth. The bottom 40% of the population controls 2%. If you had all the wealth and power, wouldn't you want to appropriate the blessing of God rather than his approbation? If you believe the saying is in the Bible, then wealth is proof of God's special favor and love.

If, as I believe, the Bible actually teaches "God favors those who help others," ignorance of the actual Bible aids those who have helped themselves the most.

My theory is the right wing zealots are too darn darn busy spreading their gospel to learn the real one. I'm talking about the guys Pat Robertson speaks for. They spend all their energies spreading hate; hatred against homosexuals, hatred against Jews and muslims, hatred of those who disagree with them, hatred of Methodists. They pray for the deaths of people they don't like, interpret natural disasters as God's wrath, and threaten Dover, PA, with destruction. (Look out!) This keeps them so busy they don't have time to study the actual Bible, much less to teach it to others.

See, it's all the fault of those fellows I don't like. I'm willing to bet a dollar - make that two - they're not reading this either. But just in case you do happen to read this and disagree, know that both Jesus and I love you. How can you stay mad after that?

As church leaders, the best we can do is to teach Jesus. To quote him as often as possible. To invite others to partake in Bible study.

Incidentally, I'm very excited to offer to my own adult Sunday school class Invitation to the Old Testament. This is a 10 week course that surveys the Hebrew Bible. Some very new archeological discoveries are covered as well. It requires some reading, but is worth the effort. I'm hoping to offer the companion course on the New Testament later next year.


Thursday, November 17, 2005


Kansas City Slums: Terra Incognito

Leawood Dead Pool Causes Stir

The posh Kansas City suburb of Leawood, Kansas, made local headlines recently when city employees were fired because of an office betting pool. This betting pool involved, not college football or basketball, but homicide.

The wager was on how many murders would be committed in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2005. That town's murder rate increased significantly this year. Over the last few months, the local press has engaged in some hand-wringing over the skyrocketing murder rate, and local activists have staged some marches to raise awareness.

But the outrage over the betting pool seems to exceed any feelings of outrage at the murderers. Murder in Kansas City is part of daily life, and rarely attracts much attention. But when people place bets on it, well, that's news.

Most of the victims and suspects are black, and poor. Most of the crimes occur in the vast slums that make up large parts of the city.

Leawood was listed as one of the best suburbs to live in by the Kansas City Star during the same week that the story about the dead pool first surfaced. Leawood is 95% white, and average household income of over $100,000 per year far exceeds the area norm. None of the employees disciplined actually lived in Leawood; in fact, only four of the 250 people employed by city hall actually live there. Most simply cannot afford it.

What does it mean when employees of a wealthy, white suburb bet on the number of their black neighbors who will be murdered?

It means the gamblers feel no connection to the victims or their families. It places the death statistics in the same category as football scores. The lives of the poor, black people who are affected become the equivalent of a televised sporting event; distant, mildly entertaining, but not affecting the safe haven of Leawood city hall.

The firing of two employees and suspensions of eight others sends a clear message. The outward manifestation of indifference will not be tolerated. So we again find ourselves treating symptoms instead of disease. We place the emphasis on the symbol, the wager, while paying scant attention to what the symbol represents.

This alienation, this disconnect from one's neighbors, disturbs me profoundly. The victims and their families live about 15 minutes from Leawood by car. Crowded interstate highways cut through the afflicted neighborhoods. They may as well be on the far side of the moon.

Let's be clear.

The vast majority of suburbanites do not give a rat's ass what happens in the ghetto.

Leawood soccer moms and their doctor and lawyer husbands could say a prayer for the murder victims; but probably won't. Why pray over something literally invisible? Even after the headline, the tv coverage, and the speech by the indignant Leawood mayor, the invisible neighbors remain unseen.

Not that Leawood is unique. The murder rate in Kansas City does not enter into conversations with my Shawnee, Kansas neighbors. We don't discuss it at church.

In this regard, we are exactly like any other American city. St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans; we all suffer from the legacy of slavery embodied in racism. We all suffer from indifference to the plight of poor people.

You may say, you may even think you care deeply about those unfortunates. But when was the last time you supported a tax increase to pay for more Medicaid? Did you speak out when the Congress cut food stamps? When they raised the price of college for disadvantaged kids? Do you always put a dollar in the outstretched hands you see in our downtowns? Do you make any sacrifices to allow you to donate more to charity? Only when you can answer some of these questions in the affirmative can you say you really care.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Why Bloggers Need Fact Checking

If you want others to take you seriously, then take yourself seriously.

