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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friends of Justice Works for All of Us

My friend Alan Bean, the founder of Friends of Justice, has played a central role in a number of major cases of racial injustice in recent years: the falsified drug busts in Tulia, Texas; the out-of-proportion charges in Jena, Louisiana; and more.

His most recent work is being done on a case from Winona, Mississippi. A man named Curtis Flowers has been tried five times for the same crime, but the District Attorney can't get his conviction. So, against all odds, he is going to put Curtis Flowers on trial again. In the meantime, Flowers has spent thirteen years in prison for a crime for which he has not been convicted.

Bean has traced the meandering, strange, and disturbing details of this case for months now. As happened with the Jena case, Bean kept doing his hard work, studying history, meeting with people, writing, speaking, and negotiating, until finally a major media company took notice. With Jena, it was the Chicago Tribune, and then the BBC. This time, the BBC bit first.

Thanks to Alan Bean, a shady case of racial injustice that was allowed to fester for over a decade will now be brought into the light of day. You can listen to the BBC story and read a shortened version online. But for the best coverage, with a wide range of research, you will have to read Bean's blog.

Bean's work is often featured on the Sojourners blog, "God's Politics." Check out Friends of Justice, and let's all learn from Bean. I'm hoping to see his good research and writing find its way into book form sometime soon.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Keeping the Heat On

Sometimes when organizing, a few small actions can be useful to let people know that our efforts are not going to die out and just go away. Today I was part of one of those kinds of small actions as part of the 10% Is Enough campaign. The two banks that we are focusing on most in North Carolina are Bank of America and Wachovia/Wells Fargo.

In meetings with Wachovia executives so far, we have made our case and carried on some helpful conversations. However, they remain fairly intent on ignoring the primary issue we are bringing to them: usury. We are insisting that there comes a point when interest rates are too high and therefore predatory. There is a form of lending practice that becomes debt-sharecropping, dragging people into a permanent debtor status.

I sent the following report to the folks in Durham who are working on economic issues as part of Durham CAN.

Hey, folks,

Today members of the Economy Action Team handed out information about the 10% Is Enough campaign along the sidewalks outside the Wachovia Bank branch at the corner of Ninth Street and Main Street.

Because of the cold weather, not many people were out walking. Most of the information was handed to people leaving the bank parking lot when they would roll down their windows to briefly talk with us. There were a few longer conversations with people walking down the sidewalk. Dan Rhodes and Denise Rowson even managed to get some people to fill out the petition cards and give them back to turn in. Jennifer Suggs did a great job of getting people to stop and converse with her.

We can discuss the details and evaluate the action at a later time. For now, we are glad to have given out information to probably a hundred or more people in a way that brought attention to our ongoing efforts to hold banks accountable to their communities.

Watch for news concerning a meeting with the City Manager concerning stimulus funds. In January we will support the Clergy Caucus and Strategy Team in next steps to build momentum in the 10% Is Enough Campaign. Kohar and I attended a strategy and planning meeting in Baltimore earlier this week, and our progress with the large banks shows we have their attention. Our next moves will have to make them see that we are not merely a minor annoyance, a passing fad, or a clanging cymbal.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thanks for Will McIntosh

A week ago my friend Will McIntosh passed away.

I met Will in 1996, soon after joining Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church. He had recently moved from New York City, where he had served as Assistant Commissioner of Juvenile Justice, to Durham. He was married to Miriam, who completed her doctoral studies and became a dentist. He had a young son from their marriage, Brian, who is a year older than my youngest, Lydia, and attended the same high school.

Will and I met on a Habitat for Humanity project. We were both trying to keep busy on a crowded work site. The chapter was preparing for a house dedication across town, and they had one more detail they needed someone to take care of. So they sent Will and me to the other location to remove the temporary utility pole.

Will and I got a pick-axe and shovel to take with us, and we took off in a pick-up truck. As we drove, we introduced ourselves and got acquainted. When we arrived, I started trying to dislodge the 4 x 4 utility pole from the clay fill dirt. I was hacking away, but not making much progress. I was huffing and puffing, and probably turning red, realizing that as a man of about 40 years I had lost some of the vigor of my youth. Will was the same age as my parents, which meant that at that time he was in his late 60s. He suggested that he take a turn at it. He hacked away at the soil, then began to push and pull the pole until he had loosened it enough to pull it up by his bare hands. We loaded it all in the truck and headed back. He had made a serious impression on me that day.

Over the years, Will and I regularly got together to talk about what was going on in our lives. With children in the same age range, we usually had stories to compare. We spoke with pride about our kids, and we shared our concerns and fears for them. We both recognized the harsh world that our children were facing, and we wondered about the steps they would take on the way to maturity. Will put all of himself into Brian's upbringing and growth. Like my children, Brian probably wished that Dad would ease off on the parenting at times.

When Will and Miriam needed a pastor, sometimes they turned to me. Will was dealing with a heart condition in the last decades of his life, and his extended family dealt with setbacks, losses, and the kinds of things all of us face. Sometimes he came to me to talk through these matters, ask for prayer, and let me reflect back to him what I could see from our conversations. Frankly, this seemed to me quite an honor. Will had much more life experience and a wide range of knowledge and skills that I will never achieve. So I gave him my best, and always felt appreciated and loved for it.

Although we often conversed as peers, at the same time Will was a fatherly friend to me. I am blessed to have my father, W. D. Broadway, still living, and I depend on him for guidance in many ways. We have lived far apart during half of my life, and there have been a couple of occasions when an older friend has been, not a substitute, but a supplemental father to me. One was Weston Ware, my beloved friend from Dallas and the Christian Life Commission, and the other was Will. It's not so much that I went to Will for advice, but I looked up to him and learned about how to live from being around him.

Will believed in working hard and getting things done. Almost every time I visited his home, I was amazed to find that he had just begun or completed another construction project--an addition, an outbuilding, a fence, or who knows what. When I needed to do some cleaning and painting of the outside of my house, Will brought over some power equipment, showed me how to use it, and did a good bit of the work with me. If I had mustered the energy, I'm certain that he would have come over to do all kinds of home improvement projects with me.

Everly and I enjoyed our conversations after I had a visit with Will. "Guess what I learned about Will this time," I would say. Will knew about all kinds of things. He had been lots of places. And above all, he knew all sorts of people. He was widowed and remarried, and there were many stories of his family stretching across his 78 years. His family had to deal with the racist practice of a white neighbor fencing off part of their land and claiming it for himself. Will took charge of resolving that matter down in the family home place in Alabama. He had lots of stories of working with youth from his long years in the juvenile justice system in New York. He had managed his financial affairs well, and he had property in several states, which he traveled to maintain. He would tell me about conversations he had with Rudy Giuliani or George W. Bush.

But Will was very unassuming. He always seemed interested in what I thought about things, even if he knew plenty enough about them not to need my opinion. He was interested in politics, and he had a good sense about people and power. He enjoyed talking with me about Barack Obama, and although he was a Republican, he took great satisfaction in what the 2008 presidential election meant in U. S. history.

He called me "Rev," and I received it as a title of affection. I'm going to miss him. Knowing him has been one of God's blessings.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Priest and the Levite

This morning, Rev. Charles "Dewey" Williams delivered a powerful message on the Lukan text best known as The Good Samaritan. The implications for our current economy were jumping out of the text and out of his words, even though that was not directly the focus of his message. He talked about the way that things happen to us along the road we travel. Sometimes they are caused by people who are out to harm us or to take what we have in whatever way they can. But he held back and did not hammer away at the titans and swindlers of the economy. He left that for us to ponder, and ponder it we did.

