Alphabetical Social Justice

“It’s not nice to take people’s L’s”, she told me.  “There’s an L in my name and an L in your name, but lots of poor people out there don’t have L’s like we do.”  She’s only four, but my young friend already has a sharply defined sense and right and wrong.  Much as I’m glad to see her advocate for the less fortunate, I do think this alphabetical approach to social justice is taking things a little too far.

A lot of well-meaning adults make the same mistake in their approach to social justice, and for some of the same reasons.  My preschool-aged  friend thinks it’s unfair that not everyone enjoys the status conveyed by her favorite letter; she has no way of knowing yet that not everyone would benefit from the imposition of that coveted consonant.

Similarly, not all adults are the same.  When social justice involves trying to provide universal human necessities like food, clothing, and shelter to those who have none, this can be good.  Unfortunately, the more popular this catch-phrase becomes, the further it tends to drift from these goals and the more often it serves to disguise an imposed cultural or political agenda.  The world is more complicated than most of us realize.

Take, for example, Bill Clinton’s recent comments on immigration reform:

In a panel discussion with moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Clinton said that the United States has become an “older society” and needs newcomers to provide the labor force and pay the taxes necessary to finance the retiring generation…

“You’ve got to have more immigrants. You’ve got to reverse the age ratio,” Clinton told an audience heavy on Washington policy wonks and media types.

Calling the United States an “aging civilization,” Clinton cited nations throughout history in which “older societies become obsessed with security.” Now, in the U.S., he said, that’s driving interest in national defense, Social Security and Medicare.

“America has got to get back in the future business. We’ve got to be a tomorrow country,” Clinton said. “We need more immigrants.”

Clinton’s observations, which will no doubt be applauded by social justice proponents as they protest Arizona’s new immigration policies, are correct: America does need new citizens.  Those who protest the new laws on the grounds that they are socially unjust are also correct.

However, they fail to note the fact that abortions performed in the name of social justice are the reason America needs an influx of new people.  Social justice work is a mixed bag; it doesn’t always lead to real justice.

Even if you leave the pro-life/pro-abortion debate behind – a daunting task, and usually a bad idea – it’s hard to deny that, in this case, correcting one perceived social injustice only leads to another.  It’s not often easy to give people the help they really need, and in an integrated society the help you offer one group may easily bring unintended harm to another group.

That’s why the recent resurgence in the popularity of social justice efforts, while admirable, is also dangerous.  Social justice work is risky because there’s no easy way to know how changing the social and economic status of one group may change it and its surroundings in the long term.  Short term gains may easily lead to long-term harm; a single mother on welfare, for example, will benefit in the short term from the rent assistance she receives.  She will be badly harmed in the long-term, however, if she comes to rely on this assistance instead of on her own abilities and resources.

Social justice work is also dangerous because in their efforts to live out Jesus’ commands, too many people may unintentionally replace them.  Jill Stanek observed before the 2008 election,

Liberals have garnered success with some Christians by diverting their eyes from abortion/homosexuality to “social justice.” This is a relief to Christians who don’t like feeling conflicted about abortion. They can appease their consciences and put abortion on the back burner by becoming righteously indignant about other causes in Jesus’ name. Some of these causes are even valid. Satan is expert at blending truth with lies.

This applies to immigration reform as well as abortion.  There’s no question that many of our Mexican neighbors would benefit from a new life in the United States, and we should do what we can to help them.  Doing what we can, however, should not include giving them a free pass into our country–this approach harms more people than it helps.  The other extreme is also wrong, as Arizona will no doubt discover.  As our own Lindsay has already explained, aggressive enforcement of immigration laws will also harm far more people than it will help.

Popular conceptions of social justice are typically in favor of these and other similar extremes.  Social justice is easily taken too far, despite the good intentions of those who work towards it.  It may also too easily replace other work the church should be doing.  Be wary, then, of supporting a cause because it fits the current stereotype of “social justice” – the issues at stake may be more complicated than you can know. ‘

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. ‘

Census and Race – The Conversation

Why is race on the census form?  Over half of short census is dedicated to the question of race.  The question is not without controversy, but before you can reach a decision about whether race ought to be included on the census, you ought to know the history behind the census and race inquiry.

