Wednesday, June 24, 2009


How blessed is he who makes plans for the poor; The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble.
The LORD will protect him and keep him alive, And he shall be called blessed upon the earth; And do not give him over to the desire of his enemies.
The LORD will sustain him upon his sickbed; In his illness, You restore him to health.
Psalm 41:1-3

Just as we do to others in need, the Lord will do to us in our time of need.

Widows and Orphans

"You shall not wrong an immigrant or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
"You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
"If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.”
Exodus 22:21-27

The widows and orphans are those who have no ability to bring their matter to court because they had no social or legal standing, just as a felon or the very poor do not in our society, because they cannot sue.

To do justice to the widow and orphan is, today, providing justice for those who obtain no justice in the "justice" system. For those who do not receive justice, the final appeal is to God Himself.

The American Dream

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Ultimately, all of the great American heroes were after one thing: The American Dream. George Washington sought freedom. Benjamin Franklin sought independence. Thomas Jefferson sought security. Alexander Hamilton sought financial freedom. Abraham Lincoln sought unity. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought equality. They all had a vision that together we can call the American Dream. The American dream was broad in its vision, and they all saw the United States as being a beacon for the whole world, an ideal for all the oppressed to hold to.
However, over time, the American dream evolved. It has been taken up by advertisers, real estate agents, television shows, and cigarette manufacturers. Rather than being a quality of life, it has taken on the characteristics of a particular kind of life—a life of a certain economic level, a certain kind of work, a certain level of materialism.

The freedom of the enlightenment idealists was originally an opportunity for everyone to reach to their highest moral and spiritual self. But our society has taken this freedom to be to partake in the lowest common denominator of pornography, greed, violence, covetousness and gluttony, while causing only a limited amount of harm to others.

The ideal of the American dream is that of equality, so that all are treated with fairness and justice, no matter what society or culture or race they are in. Now equality is meant to limit one’s choices to hundreds of channels on television, but if someone wants to live a different lifestyle, they are punished by having their children taken away from them.

Financial security
The financial security envisioned is that of living according to one’s own means, at whatever level that means. But this has been transformed to greed, with even the poor wondering what they have done wrong to fail to obtain the riches promised them. The wealthy, meanwhile, must keep a serving class of minimum-wage workers (or below minimum wage) in order to maintain their wealth. The greed of the ruling culture is based on the poverty of the lower class.

The comfort of the idealists was equally realized in Thomas Jefferson, the inventor and (writer of Walden), the creator of the simple life. There was a variety of lifestyles which kept one at peace with one’s environment and society. But our society has taken comfort to be that of material comfort, with a minimum of physical effort for that life. This has turned into a culture of entitlement, where we don’t just hope for a materialist lifestyle, but expect it and think that we all deserve it.

Freedom of employment
To have work is to be able to be self-sustaining, to pay for one’s own life and family, whatever lifestyle that might be. But now, in order to obtain the lifestyle of greed, we must go the avenue of seeking the patronage and goals of one whose purpose in life is to make money, which he promises to share some sparse percentage of with the one whom he employs. We are trapped in a job ethic that we hate, but we cannot escape.

Democratic ideal
The democratic ideal that was originally held is rule by the people for the sake of the people. But somehow this has been translated to a plutocratic republic—where the only “people” who rule are the wealthy, for the sake of the wealthy. Then this ideal of government is imported to other nations when the “people” there don’t want this form of democracy, but a religious republic.

The Constitution says that the United States must “provide for the common defense”. Yet this “defense” has become a military complex and society that shapes the rest of the country in support of it’s world-wide mission to promote American welfare. The result of this is a constant fear of those who want to limit American influence to its own country, even if they have no violent intent.

Ideally, Thomas Jefferson wrote, the American dream is the freedom to pursue happiness. But the American dream today is not the pursuit of happiness, but the direct injection of it. All we want for our children is that they be “happy”. But happiness is found so much easier in an injection, mental health meds, alcohol, television or escapist novels. The harder to obtain, but more content-producing happiness of service, charity, peacemaking and working for God isn’t sought first or even primarily. They are small parts of our life that we gladly surrender when more direct happiness appears or is offered by our cable companies, drug dealers or health care specialists.

Our salvation is limited to what our society can give us. Our opportunities are limited to what we think we should have. Our choices are limited by what everyone thinks is best for us.

