Archive - Economics and Development RSS Feed

Who Loses When Institutions Fail?

On the first business day of the new year, I received an automated telephone message telling me that a preauthorization for medical care had been denied and I would receive paperwork later to explain.

This is the first message I’ve had from a new insurance policy that we were required to purchase after the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), the treasury arm of The United Methodist Church, for which I worked, dropped our retiree insurance policy.

Without explaining why, but promising we would have more choices and perhaps lower costs, we were thrown into the health insurance marketplace. In order to get coverage we were required to deal with a health care marketing firm whose function is to sell policies for select insurance companies.

Descent into Hell

After four days and at least 10 1/2 hours on the telephone and online doing research for a policy, Sharon and I stopped counting the time we were investing.

We gave up the search and enrolled in a policy that isn’t as good as the one we’ve had for the past several years. It’s less flexible, we had to give up one physician who has helped me through two surgeries for an on-going condition, and it’s not clear whether we will pay more or less money.

But, unlike 4 million other U.S. citizens, we’re insured.

In lieu of contributing the employer’s share of a premium, the GCFA is contributing to a health reimbursement account amounting to $4,100 per year for a couple.

As insurance and drug costs rise, no doubt the reimbursement will stay the same, so retirees on fixed incomes will absorb the increase.

I won’t list everything that went wrong. I don’t have enough space and I don’t want to try your patience because the list would be long.

The description one of my friends gave as he went through the process should suffice. “It was a descent into Hell,” he said.

Instead, I want to discuss a larger issue that looms over this decision.

Institutional Failure

The decision made by my employer was an institutional shift away from an understanding of deep ties of mutual obligation rooted in community to far weaker ties based on market choices by individuals engaged in a transaction.

There is a growing body of analysis that traditional institutions in Western liberal democracies are failing. They are being replaced by market-based capitalism.

Health Care as a Commodity

In virtually every country in the developed world, health care is a basic right, and a service. However, in the U.S. we buy access to health care through insurance as if health care is a commodity.

We have turned it into a retail transaction. Thus, insurers, health providers, device makers, and big pharma all are given a piece of the action, all of which is funded from the pocketbooks of everyday workers, retirees, employers (if they offer it), and the uninsured.

This is a system that gives competing forces of predatory capitalism the ability to profit from the potential and actual suffering of people, otherwise known as consumers.

I contend my relationship with my doctors is more than a retail transaction and I am more than a consumer.

Together, we make decisions about my life that affect me and my loved ones. These decisions are about how I live a meaningful, purposeful life. I’m not buying a product, I’m seeking well-being.

The consequence of my employer’s decision to place one of its most vulnerable, powerless and voiceless constituencies into this transactional marketplace illustrates the problem. It’s a direct rejection of this religious community’s theological claim to a preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable as an expression of social holiness.

Where the Power Resides

As we listened to the insurance brokers read scripts written to protect the corporation and remind us “this conversation is being recorded,” it was clear where the power resides in this transaction. Not with us.

As we surveyed which policies included or excluded our physicians, hospital and certain drugs, it was also clear our choices were determined not by our needs but by the commercial relationships large corporate interests have made for their own benefit.

We had to make judgments from a range of choices dictated by corporate bottom lines that would confound the most astute mind.

We are subjected to the vagaries of the market without voice, vote or right to appeal.

This is hardly an authentic expression of our theological teaching about caring for one another as Jesus taught in Matthew 25.

The Church as Community

In the past, as the CEO of one of the global church agencies, I encouraged staff to view themselves as an extension of our larger community of believers, and their work as a form of ministry on behalf of the community as well as service to the community.

We were not individuals pursuing our self-interests, we were part of a collective, multi-layered, interwoven community that ultimately extended from our workplace to congregations to global connections.

It is true that we were in a workplace, but it was a workplace within a context of shared values, common identity, mutual interactions, obligations and shared purpose.

We were deeply rooted, connected and responsible for a common good.

These are the qualities that mark a traditional institution. And this is what is being lost as the marketplace and predatory capitalism subsume the place of these institutions.

If the church does not preserve this understanding of community and commitment in a market-driven, consumerist society, we will continue to leave those without leverage in this predatory system unprotected and vulnerable to principalities and powers far stronger than any one of us can influence alone.

Our Evaluative Outlook on the World

Matthew B. Crawford, writing in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction says, “commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority and assume a growing role in shaping our evaluative outlook on the world.”

This is the crux of my concern about the decision my institution made—it transfers responsibility for a common good to a transactional, market-based culture. It further diminishes the role of the church in the culture. It fundamentally changes our evaluative outlook on how we view this piece of our world.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck says that the great contribution of traditional institutions is that they provide us the means to resist forces of predation: commercialism, secularization of values, economic exploitation and the depletion of the natural world.