A decennial census is mandated by Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States constitution.  The line directly pertaining to the census reads, “the actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”  In true American form, controversy broke out among the founders as to the meaning of “actual Enumeration.” Were estimates acceptable or was a full count necessary?   People on both sides of the debate agreed that accuracy was needed to avoid oppression.  As Alexander Hamilton stated in The Federalist No. 36, “an actual census or enumeration of the people must furnish the rule, a circumstance which effectively shuts the door to partiality or oppression.”  Hamilton believed an accurate census would shut the door to oppression by generating population figures not subject to political manipulation upon which Congress would base the apportioning of representatives and taxation.  Every citizen’s voice would be proportionally heard and taxation proportionally distributed.

However, with regards to the census, the “race” question plagued this noble goal from the very beginning by revealing hypocrisy within the system.  Take a moment to stop by the 2010 Census website where they have addressed the race question.  The 2010 Census website justifies the race question by citing its use in the very first census of 1790.   It’s an odd, almost eerie justification of presence of “race” on the census today.  In the 1790 census, the race question was used to make sure that slaves received only 3/5ths representation in Congress – the slave voice was disproportionately counted. The full text of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 reads,

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.  The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.  The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Caroline five, and Georgia three.”

With the passage of the 14th amendment, the 3/5ths rule was abolished, yet the race question remained.  Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program and a scholar who defends the use of racial inquiry in the census, argued, “State and local data on age, race and ethnicity, household size and composition help communities with projections for school enrollment, housing, transportation and health care… Information from the census is used to prepare for emergency services, research changes and advocate for various causes.”  While I understand how age and household size contribute directly to projections for school enrollment, housing, transportation, and health care, race or ethnicity shouldn’t contribute meaningfully to these projections.  After all, we needn’t make special calculations for those 3/5ths persons walking around.

Critics believe the race inquiry, as its presently done, is confusing at best and politically corrupt at worst. Writing for the Manhattan Institute, Tamara Jacoby writes, “The issue is not just that the census’ approach is politically wrong-headed. Far more troubling is the gulf between the government’s standardized categories and the fluid, rapidly changing racial and ethnic reality of America. By the second generation, between a third and a half of both Hispanics and Asian Americans marry outside their groups. The number of those who prefer the multiracial designation is expected to multiply exponentially in ‘coming decades. It’s hard to see what value it has for sociologists or anyone else to label such people by their ancestors’ country of origin. Yet the Census Bureau goes on trying—and pretending it is able—to capture and codify this changeable, subjective ethnic landscape.”  If Singer is to be believed and census data on race actually provides meaningful data for government program planning, then the data will be inaccurate.  As Jacoby notes,  “Some people’s self-identification is so flexible that it changes from week to week with passing fashions: The number of people self-identifying as American Indian, for example, rose noticeably in the wake of the movie ‘Pocahontas.'”

Writing at the Huffington Post, John Whitehead parallels Jacoby’s remarks with some poignant questions of his own: “How, for example, would President Obama answer the [Census Bureau’s race] question? Is he black or white? What about Tiger Woods? Is he black or [A]sian? And what race are Tiger’s kids?”  Whitehead followed up his questions by tying together the census’ intended purpose, to apportion congressional representation, with the census’ racial inquiries and the regular practice of gerrymandering:

“As if gerrymandering was not already bad enough, will 2010 Census data be used to carve out future congressional districts? Will African-American communities be matched with sitting African-American congressmen? Will nearby Hispanic neighborhoods not currently in the same district be lumped together in hopes of increasing Hispanic representation in Congress? If the information is being used toward drawing district boundaries, then obviously some race-related parameter or objective must be in play when drawing those district lines.”

