Archive - March, 2005

Sliding into Oblivion–or are we already there?

David Brooks makes an especially important point in his column today in the New York Times when he writes of two waves crashing down upon the U.S. in the next few years.

The
two are the increasing costs of programs that support the well-being of the
people (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) and the increasing polarization
in the political process. These two are leading to explosive points that will
result in fundamental change, according to
Brooks.

What is intriguing in this,
to me, is that Brooks believes the two major parties are about to lose their
reasons for being. Neither is able to break through the policies they have
created to find new solutions to intractable problems, and neither is able to
break through the hardened positions that have formed in a polarized national
debate.

Brooks says Americans will
become disenchanted with hyperpartisan rule and a new anti-politician will
emerge to “crash through current alignments and bust heads.” I say this can’t
come soon enough.

I’m already
disenchanted, especially in the wake of the Terri Schiavo spectacle, the
retrogressive debate about creationism versus evolution, the tempest over the
Ten Commandments in public spaces and other issues that have become the
symbolic, emotionalized and politicized emblems of social morality. The voices
of moderation, if they exist, are seldom heard. In fact, they are
disenfranchised.

Those at the
extremes are given media access to advocate absolute positions that leave no
room for compromise, or dialogue, for that
matter.

I’m thinking there’s a whole
lot more to all of these issues than the simplistic bumper sticker sound bites
that the strongest advocates express.

And there is more than enough
hypocrisy to go around. The politicians who are are most vocal to keep Ms.
Schiavo on the feeding tube are the same ones who are attempting to slash the
budget for Medicaid and Medicare, both of which must be sustained if we are to
provide long-term care for disabled
persons.

Those who proclaim they
believe in the sanctity of life are the same who voted to subpoena a woman who
has been in a persistent vegetative state for the past ten years to appear
before Congress to testify. This demonstrates respect for human dignity and the
sanctity of life?

Where is the
outrage that 20,000 people starve to death every day in the developing world and
we have the resources and capacity to put an end to this suffering, but we do
next to nothing?

So I’m ready for
new leadership. I’m yearning for an end to the demagoguery. I’m praying for
dialogue about compassion and humility, justice and healing, about individual
responsibility and social responsibility. I’m praying for an end to superficial
sound bites and hypocrisy and the beginning of honest, courageous leadership
that tackles real problems, truly stands for the poor and oppressed and cares
about the environment, peace and
justice.

So, Mr. Brooks, I think
we’re already living with leadership oblivious to the great challenges we face
and that means we’re already in a state of oblivion. I hope you’re correct that
new leadership is incubating, and I hope it doesn’t take much longer to hatch.

Sudan: 10,000 a month

The United Nations reports it has underestimated the death toll in Darfur.

According
to href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/sudan/story/0,14658,1438471,00.html">this
report in the Guardian, the actual toll is 10,000 people a month dead
from starvation, compromised health and exposure. This number excludes those
killed in the fighting.

The href="http://www.tdg.ch/tghome/tgnews.detailcateg.YWZwLmNvbToyMDA1MDMxNzowNTAzMTcxNDEwMjIucm5rOHY4MmQ6MQ==.1.0.html">World
Food Program announced today that it does not have enough food the
meet the needs of the
displaced.

We’ve long known this
humanitarian disaster was among the world’s worst. It seemed hopeful that a
truce would result in better conditions for those in southern Sudan bearing the
brunt of the government’s attacks, but this has not been the case. A CARE
worker reports visiting one camp in the last three weeks where 200 per day
struggled in looking for food and
shelter.

Plenty of responsible
voices have called this genocide. I wonder when, or if, we will become outraged
and demand an end to this utterly appalling disaster. An international mission
to halt the attacks under the auspices of the UN is long
overdue.

href="http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor/emergency/sudan.stm">UMCOR , href="http://www.unrefugees.org/usaforunhcr/dynamic.cfm?ID=205&code=P002">UNHCR
and href="http://www.churchworldservice.org/news/Sudan/index.html">Church World
Service are among many agencies providing humanitarian
relief.

Terror’s Legacy–Hope

One of the most enjoyable things about travel outside the United States is the opportunity it presents to talk with people and hear their views about almost everything.

It’s
endlessly fascinating and, ultimately, very hopeful. I try to talk with
everyday folks, people who are not working in an official capacity with church,
government or other institutions.


Kortee is a young man who operates a
money exchange on the streets of Monrovia, the capitol city of Liberia in West
Africa. These exchange booths are legal, so Kortee is not part of an
underground financial system, as is the case in many other parts of the
world.