When he got to the story of the priest and the levite, the place where we all become vulnerable, he shook us by the shoulders for all the times we allowed our church duties to turn us away from helping those whom God sends us to meet. And while we had our minds on our own failures, then he expanded the horizon dramatically.

He said, "The priest and the levite examined the situation, and they would have helped the man on the side of the road. But they determined that he had a pre-existing condition. They could not help him since he was already beat up before they came along." Boom! Then he expanded on the issues of health insurance companies doing the opposite of what they claim to be about--denying rather than providing access to health care.

Thanks, Dewey, for your insight and faithfulness to speak the truth in these critical times.

Friday, October 02, 2009

10% Is Enough! It's Time to Listen to the Rest of Us!

Today, about 450 citizens from all over North Carolina converged on Charlotte to take a stand against the usurious practices of two large banks: Bank of America and Wachovia-Wells Fargo. This event is part of a larger campaign stretching across the country and to Europe known as "10% Is Enough." In NC, we also are standing up for military personnel and veterans who by law are not to be charged more than 6% interest on their loans, but this is seldom obeyed.

We gathered at Mt. Moriah Primitive Baptist Church to prepare for a march to the downtown headquarters of the banks. I was asked to give the opening remarks to explain our purpose for gathering. The following is what I said at the rally.

My name is Dr. Mike Broadway. I am an associate minister at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, and a member of the strategy team of Durham CAN. I am also an associate professor of theology and ethics at Shaw University Divinity School, and one of twenty-five professors from institutions of theological education across North Carolina and South Carolina who have joined with the people of our churches and communities to speak up for economic justice and an end to the practice of usury.

I want to talk with you a few minutes about why we are here today. It could not be clearer in the teaching of the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, or the Islamic Qur’an that usury, the predatory, abusive charging of excess interest, is wrong. A system which creates a perpetual debtor class is contrary to our faiths. As Deuteronomy 15 and so much of the Bible teaches, There should be no one in need among you. Usury makes the opposite happen, creating poverty where it was not, driving people into need and desperation.

Let me begin by telling you a story. It is a story about the growing concern and desperation of average, everyday people who over the past two years or so have been waking up to find the waters of financial troubles rising in the streets, inundating their cars, flowing into their homes, drowning their banks and workplaces, and forcing them into their attics and onto their roofs in hopes of finding some possibility of rescue.

When the financial flood waters reached their peaks, high powered government officials announced a rescue, a bailout, and many people hoped against hope that they might see the waters recede and be able to move back into their homes. But weeks passed, and months passed, and the only people that seemed to be getting any help were the executives and bankers, the big insurance companies and financial speculators. Homeowners were still losing their homes. People with consumer debt were being charged new and higher fees, and dramatically higher interest rates.

Eventually it became clear to everyone why the levees failed and produced this flood of financial trouble of such epic proportion. The people who were running the major financial institutions, whose fiduciary responsibility was to maintain the safety of the financial system for all its participants, had ignored and even disdained their responsibility. Instead, they had been finding ways to boost their own short-term profits while pretending the long-term protection of the financial system would take care of itself. They continued to play their financial games of chance and pass their promissory papers of propped-up prosperity around the room, while the levees of protection and prudence were crumbling.

Now these same people who ushered in the financial crisis are hoping that the rest of us will conveniently forget the pain and suffering that they helped to cause. But we are not going to forget. We can’t forget. They are still putting the hurt to us every day, as if there is no standard of justice by which they must be judged. No, we won’t forget. Who can forget the pain of walking away from a home which had represented a family’s hope for the future? Who can forget the heartache and fear of a business or factory closing that takes away the prosperity of an entire community? Who can forget the monthly interest payment which cuts to the bone and cripples a worker’s future? Who can forget the bankruptcy proceeding that results from needed medical care when a person is uninsured or underinsured?

We have not forgotten. And today we want to remind those who think we will walk away with our tails between our legs that we will not forget how we got into this mess. It is time for them to face the people whose lives they have helped to throw in to turmoil. We will not submit to being a permanent debtor class. We will not grant you a permanent subscription to our future income. We will not accept a new social order of debt sharecropping, in which the executives of a few powerful financial institutions snatch the livelihood from the hands of the workers whose labor should produce abundance for everyone. We will not continue to do business with those who practice usury. It is time for a conversation about justice. The time for so-called talented experts to tell us so much mumbo-jumbo about the market is over. It is time to hear from the rest of us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Open Hearts Mean Open Hands, Part 3

This the last part of a sermon continued from the two previous posts.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Acts 4:31-35
Durham CAN and other organizations like ours, in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Boston, Washington, D. C., New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and London, England, have decided that it is time to take a stand against usury. The campaign, launched simultaneously in many cities on July 22, is called “10% Is Enough.” We are calling on the CEOs of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Mechanics and Farmers, SunTrust, and other banks to put a cap on consumer interest rates at 10%. We are also calling on Congress to pass a usury law and restore a reasonable cap on consumer interest. Professors like Mt. Level ministers Dr. Turner, Dr. Jennings, Dr. Carter, and I all endorsed a theological statement on the economy, along with professors from nine divinity schools and seminaries in North Carolina and South Carolina. This statement has been sent to bank CEOs and to pastors as part of this campaign. We want the bankers to realize this message is deeply rooted in our tradition. And we Protestant Christian professors do not stand alone.

The social teachings of the Catholic Church have a long history of making a clear stand for economic justice, for example the encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, explicitly implicates usury in what he observed as a growing oppression and exploitation, saying working people “have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide,” and directly quotes from Deuteronomy 15:11 to emphasize the many ways in which we are exhorted to “open wide our hands” to the poor.

Of course, when Christians draw heavily on texts from Deuteronomy or Amos or other texts from the Jewish Scriptures in our efforts to articulate a theology of economic life, we show our indebtedness to and sharing in the narrative of God’s calling of Israel. Over recent months, Jewish Rabbis in North Carolina have joined this conversation about the economy. In this week, the holiest season of the Jewish year, our brothers and sisters of the covenant are reflecting on their lives under the Rule of God, the Maker of heaven and earth. As the season of the new year—Rosh Hashanah has passed and Yom Kippur is coming—it is the time in which the Sabbath year or Jubilee year would be proclaimed. God’s rule over all of life is the concern of liturgy and prayer. Thus this season is linked with economic justice and the plight of the weak and marginalized. The story of God’s deliverance of Isaac when he was bound on the altar is a central text, and we can see in it the symbolic binding of the poor by oppressive economic systems of low wages, inescapable debt, and unattainable basic provisions. These High Holy Days are days of repentance and resolution. Repentance is a leaving behind, but also a taking up. Thus, in the economy it means leaving behind injustice and taking up the cause of those unjustly treated. It is taking up the calling of tikkun olam, to mend the world.

Islam continues in our day to practice an economic system which opposes usury, which in Arabic is called riba. Our Muslim brothers and sisters in North Carolina have also composed a document for reflection in their communities, revealing ways that the Qur’an teaches about justice in economic relations. Rather than loaning at interest, Islamic societies have developed creative ways to allow investment in which benefits and risks are shared by both borrower and lender. This kind of thinking about God’s creation as something shared by all people equally is deeply imbedded in Islamic teaching, and their witness to it reawakens truths in Christian teaching that have been overshadowed by modern economic ideas. To our shame, too many Christians have sold this common birthright for a mess of pottage in the empty promises of modern economics.