Separate from the criticisms leveled above, I believe that the government’s present concern with race vis-a-vis the census is dehumanizing and divisive.  In his most famous speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  In his dream, Dr. King longed for a nation where law and justice were colorblind.  If Dr. King’s dream is to be realized and law and justice are to be colorblind, then what use is racial data for makers of our laws?  If law and justice are not colorblind, then they cannot help but favor one race over another and are thus dehumanizing and oppressive to the disfavored race.

Some people are refusing to fill out the census because they are suspicious of the government and of agendas behind the inquiries like the race inquiry.  You should fill out the census. It’s against the law to refuse and you’d be behaving unconstitutionally.  Additionally, over $400 billion federal dollars are at stake – some of that money should rightly go to projects in your neighborhood.  However, the current census reveals biases and mindsets in Washington that deserve re-examination.  Personally, I’m going to fill “American” in the race line because its the most truthful reflection of my ethnic self-identity that I can give.   It’s also sufficient data for government work.  Regarding future use of the race question in government censuses, there does not seem to be a good argument for keeping it.  I’ll admit that while I’ve not read every possible argument for preserving the race question, I’ve noticed that those who defend it’s use in government work typically assert the point without offering evidence for its usefulness and, as mentioned earlier, that point is contentious.   Furthermore, the arguments against the current practice of racial inquiry on the census are compelling enough that the practice ought to be dramatically reformed or ended altogether. ‘

Serving the Needy by Equipping Them to Serve Others

A tattoo-covered arm reached for my empty cup as I sat down for dinner. My eyes followed a trail of colorful, hard-core images up to the man’s elbow. Quite a contrast to his formal, white pressed shirt.

The man’s name tag read “Ronnie.” And as he poured me some lemonade, I realized Ronnie was living out the whole point of this conference.

The topic of the gathering at First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., was how ministries can serve those in need more effectively.

First Baptist operates a “ministry village” on its campus called the Christian Care Center. One ministry, the Men’s Residence, is a four-month recovery program for men who have struggled with substance abuse. Ronnie and other enrollees were helping out with the conference.

A former tattoo artist with a bent toward the dark side, Ronnie had gotten his girlfriend pregnant while he was hooked on drugs. That’s when his family convinced him to enroll in the Men’s Residence.

The ministry helps men overcome their addictions and establish stable, independent, drug-free lives.

Staff members don’t focus on physical needs alone. They also address emotional and spiritual needs that often turn out to have driven these men to abuse alcohol and drugs in the first place.

The folks at the Christian Care Center understand that men are unlikely to kick their bad habits unless they can kick-start their own hearts.

Jay Walsh, director of the Men’s Residence, says it takes patience, mercy and tough love to help such men overcome self-centered addictions and build authentic relationships with others.

That’s why the center has program participants stay in residence for four months. That’s also why it places the men in mentoring relationships, classes and Bible studies, and assigns daily in-house chores.

And that’s why these men serve meals at church-sponsored events such as the conference I attended.

It seems to be working for Ronnie. He has turned his life around, those who know him say, and plans to marry the mother of his child in October.

The success of this comprehensive, relational approach is one reason First Baptist Church is highlighted in a new study guide from The Heritage Foundation on how to overcome social breakdown.

Called “Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives in Need,” the six-lesson DVD and workbook are designed to help small groups understand why institutions of civil society are so powerful in meeting human need. (This resource, featuring Chuck Colson, Al Mohler, Star Parker, Marvin Olasky and other Christian leaders, can be viewed and read at as well as ordered there for the cost of postage and handling.)

Families, churches and local ministries tend to be more creative, flexible, efficient and personally invested in others’ lives than any big government program could ever be. By forming relationships and walking alongside those who are hurting, these institutions can do what government assistance simply can’t.

And this includes empowering those at the end of their rope to step into perhaps the most transformational, fulfilling role of all: serving others.

“When the ministry clients work alongside us,” First Baptist executive pastor Art Ayris explains, “they see how we handle problems and stressors and display grace in dealing with people. It’s a valuable component of the mentoring process.”

And the approach fosters a focus on others, rather than a sense of personal entitlement.