Reading a post on another blog got me to thinking: why don't bloggers do a little fact checking?

Over at dangerous idea Victor said, "Here is a news release about the separation of church and state lawsuit concerning state sponsorship for reading Narnia in school." The headline on his post was "Now they're suing schools for reading Narnia."

Victor linked to a story on the Agape Press site that described a protest to the use of a Narnia book to promote reading in schools. The story strongly suggested a lawsuit was imminent, although it did not actually say a lawsuit was filed. Victor, in leaping to the conclusion that a lawsuit had been filed, read the story as intended by Agape but not as actually written. The Agape Press coverage would lead any reasonable person think the American Union for Separation of Church and State (AU) is a fringe group dedicated to misuse of the legal system to promote extreme and unreasonable views.

Always assume the best of people: check reports to the contrary.

If we begin with a position of mutual respect, then evidence of extremism must be treated with caution and skepticism.

In accord with that principle, I checked Google news for more details. In less than 45 seconds, I found a Court TV item covering the same story in much more depth. Turns out the AU wanted the state reading contest to include other books in addition to the Narnia book. This particular book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is often read as an allegorical retelling of the story of Jesus.

As it happened, that same morning I had heard NPR interview the author's stepson and heir. He said the book in question is not a re-telling of the Jesus story.

The point is not, however, to debate the meaning of this book. Rather, is the AU making a reasonable request? It would appear so, although this particular story has not finished playing out.

Don't go off half-cocked.

The meta-point (please indulge me) is that Victor went off half-cocked. Agape Press earns its living by stirring people up, so they had something to gain by telling only part of the story. Victor usually writes about epistemology, and does so very well. But by not doing any fact checking and venturing outside his area of expertise, Victor erred.

Of course, I make some big assumptions here. I assume Victor is a decent person who would never smear another person or group (like the AU) except through oversight or by mistake. I assume Victor would want to be fair in his writing. I assume Victor is interested in the whole story, not just what can be slanted for sensationalism. I assume Victor does not profit from distorting the truth or not reporting salient facts. I also assume that Victor would like to be taken seriously. Judging by the quality of his other writing, he deserves it from those of us who are interested in his subject. It follows that, if he wishes to be taken seriously, credibility

Use the Internet to Get Information.

Any blogger who wants to be taken seriously or is seeking an audience should worry about credibility. Anyone into blogging knows getting more information about a story of interest takes only a few keystrokes and seconds.

What's hard to understand is why so few bloggers take that one extra step.

All it takes to undermine your credibility is a single unfair, distorted, slanted, careless or error-ridden piece. All it takes to enhance your credibility or protect your reputation is a little extra effort.

Professional journalists employ fact checkers. They often use rules that prohibit publication without verification from two or more sources. Bloggers are obviously ill equipped to do the same. But bloggers, by definition, posses internet connections.

Of course, those who profit from distortion and half-truths are a different breed. That's the subject of a whole 'nother essay.

Monday, November 14, 2005


Don Weiss for State School Board

My friend Don Weiss announced his candidacy last week for the Kansas State School Board. He will run against the Republican candidate in the 3rd District, which includes Olathe.

I know Don through his service on the adult education team at my church. Don taught adult Sunday School and helps the team with our decision making duties. He is a person of faith and outstanding character. He will make an excellent addition to the school board.

He expressed frustration with the state school board’s actions over the past few years. He opposes teaching intelligent design in science classrooms.

The Lawrence Journal World recently quoted him as saying "Now Kansas is again the laughing stock of the world and the butt of a thousand jokes because the board's Radical Right have ignored education experts, made outrageous statements, and put cronyism and personal ideology ahead of their duty."

The Topeka Capitol Journal Quoted Don as saying: "In order to have schools that prepare our children for global competition, we need strong science standards as well as strong standards for all other areas. It's time to restore respect and dignity to the Board of Education and the state."

The Republican incumbent, John Bacon, sided with the majority on the intelligent design issue. He also supported hiring Bob Corkins as education commissioner. Corkins recently said he will not seek additional funding for Kansas public education, but would make school vouchers a priority. Vouchers are widely seen as supporting private schools at the expense of public schools, thereby undermining public education and having a long term harmful effect. Corkins has no public education experience.

I urge anyone reading this to support Don in his campaign and to support the traditional values of public education.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Paul Morrison: Death Penalty Advocate

Paul Morrison, Johnson County Prosecutor, finds himself accused.

Accused of "being soft on crime."

Following the letter and the spirit of Kansas law, Mr. Morrison said recently he would not seek the death penalty for the man accused of the murder of Ali Kemp.