The faith communities do not always agree on everything, but we do agree on some things. One, above all, is that God is the ruler of all creation, and that we are responsible to God to live in right relationship with one another according to justice. Moreover, we all agree on the specific admonition that usury, the financial exploitation of the poor and weak, is wrong no matter when or how it is done, or what it is called.

But, why, you ask, does the church bother with such things as interest rates and health care access? Why don’t we just focus on saving souls? I’m glad you asked that, and probably most of you know the answer. We are concerned about economic justice and the health of all people because Jesus came to save whole people, whole communities, the whole of creation. This is not just some obscure ancient Jewish law about the economy that has become irrelevant in Christ. Jesus said he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He said he came to set at liberty the oppressed. He came to heal. He came to bring abundant life. He came that we might now live in the foretaste of the glory of eternal life.

The passage from Acts which we read helps us to know that this is what Jesus came to do. His earliest followers realized the connection between Deuteronomy 15 and Jesus’ preaching and atoning work. In words which quote from Deuteronomy 15:4, Acts 4:34 says, “There was not a needy person among them.” They saw themselves as living out the promise of God that when we share with one another we can all have what we need. Martin Luther, the great reformer, wrote a treatise against usury in which he said we ought “to be bound . . . to allow no one to suffer want or to beg.”

But again, you may ask, how is it that getting so concerned about economic justice can go together with Christian concern for saving souls? The answer is in understanding that God is a God of grace. God offered Israel a better way of life in Deuteronomy. It was a way of life that would allow them to take on the character of the God who delivered them from oppression, slavery, and perpetual poverty. If they would remember that whatever prosperity they have is the gift of the God who brought them out of Egypt, then they could understand that it is always grace that sustains them. And if God is gracious enough to allow us to prosper, then we ought to become like God and see that others also can prosper. As God has given us blessings, we ought to bless one another.

What a transformation grace can bring in a human being! What a transformation grace can bring to a community! God made us in the divine image, and when we deny our true character and nature by sins of greed, hatred, selfishness, and indifference, God is not satisfied to leave us there. So in the midst of a sinful world system, God comes to deliver us. God wants us to be free of the oppression of others and free of the oppression we impose on ourselves through our sins. God is a gracious God. God loves us too much to let us stew in our own juices. God is a gracious God. God wants us all to know the love that is possible in human community, the love God created us for. God is a gracious God. We are made to love one another. We are made to love one another. We are made to love one another, and in loving one another we are the image of God. In loving one another, God’s grace flows through us, and God’s glory shines forth from us. Let the glory of God shine forth through you. Let the love of God flow to the ones who are struggling with debt, without health care, who are losing their homes. Stand up as a witness of God’s grace in creation that usury is wrong and must be stopped.

Does anybody want to live in the image of God? Does anybody want to receive and give grace as a way of life?

Maybe you are one of the people being swept away in the tide of economic troubles. Powerful forces in the world are dragging you out into deeper waters, and you feel out of control. You aren’t sure what your destiny will be. The God of grace wants to deliver you. After the service, we will collect names and contact information for people who would like to get some guidance in dealing with their financial situations. Both Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church and the Durham County Extension Office will be offering financial training to help with budgeting and indebtedness, to help you work toward financial freedom. We want to facilitate this because we believe that the God of grace wants to deliver you.

Maybe you are struggling with temptations to be selfish and tightfisted. Maybe you are fighting feelings of looking down on people who are in financial difficulty and in need of help. God wants to restore you to your true loving nature. God wants to give you grace to grow into the true divine image, to be a beacon of God’s glory and a vessel of God’s grace.

Open your hearts to God and to one another now. Open your hands to the people in need whom God sends your way. Open hearts mean open hands. May the grace of God be with you all.

Open Hearts Mean Open Hands, Part 2

This is the text of a sermon continued from the previous post.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Acts 4:31-35

But this is not the kind of economic system intended for the world that God loves. Deuteronomy 15 has a different idea of how to deal with hard times. The Bible teaches us another way of thinking about borrowing and lending. God has a bailout plan called the Sabbath year and the Jubilee. There is a time for bailing out people who have bad debts, but it is not just for the benefit of insurance companies, banks and brokerage firms. No, it is especially for making sure that people who fall on hard times don’t have to stay there forever. Verse 1 says, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.” You shall grant a remission of debts. You must not let debts pile up year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, until a large mass of people and their descendents can never escape them. When things get out of hand, there has to be a collective setting things back aright.

The deeper purpose of this economic practice is stated in verse 4, which says, “There will be no one in need among you.” There will be no one in need among you. It is not a prediction that needs and difficulties will not arise. It’s not saying that God will magically put money in your bank account whenever you want it. It is a statement about maintaining a society of care for one another. If Israel would follow these economic practices, they could keep from creating a class of perpetual poverty, of permanent debtors, of unending wage slavery.

Verses 7 through 11 expand on the way that Israel could be a people who have no need among them. They must not be “hardhearted or tightfisted” toward their neighbors. Instead, they should open their hands with generosity, not grudgingly thinking about the year of remission and not getting paid back. Verse 11 recognizes that misfortunes, mistakes, bad decisions, poor judgment, health setbacks, loss of a loved one and provider, business closings, weather disasters, and many other reasons may push some people into poverty. It says, “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” Hard times may come. Poverty may break out. Then Deuteronomy follows this observation with a command about how to live every day: “Open your hand to your poor and needy neighbor.” Open your hand. Don’t close it up. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t become cold and indifferent. Open your hand. Open it. Open it, and keep it open.

Maybe some of you recognized that Jesus quoted from this passage when some people were complaining about the cost of a jar of ointment which a woman had used to anoint his feet. They claimed it was a waste of money. They postured that such extravagance should instead be directed toward helping the poor.

You probably also have heard people use Jesus’ words to teach the opposite of what Deuteronomy is saying. We have to realize that sometimes elements of our culture which do not conform to the gospel have become so powerful in shaping our thinking that we do not read the Bible very well. The heritage of white supremacist interpretations of the Bible led many who called themselves Christians to believe that God wants people of certain skin color to rule over people of another skin color. In a similar fashion, people often quote Jesus’ words from John 12, “The poor are always with you” to give a reason why it is useless to help the poor. They act like Jesus is saying that we can’t really do anything to solve poverty, so we should just quit trying.

But that is the opposite of what Jesus was saying. He was quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11 in order to remind the people in the room that acting upset about this woman’s gift to Jesus was hypocritical when they were tightfisted toward the poor every day. These were the same kind of people who declared their possessions Corban, or devoted to God, so that their poor aging parents would not be able to make a claim on their wealth. They were the ones who tithed their mint and cumin but ignored the weightier matters of the law concerning justice and mercy. So when they hear Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, they knew the rest of the verse condemned them for not opening their hands to the poor and needy who came their way.

An economic system which exploits and uses the average worker so that a wealthy elite can become richer and richer has turned away from the ways of God. Economic systems are not strictly rational and unhindered free markets. Economic systems do not operate independently of power, and lots of money translates into lots of power. If a society is to be beneficent, just, and prosperous, it must be organized in ways to see that all of its members can have a share in the good, a share of justice and a share of prosperity. But far too often, people and institutions with great wealth use their power to benefit only themselves and to the detriment of the poor and the worker.