Programs that involve addicts such as Ronnie in mentoring relationships, spiritual counseling and opportunities to serve don’t get the same headlines as multibillion-dollar government programs out of Washington, D.C.

But policy makers should take note: These faith-based efforts on the local level offer a better hope of achieving real, long-term change.

Sitting next to me at dinner was the director of First Baptist’s newest ministry, Samaritan Inn. The church has joined with other congregations in Leesburg—Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish—to turn an abandoned hotel into temporary housing for the homeless. The goal is to provide qualified families with a safe place to live while the parents get job training and search for employment.

As it happens, Samaritan Inn backs up to the property of the Men’s Residence. So you can guess who will serve dinner to those families-in-transition each night.

Even while they experience real transformation in their own lives, Ronnie and fellow participants in the Men’s Residence are equipped to help transform the lives of others in need.

Note: This is a guest post by Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation (  If you are interested in submitting guest editorials, please contact us via the contact form or by emailing me at Matthew dot L dot anderson at gmail dot com.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

It’s Friday, and I’m sitting in a crowded megachurch in Los Gatos, California on a warm spring evening.  A singer scratches the air with his rough voice and acoustic guitar with the sincerity only a musician with a small Facebook fan page can muster.  It’s a far cry from the scores of concerts taking place around my hometown of Austin, Texas tonight.  There, South by Southwest is in full swing; there, artists like my brother jam in clubs and on obscure stages seeking recording contracts, faithful fans, or just the transcendent experience of a truly great jam.  Here, there are no agents and no fans.  Something far stronger than a great show binds the artists and audience together: charity.

Last August, a May graduate from the school where I teach left home for church.  She was broadsided by a reckless driver.  The doctors call her condition TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury, but that doesn’t come close to expressing the destructive force that transformed Jessica from a bubbly, college-bound girl to a girl who, seven months on, can nod her head on a good day and has yet to speak a word.  To compound tragedy, the family’s health insurance has balked at paying for her treatment every step of the way.  Despite the fact that it was only because her mother stayed with her every hour that a nurse was notified in time to save Jessica during several midnight crises, it took several petitions and the investigative department of a local tv station to keep the insurance company from forcing Jessica into a hospital wing that was inadequately staffed and didn’t allow family to stay overnight.  The Huse family’s saga has been one long apologetic for the need to ensure that for-profit insurers cannot abandon or financially destroy faithful customers for the sake of the bottom line.

Tonight’s concert is an apologetic, too, and it communicates something of a mixed message.  Hundreds, most of whom had never met Jessica or her family, purchased tickets at $20 per person and participated in the raffle and silent auction to raise funds for the family’s medical bills.  This evening is a testimony to the generosity of strangers, family, and friends, an outpouring of the Church caring for a sister in need.  But tonight’s proceeds won’t put a dent in the cost of the long-term care Jessica requires.  The family needs night after night after night like this one.  Even a large congregation unburdened by this recession couldn’t sustain that kind of giving.  Most churches struggle to collect enough tithes to keep the lights on.  And Jessica is merely one sister in need.  Charity, no matter how heartfelt, is not enough.  We must do more to make health care available to everyone.

Whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is part of the solution to this problem is a legitimate matter of great debate.  A few things are certain: it will bring access to care to thirty million of our fellow citizens, it will take important steps to curb insurers’ refusal to cover patients with preexisting conditions, and it will stop them from dropping patients who become ill or injured.  It is incomplete, insufficient, and contains provisions that raise serious moral questions.  It is also the closest we’ve been to making this system more just in the better part of a century.