As we talked, Kortee asked me
to sit with him on a wooden bench situated along a busy street under a large
umbrella. He exchanges U.S. dollars, which are used along with Liberian
dollars, as legal currency. He also sells time on a cell phone, lottery tickets
and small bottles of gasoline.

He
spoke of the joy Liberians are experiencing with the coming of peace. They can
travel throughout the country without being shaken down, or without acquiring
travel permits, as was the case under rebel
control.

A succession of rebel
groups fought the central government, which eventually fell under the weight of
corruption and lack of popular support. The country is being administered today
under UN mandate. National elections are scheduled for October,
2005.

Kortee also spoke of the
terror that was inflicted on innocent people, often for no reason but to
intimidate and terrorize in order to maintain control. He tells of people
having bags placed over their heads, bound and thrown into a swimming pool in an
apartment complex across the street from his stand. Left to struggle to free
themselves, some survived, some
didn’t.

He tells of a pastor who
rode a bicycle into the area unaware the rebels had announced no one could pass
by the front of the building. The bicycle was thrust over the pastor’s body as
a “necklace” and he was forced to crawl on hands and knees with a gun at his
head until his knees bled. Battered and beaten, he was eventually
freed.

This terror lies just below
the surface of conversation in Liberia. It is a menacing, insidious part of the
collective memory that is always lurking under the joy of new found freedom and
peace. Will it return? Can the past be
overcome?

Terror’s legacy is
destabilizing and demoralizing fear. If you can’t count on some degree of order
in your daily affairs, how can you plan anything? If a simple walk to the
market puts you at risk of beating, robbery or worse, how can you carry out even
the most basic tasks of daily
survival?

Liberians, as many other
peoples who have endured this kind of wrenching terror, know the veneer of
civility is thin and easily stripped away. It covers a potential for barbarism
that can turn civil society into a nightmare more quickly and easily than one
can imagine. But they don’t imagine it, they’ve lived through
it.

So it is refreshing to hear
Kortee’s hopes. He hopes to attend the University of Liberia, get a degree in
economics and gain entry to a university in the United States for a master’s
degree. He lays out this plan with an enthusiasm that is quite remarkable,
following his accounts of the nightmare he has just been
through.

To emphasize the
seriousness of his plans, he assures me that he will “fast and pray” to make
this dream happen.

He is reflective
and thoughtful. When I ask him about the upcoming elections, he says with
candor. “I don’t know enough about this to speak of it. I will need to study
to the election before I talk with you about it,” he says with earnestness. An
informed voter. What a concept.


Kortee and others like him are not hard
to locate here and in other countries of Africa. Young people who hold fast to
dreams of a better life for themselves and their people stand in sharp contrast
to those young children who have been pressed into armed service by rebel
leaders who have stolen their childhood and left them broken and
traumatized.

It is remarkable to
hear Kortee speak of these young rebels. He expresses a degree of understanding
that is surprising. They are poor children, abducted from their families and
turned into killers by adults, he says. Victims themselves, they become
efficient and effective
victimizers.

This is another legacy
of terror–children brutalized and
dehumanized.

And yet, sitting here
in the heat of the day, knowing the fragility of freedom, Kortee dares to voice
his hope for his own future and for the future of an embattled people. He and
other young people like him are the hope of Africa. Given the opportunity, they
will secure an education, work to build a safe, civil society and create a
better world than they have
inherited.

There are young people on
every street in every city and village in every part of the world who dare to
hope. We have a responsibility to partner with them to create the conditions
that allow them to make their dreams reality.


This requires more than individual
gifts and scholarships, which we should support. It requires support for health
clinics, food production, education, clean water, sanitation facilities,
electrical power and economic empowerment opportunities. We must support
non-governmental organizations that are making these happen and we must support
enlightened foreign policy by governments around the world, policies that equip
hopeful young people to become contributing
citizens.

I can think of no better
way to combat terror than to nurture the dreams of the hopeful young people who
know the realities of the world in which they live and who dare to hope that
beyond this present reality is a better
future.

Let this be our legacy from
terror–a world of opportunity and hope.

Ending Extreme Poverty Is Possible


In last week’s cover story in Time , Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, lays out an achievable plan for ending extreme poverty by 2025.

Extreme poverty is living on less than $1 a day, which means living with less income than is necessary to survive. It means chronic hunger, no health care, no safe drinking water, no sanitary waste disposal, no shoes, inadequate shelter, time-worn clothing.

1.1 billion people live like this, one-sixth of the world’s population. They are subject to the ravages of AIDS, drought, war and famine.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A mere 15 cents from every one hundred dollars of national U.S. income could make a substantial dent in this appalling daily reality.