There are many forms that economic inequity and injustice can take. Many examples of inequity in the economy are addressed in the Bible. One which was often addressed is called usury. U-S-U-R-Y, usury. Usury describes the practice of charging inordinate interest on loans. The Bible generally looks down on the practice of charging interest, but it does not seem to ban it absolutely. However, it is very clear in saying that charging interest on people who are in economic distress is wrong. By biblical standards, usury is one of the worst forms of sin, often listed along with lying, bribery, dishonoring parents, robbery, adultery, rape, and murder.

But nowadays we live in a different economic system, and charging interest has become a standard way of doing business. We don’t like high interest rates, but we are used to seeing them. We accept it as the way business works. Of course, it is the way that people who have plenty of money can use their money’s power to gain even more money. I accept and agree that there are reasonable ways of loaning with interest which do not go against the biblical view of economic justice, but there are also many common practices which blatantly offend God’s justice.

Part of the problem is that we have been trained to think in a modern way that is different from the Bible’s teaching. We don’t usually think of interest as potentially falling into the same category with rape and murder. Most of us keep trying to get more credit so we can borrow more and get more stuff. Certainly all of us need to learn how to be careful and responsible in the way that we borrow money and go into debt. Many of our bad choices have put us in the mess we are in. But let’s not be turned away from the heart of this problem. The issue at hand is usury. While there are appropriate ways to borrow and loan money with interest, there are also many inappropriate, wrong, even downright evil ways of doing so, called usury.

We all need to learn a little history to understand the present. Until the late 1970s, there was a federal usury law in the U. S. which set a limit on interest rates that banks could charge. That law was repealed during a time of high inflation when the economy was in turmoil. While it may have helped get business through one set of problems, it gave rise to a whole new set of problems. Those problems have been steeping and stewing for thirty years. Those of us who have been trying to make a living since that time have seen how interest rates have gotten higher and higher, payday loans have taken a foothold with astronomical rates, and banks have offered credit with teaser rates only to jack interest rates up again and again with little or no warning.

Consumer credit has become such a growth industry because the banks are taking a subscription on our future income. Just like you subscribe to a magazine and it keeps coming for a year or several years, they are subscribing to a piece of your paycheck. They adjust their lending practices to try to make sure that you keep having to pay them for years and years, even if you didn’t borrow very much. Low monthly payments mean plenty of interest is paid and very little of the principal. Their business plan is to keep your monthly payments coming indefinitely, almost infinitely. I know what I’m talking about, because Visa has had a long-time subscription to my paycheck. But an economy based on predatory practices is not sustainable. The overextended, high-risk, no tomorrow credit economy has reached the limits of its irrationality and recklessness. A reckoning has come.

Continued into final section in next post . . .

Open Hearts Mean Open Hands, Part 1

During the early summer I was working with a group of scholars to prepare a theological reflection on the economic crisis. I posted the resulting document in several parts. This document was distributed to bank executives, along with a document prepared by a muslim scholar from North Carolina which explains the economic commitments of Islam and its opposition to usury.

Another purpose of the "Theological Reflection on the Economy" was to create conversation in churches and provide encouragement to pastors to preach on economic issues. As part of that purpose, I prepared a sermon on the economic crisis which I have had several opportunities to preach in the past month. The last occasion was a Service of Prayer and Public Witness hosted by my church, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, at the instigation of Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr. A number of other churches and ecumenical groups joined with us on Wednesday, Sept. 23 for the service. A Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam were on the program to read from their scriptures and bring remarks concerning the economy and usury.

What follows here and in the next two posts is the text of the sermon preached that night.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Acts 4:31-35

If you take some time to read a newspaper, listen to the news on the radio, or watch the news on the television, you can’t help but hear people talking about hard times. Or maybe I should say, you can’t help but hear people arguing about what we ought to do in these hard times. The latest version of the argument is about health care and health insurance reform. Different interest groups and political camps have different views of how to organize the system of access to health care, and they are calling each other idiots and Nazis. On a recent Saturday outside the Capitol in Raleigh, hundreds gathered to demand health insurance reform now. Across the street, people tried to shout us down, saying, “No ObamaCare.”

Stretching the truth and even flat-out lies are daily fare in this shouting match because billions of dollars and millions of lives are at stake. At the rally I mentioned at the Capitol in Raleigh, Rev. Dr. William Barber, known to many of you both as a preacher and for his work with the North Carolina NAACP, delivered one of the best lines on this matter. He said it in response to the disinformation an fear campaign that is claiming government committees will be deciding which old people can live and which must die. Barber said, “There is not a death panel in the current proposal; there is a death panel in the current system.” Right now, corporate insurance managers make decisions to deny claims, drop coverage, and delay payments that can mean life or death, work or disability, survival or bankrupty in the lives of people like you and me. Some of you may have heard about another great big lie. After a rally in Washington, DC, a few days ago, the rally’s promoters intentionally put out a press release with a photograph of crowds on the Capitol Mall from another event, an event held in 1997, to give the impression that their crowds were 10 times as great as they really were. Everyone who has been on the gravy train in the out-of-control health system wants to keep that train rolling.

People whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the exploding costs and inequities of the current health system have had enough, but these people have trouble getting their voices heard. They are too busy working extra jobs to stay ahead of the bill collectors. Or they have become homeless and are just trying to figure out how to recover from losing their home to foreclosure by the bank. Or they are too sick with an untreated illness to speak up. Some are just too discouraged by the number of hard-hearted, tight-fisted people they have run into.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this health care access mess we are in, starting with insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, then moving on to various institutions, health professionals, and government officials. And the economic problems of health care are just one part of our economic woes. Bad thinking, bad leadership, bad values, and bad morals have spread like the untreated cancers of the uninsured throughout our economic system. The current recession was directly caused by loose, shady, exploitive practices in credit and finance, and by lots of wishful thinking that it would all work out even if the risks people were taking were far beyond what prudence would allow.

Hard economic times place people and institutions in jeopardy, whether it be from health care costs, credit crises, pay cuts, or layoffs. Not only is there plenty of blame to go around, today there is also plenty of pain to go around. You and I have seen the results up close. People are losing their homes. Banks are closing. Businesses are failing. Workers are losing jobs. Families are uprooted. People are crying out for a solution. This week, some people say the recovery has arrived, but we sure don’t see it in our neighborhoods and workplaces.

What kind of a economic recovery leaves giant banks standing while the average worker’s life gets harder and harder? That is not a solution. It smells like collusion. Whose money bailed out the banks? Every taxpayer’s money. But who is an economy supposed to benefit? (I’ve got a lot of questions, folks. May I ask some questions here?) Who says billions can bail out executive jobs but nothing can bail out the jobs of common laborers and clerical workers? Who says tax dollars can pay off banks’ bad debts, but the average taxpaying citizens are on their own to dig their way out of debt? Debt relief for millionaires and homelessness for working people—that’s not the kind of economy we believe in. That is like saying Jesus came to announce the Jubilee, to proclaim the Year of Remission, to offer the forgiveness of debts, BUT . . . BUT . . . but then qualified the announcement by telling us only bankers and brokers and insurance executives are eligible. All I can say is that this topsy-turvy, smoke-and-mirrors, hocus-pocus economy is messed up.