Whatever the rest of this legislative session brings, we have a clear mandate from He who is Charity.  We must uphold the sanctity of life, from the unborn to the aged, from the man with cancer who loses his job, his insurance, then his life, to the girl hit by a car on her way to worship Him.  If not this bill, then another, and that right soon.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”  As with so many other things, Dr. King was right.  It was one of Christ’s most famous parables that radically redefined our responsibility for each other when He told of a Samaritan who rescued his enemy on the road and paid for his medical care at great personal cost.  Health care costs have spiraled beyond our ability to mimic the Samaritan in many cases, but He has not excused us from helping our neighbor.  Like the people who gave with open hands to a girl they’d never met, we can find a way to extend our great fortune of health care to those who do not share that fortune.  We may not be able to pay out of pocket, but we have been granted the power of political participation and creative private enterprise.  If we do not use them, we, like the priest and the Levite, pass by the wounded man on the road.  Christ didn’t speak highly of those men. ‘

Everyday Justice and Lent

“Welcome, dear feast of Lent!” George Herbert, English country priest and poet wrote in Lent (1633). Last week, the western church entered the season of solemn preparation to remember Christ’s great sacrifice and victory over sin and death, and in a short while our eastern brothers and sisters will join us. Lent is usually observed through practices of self-denial and increased spiritual discipline, as Amy Cannon so aptly introduced in a recent article on this site. To prepare our hearts for the joyous celebration of the empty tomb, we must first remind ourselves of the great tragedy of the cross. So, for forty days, we deny ourselves things that are good in remembrance of the things Christ secured for us that are far better, and we take upon ourselves new or intensified practices to make ourselves more like Him. Herbert was right. In fasting, we do indeed find a great feast.

In our Lenten remembrance, we strive to take on attributes of Christ. His work on the cross saved us from the chained bondage of sin and death. We are never more like Him than when we bring freedom to others, and Scripture records that the heart of God is moved most deeply by the plight of the poor and oppressed. And, since Lent isn’t supposed to be forty days of virtue in a church year full of apathy, we can spend this time cultivating aspects of Christ’s character that will carry us through the rest of our lives as we grow in knowledge and love of Him.

At a loss for where to begin? Julie Clawson offers some excellent suggestions in her book Everyday Justice: the Global Impact of our Daily Choices. As I’ve written here before, our most mundane choices from day to day dramatically affect people around the world. In some cases, we unknowingly bind them to modern slavery for our convenience and savings. It may feel great to purchase food, clothing, or luxuries at a deep discount, but the items didn’t suddenly become less expensive to produce. There’s a hidden cost to marked down prices, and we don’t often see those forced to pay. Like it or not, and aware of it or not, we are complicit in their oppression. In Everyday Justice, Clawson traces that complicity through commonly purchased items (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, and clothes) and what happens to what we consume through waste and international debt.

Clawson’s documentation is thorough. This is a book for skeptics and believers alike. In her introduction, Clawson draws a connection between Coca-Cola consumption and genocide in the Darfur region that’s shocking (Sudan is the world’s leading producer of gum arabic, an ingredient so vital to the creation of America’s favorite bubbly beverages that the National Soda Association and other gum arabic groups successfully lobbied for an exception to the US’s sanctions against Sudan, rendering those sanctions meaningless in 1997). When something as seemingly benign as an icy Coke on a hot afternoon puts the drinker in league with a lobby that sought to prevent the US from interfering in genocide, it can be overwhelming to think of hunting down each of these daily routines that have such devastating consequences to our fellow men.

But that’s why the book is called Everyday Justice. Clawson offers the reader a guide to introduce us to living more justly. It exposes the consequences of some of our daily activities and offers simple steps that anyone can take to seek justice instead. As Clawson says, it is an introduction to “tweak – not overhaul” our habits. Rather than overwhelm the reader with the impossible task of righting every wrong and making sure nothing she does has any harmful effect whatsoever on anyone anywhere (a highly unrealistic goal, especially given the nature of our deeply entrenched consumerism), Clawson’s book is an example of how to seek justice in a manageable, practical, meaningful way every day.

