His Name Is Alex

On my way to youth group on Wednesday night, I stopped at Rite Aid for a soda. As I walked across the parking lot, I noticed a young woman talking to a man leaning against the side of the building. I guess that I noticed his clothing had a certain rumpled quality to it, but I didn’t really think anything more of it.

Continue reading His Name Is Alex

My Little Monster

She told me to write 10 things I liked about myself. I had two weeks. My first response was a giggle. The idea felt gooey and sentimental, like giving myself a hug. Really? Ten things I like about myself? It felt kind of bratty, childish, dumb. It took a week just for me to sit down to write it. Ten words. It shouldn’t have been a problem. No big deal – just ten little words. So, what was this massive barrier holding my hand still? Continue reading My Little Monster

Why I Disabled AdBlock

Once upon a time, one of the biggest frustrations I experienced as I browsed websites attempting to find cheat codes for my Sega Genesis was that of pop-up ads. It seemed like every other website I went to attempted to sell me something through a large, sometimes not-quite-on-screen pop-up ad. I never once clicked on the advertisement itself, and rarely even looked at what it was selling. I knew how to shop, thank you very much, and didn’t need to be told that I could win a free Pentium IV PC (wow!) just by clicking the window in the right spot. Continue reading Why I Disabled AdBlock

Scrooge McDuck Eats Out: Why Christians Should Tip Well

I was surfing The Gospel Coalition the other day and I stumbled across a link to this post about tipping. The author argues that there is a perception among servers, supported by his own experience, that Christians are poor tippers and just generally poor diners in general. I’d heard this before, and a little bit of digging turned up several articles referencing a study done by Cornell University. On average, Christians do not, in fact, tip poorly; individually, however, about 13% of Christians leave less than the “average” 15% tip, which is about twice the rate of a non-Christian. This means that Christians stiff their servers about twice as often as non-Christians do (not sure what I mean? This article has a good summary). Continue reading Scrooge McDuck Eats Out: Why Christians Should Tip Well

Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?

I was going through my usual blogroll, which includes the ever useful and interesting site Lifehacker, when I came across this post. A defense of video games? Being a gamer myself, I couldn’t help but click through, to see what sorts of arguments were going to be put forward. Continue reading Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?

Real Life Vigilante Sounds More Like a Movie

Oh wait, it was a movie.

It turns out Seattle has their own crime-fighting team, known as the Rain City Superhero Movement. In fact, this idea of a real life superhero is growing much larger than I realized. Vigilantes are cropping up, and people are acting like Batman to the best of their ability (while lacking Bruce Wayne’s funds). Recently a self-proclaimed superhero going by the moniker Phoenix Jones was arrested for pepper spraying two individuals who were, he claims, fighting in the streets. Police say that the pair was not fighting, but rather dancing. Continue reading Real Life Vigilante Sounds More Like a Movie

All For One, Not One For All: Thoughts on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

“It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.”

This age-old attitude is at the heart of the drama in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which begins with the international best-seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

A confession: these are not the sort of books I usually read. I’m not fond of mysteries, and the phrase “international best-seller” usually puts my guard up. But after reading Lars Walker’s reviews of two of the books at Brandywine Books, I became intrigued.

The books deal with the story of Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward (to put it mildly) young woman with a history of trauma. Over the course of the three books, the reader discovers that not only has Lisbeth been harmed by the very people who were put in place to protect her, but that the Swedish government decided that she was expendable to protect a certain State secret.

Fortunately, Lisbeth is not as alone as she seems. Idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist, having met Lisbeth in the first book, determines to expose the evil that Lisbeth has suffered, no matter the cost. Blomkvist is joined in his crusade by the staff of his magazine, Millennium, as well as several others. Over the course of the books, the lines are drawn between those willing to expose the truth and those who want to cover it up.

This is why, I suspect, so much of the story is spent with characters in the police force and the world of journalism. While these occupations often find themselves at odds, they are both fundamentally dedicated to discovering the truth and revealing evil.

This aspect of the story is slow to build, taking a backseat to a dramatic missing-person story and a double murder in the first two books. But Larsson never lets the theme be lost or obscured: by the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the reader can see plainly the horror of allowing a single innocent woman’s rights be trampled in the name of expedience, or national security, or any other lofty-sounding goal.

The main sense of horror in the trilogy comes not from  violence (though there is plenty of that), but from the slow realization that the organs of truth-telling, namely the police and the press, have utterly failed. In Salander’s case, they have even colluded to keep her story under wraps, to discredit her as a witness to crimes, and to keep her under federal supervision. Lisbeth refuses to speak to psychiatrists and police officers, because when she did so as a child, she was locked away in an institution to keep her from revealing a scandal. For 15 years, no-one digs deeper into her story, assuming her to be mentally retarded and incapable of interaction. Lisbeth allows the world to continue thinking of her that way because it is the only way that she will simply be left alone.