Traditional institutions won’t suddenly disappear, Streeck says. They die by a thousand cuts, conceding responsibility, or being shut out of power, in small, almost imperceptible ways.

Imperceptible that is, until they realize they have no power to resist. They become subordinated to the dominant values of a secular, commercialized, market-dominated dynamic, that is by definition predatory.

That’s why a decision like this has larger implications than recognized on the surface.

The Most Perfect Christianity–to Seek the Common Good

An early church father, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), once wrote: “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.”

When it functions as it should, the church provides us moral instruction, and functions as a moral compass, to blunt, if not challenge, the destructive effects of rampant and unrestrained materialism promoted by predatory capitalism.

It offers us an evaluative outlook on our world.

But today that challenge requires adjustment to a new world of technology, information, and economics unlike humans have known in the past.

New Forms for a New Day

It requires new forms of institutions, constituted to address the powers and principalities of the 21st Century.

It requires imagination and creativity.

Thus, the institutional church should be seeking new ways of being in community in a diverse and complicated world. It must resist the pressure to move toward a society governed by materialistic transactions and offer creative, innovative alternatives.

I believe this involves leaders in the global church giving deep thought and action to conceive new policies—pubic and private—that support a moral economy.

Re-imagining a Place in the World

To be specific, it means imagining how to provide health care to everyone as a basic human right.

In frontier America, the church did this by creating hospitals that became the backbone of the health care system that exists today.

At this writing, in Africa religious organizations provide 40% of health care in the same spirit of public concern.

Nothing less than bold, creative effort is needed in the U.S., and the church should be leading in this effort, not merely reacting to (admittedly) powerful market forces.

It is not enough for our church’s administrative arm to hand-off its retirees’ health care to a transactional marketplace as if they are little more than an economic liability to be written off.

As we hurtle toward an over-heated world whose resources are being depleted beyond the capacity to sustain us, market-based transactions will not save us, they will only hasten the downward spiral.

If the institutions that inform and protect our highest values and ideals abrogate their responsibility for the common good and don’t help us prevent that downward spiral, we all lose.

A Year’s Worth of Reading

I was bemused recently by an article that said reading is being rediscovered. Reading has been a doorway into new ideas and other worlds for me since I was a child. Like other readers, I read for pleasure and recreation, and to gain greater understanding.

This year I realized belatedly I was reading more purposefully. It was more like, “what the heck is going on here?” I need to understand.

So many of my long-term assumptions about life no longer hold. The values that I have believed in are called into question daily. The institutions I trusted are in decline.

As this decline happens, Matthew B. Crawford writes that “commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority and assume a growing role in shaping our evaluative outlook on the world.” (The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014)

The growing influence of consumerism and secularization and the reactions to these dynamics are both fascinating and perplexing to me. But they are shaping our evaluative outlook, like it or not. (I don’t like it.)

It was not a conscious choice to pursue this in my reading, but over time, and with the questions raised daily by our political discourse, by year’s end it had become a theme.

However, there was much more than this existential search and in the list that follows I have briefly summarized both the good and the not so good, as I see it, in a year’s journey through the printed word, including both fiction and non-fiction.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight. This is a thorough and expansive biography of Douglass. It captures both the depth of his thought and the emotional turmoil that marked his amazing life. Despite his overwhelming strength, he was an imperfect and vulnerable human being, which makes his lasting impact all the more remarkable. It seems to me there is scarcely a leap from Douglass’ powerful indictment of 19th Century racism to the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st Century. Such is his prophetic vision and the endurance of his notable life story.

Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin. This reads more like a novel than presidential history. Goodwin recounts how Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson provided crucial—sometimes heroic, sometimes flawed—leadership in times of great peril to the country. It made me nostalgic for real leaders. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward. Woodward fills in the backstories of major media coverage of the Trump administration. Thus, I didn’t find anything of compelling interest in this recounting of conversations and decisions that have already been reported daily. This narrative, laced with “f-bombs” did not appreciably help me understand the administration any more clearly than I can get by reading major newspaper or watching cable news. Non-fiction. Not recommended.

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier. It’s curious to me how the savagery of war and life in the wilderness seems most truly conveyed in fiction. Frazier captures the brutality as well as the humanity of those caught up in the declining months of the Civil War. This tale of a soldier’s harrowing journey back to his love in the Blue Ridge Mountains is American literature at its best. Fiction. Recommended.