Above all, it is a reminder that as Christians, we are called to act in love in all things. If our purchasing choices bring real harm to people, it follows that they can also, if altered, treat people in love and respect. In this Lenten season, as we follow Christ to the Cross, we need not just deny ourselves treats like chocolate or a nice glass of wine for our own sake. We can use that denial to serve our brothers and sisters around the world. In doing so, Lent does its greatest work on us; it reminds us who we are, who God is, and helps us reorder our priorities in light of His. ‘

Heartbreak for Haiti

It has now been a couple of weeks since a 7.0 magnitude quake devastated the island nation of Haiti.  Since the quake I’ve read and seen a great deal of analysis and reporting from the scene, but these sterile dissections, with their emphasis on data and statistics, are not sufficient for helping me fully wrestle with such an overwhelming situation.  Then a reader pointed me to this video, made by a Haitian, which helped me to understand the situation on a much deeper level – a level to which music uniquely speaks.

If you’ve not yet donated to help the relief efforts in Haiti, I encourage you do unto the least among us by donating to one of the many organizations doing excellent work to care for the people of Haiti both physically and spiritually.

*Editors Note: Video shrunk to fit parameters of blog, for full size video, click here.

Was the Haitian disaster preventable?

The obvious response to this potentially offensive question is no. Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake, as straightforward an Act of Nature (or God, depending on who you ask) as one could find. The world is now rushing to relieve the overwhelming devastation this tiny country has suffered. Whether it needed be so large a catastrophe, however, is a real question.

Haiti was, in many ways, a disaster “waiting to happen.” Although a major earthquake will inevitably cause damage and endanger lives, no matter how stringent our building codes, part of the reason Haiti’s death toll is so disturbing is because the extremity of the loss was preventable.

Although the world moves quickly to aid Haiti now, much of the suffering presently plaguing the Haitians could have been avoided if their buildings had been sounder, if their government had been less corrupt, and if their county had been less rife with disease already.

It is not as if Haiti’s need has gone unacknowledged ere now. Much international aid and involvement has been available to them, though one cannot help but conclude that if aid had been more effectual before the earthquake, there would be less need of it now. This reminds us that our aid should be intelligent and infrastructural, not just earnest and palliative.

My intention in this post is not to point fingers or hypothesize what-ifs. Neither is it to indict world governments for not doing more to help stabilize nations wracked with poverty and disease, although there is no doubt a place for such adjuration. My desire is simply to draw attention to the places where the general population’s attention and help goes: it invariably goes to the most publicized and most dramatic need. This is, to some degree, inevitable, but it need not be the case to the degree that it is.

It seems inevitable: when there is disaster on the scale of the one still felt in Haiti, the world pays attention. Most concerned people want to offer immediate alleviation to immediate crisis — and this is as it should be. When people are dying daily of broken bones because there are not enough facilities or practitioners to operate before infection kills, and where people suffer greatly because they are without any sort of pain medication, not to mention potable water, the merciful and the just will seek to answer such obvious needs.

But let us remember, in light of Haiti, that there are world-over “powderkegs of poverty,” places where the lack of a news-commanding crisis allows the world’s attention to wander from need just as great, if less sensational.

Human trafficking and sex slavery persist world-over. Child soldiering continues, particularly in Africa. Poverty and disease are to be found in every place where there is human culture, as are unjust and faulty systems of government.

These problems are endemic. Though they are combatable, they often fall through the cracks of the average person’s attention–especially if we are not confronted with these tragedies personally. Even when we are, the theatrics of the pleas for money and the voyeuristic nature of media attention to a given issue can repel us even further from attending to such huge, persistent problems.

A natural disaster is more easily addressed than the intricacies of labor abuses, for instance, and it is easier to make a onetime donation to the Red Cross than to consistently buy fair-trade products. Systems of injustice and abuse are much harder to solve than an obvious physical need like a lack of medical supplies. They are also more difficult to remember, since they are always with us, enmeshed in the way the world works, not jarring like a hurricane or an earthquake.

But such problems are as pressing to the Christian desiring to “do unto the least of these” and to live in the light of Christ’s life-giving gospel. We who are adjured to do justly and love mercy and walk humbly are counseled to defend the orphan and the widow — I would suggest that this means those orphaned and widowed of the world’s attention as well, the overlooked tragedies. There are those whom disaster has never struck suddenly, but whom it has slowly sapped and crushed instead. These too need our aid and our attention and our prayers.