The climactic moment of the story comes, not when the murders are finally solved, but when Lisbeth Salander’s story is proven true in a public forum and all those who used her as a sacrifice on the altar of expediency are revealed.

There are problems with these books: the sexual morality, for instance, leaves much to be desired. But in the end, Larsson seems to want nothing more than to praise the costly telling of truth in the face of easy silence. And on that, we can agree.

(Note: there are sexual and violent situations in these books that may make them unsuitable for young readers. I don’t recall thinking that any of the sex or violence was purely titillating, though that is a very subjective judgement. Even with that caveat, I highly recommend these books.)

Freedom Sunday 2011

March 13 was Freedom Sunday, an international effort by congregations around the world to raise awareness about the problem of human trafficking and organize efforts to oppose it around the world. Freedom Sunday coincides with the first Sunday of Lent in the western calendar for a reason. It was for freedom that Christ set us free, when we were slaves to sin and death, and our mighty Savior calls us to follow Him in pursuit of freedom for all.

At Saint Ann Chapel in Palo Alto, California, guest blogger Father Robert Kemp gave the following sermon:

2008 was a bad year for Berkeley, California.  First, the City Council told Army Recruiters they were “unwelcome intruders” in a motion expelling the recruiters from the city.  After 140 businesses threatened to leave the city and the Federal and State Legislative bodies took up measures revoking all Federal and State aid to the city, the City Counsel had to recant and publically admit that money is more precious than ideology.  After that embarrassing debacle, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, the largest and wealthiest landlord in Berkeley, was released from prison.  Lakireddy was caught in 2001 operating a sophisticated slave ring in the heart of Berkeley.  Between 1986 and 2000 he smuggled between 25 and 100 Indians into the United States.  Many of those imported were young women who were forced to work in Reddy’s prominent and well-liked restaurant Pasand Madaras Indian Cuisine for no pay while many others were forced to work as his concubines.  Some of the biggest and loudest proponents of fair trade, equality and work-force liberation were served by slaves. Sadly, slavery is not extinct.  Slavery did not end when English Parliament adopted the Slavery Abolition Act in August of 1833.  Slavery did not end on January 1, 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Nor did slavery end on December 18th, 1865 when the 13th amendment prohibiting slavery was enacted.  Slavery still exists, it exists in the United States, it exists in California and it exists in the Bay Area.

But why should we care?  Why should we care when Albanian parents sell their 3 year old to buy a color television?[1] Why should we care when 9 year old girls in Lima, Peru are bought by pimps and sold to highest bidder?  Why should we care when 12 year old Cambodian girls are sold to businessmen who want to bring good luck on their new economic quests by having sex with a virgin? Why should we care when thousands of children in the Ivory Coast are forced to work in the cocoa fields to drive down production cost so that we can buy cheap chocolate?[2] Why should we care when Cargill, a major cocoa importer, admitted it did not eliminate child slavery in its cocoa supply line because they did not have enough, and I quote ‘market incentive’ to do so? Why should I care when Nike pays a 10 year old pennies a day to make shoes, when it means that I can get a great deal on a new pair of running shoes? Why should I care when Nike admits to using child labor, but then says the problem is too difficult to stop.[3] Why should we care that there are roughly 27 million slaves in the world today and that there are approximately 218 million exploited child laborers?

In the days of Isaiah, the Israelites did not care about the plight of the widow, the weak and the helpless, they did not care that slavery and prostitution were all too common; they did not care about justice.  What is shocking is that while Israel turned a blind eye to injustice, they turned a microscope to worship.  They became deeply concerned with getting worship right, with saying the right things at the right time, doing the appropriate actions at the appropriate time and offering the correct sacrifice in liturgical precision.  In other words, they were just like the Pharisees who were so religious they forgot to love.  In the midst of this religious lovelessness, Isaiah proclaimed that fasting was pointless if not accompanied by love that was actively seen in feeding the poor and weak.  He told them worship was a waste of time if worship did not transform their hearts to love by breaking the chains of injustice.  He told them sacrifices were bloody abominations if they did not out of love set the oppressed and enslaved free.  Nor was Isaiah alone in this proclamation.  Years earlier God told the Israelites through the prophet Amos

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

If we do not care about the 27 million slaves in the world, if our hearts are immune to love, then our worship is at best a waste of time and at worst, an abomination. We should care, because love demands it.