According to an article in the Kansas City Star, the law requires the existence of certain aggravating circumstances to seek the death penalty. As heinous as the crime was, these circumstances were not present.

Mr. Morrison is, in fact, a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

Not only have I seen him from the jury box, I've also heard him express his views on the death penalty in detail.

Mr. Morrison visited my adult Sunday school class to explain to us Christians why we need a death penalty. The week before, the executive director of the local ACLU had visited the class to say why the death penalty is poor social policy.

I don't recall Mr. Morrison advancing the usual easily refuted arguments. Instead, he made two very persuasive points.

Putting a prisoner to death closes the book on the crime in a way no life sentence ever will. The overworked word, "closure" does describe the result for the family of the victim.

In addition, the death penalty is an instrument needed to solve and prosecute horrible crimes. It was an important part of the Debora Green case. Kansas readers will recognize her as the woman convicted of arson and murder of her own two children.

Paul Morrison sought and got the death penalty for convicted killer John Robinson.

I've also had the somewhat discomforting experience of sitting for a jury in a capital case Mr. Morrison tried. I was in the pool of prospective jurors, and watched the proceedings very carefully.

I found the experience emotionally and physically draining. I dreaded the prospect of passing judgment on a young man accused of being an accessory to murder. For three days, the lawyers quizzed prospective jurors about their convictions and beliefs. The ability to vote for a finding that could cause the death of the accused was a critical qualification. Thankfully, I was dismissed on the third day.

Personally, I oppose the death penalty. Despite Mr. Morrison's best efforts to convince my Sunday school class, I still feel capital punishment is morally reprehensible.

Intelligent people of good faith and intentions honestly disagree on this and many other issues. Though I disagree with Mr. Morrison, I recognize him as honest and straightforward.

Kansas now has the opportunity to prove to the nation that an honest man can succeed in politics.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Kansas Halloween Scare

Not really scary unless your name happens to be Phill Kline.


Judges Make Law - Get Over It

What's so bad about judicial legislation?

The term "judicial activism," used to portray something radical, high-handed and anti-democratic, stands five thousand years of tradition on its head.

Judges made law in Biblical times, and a written account of their activity is preserved in the Bible as the "Book of Judges."

In the United States, law derives from three sources: the common law, the legislature, and the decisions of judges. The latter we call "judicial precedent" or "stare decisis." Precedent is often subsumed under the common law, but I would argue it deserves its own category. I would also add a fourth category, which law professors would not, and that is regulation created by the executive branch. In everyday life, regulation functions as if it were law; and judges, while not bound by regulation, must take judicial note of it when crafting decisions.

Law created by the legislature, or "statutory" law, sometimes reflects the inability of the law making body to reach a final decision. The political process, reflecting as it does the contradictions in our society, can result in a compromise that contains internal inconsistencies. Or, the legislature may not wish to take responsibility for the details of a program. The statute then, less than perfect, tells the executive what to do - or perhaps not. It may provide for the creation of regulations to carry out the program or mission envisioned by the legislature.

For example, the Congress passed a statute with the goal of protecting the environment and our natural resources. The law provided for the creation of an agency, the EPA, with the power to write and enforce regulations. It happens fairly often that the regulations conflict with some statute or other or the application of the law is unclear. Conflicts arise, and the mess gets dumped on the judge. In sorting it out, the judge looks to see what other judges have decided in similar cases. In the decision, the judge will refer to similar cases and detail any differences which flow from the particulars of the case before him.

The judge may not find cases sufficiently similar to permit a clear, short decision. In such a case, the judge will write a much longer judgment, giving a precise account of the reasoning that led to the decision made. This reasoning then, becomes a precedent. It allows the consistent application of a rule and upholds stability and order. It also insulates the law from change simply because of the changing identities of judges.

It saddens me to see people working themselves and others into a frenzy over "judicial activism" without any understanding of the history or the actual process of law-making.

If a party in the original proceedings can show that the judge made an error of law, the decision is overturned on appeal.

The constitution is the supreme law of the land. I suppose what gets people upset is when a judge rules some statute of other unconstitutional, or finds that the legislature failed to carry out some duty specified by the constitution.

Here in Kansas, the state constitution requires us to give our children an adequate education. A judge recently ruled the legislature had failed in that duty by not providing adequate funding to public schools. This got a lot of people upset, talking about "judicial activism." But the judge is not the activist here, it is the legislature. They chose to abrogate their constitutionally required duty to provide for the children's education, not the judge. The judge is required to rule on the suit brought before him by the school districts, and he did.