I want to spend a few minutes recollecting the route we took on the way to this economic train wreck.Is it all right to break things down tonight?

One major part of the problem had to do with a collapse of home prices. Loans had been written with the assumption that housing values would rise steadily and without interruption. Some people borrowed more than they could afford, but there were others who actually could afford their mortgages, only to find that the crashing market in home values left them paying double the value for a house that had originally been overpriced in an inflated market. The accumulating effects of a weak economy led to workers losing jobs, and without jobs they also could no longer meet their mortgage payments. In other cases, because of adjustable rate mortgages or balloon mortgages, many people found their payments increasing at the very time when they were taking pay cuts, losing work hours, and even losing their jobs. Now the total number of mortgages in trouble was relatively small compared to all the ones that were doing fine, but the fear of bad loans and bad debts began to spread like a panic.

People became concerned about many other forms of debt, from the high finance of hedge funds to the average person’s credit card debt. A crash in the stock market followed up the crash in home prices, and many people who had thought they were in good financial shape now saw their pensions and retirement funds, their homes, and their investments lose a third or a half of their value, not to mention the ones who lost everything to swindlers running Ponzi schemes. Add to those the people who have lost health insurance coverage and built up mountains of debt for medical care.

When the economic situation became too severe to ignore, government officials recommended a massive bailout of major financial institutions, with the claim that saving them would save us all. Institutions who had operated in an ethereal world of trading worthless paper for empty promises were treated as the foundation and backbone of the economy. For millions of Americans, however, the recovery of these institutional Leviathans has not had the intended ripple effect. We have not been warmed by the glow of their cash-burning recoveries.

The idea was to stabilize the financial system by providing cash to banks and other financial institutions who were threatened by bad loans. However, the banks and financial institutions took our money and held on to it, or they used our money to prop up only their executive bonuses and stockholder profits. The cash infusion to financial giants did not slow down the pace of foreclosures on home mortgages that keep putting hardworking families out of their homes. Again, I have to quote from Rev. Dr. William Barber, who said, “You can’t break the bank, then rob the bank, then say there ain’t no money in the bank.” In other words, that bailout money was not intended for a small, smug, self-important group of financial genius posers who believe they are entitled to bonuses even when they fail miserably. It should be for the lenders and the borrowers who are in trouble. The bailout did not pump up the economy or reverse the plummeting employment statistics. It did not ease the pressure of indebtedness on the wage-earning public. To the contrary, credit card companies pressured their small borrowers with new and harsh credit terms and fees, and consumer interest rates soared to loan-shark heights.

So I’ve taken a little time to recall how the economic situation got so bad. We are all very capable of making a mess of our lives, and sometimes a few people can bungle things up for the rest of the people. Our collective failures can accumulate to the point that it sometimes seems there is no way out of our trouble. One solution may seem to introduce a whole new set of problems.

Continued in next post . . .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Community Organizing Process

The following is a speech I gave recently at a community organizing meeting. It is a brief description of the cycle through which our community organizing work moves periodically as we reorganize to address new issues.

Good Afternoon, and welcome to this Du
rham CAN Internal Assembly. I am Rev. Mike Broadway, associate minister at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the Durham CAN strategy team.

As we begin today, I want to answer two questions: “Why are we gathering today?” and “What will we be accomplishing in this meeting?”

Durham CAN does its work on a flexible timetable, but according to an intentional process. As a system of discernment, planning, action and evaluation, it can be thought of as a circular process, what we theologians might call a hermeneutical circle.

By following this purposive process, our organization is able to reorganize and re-energize ourselves. As has been said before, “All organizing is REorganizing.” So that is why we are here.

At least three, if not more, times Durham CAN has been at this point in our process. We have achieved significant victories, accomplished the goals we had set in education, crime prevention, youth services, living wages, housing improvement, health care access, environmental cleanup, and more. That is why we are here today, to keep the wheel turning, to move on in our work toward new goals, new growth, new maturity, new actions, and new community-building.

Take a look at the image projected on the wall. It is one way of describing our process.

Everything begins with building relationships. You are here because of your relationship to people in an organization, congregation, or neighborhood, and because your group has built relationships with these other groups present. We don’t start by reading the headlines or answering the mass mailing about politics. Issues we take up come from our relationships. We listen to one another in relational meetings, in house meetings, in planned listening sessions.

The house meetings give us new
institutional priorities. Watts Street Baptist Church, Monument of Faith Church of God, Nehemiah Christian Center, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association, Judea Reform Congregation, Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center, and all of our member organizations have arrived at a new set of priorities based on listening to one another. We also learn where the energy of our people lies in these meetings. To what are we ready to give ourselves? Who is ready to lead on these priorities?

These institutional priorities cover a wide range of issues. They may have started as a laundry list of issues, then were narrowed down by each institution. Then these narrowed-down institutional issues must be brought into a collective vision for the broad-based organization of Durham CAN. It is a process of conversation and even debate at times. It requires compromise, and it guides our collective action. That discussion is part of what we are doing here today.

When we have set our
collective priorities, we do so because this is where we are ready to generate energy for action. These will be our next issues. We will work on these first.

That does not mean that other issues which emerged from a congregation or neighborhood are unimportant. It only means that for now, we will narrow our focus so that we can accomplish something for the good of our community. If we try to do everything at once, we will surely fail. But when we succeed, we build energy to move on to the things we have not yet done.

Another part of what we are doing today is activating leaders. We will begin the formation of action and research teams around the priorities we set. If we want to make a difference, our priorities must be linked to a group of people committed to making a difference. These action teams will do research and make recommendations to the larger membership of CAN through the Metro Council. They do not work in isolation or set the policies, but they guide the rest of us in identifying our action agenda.

These teams help turn a priority into an
issue. That means that it becomes actionable—it becomes something we can act on by being specific, measurable, and achievable. It becomes winnable. We can rally behind an issue. We can take it public and negotiate for its achievement.

These teams then move from research to
action by identifying targets through a power analysis. Who has the power to make a difference for our issues? Whether it be elected officials, business leaders, public administrators, or someone else, we plan actions in order to get a reaction.

One of the ways we seek a reaction is in a public assembly. We do our homework and preparation so that we can bring our targeted public officials before CAN delegates to react to our proposals. When all has gone well, we know that they will support our issues even before they arrive. Sometimes, it gets a bit uncomfortable at an assembly when they are not sure they want to do what we ask. But either way, we have gotten the reaction we need, and we proceed to hold them accountable and if they are reluctant, find ways to get them to change their minds.

When we have received the commitments we asked for, we follow-up and make sure that it all comes to pass. And when we have achieved victory on our issues, we
evaluate our progress. We look over how we did our work and find what we did well and what we did not do very well. It is kind of like digestion, as we break it down and make use of what we can learn. As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We want to know how to do things better, and not to repeat our mistakes. We want to learn as an organization. We want to grow.

This internal meeting today is all about getting us from our institutional priorities to be almost ready for our Delegates Assembly with the candidates for City Council and Mayor on October 18. Today we will be sharing stories, setting priorities, bringing leaders into teams, and making agreements in a way that will get us ready and moving for a new cycle of successful organizing.

So let’s get busy reorganizing to make a difference in Durham today.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Some Health Priorities

Saturday morning the Laymen's League at my church, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, asked me to lead a discussion on health insurance reform. The people there were quite knowledgeable and had convictions about how these matters should be settled. We agreed on a list of priorities, which we put into a letter, signed, and sent to Representative David Price and Senators Kay Hagan and Richard Burr. If you agree with these priorities, why not contact your Congressional representatives, too. Here is a copy of our letter.