Does that make the church a mere social club for good works?  Does that make the Christian a religiousified social worker? No, may it never be for those who champion the church as a social club for good works have a fundamental theological error, they believe God operates on a quid pro quo, if I do this, then God will do that.  However, God, the one true God: Father, Son and Spirit, does not operate on a Quid pro Quo, he operates on a Quid pro Amor – This for Love. Everything that we do is originates from love.  That is why St. Paul said

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

The point of worship is not to appease God, but become more like him through love, as St. John said,

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (I John 4: 7)

The point of worship is not entertainment, but the transformation of a loveless heart to a love giving heart.  The point of breaking the yokes of the oppressed, the point of setting the captive free is not to simply do good deeds, it is to love others just as God the Father has loved us.

For we were once slaves; we were slaves to sin and the wages our slave master paid was death.  Jesus, however, took our wage upon himself and purchased our freedom with his blood and through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been set free and given the gift of life. Thus, a failure to love those who are now enslaved is a failure to understand to love of Jesus that accomplished our own salvation.  A failure to lovingly take upon ourselves the cost to free those who are now enslaved is a failure to understand how much our freedom cost the Son of God. In other words, a failure to love in thought, word and deed the least of all people is a failure to love the greatest of all persons, Jesus Christ.  Why should we care about the 27 million slaves in the world today? Because once we too were enslaved and while we were still enslaved, God loved us and sent his Son to purchase our freedom and now that we have been loved by God we are to shower this love upon others.

My dear Sisters and Brothers, there are two religious roads in life.  One road is wide and smooth.  It is the Quid pro quo road and it is the road of mere religious duty that demands nothing more than occasional piety and liturgical observance.  It is the road that Isaiah and others warned not to take for it leads nowhere.  The other road is narrow with steep switchbacks up to the pinnacles of life, but it also plunges into the darkest valleys.  It is the road of love and it demands our life, our soul and our all, but in end it leads us into the presence of God.  All those who walk on this road through faith are not alone, for they walk hand in hand with Jesus.  It is not a road we can walk through our own strength, but the flesh and blood of Jesus will sustain our weary legs, his grace will upload our tired heads and his love will maintain our beating heart.  Therefore, let us pray that through the grace of Jesus Christ, we will walk on this road of love and break the yokes of oppression that are enslaving our fellow brothers and sisters.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/9-29-2003-45984.asp

[2] http://www.newint.org/columns/currents/2009/04/01/corporations/

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/nike-admits-to-mistakes-over-child-labour-631975.html

Social Justice and the Cross: A False Dichotomy

Something’s rotten in the state of Christendom.  In the third century, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage.  The church had recently survived the Decian persecutions and Cyprian controversially urged his congregants to welcome back into the body of Christ those who had denied their faith under duress.  Then plague struck North Africa.  As the collective personas non grata, Christians found themselves blamed for the devastation.  In 257, Emperor Valerian opened new persecutions against Christians, including the execution of Pope Sixtus, the exile of Cyprian, and the ordered execution of all Christian leaders.  In the midst of this chaos and persecution, Cyprian did the unthinkable: he ordered all Christians of Carthage to do what no one else in the city was willing to do.  He ordered them to take on the suicide mission of caring for plague victims.  These were people who actively supported the murder of Christians, and the believers faced nearly certain death by tending to the needs of the victims dying of plague.  And yet under Cyprian’s leadership, they did so willingly.

The face of Christian charity in America is somewhat different.  Today, we find ourselves embroiled in modern entanglements of post-Enlightenment theology and the ever-present problem of greed disguised as self-interest.  When books like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger find serious challenges from books like Successful Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulation, and a prominent Mormon with several daily talk shows on TV and radio instructs Christians in the theological legitimacy of social justice, Christians have strayed from the radical charity of the early church.  While most thinking Christians thankfully dismiss both anti-biblical extremes, we still find ourselves drawn into a debate that bogs down radical actions of Christian charity.  Humanitarian and theologian Christian Buckley argues

Just as the masses left Christ two thousand years ago when His call became difficult, His ways became unpopular, and His perspective became detested, we are being challenged to walk away from Christ’s humanitarianism.

We draw Christian charity battlelines and accuse each other from across no man’s land.  We obsess over one question: Should we serve people in order to share the Gospel with them, or is service sharing the Gospel with people in need?

In Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross, authors Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson present the answer to this modern quandary by examining the Body of Christ, both His physical incarnation and the actions of His followers.  In the first half of the book, Buckley lays out the main points of both arguments, service for evangelism and evangelism as service.  He marks the major turning points in each movement and presents biblical support for both and exposes the weaknesses of each approach.  But the argument culminates in the obvious conclusion: you can’t have one without the other.  Evangelism and charity must be united for either to be authentic.

Dobson and Buckley interviewed dozens of Christians who serve as exemplars of how to act on our Savior’s instructions.  From missionaries to social workers, surfers to abolitionists, the interviewees make a compelling case for the futility of the false dichotomy of service versus evangelism.  Jerry Wiles, president of Living Water International, says it best:

It is more effective, and, to paraphrase an African head of state, “You can’t minister to dead people.  You can’t do health care to dead people.  You can’t educate dead people.  You’ve got to have them alive first.”  The first thing is to bring physical life.  It is true that if you just bring the water without the message, you just extend their physical life.  It’s not a matter of either-or with us.  It’s both – and in every case.  It’s not a choice… I don’t think that’s ever the option – the gospel or good works.  I don’t think we have to make that choice because God’s going to provide a way to bring the gospel when you engage people and meet their physical needs.

It’s hard to argue with a man who’s dedicated his life to ensuring access to safe drinking water for people around the world.  It’s even harder to do so from a country that uses hundreds of millions of gallons of safe drinking water to fill our swimming pools.  Interview after interview in the book comes to the same conclusion: There should be no division between evangelism and service.

During His ministry, Christ didn’t divide evangelism and service.  Neither should we.  Buckley and Dobson didn’t need to write a book to make this argument.  This isn’t an argument that needs winning; it’s an argument that needs living.  Being right isn’t enough.  We must, as Saint Paul exonerated the church at Ephesus, “walk in a manner worthy of our calling.”  As my priest, Father Matthew Weber says,

We cannot be whole Christians without both these things.  We cannot be whole human beings without both these things.

Followers of Christ brave enough to dive into the trenches of radical Christian service understand that truth.  Those of us who sit comfortably in the industrialized world continue to bicker.  We need to sacrifice our greed on the altar of grace, take up our cross and follow Him, proclaiming His name all the way.  We’ll then find then that there is no division between evangelism and service.  We’ll find there is only Christ.

The Hobgoblin of Little Ideologies

Conservatives just ain’t what they used to be.  From the Big Brother program of unwarranted domestic wiretapping to military spending in Iraq that was so great it wasn’t even reported on the annual budget, the Republican party has been wandering far from its small government roots.  Of course, a party betraying its ideological ideals is as old as the Republic herself, and shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been following US politics for more than about five minutes.  But recent legislation from Arizona is about to take that dichotomy to a new level.

Last week, Arizona enacted SB 1070, a law designed to aggressively enforce federal legislation prohibiting undocumented workers.  Section E of the bill states, that a cop “without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.”  Subsequent portions make it clear this is not granting permission, but instituting a mandate.

At first glance, this may appear to be a simple case of a state stepping in where the federal government has failed.  After all, the feds have thousands of miles of border to patrol, but Arizona need only concern itself with its own.  And in the wake of horrific violence boiling over the border from Mexico’s drug war, it seems that Arizona’s new immigration law is a reasonable approach to a dire situation.

There are several problems with that perspective, however.  First and foremost, as the circumstances of the law’s drafting dictate, is the practical effect of the law.  This law does nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigrants pouring over the Arizona border each year.  Requiring that law enforcement check documentation on anyone “the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States” necessitates racial profiling, no matter what other clauses or revisions of the law proclaim.  In Arizona, the threat of illegal immigration comes from Mexico, and the only practical application of the mandate is a specific targeting of those who appear to be of Mexican heritage, whether in language or appearance.

Never mind that more than a century of judicial precedent forbids such a targeted audience for scrutiny.  Never mind that it trespasses upon the civil liberties of citizens and non-citizens alike.  The only practical, feasible application of the mandate is that law enforcement is required to demand documentation from those who appear to be from Mexico.  No amount of boilerplate prohibitions on racial profiling or the follow-up patch enacted on Friday will change that.  According to the bill’s sponsor, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the follow-up law’s changes were clarifications “just to take away the silly arguments and the games, the dishonesty that’s been played.”  But they’re not silly arguments, and they should trouble conservatives who value minimalist government intervention in the lives of individual citizens most of all.

