Culture


It is easy to see the impact of greed on a culture when the economy falters. We forget that greed was often embraced, even encouraged during the boom days of the past.

During both our economic ups and downs the scriptures have given us consistent warnings of the high price greed. The ancient book of Amos proclaims that our love of money and stuff will destroy our core relationships.

Relationship with Others:

Amos 2:6-8

This is what the Lord says:

“The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals.

They trample helpless people in the dust

and shove the oppressed out of the way.

Both father and son sleep with the same woman,

corrupting my holy name.

At their religious festivals,

they lounge in clothing their debtors put up as security.

In the house of their god,

they drink wine bought with unjust fines.

When we love stuff, we begin reducing other people to either a means to or an obstacle to getting more stuff. We can continue de-humanizing others to the point that we begin viewing people as just stuff, good stuff and bad stuff. We see this today in everything from neglected children, to work conflict, to sex and labor slavery.

Relationship with God:

Amos 5:21-24

“I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.

I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.

I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.

Away with your noisy hymns of praise!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

an endless river of righteous living.

Our loves direct out lives. When we love stuff we pattern our lives around stuff, not around God. As a result, our religious worship is empty. God is not interested in religious pomp and circumstance if our lives are not right. I am afraid that this is at the root of much of the superficial spirituality of our modern religions culture.

Relationship with Self:

Amos 4:1-3

Listen to me, you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor

and crush the needy,

and who are always calling to your husbands,

“Bring us another drink!”

The Sovereign Lord has sworn this by his holiness:

“The time will come when you will be led away

with hooks in your noses.

Every last one of you will be dragged away

like a fish on a hook!

You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;

you will be thrown from your fortresses,”

says the Lord.

We become less than human when our lives revolve around stuff. While there will be divine judgment for greed, much of the punishment is self-imposed by living life outside of the design of the universe. We see this today in the empty eyes of teens who have every item that they want and in rampant chemical abuse found in wealthy communities.

While money and material goods are important, we must always keep them in right perspective. We can not allow the love of stuff to stifle our greatest calling to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

A man in a bright orange jump suit has picketed our church several times over the past two years. First, I found him mildly amusing because he was protesting government policies that, while our church does not take an official stance,  many in the congregation were against (OK, I also laughed at the grammatical errors on his signs and his outfits!). Then one spring morning his protest took a different tone. One side of his sign equated expansion of health care with the end of the nation. The other side of the sign simply said‘ “Load ‘Em.”
After getting the OK from my boss (And telling the security team!), I took a cup of coffee out to the Sign Guy. I was a little afraid, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  Sign Guy was thrilled – clearly equating the coffee with support. I did not tell him my views. I simply asked him questions. We had a long conversation, more like a monologue by him, that taught me a few things.
1. He was calling people to arms. Sign Guy really wanted people to rise up in a violent revolt, killing those who disagreed with him. He believed this was God’s calling for the “faithful” – to cleanse the land of the “sinners.” He defined those terms entirely on political positions. He was sure that our church was full of people who God wanted executed!
2. He was crazy. There was something off with Sign Guy’s grip on reality. He created outrageous conspiracy theories, such as the  communists, British banks, and Anglican church planted our church to destroy God’s real America. He believed that his insights were infallible  – coming from inside sources, his own brilliant research, and God.
3. He was influenced by toxic political rhetoric. This man was deeply influenced by public statements of politicians and commentators. He quoted them eagerly … especially the militant language. He even used voice tones and patterns of a radio talk show host.
This experience increased my conviction that much of the contemporary political tenor is too extreme and militant. I have a number of friends who listen to such politicians and commentators, and to be fair they do not react like the Sign Guy. The reality is that his mental state did not allow for him to see the nuance in the rhetoric.
At some point, people who have been given the privilege of a public voice must look beyond the power and profit that comes from working people into a frenzy and take seriously the responsibility of the public good. Words matter. Public voices must weigh the impact of their words, and images, upon the public – even the mentally unstable.
Last weekend in Tuscon we saw a person, presumably with some mental illness and surrounded by a culture of toxic political rhetoric, move beyond holding up signs and literally take up arms against others.  It was a tragic event.
I believe that violent political rhetoric, especially the blatant militaristic language in recent years, was a clear influence on the shooter in Tuscan as it was on the Sign Guy outside of our church. While violent political language does not drive everyone to physical violence, it will be taken literally by some who are on the edge of mental health and it has an undeniable impact on the soul of a nation.
We would do well to stop and remember the teachings of Jesus:
You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’  But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.  (Matthew 5:21-22)
There is a connection between our hearts, our words, and acts of violence.

