I See Rich People. They Talk to Me. . .

The mouse on my computer broke. So now I’m back to writing on my kindle. Which is a marvelous bit of technology, but it has all sorts of quirks which can easily double the time it takes for me to do a post. And the spacebar for the keyboard is gimpy. But since I don’t even have money to replace the mouse, I’ll just have to limp along the best I can.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately that when I finally break free of all these obstacles, I’ll astound everyone. It’s like I’ve been trying to play the game wearing weights. If I could just get free and have a fully functioning computer, a good internet connection and a few hours a day without children, well, you just won’t believe what I can do.

As I was contemplating the rather unpleasant task of writing on my kindle (something I did exclusively for at least six months), it occurred to me that this is why we hear so much more from rich people than anyone else. If you’re rich, you can grab a few hours which you would otherwise have spent playing Sugar Crush and write something thoughtful on your nice computer without any real delays or impediments. Or maybe you’re more of a take my Macbook to Starbucks to write sort of writer.

But when you’re not rich, you have to type out the word six because the six key doesn’t work any more. And putting in a hyperlink requires the sort of planning skills normally reserved for major military operations. It’s like driving one of those cars that you have to roll down the window to open the door. Everything’s just much more work when you don’t have access to resources.

And having crappy, unreliable technology is a first world problem. Imagine what it took for those women in Nigeria to get the world’s attention when their girls were taken! It’s really no mystery as to why people who are powerful and influential are usually white American men. It’s not that every white American man has resources. It’s just that nearly everyone who has resources is a white American man. Having resources removes so many obstacles that what is impossible for other people is possible for them. And that is a big part of our problem.

Having resources doesn’t necessarily make the path to sucess a clear and easy one. You still have to work harder and be smarter and overcome more than everyone else in order to acheive great things. I mean, Paris Hilton’s family says she works very hard and I believe them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she puts in sixty hour work weeks. The thing is that my husband has put in sixty hour work weeks pretty routinely for nearly 20 years. And we can’t even afford to buy a mouse.

(The first person to ask why I don’t get a job wins the chance to find me a job with hours that work for our family, arrange the care of our kids by someone who is able to provide high caliber, on demand tutoring, counseling, and training in the ways of the world customized to each child’s needs, obtain transportation, clothing, housekeeping, cooking and taxi services to make that all happen. Good luck. Let me know when you get that all worked out.)

Aside from being bullshit, the connection between who has the existing resources and who gets seen and heard and rewarded is more sinister than we realize. You know the proverbial “they” we always hear about? The ones who tell us what other people think of us and what’s normal and what’s a problem and what’s expected of us and what failure looks like? Sometimes people will joke and say, “who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Continue reading

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The Real Challenge to Religious Liberty in America

The things Christians decide are important enough to raise a stink over on religious liberty ground always astound me. Like the way we keep fighting for the right to say prayers at government meetings and such. As if such prayers have ANY meaning at all or losing them would be detrimental to Christianity. It’s a laughable proposition. Especially when the meetings that follow these prayers may wind up with a seriously anti-Christian law like this:

Daytona Beach is one of a handful of cities that enacted ordinances barring individuals from serving food in public. . . Daytona Beach is just the latest city to crack down on groups that feed the poor in city parks. Other recent examples range from Birmingham to St. Louis to Raleigh to Philadelphiato Orlando

That comes from a story about a couple who was forced to stop feeding homeless people in a park each week and given thousands of dollars in fines for daring to do so. And their story isn’t particularly unique. These cases pop up regularly if you pay attention to such things. (Here’s another example out of Raleigh NC from last fall.) Some towns have gone so far in their wars on the poor that they have made covering yourself with blankets or newspapers illegal, washing your face in a public washroom illegal and sitting in one place too long illegal.

Now, how is it that we will fight for things we believe in, but which are never directly ordered by Jesus like praying before football games and town hall meetings or not helping women get birth control or whatever other thing we’ve decided is “an essential part of the Christian faith”. Meanwhile, we pass laws forbidding something Jesus specifically said to do, like feeding hungry people, and there’s nary a peep?

I would love to see Christians challenging these draconian ordinances on religious liberty grounds. I would love to see Christian police officers refusing to engage in enforcement actions which violate their religious liberties. I would love to see Christian citizens engaged in mass civil disobedience in protest of these laws.

Unfortunately, we seem far more invested in whether a multi-billionaire CEO has to indirectly fund his employees birth control than with feeding the poor like Jesus told us to. Is it any wonder the world is none to impressed with Christians these days?

The Least Have the Answers

Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

Why We Christians Suck at Loving

Is there something about Christianity itself which leads to the sort of oppression which its adherents have too often been guilty of? You know – the inquisitions, colonialism, slavery, pretty much every interaction we ever had with First Nations people in the Americas. To name a few. The standard answer for western theologians is that the Christian faith and its teachings are not the problem – people’s sinful natures are. It’s the, “well those aren’t real Christians” blow off. However, South Korean theologian Andrew Sung Park posits a more honest – and more helpful – answer to this thorny issue of the convergence of Christianity and oppression. The problem as Sung Park sees it is that we westerners see Christianity as the answer to the problem of the sinner. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so Jesus came and died for our sins so we can be forgiven and all that. Our theology, Sung Park argues, elevates the needs and concerns of the sinner over the needs and concerns of the people sinned against. And therein lies the problem.
This may seem akin to blasphemy for many Christians for whom the problem of sin and sinners is THE message of Christianity. However, compare our sinner-centered approach to Christianity to the words which Jesus actually spoke.When Jesus started his ministry, this was the text he chose:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to release the oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” ~ Luke 4:18-19

Jesus’ most famous sermon – the one which many scholars believe was his “stump speech” – the oratory he gave when he traveled to a new place and crowds gathered to hear him centered on this:

Continue reading

Happiness and Starving People

People starve to death. It’s a thought which haunts me, although I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it’s not for the reasons you might think. It’s a reality that haunts me every time someone tells me that things have to turn around soon. Or when I want to comfort myself with the idea that eventually spring comes, the sun returns and nothing lasts forever. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” People starve to death. Tell a man or woman who watched their child starve to death that spring comes again each year. And that’s what haunts me – if people starve to death, then there’s no reason to think my in-comparison small problems will ever right themselves.

Yesterday my husband told me about a story he had read about a horrific attack on a little boy in Bangladesh. The boy was terribly maimed and the family had to go into hiding at a military installation due to ongoing threats from the local gang leaders responsible for the attack. My husband said one of the most striking things about the story for him came from the boy’s devastated father. Bangladesh is a poor country and the family lived in a one room tin shack in a slum. And the father told reporters that his family had been happy. They had been happy together and in their little community even though they sometimes didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Today, money is pouring in from around the world to help the child and his family – there next many meals are guaranteed. But the father told reporters that his family had taken everything from them. And my husband said, “I read that and thought, I want to be like that guy. I want to be able to live in the middle of squalor and with nothing and be happy.” Is that a trade you would make – to live in squalor and extreme insecurity in exchange for happiness? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Continue reading