Constitutionally, Arizona’s law doesn’t have a judicial leg to stand on.  From Chae Chan Ping v. US (1889) to Lozano v. Hazleton (2007), US courts under conservative and liberal justices alike have consistently ruled that while a state has the right to secure its borders in pursuit of its responsibility to protect the general welfare of its citizens, only the national government can legislate or prosecute instances of immigration.  Though Arizona’s law is redundant by nature (federal law has already defined what constitutes illegal immigration and SB 1070 doesn’t add anything new to that definition), it is clearly inconsistent with the parameters of state power set by the Framers of the Constitution.  A state may not legislate on issues of immigration, no matter what that legislation entails (likewise, a state may not ignore federal immigration legislation, as some ‘sanctuary cities’ pretend they can without consequence).  Though a state’s right to defend itself is consistent with conservative ideology, to do so at the expense of the liberty of citizens and a massive expansion of government power of surveillance certainly is not.

But this law is not about protecting Arizona.  It’s a desperate attempt, groping in the dark against terrors we know we can’t fight alone.  It’s understandable.  When an American citizen is gunned down on his own property by criminals who are in the country illegally, and the federal government is distant and disinterested, it’s hard to blame the state for retaliating on its own terms.  But as robust as this law seems in the face of illegal immigration, it only creates more problems.

Law enforcement’s already daunting job in stemming the tide of violence from Mexico’s drug war as its spills over the border will be made even more difficult by this law.  Faced with this new mandate to investigate immigration status from traffic stops to “local civil ordinances” (anything from complaints about loud noise to an unkempt front lawn), officers will need to choose between focusing on peacekeeping and fulfilling the new law. 

Though proponents argue against its negative effects on fighting crime, the law cripples law enforcement at its most basic level.  Officers will lose their ability to distinguish between perpetrator and victim.  Instead of stopping the human trafficker alone, this law mandates that his victims be given equal treatment.  Considering the US’s weak anti-trafficking laws (you get more jail time for pirating music than forcing a child into prostitution in this country), if the traffickers are clever, which they are, they can exploit that weakness and suffer lighter legal consequences than their victims.

This law will also drastically set back the most effective method of policing in marginalized communities, community policing.  Cops depend on the immigrant community in hot spots to provide evidence to help them catch violent criminals.  With Phoenix’s new status as the kidnapping capital of the country (and approaching the second in the world), community policing has never been more important to Arizonans.  This law makes it impossible for police to maintain the trust they’ve built with non-violent undocumented workers who serve as valuable sources of information.

The law also creates a humanitarian crisis.  Its provisions (which were not amended by Friday’s revisions) are written so broadly that they mandate arrest for anyone found with undocumented workers who are suspected of aiding them.  In practical application, clergy, medical workers, or even good samaritans giving them a ride are subject to criminal investigation, detention, and prosecution. 

This analysis only scratches the surface of the problems with Arizona’s new immigration law.  It would take far more space than is available here to plumb the depths of its inadequacy to prevent violent criminals from fighting the Mexican drug war in the US, or the law’s contribution to the growing racial cleavage in the border states between immigrants from Latin America and those of us whose ancestors immigrated only a couple hundred years earlier. 

In addition to these weaknesses, the law is ineffective in its goal of solving the problem of illegal immigration.  It is but the first step in a legislative attempt spearheaded by the misguided State Senator Pearce to make Arizona so inhospitable to people of Mexican descent that they won’t come to his state.  Next on his agenda is a bill that would require public school teachers to report children of illegal immigrants to the state in order for the state to calculate the cost of their education, then take action to bar them from public education services.  The fact that such attempts in two other states were struck down in recent years doesn’t seem to matter.  He is already in the process of enacting legislation to remove bilingual teachers from ESL classes in schools in Arizona.

What Pearce and his fellow Arizonans who favor such draconian legislation fail to realize is that the only way to ‘solve’ the problem of illegal immigration is to enact policies that help law enforcement crack down on violent criminals in the country illegally, encourage undocumented workers to follow proper channels to achieve legal residency, and put their children on the path to citizenship.  Other states are doing it.  Texas Governor Rick Perry, no friend to namby-pamby liberal amnesty plans, has pursued policies that will allow just those transitions, and Texas has a longer, more porous border than Arizona and has dealt with an incredibly complicated relationship with Mexico since long before Arizona was recognized as a territory.

In short, it takes more than a kneejerk reaction to fix this legitimate problem.  As conservatives often say in response to gun control policy, ‘if you outlaw guns only outlaws will have them.’  Likewise, Arizona’s new law will ensure that the only people in the state illegally are those who do not fear the police, that Arizona’s police will lose even more power to stop them, and that Arizona’s Hispanic population, whether citizens, residents, or undocumented immigrants, will lose another piece of their liberty based on nothing other than their ethnic identity.

Give me your tired, your poor, indeed. ‘