In the final weeks of a seminary class, the professor began to do something that drove me crazy. He had a lot of material to cover, and in order to save time on complex topics the professor began to just say, “The conservative position is …, OK.

The school that I was attending was on the conservative end of the spectrum on many theological positions, so his statement was code for “the right position.” It worked for most of the class. Most heads in the room nodded in agreement.

It did not work for me. I did not care that it was the “conservative” position. I wanted to know what was true.

I was not against having a “conservative” position (If so, I would have attended a different school!), nor was I interested in having a “liberal” position. I was not in school to signing off on the company line, or adopt the party platform, or buy all the products with a certain label.

My goal was to encounter what was real and good. While labels are quick and easy, they do to answer the deeper questions: What is true? What is real? What is good? A label just can not go there.

At best, a label simply tells you what tribe currently holds the position. However, labels often mean different things in different circles. For example, this same professor was considered “conservative” by some scholars, but he was under attack in other circles for being too “liberal.” Labels are often meaningless.

At others times, the labels are just plain wrong. I pastor friend recently told me that the more he understands the Bible and teaches what it says, the more he is labeled “unbiblical.”

I see labeling increasing in both church and culture. People place simple labels on complex ideas, people, or movements. We use a label to quickly embrace or reject something without doing the hard work thinking and discerning its real validity or value.

We simply nod or shake our head at the label, and we miss discovering what is true, what is real and what is good.

This month the Impact Community is doing a series called “Conversations.” It is series designed to foster better relationships between the mainstream white evangelical church and four different marginalized people groups. Each week will include an apology letter from the church to that community.

This week we discussed the immigrant community. This is our apology.

Dear Immigrant Community,

I’m sorry.

I know it’s not every day you hear those words from me.

But I wanted to start there.

I’m sorry.

I have forgotten so much. I’ve forgotten that scripture is full of stories of immigrants.

I’ve forgotten the repeated commands to extend hospitality to the stranger, show mercy to the foreigner, and ensure justice for the alien.

I’ve forgotten the central principle of actively loving my neighbor, and that neighbor means you. I have forgotten that God has created and redeemed all people, not just people who look, talk, and act like me!

I’m sorry for forgetting.

I’m sorry that in forget these realities, I’ve neglected you.

I’m sorry for thinking ill of you and treating you as less than human.

I am sorry that I have not shown you hospitality. My lack of action reveals the truth of my selfish state. I revel in the courageous stories of how our ancestors came here, yet I ignore your courageous stories. I surround myself with pleasures and comforts, and ignore your plight.

I’m sorry for being a bad, non-loving neighbor.

I am sorry that I often think the worst of you. I make assumptions about you – why you’re here, how you got here, and what’s going to happen because you’re here.

My assumptions are often dark and jaded and down-right hateful. These thoughts have little or even nothing to do with the reality of who you are.

I’m sorry for the times I have made things more difficult for you. I’m sorry for the times I have joined in the slander against you. Sorry that I have allowed, and even advocated for, unreasonable obstacles to be placed in front of you.

I’m sorry for having permitted and even participated in, acts of discrimination against you.

For these things I am sorry. You deserve better! Jesus’ name deserves better.

Will you please forgive me?

Signed – The Church

(Letter by Jim Vining and Sarah DePriest)

In my first post on Immigration, I addressed the theological reasons why Christians should engage in immigration issues.

In my second post on Immigration, I addressed some common sentiments about immigration by clarifying the historical and present immigration realities.

In this third post I will address what is being proposed in Comprehensive Immigration Reform. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about this term. We must have an accurate understanding of the proposal if we are going to evaluate the proposal. It is not as dramatic as what we hear on cable news shows, but it is a realistic plan.

Four General Components of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

1. Reduce the backlogs for family immigration.

The waiting lists for people seeking to reunite with their families in the United States are tremendous. A spouse is on a  waiting list for at least six months. Children are on waiting list for at least three years, and if that child gets married the wait becomes decades long. A nation that values families must do better than that. Around one-third of undocumented immigrants have a family member here legally. Part of the problem is our current laws do not meet the current needs.

2. Make it more difficult to enter and work in the USA.

C.I.R. is not a call for “open borders.” Current reform proposals include making our borders more secure. These proposals also recognize the reality that most immigrants come here for work. Our current policies make it very difficult to work here legally, but fairly easy to work here illegally. Think about your Social Security Card – you could have made that on your old Vic-20 computer in 1985! We should require more secure documentation for employment. We also need to hold employers responsible for who they hire. Today, enforcement of employment laws  almost exclusively means deporting the workers. We must make hiring undocumented workers too risky and too costly for employers. Until we do enforce our hiring laws for employers, there will be jobs for undocumented workers.  And as long as there are jobs here, people will come – it does not matter how big the wall is.