Members of the Laymen’s League

Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church

316 Hebron Road

Durham, NC 27704

September 19, 2009

Rep. David Price

411 W. Chapel Hill Street

NC Mutual Building, 9th Floor

Durham, NC 27701

Dear Rep. Price,

Today we met to discuss health insurance reform as part of our Laymen’s League Men’s Breakfast. Many of us are concerned about this issue because of its direct effects on our families. We want to make clear to you what we believe is important to include in any legislation that will set out to reform health insurance and health care access.

  1. Everyone should have access to quality health care, regardless of income or age.
  2. Young people should be able to continue longer on their parents’ insurance policies.
  3. Insurance companies should not be able to exclude pre-existing conditions, drop coverage, deny benefits, and other forms of discrimination against the sick.
  4. Insurance coverage should be fully portable regardless of whether a person gets a new job, loses her or his job, retires, or experiences other changes in employment.
  5. Medicare should remain strong for senior citizens.
  6. There should be caps on out-of-pocket expenses for any person or family, both annually and for a lifetime.No one should have to go bankrupt over health care costs.
  7. Large employers should continue to contribute to health insurance costs.
  8. Small businesses should have opportunities for the same affordable health insurance plans that large businesses have.
  9. There should be prescription drug coverage without gaps.
  10. People should be able to keep health insurance they like.
  11. People should be able to choose their doctors.
  12. Big insurance and health care monopolies should have to face real competition to bring prices down.
  13. Health disparities affecting minorities should be addressed.
  14. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, glaucoma, high blood pressure, and others should be priorities for affordable treatment.

We would appreciate hearing back from you concerning our priorities. Thank you for your hard work on our behalf.


Robert Crouch, Chair (signatures on attached page)

Monday, August 17, 2009

War Resistance in Killeen

An article published in truthout tells the story of soldiers from Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, who have found one another through their mutual conviction that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are morally wrong and unjustifiable. They are part of a newly connected group of people in Killeen who have determined that they must take a stand against the war. Two soldiers, Spc. Victor Agosto and Sgt. Travis Bishop, have faced court martial for their refusal to deploy.

One of the outgrowths of this developing community of war resistance has been a coffee shop just down the street from Fort Hood, called Under the Hood. Members of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, soldiers, and families of Fort Hood military personnel have found refuge and strength for their convictions in this new gathering place.

The Resistors from Casey J Porter on Vimeo.

The Resistors is a new film made for Under The Hood Cafe.

The following quotations are excerpts from the truthout article.

Sgt. Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 3rd Signal Brigade, faces a court-martial this Friday for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan.

Bishop is the second soldier from Fort Hood in as may weeks to be tried by the military for his stand against an occupation he believes is "illegal." He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on both moral and legal grounds and he has filed for conscientious objector (CO) status.

Spc. Victor Agosto was court-martialed last week for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan.

* * *

Bishop told Truthout he was inspired by Agosto's stand and had chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal. Both his time in Iraq, the illegality of the occupation and a moral awakening led to his decision to refuse to deploy.

"I started to see a big difference between our reality there and what was in the news," Bishop explained to Truthout about his experience in Iraq, but went on to add that morality and religion played a role as well.

When he received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, Bishop said, "I started reading my Bible to get right with my creator before going. Through my reading I realized all this goes against what Jesus taught and what all true Christians should believe. I had a religious transformation, and realized that all war is wrong."

Bishop received his orders to deploy to Afghanistan in February, but at the time "didn't know there was a support network or a way out at all. I thought GI resistance was something archaic from Vietnam."

As his deployment date approached, he met with other soldiers at a GI resistance cafe, "Under the Hood", in Killeen, Texas.

"They told me not only do I have a choice, but I have a support network backing me up," Bishop explained, "I told them my thinking, and they said that I sounded like a CO. They put me in touch with (James) Branum and when I learned from him what a CO was, I knew I couldn't go."

* * *

Bishop hopes his refusal to deploy will inspire soldiers to search their consciences.

"My hope is that people who feel like me, that they don't have a voice and are having doubts, I hope that this shows them that not only can you talk to someone about this, but that you actually have a choice," he said.

"Choice is the first thing they take away from you in the military," Bishop added, "You're taught that you don't have a choice. That's not true. And not wanting to kill someone or get killed does not make you a coward. I hope my actions show this to more people."
There is a video documentary linked below, for those who want to learn more about Under the Hood Cafe. Be warned that there is some rough language used by some persons who are interviewed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Listing Reasons for Health Care Reform

I found an excellent summary of the reasons to support the current health care reform proposal. It came in an email from Health Care Can't Wait.

A lot of angry, over-the-top rhetoric is muddying our discussion of health care reform. To help clear things up, here’s a brief summary of President Obama’s plan, including how it will stop insurance company abuses and help you—even if you currently have a strong health benefits plan.

Health care reform will stop insurance company abuses.
  • Insurance companies won’t be able to refuse to pay a claim or give you coverage because of “pre-existing” conditions.
  • Your out-of-pocket expenses will be capped. No more going broke because of a serious illness or injury.
  • Insurance companies won’t be allowed to charge women higher rates than men or drop you if you get sick.
  • Insurance companies will have to cover your children until age 26 instead of dumping them at 19.
Health care reform will hold down rising costs.
  • A public health insurance option will force private insurers to compete and will lower costs for everyone.
  • By requiring companies to pay their fair share, we’ll stop them from dumping their health care costs on the rest of us.
Health reform means affordable care will be there for you, no matter what.
  • If you lose your job,
  • or your kid loses his.
  • If you get sick.
  • When you retire. Affordable health care will be there for you, no matter what. That means you and your family can’t fall through the cracks
  • and won’t go broke because of health care bills.
The reality is that health care costs are spiraling out of control, and everyone in America deserves quality and affordable care. Health care reform simply can’t wait. We will all be better off with real reform.
There is a good new site to correct the masses of misinformation going on about health reform. People who believe in truth and morality need at least to listen to each other and make sure they are not running around fighting against empty enemies. There are no death panels. There is not a takeover of the health care system in this plan. Frankly, I wish the plan would do more than it does to reduce costs, but this is the compromise plan.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Even if You Have Employer-Subsidized Health Insurance, You Don't Really

At the excellent "think-tank" blog on economics and finance, The Baseline Scenario, James Kwak has posted an article on health insurance that draws back the curtains, blows away the fog, and shatters the mirrors of illusion. The "in-your-face" title is "You Do Not Have Health Insurance." He says that unless you are over 65 in the U. S., the word "insurance" does not really apply. I'll quote the first section to spell out the heart of his argument, which will knock you over.

Right now, it appears that the biggest barrier to health care reform is people who think that it will hurt them. According to a New York Times poll, “69 percent of respondents in the poll said they were concerned that the quality of their own care would decline if the government created a program that covers everyone.” Since most Americans currently have health insurance, they see reform as a poverty program – something that helps poor people and hurts them. If that’s what you think, then this post is for you.

You do not have health insurance. Let me repeat that. You do not have health insurance. (Unless you are over 65, in which case you do have health insurance. I’ll come back to that later.)