Well, with the Supreme Court vacancy and events here in Kansas, this seemed a good topic for today's post. Too long as usual. But I hope was worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Tammeus: Keep Government Out of Sanctuary

Bill Tammeus, faith writer for the Kansas City Star, graced St. Paul's adult Sunday school class last Sunday. He came to talk about matters of church-state relations.

I cannot hope to duplicate his humor and wit here; his is a refreshing and often amusing voice. I recommend his blog as regular reading and for a first-hand sample of his work. And, of course, his weekly column in the Star. My account of his talk, of necessity, reflects my words and understanding. I also need to say St. Paul's and the United Methodist's positions on these issues are made public elsewhere, but not on this blog.

He started the serious portion of the program with a few remarks sketching the history of church-state relations. Western culture long held that the king embodied sovereignty. The people followed the religion of the king, not by choice, but because the law of the land compelled obedience.

When the American Revolution began, the emerging nation already had a population of diverse religious faiths, albeit mostly different kinds of Protestantism. Our revolution consisted of more than the mere overthrow of an oppressive monarchy. We added the novel idea that sovereignty flows upwards from the people. Given the diverse population and the different notion of sovereignty, a state religion would have been impossible for the newly formed government.

In modern times, as in the early days of the republic, the "wall of separation" between church and state serves to keep government out of religion, not religion out of government. Mr. Tammeus observed that no one expects a judge, Congressman or president to discard his faith simply because they serve in public office. The real issue is keeping public authority out of private, personal matters of faith. We do not protect government from religion; rather, we protect ourselves from an intolerable intrusion into those affairs that matter most.

Mr. Tammeus stopped his prepared remarks early, inviting questions after having given us just enough material to serve as the basis for a healthy dialog.

In response to a question, he told the following story. Newly elected Congressman Emmanuel Clever said the first bill he would introduce would regulate how Holy Communion would be served. This would illustrate the absurdity and the danger of government support of specific faith based ideas, such as defining who churches are allowed to unite in marriage.

He said Kansas will very likely regret the amendment to the state constitution that embodied the "conservative Christian" narrow definition of who can marry. The group being discriminated against often supplies proportionally large numbers of creative and artistic people. By making those folks unwelcome in Kansas, we reduce the creativity that we will need to sustain a competitive economy in the face of globalization.

One man remarked on the inconsistency of prohibiting prayer in schools while printing the phrase "In God We Trust" on all our paper currency. Mr. Tammeus ran with the question and made several points. If the choice had been his, the phrase would never appeared on our money in the first place. But we must carefully pick and choose our battles. The phrase on the money, while not trivial, is certainly less important than almost every other issue facing the nation. Moreover, there is such a thing as "civic religion." We honor traditions anchored firmly in our history that reflect the religious impulse of the people, but in such a non-specific way that it avoids promotion of any particular beliefs at the expense of others. The "God" referred to on the money is not named, and could be the God of any religion; Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians or whatever.

When asked about his job, he described some of the projects he works on. He noted the "Faith" coverage of the newspaper has been reduced from a full section to the back page of the Saturday "F.Y.I." The Star covers faith and religion with just two writers. The sports section, by way of contrast, has dozens of reporters. He said people do not demand full coverage of developments in religion, so they don’t get it. The issues and progress in theology generally do not make the news. A large number of newsworthy stories go unreported in the paper as a result.

When asked how people could get coverage of religion, he mentioned Christianity Today, our own Methodist publications and website, BeliefNet.com, and GOOGLE, among others.

One woman voiced optimism that dialog and genuine exchanges of ideas have increased in just the last year or so. Mr. Tammeus agreed. He said we really need to listen to each other, and try to work together to address these issues. The current administration, by pushing faith based initiatives of various kinds, succeeded in bringing this issue to the forefront. As a result, discussion increased.

When asked for an explanation of the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians, he said they were not very significant. He did talk about different emphasis in worship and traditions, and pointed out subtle distinctions between the two denominations.

For me, the most thought provoking moment came when he suggested Christians should begin talks on unification of all denominations. Because of recent agreements between Lutherans and the Catholic Church, Mr. Tammeus believes the most significant doctrinal differences that keep us apart have been resolved. Thus, now is the time to begin talks on some kind of meaningful unification of all Christianity.

Mr. Tammeus delighted and informed his audience. Many people spoke to me about the excellence of his presentation. On behalf of St. Paul's, I thank him for giving us his Sunday morning.

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