3. Make it easier to enter and work in the USA in ways that benefit the USA.

While entering the United States because of family is difficult, entering the country legally for work is an even greater challenge. Employment Green Cards are given primarily to upper skill level positions. However, the employment market is very clear that we need more low-skill laborers.  Many of those roles are already filled by people who are here illegally. It would benefit everyone to have those roles filled by citizens or legalized immigrants. We need to adjust the laws to fit our reality and the needs of our economy. Many people say that we also need more openings for high-skilled workers. When an American high-tech firm can not find an American citizen for a position, and they can not bring the right person in on a Green Card, then they must either eliminate that position or employ that person in another country. Neither of those options are good for America.

4. Establish a way for immigrants who are here illegally to earned legalization. While there are variations of this plan looks like, most C.I.R advocates envision: a reasonable fine, a background check, temporary status during the process, and placement in line behind the family backlog.  C.I.R. is not a call for amnesty. It is not a proposal to forgetting that laws were broken. This proposal includes openness, penalty, and a process that is fair to other legal immigrants and citizens.  It is also far more realistic than deporting everyone who is here illegally today. The “put them on a bus” approach is not practically possible or economically feasible, and it’s impact upon families and the economy would be devastating. Earned legalization is the best way forward.

Thanks again to Matt Soerens for clarifying these issues.

Our opinion on Comprehensive Immigration Reform is shaped by our understanding of the history and present reality of immigration in America. Below are some popular statements in the immigration discussion. I have said some of them in the past. More accurate observations on immigration follow each statement.

“My ancestors came here legally, they should too.”

Immigration laws are radically different from when most of our ancestors came to the United States. We basically had open boarders until the 1880s, when the first restrictions, targeted at Chinese immigrants, went into place. While our families are full of inspiring stories of immigration, most of them do not include the current legal barriers. Now, though, our laws are very restrictive and make it impossible for many immigrants to enter lawfully.

“We already have good laws, they just need to be followed and enforced.”

We do have laws, and some of them were good when they were originally written. However, many of them need updated to match our current reality. That is the point of reform, to make it better! Part of the problem of enforcement is that the current laws do not match the current needs of the nation.

There are four ways to enter the nation on a green card. All of them have significant weaknesses. Family – years or decades on a waiting list. Employment – almost exclusively for advanced degrees, but employment trends show a need for low skilled workers. Diversity – by nature excludes areas of highest demand. Refugee – surprisingly difficult to prove, the number granted are only a small fraction of the number in tremendous need.

“Comprehensive Immigration Reform just another piece of the dangerous leftist agenda.”

The current reform legislation in discussion, written with Lindsey Graham, is more “conservative” than the version championed by George W. Bush and John McCain four years ago. None of those names are darlings of the “far-left.” I was recently on a conference call with a large group of conservatives, including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Policy wing, who are calling for comprehensive immigration reform. They see a need to reform the system for “conservative values” of family, economy, and security.

“Those people are taking away our jobs.” / “Those people are lazy and want to live off the system.”

Obviously those statements can’t both be true!

Immigrants are generally very hard-working. Many of them come here for work. The majority of immigrants working illegally, 75%, are paying taxes (often with a false Social Security Number, which will never be valid for obtaining any benefits under current law). Those payments account for $6 to $7 billion per year. The IRS has even created an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for immigrants without a valid Social Security Number to file taxes, and many, many do each year.

Most employers want to get a good employee for the job at a low-cost. Some employers say that immigrants are willing to work jobs that American citizens will not. Some employers hire undocumented workers as a way to avoid labor laws, with little risk of being penalized.

“Those people are the cause of surging crime rates.” / “Those people are ruining our economy.”

People said the same things about all of our ancestors when they came here.

There is no data that shows immigrants are any more likely to commit crimes than citizens.

Immigrant workers are a crucial piece of our economy (See previous point.).

“Immigration is out of control right now!”

There were higher rates of immigrants one hundred years ago – the “golden years” for those of us who’s families came to America in the early 1900s. Immigration is actually down now. The overall flow at the USA – Mexico border is actually going to the south. Granted, most experts attribute that shift to the economic recession in America.

Thanks to Matt Soerens for clarifying these issues.

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