The point of insurance is to protect you against unlikely but damaging events. You are generally happy to pay premiums in all the years that nothing goes wrong (your house doesn’t burn down), because in exchange your insurer promises to be there in the one year that things do go wrong (your house burns down). That’s why, when shopping for insurance, you are supposed to look for a company that is financially sound – so they will be there when you need them.

If, like most people, your health coverage is through your employer or your spouse’s employer, that is not what you have. At some point in the future, you will get sick and need expensive health care. What are some of the things that could happen between now and then?

Your company could drop its health plan. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (see Table HIA-1), the percentage of the population covered by employer-based health insurance has fallen every year since 2000, from 64.2% to 59.3%.

You could lose your job. I don’t think I need to tell anyone what the unemployment rate is these days.

You could voluntarily leave your job, for example because you have to move to take care of an elderly relative.

You could get divorced from the spouse you depend on for health coverage.

For all of these reasons, you can’t count on your health insurer being there when you need it. That’s not insurance; that’s employer-subsidized health care for the duration of your employment.

Once you lose your employer-based coverage, for whatever reason, you’re in the individual market, where, you may be surprised to find, you have no right to affordable health insurance. An insurer can refuse to insure you or can charge you a premium you can’t afford because of your medical history. That’s the way a free market works: an insurer would be crazy to charge you less than the expected cost of your medical care (unless they can make it up on their healthy customers, which they can’t in the individual market).

In honor of the financial crisis, let’s also point out that all of these risks are correlated: being sick increases your chances of losing your job (and, probably, getting divorced); losing your job reduces your ability to afford health insurance.
There is more in the article, explaining some further dangers about companies rescinding policies, denying claims, not covering various critical procedures, and COBRA that help us realize how precarious our health coverage is. As he points out, unless your job is insured (there is no way you can lose your job or go out of business), your access to health care is not insured.

We need this reform. Make it plain to your Congressional Representatives.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

An Outsourcing Strategy for Customer Service in Prayer

Not long ago, a friend from Atlanta, Guy Pujol, passed on a bit of information:
I just learned the funniest thing from a friend employed at a call center handling the customer service calls for AT&T, Verizon, and other major companies: they also handle the prayer request lines for TD Jakes, Eddie Long, and Creflo Dollar! If you call those toll-free televangelistic numbers, you aren't talking to someone with that ministry; you're talking to an outsourced employee reading a script off a computer.
It's a little disorienting. When we call for assistance or service with a business, we still think of it as calling that business. Slowly, many of us have become aware that service calls to outsourced call centers mean that we may not be talking with someone who works directly for the company we are trying to reach. Call centers are a business unto themselves, and they don't necessarily have specific people assigned only to AT&T, Chevrolet, Sony, or Exxon.

What Guy has pointed out that many of us have not thought about is that a person in a call center responds to the caller by following a script on a computer screen. That computer screen can give a script for computer problems, auto warranty information, cell phone plans, airline reservations, credit applications, or an almost infinite number of products and topics. It is not an idea that I have really gotten used to.

So it is shocking at first to consider the notion that Creflo Dollar has outsourced his call center to people who may be selling a phone package to one caller then making a pitch to someone needing prayer. It's shocking until we realize that such ministries have long ago left being modeled around theological convictions about the church. They have come under the discipline of the market and adopted the rationality of corporate finance. Therefore, efficiency of processing the paying customers is far more important that sincere and caring listeners for people needing prayer.

The scales of unbridled capitalism blind us so often to the distortions and corruptions of what goes by the name of church in our time. Apparently the fourfold ministry should be revised: some are CEOs, some profiteers, some entrepreneurs, some passers and teasers.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pay to Play: Health Lobbies Buy Their Access

"This is not a democracy. It's an auction." Those are the words of a bumper sticker we stuck on a car I used to own. The obscene amount of money that are spent to elect and influence government officials keeps growing because it works. Money keeps buying access. If you might have money to give, then candidates and incumbents want to talk with you. If you already gave money, they want to keep the relationship for next time. And savvy lobbyists know what kinds of assistance and treatment specific legislators want. They also know how to sway the direction of corporate news and the TV-watching and talk show-listening public. In U. S. politics, money makes the world go 'round.

Michael Winship of truthout reports that enormous amounts of money have been spent on lobbying against health care reform in the second quarter of 2009: over $133 million in three months from insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and hospital corporations alone. This does not include spending by other organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and political action groups which is also on a grand scale.

According to community organizing, there are two kinds of power: organized money and organized people. Theodore Lowi, in The End of Liberalism, wrote that organized money had managed to dominate U. S. politics so heavily that we now operate by a de facto new constitution. Representative government flows from powerfully organized lobbies. Theologian John Howard Yoder warned Christians not to be fooled by the rhetoric of democracy, the rule of the people, when the U. S. polity is better described as a plutocracy, the rule of the wealthy.

There is faint hope in that community organizing has experienced a renaissance in the past quarter century. But grassroots movements still have most of their influence at the local level, and occasionally at the state level. There are ambitions for more national power from grassroots groups, but for now the organized money is in the lead.

I'm going to keep on asking folks to demand that Congress listen to the people and get us a universal health care plan that cuts costs and promotes preventive care. We may be a voice crying in the wilderness, but the voices of Isaiah and John both made a difference when they stood up for the truth.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Making the Message Plain on Health Care

Here is a short video made for TV that makes the key point about why the public option is so critical. A single-payer system would be even better, but a public option will address the key problem of uninsured people and rising costs by creating a different playing field for selling health insurance plans.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Asking for Too Little on Health Reform

I have been a fan of the single-payer approach to funding health care since the 80s. When the possibilities for reform in the 90s went corporate, then crashed, I was disappointed. Ever since, what has happened is the consolidation of Big Health and more and more interference with our health care decisions.

I have had to change primary physicians three times since the mid-1990s, even though I have stayed on the same health insurance plan. I am having all kinds of trouble getting my daughter an appointment with a doctor of her choice now that she has grown out of her pediatrics practice. The current system does not allow us to choose our own doctors. Bureaucrats in corporate offices tell us who to see.

My primary care physician changed practices last year, and my wife's primary care physician followed him a few months later because the big behemoth health provider in our town was giving them too many regulations and rules on how to practice and to whom they could make referrals. Now their new practice has joined a "health management" firm, and I can already feel the regimentation squeezing me when I go for an appointment.

When the Presidential campaigns were promoting health care reform, which everyone knows we need, the head honcho of my insurance provider started funding a media disinformation campaign to make sure that his high-profit non-profit could prevent competition that might bring down our costs. This disinformation is now widespread, and Big Health is winning the battle.

An article by Jeff Cohen at truthout got me thinking. I was campaigning for the "public option" as a form of competition to reduce health care funding and improve services. Yet I keep hearing people say, "I believe in the single-payer plan, but since that is not going to pass . . . ." Well maybe it is not going to pass, but it is the best solution. Why not ask for the best, and see how close to it the policy debate will move? To provide for more people, to reduce overhead and paperwork, to end profiteering by excluding the sick, to stop proliferation of unnecessary procedures, to make sure no one loses access to health care, we need a single-payer system. As my friend Steve Bumgardner keeps telling me, the Medicare system works and is already in place. As Cohen says, "Medicare for All" is the solution. Tell your Congressional Representatives to support HR 676, the Expanded Medicare for All Act.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Making Killing a Habit: "Kill, Kill, Kill Without Mercy"

Research after World War II provided the U. S. military with troubling information. Although the research methods and data have been questioned, a very high rate of soldiers in WWII and previous wars seem to have been unwilling to fire weapons in a lethal manner at the enemy. In other words, they would either not shoot at all, or would shoot to intentionally miss the other soldiers.