Yet there is another option, we are not limited to what our society offers us. Because Jesus offers us a different lifestyle.

Freedom in Jesus
Jesus offers us freedom from our own limitations. He offers us freedom from our own limited morality. He offers us freedom from a pointless existence of self-pleasuring, self-serving, self-pandering. Jesus offers us the power of God and the lifestyle that He himself lived in order to make a powerful change for good in this country, in the world. Jesus calls us to be more than human, to live according to the Spirit instead of the flesh.

Security in Jesus
Jesus offers us all the resources of God, without typical employment, without serving a society of greed. Rather, we can trust in God’s provision, trust in unseen defenses, trust in God’s ways to make a road of security for us and our family in the midst of that which the world fears.

Peace in Jesus
Jesus offers us a peace that is borne by the Spirit, not by a false security of missiles, diplomacy and economic sanctions. He offers us a peace that comes from within, a peace that we can transfer to others and help others live in.

Community in Jesus
Jesus offers us a people who is in the midst of creating a society based on the revolutionary ideals of Jesus, instead of the lowest common denominator. Jesus offers us people to live with, to share with, to work with, to pray with, to rejoice with and to support and minister to. Jesus offers us a full life, instead of the half-life of the American Dream.

Joy in Jesus
Jesus offers us joy—not just entertainment. Yes, this is joy in persecution, happiness amidst suffering. But this is the life of richness, the life of fullness, the life of God.

Why is the American Dream what the church seek, when Jesus says the kingdom of God is found through the loss of the American Dream?
Why is the American Dream the primary option offered to our children, when it fails us in so many ways?
Why is the American Dream the only real option offered to the poor, as if that is the true salvation offered by Jesus?
Where are the saints who sacrificed themselves for the poor?
Where are the godly who knew that one could either have God’s kingdom or the world’s?

Ultimately, it is because our church has accepted the American Dream as the true salvation.

Let’s not go the way of the standard church. Let’s not be content with half-lives any more.

Seek the community of Jesus

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Middle Class Assumptions

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, thousands of people were stranded in the city, which was soon destroyed by wind and flood and filled with diseases. Because the great majority of people stranded in the city were black, it is assumed that latent racism underlying American society has taken its toll again. Racism is an easy card to play—it seems to be a problem everywhere from the LA Police to grandpa’s living room. There is the prejudice inherent in racism as well as the system in which groups are held back from positions of power.

Personally, however, I don’t think that the problem in New Orleans was racial prejudice. Yes, the far majority of folks trapped in the city, lied to and even shot at were black—but certainly not all. Nor do I actually think that the problem stemmed from authorities "not caring" about those who were stranded. Yes, I am sure that there are some who didn’t care about them, but I don’t think that is what created the situation.

I think, rather, that the horrors in the city were created from the assumptions those in power had about society in general.

The powers that be knew that there were many people who had no intention of leaving the city, no matter how many evacuation warnings were given. These were people who had ways of getting out of the city, but they chose not to. So, as many authorities were leaving the city, and they saw people staying behind, it was no surprise. After all, many people were foolish and decided to ride out the storm.

The real problem lay in what they didn’t think about. They didn’t think about the fact that there is a vibrant street culture in New Orleans who wouldn’t have the capacity to leave the city. They didn’t think about the many who were injured or elderly who were incapable of leaving, and without family to assist them. They didn’t think about the poor who rely on public transportation for their daily needs, and do not have money to pay to leave the city. They assumed that everyone could get out of the city if they wanted to. It was never a spoken assumption. If it had been spoken, it could have been questioned. But the assumption was still there, still and quiet in the minds of those in power.

And who could really blame them? They were under a tremendous amount of stress. They had to figure out how to take care of their families and property. They had extra responsibilities. They just never thought of those who wanted to be evacuated, but couldn’t be.