Sachs makes a case for change that is both achievable and rational. He refutes the myth that foreign aid doesn’t work, and that corrupt political leaders are the cause of on-going poverty in the Third World. (He notes, for example, that Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangledesh have prospered while experiencing widespread corruption.)

He makes the point that complex geographic and structural economic factors play as important, if not a more important role, than corruption.

Those regions left farthest behind face special hardships and obstacles: a climate favorable to mosquito production resulting in malaria, drought prone lands unfavorable to irrigation, isolated mountain or landlocked regions and lack of natural resources such as oil, coal or natural gas.

Sachs is both realistic and determined. “The situation is grim, but salvageable,’ he writes.

He believes that multiple factors contribute to poverty and multiple approaches, designed in partnership with local people, can put an end to the most extreme poverty. The structural adjustments imposed by the World Bank have not worked in the most deprived nations. They have led to riots and social disorder and put the Bank in position to act as the collection agency for the wealthy donor nations to recover interest on loans made to indebted poor nations.

More than
20,000
people
perished
yesterday
of extreme
poverty.
–Dr. Jeffrey Sachs

Instead, building schools, clinics, roads, electrical grids, ports and providing nutrients for the soil, clean water and sanitation facilities holds more realistic promise. These are the most basic necessities for human dignity, and for an economy to work, Sachs says.

This is also a key to global security, much more effective than allocating billions for military interventions that are creating new terrorists daily.

In fact, the daily toll should weigh heavy on our consciences. Twenty thousand people die every day from conditions of extreme poverty. They lack drugs to fight off preventable diseases. They lack treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria. They have impaired immune systems for lack of proper nutrients to sustain life. They live exposed to the elements, vulnerable to natural disasters that claim a disproportionate number of the poorest of the world.

Sachs is a refreshing, hopeful voice. We need to hear him. Moreover, we need to be even more aggressive in advocating for the “clinical economics” he is advocating. I hope people will pick up this edition of Time, read the cover story and get engaged. There is no reason to allow these life-threatening conditions to continue.

Embarrassing and Stingy


It’s embarrassing.

The United States gives less than two-tenths of 1% of national income to international development aid. That puts us behind Britain, France, Spain, Ireland, Belgium and Finland.

A government that has known no limit to budget deficits now can’t see its way to raise development aid to a mere seven-tenths of one percent of national income to match other industrialized nations.

How could
wealthy people
so aware
of such
suffering
and capable
of acting
simply turn
away and
busy themselves
with other
things?
–Prime Minister
Tony Blair

A National Security Council bureaucrat tells the New York Times, “the US has no intentions of committing itself to a specific timetable to reach the seven-tenths timetable.”

It’s embarrassing and stingy.

Worse, it’s immoral, and at least one world leader has said so.

Speaking at a news conference in London yesterday Prime Minister Tony Blair said he fears his own conscience.

Knowing that 8 million people die each year because they are too poor to survive, Prime Minister Blair asked how we would answer the question that future generations will ask, “How could wealthy people so aware of such suffering simply turn away and busy themselves with other things?”

How, indeed. With all the talk about traditional values, where is the discussion of the the most basic value of all, “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself?”

African Tsunami


In an article in New African, Stuart Price questions why Africa, facing an on-going tragedy of proportions that dwarf the Asian tsunami, does not marshall the same sympathetic response from the public.

It’s a dilemma that deserves an answer because millions of lives are being lost each year to easily preventable diseases and from compromised health resulting from malnutrition and hunger.

Here’s a short list:

Every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria in Africa, over a million a year.

Everyday, HIV/Aids kills 6,000 people and another 8,200 become infected with the virus.

Six million
children
under 5
die from
malnutrition
each year.

Millions of people live on less that US$1 a day and millions more survive on less than US$2 a day.

Globally, some 6 million children die every year from malnutrition before their fifth birthday. Approximately every 3.6 seconds, someone somewhere in the world dies of starvation.

Declining soil fertility, land degradation and Aids have led to a 23% fall in food production per capita in the past 25 years.

The children of a woman with five years of primary school education have a 40% higher survival rate than uneducated ones.

Every minute, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, author of the Millenium Development Goals (MDG) report has used the phrase “silent tsunami” to call attention to this ongoing tragedy. Dr. Sachs notes that 150,000 people die in Africa every month from malaria, an easily treatable disease.

The MDG states the time to end this suffering is now, and it challenges us to cut the world’s poverty rate in half by 2015. If this were done 500 million people would be lifted out of extreme poverty and more than 300 million would no longer suffer from hunger.