In order to overcome this "weakness," the process of basic training took on a number of features to overcome what seems to be a natural unwillingness to kill others. One strategy is the use of mantras such as "Kill, kill, kill without mercy," as part of basic training.

A series of articles in the Colorado Springs Gazette, written by Dave Phillips, describes the high level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its violent consequences that have affected soldiers of the U. S. Army Infantry assigned to Fort Carson. These soldiers have been sent into some of the most violent and deadly warfare in Iraq. They have come back to commit murder in the U. S. at a rate 20 times their similar age cohort, which is already the most violent age group in the U. S. Their rate of committing murder in comparison to the full population of Colorado Springs is 114 times as great. These statistics are only for murder, but these soldiers are also committing other violent crimes, including domestic violence, and are caught up in substance abuse at dramatically high rates.

Much of my study and research includes trying to learn how to form Christians toward virtues of love, non-violence, peacemaking, patience, kindness, hunger for righteousness, justice, mercy, humility, etc. Here we see that such virtues are a hindrance to the military objectives of the state. The state-sponsored machine of violence teaches a different set of virtues: among them "Kill, kill, kill without mercy."

Economic Recovery for All 8: Faith Perspectives, Pt 4

This entry completes the statement on the economy released on July 22, 2009, in Durham, NC. There are eight entries. For the full current list of endorsers as of this posting, see the first entry.

A Working Paper for North Carolina United Power
from an Interchange Among Theological Educators
July 2009

III. Faith Perspectives on Responding to the Crisis

B. Biblical, Theological, and Ethical Principles Guiding NCUP Actions and Campaigns in Response to the Economic Crisis

8. Shared economic risks and benefits

All societies become accustomed to doing things a certain way; however, there are many possibilities for organizing a flourishing economy. The predominant systems of investment and borrowing may be familiar, but that does not mean there might not be other, perhaps better, ways to invest, produce, and prosper. Rather than shifting almost all the economic risks toward the borrower, especially toward small borrowers, and the assured benefits primarily to the lender, there should be a way for risks and benefits to be shared more equitably.

Why should a family that has toiled for many years, paying bills and paying down a mortgage, be financially devastated by a change of fortune, when a financial institution prefers to write off their mortgage as a loss rather than work out a means of mutual and equitable benefit? As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop (1 Cor. 9:10). Martin Luther wrote, "If you would have interest in my profits, you must also have an interest in my losses. . . . The owners of income, who will not put up with that, are just as pious as robbers and murderers, and wrest from the poor man his property and his living" ("A Treatise on Usury").

C. Conclusions

Too often, people imagine that the economy is a competition over scarce resources. Yet while creation is finite there is no fixed limit on the prosperity that humanity can share. Unlimited acquisition and idiosyncratic use of possessions fall off of the path to human flourishing. Such hoarding of goods is theft, and it begs for divine judgment.

Rather than hoarding, sharing our blessings sets the tone of biblical economics. We are blessed that we might bless others. All that we have comes by God’s grace, and we must be gracious toward one another.

Without standards against usury, the massive transfer of wealth from the middle class workers to a wealthy elite will continue. As long as a powerful few have freedom to do as they please concerning the consumer credit of the many, the economic system will not serve the common good. No magical hidden hand will correct economic oppression.

To get out of the current mess, we will need an economic reform which acknowledges our mutual dependence and obligations and turns aside from the way of selfish individualism and competition for status and conspicuous wealth.

What kind of an economic recovery leaves giant banks standing while the average worker’s life gets harder and harder? It is not an economic recovery when billions can bail out executive jobs but nothing can bail out the rest of the jobs. There is not justice when everyone’s tax dollars can pay off banks’ bad debts, but the average taxpaying citizens are left on their own to drown in their debts. Debt relief for millionaires and homelessness for working people—that’s not the kind of economy we believe in.

Economic justice is not merely a fantasy or impossible ideal. There are practical ways to put it into practice. Communities of faith have demonstrated these possibilities in the past and present. Justice need not be limited to small economic experiments. Making real steps toward justice is fully compatible with rational and pragmatic economics. It is time for people of faith to speak this truth to power.

Economic Recovery for All 7: Faith Perspectives, Pt 3

A Working Paper for North Carolina United Power
from an Interchange Among Theological Educators
July 2009

III. Faith Perspectives on Responding to the Crisis

B. Biblical, Theological, and Ethical Principles Guiding NCUP Actions and Campaigns in Response to the Economic Crisis

5. Economic value tied to real, material goods and services, not ephemeral financial machinations

The practice of making money off of money was strictly limited and often prohibited throughout the history of the Christian church. Citing Exodus 22:25, which states, "If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them, " Thomas Aquinas, wrote that "To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice" (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae. Art. 1, Q. 78). One of the critical problems that created the economic recession was the fact that mortgage-backed securities and other financial products were sold and resold for values that had lost touch with the actual homes and real estate that stood behind them. Credit default swaps were another form of betting on the paper assets of others, using more money than anyone can afford to risk. Playing this imaginary game of finance puts the entire economy at risk.

6. Transparency and honesty in exchanges and business dealings

The current practices of consumer credit and the recent "creative financing" of mortgages fall under the condemnation of the biblical view of usury. High-powered marketing campaigns promise easy access to money, with the details of excessive interest rates, charges, and penalties often relegated to the fine print. Offering low "minimum payments" and changing the terms of a credit agreement are deceptive practices that often saddle the unsuspecting borrower with accruing debt accompanied by unforeseen and undisclosed rate hikes.

These practices strongly parallel the devious ways of Zacchaeus, the tax collector mentioned in Luke 19, whom Jesus admonished to rethink his business tactics. Zacchaeus' repentance leads him to repay those he has cheated fourfold, an act of obedience to Jesus that comes into full view when contrasted to a story from the previous chapter of Luke. There one sees the failure of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to sell what he had and distribute it to the poor in order to follow Christ. There is a clear message here that Jesus' followers must turn from lives of economic exploitation toward lives of generosity and just and honest business activity.

7. The dignity of work and the opportunity to contribute to the material and spiritual common good

In a biblical economics, work has dignity as the creative activity of those made in the image of God. Thus, human beings work as for the Lord and not for human masters (Col. 3:23). Even so, this work done unto God also serves the divine purpose of doing good for all. Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians to emulate the ways of Christ when he wrote, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (Phlp. 2:4).

All work which serves the common good has dignity as part of God's purpose for creation. When market economies become distorted by wealth, greed, and inequity, the work of some earns status and wealth, while other essential work receives disdain and very low compensation. Although financial institutions are resisting limits on wages of executives because they fear a "talent drain," they consistently oppose better wages and benefits for the average worker. The shocking fact is that many of these so-called “talented” executives played games with other people's wealth, took undue risks, promoted questionable mortgages and remained blind to the housing bubble.

Why aren't average workers considered "talent?" Workers are the assets that make careers for executives possible. A long-range view of business and the economy aims to reward and keep talented, hard-working people. Only shortsighted greed leads some members of a corporation to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the interests of those responsible for creating the value, through goods and services, that sustains the corporations and the common good. "The laborer deserves to be paid" (1 Tim. 5:18).

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