Give to Haiti. Give to those organizations that are either grass-roots enough (a group of local doctors flying in) or well established enough (find information here on appropriate, informed giving) that you may be confident your money will be used toward relief and reconstruction, and not lost in bureaucracy or misdirection. But as you do give to Haiti, consider researching and giving to help support a less present cause as well.

Consistently contributing to an AIDS orphan’s education or to Red Cross efforts worldover is something harder to remember when not reinforced by a media-blitz of attention to an explosive crisis. There are nations that sag under foreign debt, and people who daily go without food even in the United States. Let us not forget the orphans and the widows of the world whom major disaster and media coverage do not help us remember.

As you give to help an immediate and obvious need, consider giving to help develop infastructure or establish micro-loans in other instances of need. Let us, as we average people turn our attention to staunching Haiti’s decimating wounds through personal giving, not overlook opportunities to strengthen other nations by the same means, in hopes of working to proactively prevent such extreme disaster elsewhere. ‘

Garrison’s Legacy

The greatest challenge to the modern abolitionist movement isn’t the determination of slavers, or the threat of violence against those who would liberate slaves. It isn’t the ponderous, glacial pace of government action, or the corruption of policy through the sausage-making process of legislation or enforcement. It isn’t even the crushing poverty that leaves people so desperate, so hopeless that they become vulnerable to exploitation. All these things contribute to a vibrant slave trade in our modern world that holds more people in its clutches than at any other time in history. Even compared with these daunting barriers, the greatest challenge to the modern abolitionist movement is apathy. Speaking of slavery in the early days of the Civil War, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “As long as you know of it, you are particeps criminis.” In his book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, E. Benjamin Skinner makes sure we are all particeps criminis, and that we must now act to absolve ourselves.

Skinner started as a skeptic, which is good for his audience. So often, abolitionists introduce their cause to a chorus of “prove it” rather than “what can I do?”. Recently in this forum, a rigorous debate of that nature raged in the comments for my article on Trade as One. Skinner is a print journalist, and well practiced in the careful art of investigative reporting. His is the most well-documented, thorough account of modern slavery available in print today. Basing his work on pioneer modern abolitionist Kevin Bales’ landmark book Disposable People, Skinner presents a heartbreaking account of the worldwide problem of slavery that is meticulously researched. Using Bales’ model, Skinner defines a slave as someone who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. If you are yet to be convinced of the existence of slavery, Skinner’s book should be at the top of your reading list. If you are ready to jump into the fray and fight this injustice, Skinner’s book is a great place to start understanding the complexity of the problem.

Skinner takes his readers on a tour of the world, starting with a flight from New York City to Haiti, where he finds someone willing to sell him a child within mere hours. He follows what he calls the ‘New Middle Passage’ by tracing the journey a Romanian woman named Tatiana took at the hands of sex traffickers, and he investigates debt slavery in India through a man named Gonoo and his family’s three generations of enslavement. At every stage of his journey, Skinner lets the people he meets narrate his story. Though his professional tone does not seek to manipulate the reader’s emotions, the stories Tatiana, Gonoo, and the child slave Bill Nathan tell are hard to read without engaging your heart as well as your head. This is not melodrama; it is the life that a surprisingly large population of the world lives, while we are blissfully unaware between checking Facebook on our iPhones and running to Starbucks for a quick jolt.

What makes A Crime So Monstrous such a helpful guide to the crisis of modern slavery, and sets it apart from other books like it, is its dual focus on the people who are enslaved and the people who seek to free them. It contains detailed analysis of both the Clinton and the Bush administrations’ efforts, in their successes and failures. It sifts through the rhetoric and examines the motives of the politicos who took on the cause of abolition. It analyzes the conflict among abolitionists over which form of slavery deserves the most action, and the negative impact of that conflict on the slaves whose cause is less dramatic than others. Sadly, it also chronicles why the most robust abolitionists in our government, John Miller, Michael Gerson, and others, no longer fight the good fight in the halls of power. Skinner’s account is fair, and in some cases encouraging, but reminds the reader that ultimately, the government alone cannot stop this juggernaut of a human rights violation.