We mustn’t judge these authorities. It is easy to point fingers after the fact, "You should have done this!" Rather we should think about what we would have done in similar circumstances. Would we have thought of those who had no transportation? Would we have thought of those who had no reserve of cash to deal with an emergency? Would we have thought of those in nursing homes and mental health facilities and prisons, if we had no one that we personally knew in such circumstances? Would we have thought beyond ourselves to those who lack the resources we do on a daily basis?
These questions are easy to answer. First we need to ask, do we think of these folks now? This is not asking—WHAT do we think of them? If pressed on the point, I suppose that most of us would honestly say, "I never think badly about the poor and lowly." But the reason it is true is because the poor and lowly are so far out of our context, out of our lives, that we never actually think about them at all- either good or ill. If we don’t think of them now, how could we expect anyone else like us to think of them when they are facing a personal crisis? How can we expect anyone to assist the lowly in an emergency when they never thought of them on normal days?
The stranded in New Orleans weren’t put in a life-threatening position because of racism or even because of blatant prejudice of any kind. They were stranded because of middle-class assumptions.

What is a middle class assumption? It is what most of us who are middle class assume that "everyone" has in society, because everyone we know has them. It is what we assume is the minimum standard to live and function in our society. It is what goes thoughtless when dealing with large groups of people—from leading a church meeting to organizing a free concert to governing an entire population.

Having assumptions is not wrong. It is a part of the cultural baggage we all have. We learn it bit by bit beginning as infants, and our culture grows and is reshaped and is transformed as we get older. The assumptions, however, is just what we get used to—what we never see missing. If we have never (or have rarely) experienced a person speaking anything but Russian, then "normal" people speak Russian, and everyone who is not "normal" just doesn’t come to mind when we make plans. Sure, we can understand intellectually that other people speak other languages, that they are people who are just as important as us and that they have their own need that doesn’t include speaking Russian—perhaps they speak Bengali or use sign language. But in the normal course of day-to-day events, non-Russian-speakers don’t count because we have never experienced them.

And this is the case of the middle class with the lower class. Yes, most middle class people know—intellectually— that lower class people count as much as they do and have their own needs and issues that differ from middle class needs and issues. However, since the majority of the middle class do not "rub elbows" with those of the lower class, then the needs and issues of the lower class are unknown, not to mention the specific needs of individuals who find themselves in the lower class because they suddenly are lost without one of the things that they assumed was necessary to survive—but never really thought about it.

What are these assumptions?
Well, it is beyond my ability to list all of them. But below are a list of those that I and those whom I know experienced.

Ability to remain clean—The idea that everyone in our society has the capacity to a shower or bath with a change of clean clothes and proper hygiene items, such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. However, this is a huge assumption to make. To remain clean in this way requires many resources that people, especially those who live on the street, do not have. Think casually how much you pay for your cleanness—between water, a place to have privacy, all the various items to clean clothes and hygiene items. Even a quick overview can help us realize how expensive hygiene is. Now we can know that cleanliness is next to godliness because only the gods can afford such a standard!

Ability to gain identification—Most people assume that identification is simple to obtain. But if you had all of your identification stolen from you or lost in a fire, then you might find that you were in a grave situation. For legal state I.D. you need two pieces of identification. And you cannot obtain any other identification without identification. And without identification, you cannot even check out a library book, let alone get a job or cash a check.

Well spoken English with no or minor accent—This is an assumption that many immigrants face daily. It is assumed that because they learned English with a strong accent that they do not know English well at all. And this is a barrier to many avenues of our society, although bi-lingual services are being provided more and more frequently now.

Basic knowledge of national events—Most of the middle class assume that everyone has access to a newspaper or at least watch television news. However, for those who do not have televisions or who do not choose to pay attention to news, this limits conversation and the main source of knowledge of basic cultural information for the middle class.
Personal transportation—According to the middle class, "normal" people have access to an automobile, and thus can drive to places quickly as often as they like. However, the cost of an automobile is such that a large percentage of the lower class cannot afford to pay for the car, insurance, repairs and gas.

Ability to travel out of town—This is the assumption that stranded many people in New Orleans. It is assumed that if necessary, with some planning, anyone can leave to another county or state if they so desire. However, many people are limited to public transportation, which is limited to a metropolitan area. Or Greyhound, but if you can’t book two weeks in advance or have extra money, then you ain’t going anywhere.

Well dressed, (but not necessarily fancy)—This is the assumption that keeps many lower class folks from attending church services or weddings. It is assumed by most of the middle class that everyone has at least one set of "nice" clothes for special occasions. However, many people, especially those of the lower class, just do not have them.