If it is not done, millions more will die from circumstances that we know how to prevent right now. Do we have the will to respond to the silent tsunami?

Terror’s Legacy


Monrovia, Liberia–I went out on the street this afternoon and spoke with Kortee, a young man operating a money exchange. He was anxious to tell me of the joy of free movement and the difficulties the people have just passed through. He and his friend Peter spoke of the cruelty of the youthful militia.

He explained that a large, once attractive
apartment tower across the street from his sidewalk vending booth was
comandeered by the militia and used as a holding facility and torture site.

Peter explained that innocent
people were taken off the street and beaten, or worse, killed. This was for no
reason but to demonstrate that power was in the hands of the militia. He
pantomimed how the rebels would force a captive to fill his mouth with rocks
until his cheeks bulged. Then they would slap him splitting the skin.

Some were thrown into the swimming
pool with bags on their heads. Others had bicycles forced over their arms as
“necklaces” and were made to crawl on their knees.

They would
kill you
simply because
they could.

It was a strategy of humiliation,
intimidation and fear. “They would kill you for no reason,” one pastor told me.
“They would kill you simply because they could.”

The legacy of terror is that it
corrodes hope. It feeds uncertainty. It undermines well-being. To overcome
terror is a difficult thing. It will require secure conditions that allow life
to be dependable and let people hope again. It will require just treatment
under the rule of law.

The Milky Way from Liberia


Monrovia, Liberia–To land at Roberts Field in Liberia at night is to glide into a pool darkness. Lights are few and far between.

The airport is located in a rural area
approximately 50 kilometers from the city of Monrovia, the nation’s
capitol.

On the drive into Monrovia,
it’s possible to actually see the dust lanes that we know as The Milky Way. In
most of the world light pollution obscures this clear view. But, on a clear
night in Africa the stars shine brighter than anyplace on earth. It’s a
glorious site.

Unfortunately, in
Liberia this clear night view is not the result of benign reasons. It occurs
because the nation’s infrastructure has been all but destroyed by
on-again-off-again war. The electric grid is virtually
inoperable.

So, too, are the water
and sewer systems and many of the basic institutions. Schools, hospitals and
government offices are all broken. Some are functioning under limited
capability, but most not at all. Civil war has taken a costly toll, not only in
human life, but also in physical capital. Buildings were destroyed, equipment
looted, furniture stolen and electronics
destroyed.

A truce achieved three
months ago has brought a welcome period of peace. However, the people must
begin nation-building from the most basic starting point.

There are no longer children on the
streets brandishing weapons as they were at the height of the insurrection.
Liberia, as Congo, Mozambique and Sierra Leone before, saw its children abducted
and compelled to take up arms. The after-effect of traumatized children, broken
families and shattered communities has not yet
healed.

People speak joyfully of
peace and freedom of movement. It is a welcome relief to travel across the
country. Travel permits were required in rebel-controlled
territory.

However, just below the
surface of polite conversation is an unexpressed, partially disguised fear. It
takes the edge off the joyfulness of peace.

In many areas roving gangs of disarmed
young people intimidate and rob those returning home from work in the early
evening hours creating a self-imposed curfew that results in people staying
indoors at night.



People are tired of war. No one knows
how many fled their homes, some walking into Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and
Ghana. Others sought refuge in Monrovia. Camps for the internally displaced
continue to operate and many people are still too fearful to return to their
former homes. They express dread at what they will find and the reconstruction
task that lays before them.

Behind
this unease is more than one experience of re-building only to see the work go
up in smoke as another period of fighting ensued. War began in 1989 and
continued with varying intensity through 2004. There were periods of relative
peace followed by outbreaks of fighting as new leadership struggled to gain
control of militias and
territory.

This state of unease is
perhaps most descriptive of the mood here. There is great relief that the
fighting has abated and the streets are safer. But under an interim government
no real definitive forward movement has taken place. Schools, hospitals, even
food service at jails, depends mostly on churches and non-governmental
organizations. The government cannot provide the most basic social
services.

The United Nations is
providing security. UN vehicles and those of non-governmental organizations are
ubiquitous. In the run-up to national elections in October 2005 there seems no
dialogue yet that reveals a real platform. Perhaps this will develop in the
coming months. The country needs leaders with
vision.

Liberians are remarkably
adept and certainly qualified to bring this country out of its current state of
depression. But they will need partners and adequate resourcing because they
face a long, difficult challenge. The church and people of good will can
provide the support necessary to sustain civil society for awhile, but this will
not be sufficient for the long
haul.