And that is why the greatest enemy to abolition is apathy. The global market makes slavery of all kinds profitable, from bonded labor to the sex trade. It is technically illegal in every nation on earth, and yet in any nation on earth (including our own), it exists and is rarely prosecuted. Even established democracies like the US or the UK face incredible difficulty in hunting down traffickers and prosecuting them. And it is abject poverty that is the single greatest factor in determining whether someone is vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers. But, as Skinner notes in the last chapter of his book, “The free market can be the world’s most effective device for ending poverty. If governments and trade organizations enforce the rules of the game, fair markets also can be the world’s best devices for ending slavery.” Government and trade organizations are ultimately mandates from the masses. As long as we ignore slavery, they’re functionally toothless. If the masses mandate that these institutions oppose the enslavement of our fellow men, women and children, they can become mighty tools for the people’s righteous cause.

It’s fitting that Skinner’s title comes from another journalist. In 1847, William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator “This is an act so unnatural, a crime so monstrous, a sin so God-defying, that it throws into the shade all other distinctions known among mankind.” Garrison’s words helped rally antebellum America to the abolitionist cause and the eventual end of legal slavery. A century later, another journalist’s words, if we heed them, can do the same.

A Parting of the Ways

President Obama has poured billions of tax dollars into a government take-over of the Auto Industry.  Fair Enough.  He is pushing through a Socialist agenda for a national healthcare system, which will effectively strip us of our options with regard to our medical care, while simultaneously creating a shortage for the care available.  Que Sera, Sera.  He has nominated for the Supreme Court a Justice who is clearly a racist, but being a person of color is not called to account for her evil views.  Such is life. 

As disastrous as I believe President Obama’s domestic policy to be, it pales when compared to his foreign policy with regard to the “elections” in Iran; a foreign policy that would be generously described as tepid, insincere, passionless, or even disinterested. 

Let me be clear: with regard to the sham elections and the violent fallout that has arisen as a result, the position of the Leader of the Free World should be a full-throated denouncing of the criminal tactics of Ahmadenijad and his ilk, and unwavering support of the protestors and a call for outside, neutral investigations and recount. 

Perhaps President Obama is simply nervous about inserting the full power of the US government into delicate and difficult circumstances.  Still, he has felt no compunction about telling Israel how it should handle the delicate situation in Gaza.  As we are some of Israel’s last allies, a scolding from our Commander-in-Chief is hardly the kind of support a nation under almost constant terrorist attack needs.  And his domestic policy would certainly suggest that there is little he believes the US government is unable to fix.  But that is for another post.

Yet for all of this, somehow the best we can manage when the democratic process is ignored in a state already on the edge of an international confrontation for its nuclear program, combined with its rampant anti-Semitism, and it’s support of multiple terrorist organizations, is this, “It is not productive, given the history of US and Iranian relations to be seen as meddling in Iranian elections.”

It remains unclear how stating that injustice is being done to an entire populace is “meddling” and apparently even President Obama’s own administration finds his inarticulate defense of free and fair elections to be less than appropriate.  While I recognize that care is necessary when dealing with the internal politics of any other nation, especially a nation such as Iran, I think it is ridiculous that any President would feel the need to tip-toe around publically denouncing the killing of political protestors, or the violent repression of a free election.  It is not redundant to state publically what we are for, and what we oppose, especially in a case such as this.  For the people of Iran, the powers that be all seem to have conspired against them; why should we flinch from demonstrating how different we are?

Perhaps we could forgive Mr. Obama; after all, this is only the second time in less than a year that the cause of freedom and liberty have been challenged while he had access to the largest microphone in the civilized world.  Or, perhaps the President is simply not comfortable being the spokesman for Freedom, Justice, and Liberty.  One begins to wonder exactly which basic principles of our society, if any, he is comfortable promoting.