Computer literate—It is an assumption being made more and more often that everyone has the ability to get on a computer and know what one is doing. Along with this assumption is the idea that we can send important information to people on the internet, or through email, and that is adequate for all who need it. However, not everyone can use a computer and a large percentage of people have difficulties accessing the internet.

Health insurance—Some assume that everyone has some kind of health insurance, although is it becoming widely recognized that most people’s insurance is extremely inadequate. Again, it is a large percentage of the lower class has no insurance whatsoever, and a growing group is being turned away from almost any medical care due to past unpaid bills.

No mental illness—This is the most widespread assumption and the one that is most wrong. Perhaps some 10 percent of people have a diagnosed mental illness. And perhaps another ten percent has a mental illness that has not been diagnosed. But every single one of us has a mental weakness that makes us inadequate in an area that most people are adequate in. Some of us are weak socially, some are weak in mathematics, some are weak in self-assessment. But more often than not, those of us who are strong in an area cannot understand or appreciate those who are inadequate in some area of mental ability. What we must remember however is that mental weakness is what is normal.

Disposable money—It is assumed and expected that everyone has some money, even if it is a small amount, that they can use for an occasional lunch out or for an emergency. However, those of low income, while they might have the occasional financial surplus, they cannot predict ahead of time when they will have disposable income. Thus, having a middle class friend ask if they want to do lunch together is just embarrassing.

Literacy—The education system of the United States has done a remarkable job of teaching most people to read. But there are many people—almost exclusively of the lower class, with some rare exceptions—who are not literate, except in some rudimentary ways. Yet our society is run on the presumption of being able to read warnings, street signs and newspapers. Hospitals and banks hand folks contracts and liabilities to sign that even us educated folks have a hard time reading. For the illiterate, or the functionally illiterate, they just sign what they need to sign, acting like they know what they are being handed and agreeing to things that they have no clue about.

Place to sleep—Most urban areas have some kind of anti-camping ordinance. This is to prevent people from just crashing in parks or benches, cluttering up our usually “beautiful” landscape. These ordinances and our assumption when we meet anyone is that they have had a decent night’s rest. If we knew that the person we were talking to didn’t sleep the night before, we might make allowances to their lethargy or their nodding head as we speak to them. But if we assume that they had sleep, and that they even had a place to sleep, then we don’t give them any allowance for hardship suffered. We all recognize that we need sleep. But we don’t all notice those who haven’t gotten any.

It is important for all of us to recognize these assumptions and to fight such ignorance, both in ourselves and in others. To know that many people do not have these culturally significant items for the middle class is important for all of us. It is especially important for those who organize events or lead large groups of people to recognize what assumptions are being made, for the more assumptions we make, the more people we are excluding. But most importantly, it is important for those in civil leadership to be aware of their assumptions, so that they could truly represent all of their people, and not just the middle class and above.

We also need to be aware of these issues when we establish ministries as churches. When we have a worship service, are we going to turn our noses up at those who don’t smell very good, or do we offer them an opportunity to clean up? When we have a benevolence ministry, do we demand that people give us their ID or Social Security number, or do we offer benevolence to everyone, without exception? When we see people nodding, do we assume they are strung out on heroin, or do we take into account that perhaps they haven’t slept that night? Are our worship services all based on people being able to read, or do we provide a way for the illiterate to participate?

In these and other subtle ways we make it clear that our churches are for “middle class only.” We may not have signs, but a white church in South Africa twenty years ago didn’t need a sign either—they expressed the policy through their actions. Even so, we can deny the welcome we offer to the lower class, homeless or mentally ill by insisting that they operate under the secret codes of the middle class.

Let us open our table to everyone, by making allowances for those who cannot be middle class.

Top Ten Acts of Oppression

As stated by the Hebrew Prophets:

1. Refusing to defend the needy-- Isa 1:17, 23; Jeremiah 5:28
2. Stealing from the poor-- Isaiah 3:14-15
3. Unjust judgments against the poor-- Isa 10:1-2
4. Not assisting the needy-- Eze 16:49
5. Taking interest for loans-- Ezekiel 18:15-17
6. Enslaving a people-- Amos 1:6
7. Excessive violence in war, especially against innocents-- Amos 1:13
8. Excessive rent against the poor-- Amos 5:11
9. Accepting bribes-- Amos 5:12
10. Turning away those who need shelter for a night-- Amos 5:12