Eventually, the government
must take responsibility for necessary services. As long as the Milky Way is
visible from the airport, it means electricity isn’t flowing sufficiently. It
is a reminder that the country is in a tentative state–paradoxically, it is a
sign of hope and fear under the African sky.

Where Is God?

The state of Tennessee was shocked yesterday morning to learn that a fourteen-year-old boy stepped on a school bus in front of his rural home, pulled a handgun and shot four rounds into the body of the female bus driver; a woman who, by all accounts was a compassionate, caring person.

One
young man managed to steer the rolling bus into a pole to prevent even further
physical risk to the children on the bus, who had just been traumatized by
seeing murder close up and personal. The children cared for each other, exited
through the back of the bus, as they had been trained to do in emergency drills,
and got to a telephone to call
authorities.

The full story has not
yet emerged, but it appears the boy was angry because the bus driver had earlier
argued with him about using snuff while on the
bus.

It’s a sad story with many
deeply human issues.

I watched the
evening news last night with a sinking sense of frustration. A local pastor,
doing his best to come to grips with this terrible tragedy, attributed the
actions of the young man to God. God chose this moment to “call home” the bus
driver and he used the young man as his instrument to accomplish the
homecoming.

Clearly, the pastor
said, we cannot know or understand God’s purpose. We can only believe that in
God’s time all things work toward
good.

I want to be as kind to this
pastor as possible, but I doubt that it is of much comfort to the families whose
lives have been so deeply damaged to attribute homicide to
God.

We struggle with the meaning of
evil in the world. We seek to find God in the midst of despair. Recently, I
was part of an on-going conversation about the place of God in the tsunami
tragedy.

I believe the questions
are not only perplexing, they are beyond answer. The most I can do is follow
the biblical messages that say we are closest to God when we are at our most
vulnerable and exposed condition. Surely, tragedies such as this put us in that
condition.

But to attribute them to
God is to take a road I cannot take. The challenge is to find the presence of
God in the tragedy, not to desperately explain the tragedy as an act of God.

It’s in the healing, the comforting
and the supporting of each other in the pain that I believe God is manifest.
When life is turned upside down and we can’t find good answers, perhaps this is
enough. God is with us in our suffering.

Little Things Make a Difference

I am late getting to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been on the bestseller list for several months. But his dissection of socially contagious movements is compelling and instructive never the less.

He analyzes how social contagion sweeps across the landscape. He compares the effectiveness of Paul Revere, a connector, in rallying the colonists to take on the British with the parallel effort of William Dawes which was much less successful. Dawes was not a connector and he lacked the skills, personality and social network to create a word-of-mouth epidemic.

There is no clear recipe for instigating social contagion but there are, in retrospect, learnings that can inform those who would attempt to create them.

Context matters.In looking at the sweep of the Methodist movement across 19th century England, Gladwell says John Wesley’s penchant for organization coupled with the creation of small communities that stood for certain values made it possible for people to take on new values and live them out in a supportive community. This context made it possible for the movement to spread infectiously.

Similar contexts have developed for other, less religiously oriented movements, the re-discovery of Hush Puppy shoes, suicide among young men in Micronesia and smoking among teens, for example.

Small things matter. Cleaning up graffiti on subway cars and arresting fare beaters contributed to a turning point in crime in New York City.

The message matters. Learning from Sesame Street, Gladwell illustrates how giving attention to the structure and format of communication can greatly enhance the ability to get a message through the clutter and make it stick. The creators of Sesame Street tinkered with the format, eventually going against the grain of advice from learning theorists who told the producers to keep the puppet characters separate from the real people.

In fact, mixing the two created “stickiness” which Gladwell describes as messages that are retained rather than quickly forgotten.

One of the most intriguing claims in the book, however, is that even in an age of mass communication and million dollar advertising campaigns word-of-mouth is still the most important form of human communication. This is also the theme of marketers who are carrying out “viral marketing” strategies by providing information about products to everyday people who chat up the products in the course of their daily conversations with friends and acquaintances.

The risk of exploitation is obvious. On the other hand, so too, is the creative opportunity. If we listen to people and hear what really concerns them, offer them a supportive community in which they can address these concerns and, at the same time, offer meaningful values that provide a constructive way forward in a world that is too often isolating and alienating, perhaps the faith community can be an alternative to the commercial exploitation of these concerns and to the rampant materialism afoot today that promises much more than it can deliver.

If we could achieve the critical mass of people–the tipping point–who seek to reclaim life’s meaning and purpose as a journey of exploration with others with whom we share trusting and caring relationships, realize our God-given dignity and affirm our potential for making the world a more humane place, that would be a remarkable social movement.

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