How Will Capitalism End?, Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck believes western liberal democracies based on capitalist economies are in crisis and we’re heading for a period of entropy. He projects we will be left to fend for ourselves because corporate capitalism is not only destroying itself, it’s destroying liberal democracies as well. The institutions that once restrained the excesses of capitalism are being subsumed by secular, corporate power. This academic treatise is a worrisome analysis of the current disarray across the globe as democracies struggle against authoritarianism and economic disparity. Probably the most influential book I read this year. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Working Class Rage, Tex Sample. I think this is the best of Sample’s work. He provides clarity about how resentment, powerlessness and marginality combine with racism and political manipulation to enflame the social dynamics that confront us today. He believes the antidote to resentment is local organizing that gives people voice and influence. Non-fiction. Recommended.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is one of the most provocative thinkers writing today. He raises questions about the future that should inform public policy for the long-term. How will we manage artificial intelligence? What will we do when automation in the workplace leaves millions of us unemployable? In the age of big data, who is watching you, and why? Harari poses profound questions that we will wrestle with as the future comes roaring at us in a daily torrent of technological change. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Peter Cozzens. Even before the end of the Civil War, white people had begun to stream west invading lands ceded to native peoples and onto homelands occupied by them for ages. The conflicts have been widely documented, but Cozzens provides a comprehensive account of the treachery, savagery and inhumanity that led to the dispossession and near genocide of native peoples across the U.S. west. This makes for tragic reading. It is a history of massacres, lies, miscommunication, broken promises and suffering. In 1863, Pres. Lincoln called several chiefs into Washington, D.C. Cozzens reports he spoke condescendingly to them, advising them that their only hope for prospering was to take up farming like white people, and offering no guarantee that they would be allowed to live on the open range as they had lived for centuries. Then he sent them on their way. One Indian told a white friend, “The government made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one, they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Non-fiction. Recommended.

In Pieces, Sally Field. In an autobiography that is at times brutally honest and intimate, Sally Field tells of her ambiguous relationship with her mother, a relationship that affects virtually all others. Her roles as Gidget and the flying nun did not plumb the depths of her desire and determination to grow as an actor as the roles of Norma Raye and Mrs. Lincoln did. And in doing so, they affirmed her abilities as an actor and also put to rest some of the ambiguity between her and her mother. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking. This collection of essays by Hawking published posthumously is mind-expanding. Hawking had the ability to explain complex theories about the cosmos in language that makes them accessible to the rest of us mere mortals. This makes for stimulating, challenging thought. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Common Good, Robert Reich. The common good is rarely mentioned in political discourse today. Reich defines what he means by the common good, points out how it is disregarded by the economic and political elite, and makes a clear case for public policy and popular organizing to re-focus on the common good. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver is a national treasure. In this novel she tells the story of two families separated by a century, living in the same poorly constructed house in Vineland, N.J. She weaves themes of social change, culture, scientific inquiry and female empowerment into a compelling tale that resonates with our contemporary social reality. Fiction. Recommended.

Every Day is Extra, John Kerry. I had to make myself stay with this autobiography through the first three chapters because they present a personal history that seems to me to fit the stereotype of an East coast elitist male upbringing. But after that, the personal history comes alive with Kerry’s military service in Vietnam, his commitment to public service, his awakening to his motivations for entering into politics and his desire to make a difference in the world. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Proud: My Fight for An Unlikely American Dream, Ibtihaj Muhammad. To become the first female Muslim American to medal at the Olympic Games required perseverance and ambition beyond measure. The challenges and sacrifices Ms. Muhammad faced are recounted in gritty detail. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate. The story of Georgia Tann and the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home is horrific. From the 1920s until 1950, at Tann’s direction, children from poor families were abducted, often with complicit support of the police, housed in an orphanage and adopted out to wealthy families. This fictionalized recounting of one family of these children and how their lives were changed is both engaging and heart-breaking. Fiction. Recommended.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. Reading Meacham makes me think that we stand a chance of getting through the Trump years. Meacham writes that our current moment of partisan fury is not new. We have withstood deep division before, and with informed, capable leaders, have come out the other side for the better. We can hope. Non-fiction. Recommended.

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow. Farrow lays out how the U.S. diplomatic corp has been hollowed out by budget cuts and policies that replace diplomatic efforts with generals and military response in areas of conflict, and how this decline affects global stability and safety. I resonated with his writing. In a lifetime of traveling the world documenting humanitarian assistance, refugee aid and disaster response in the non-profit sector, I became concerned about what I perceived to be a decline in U.S. diplomacy. I saw the growing influence of China as U.S. diplomatic presence declined, even after 9/11. Farrow completes this picture with anecdotes, narrative and facts. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. To undertake a biography of a polymath like Leonardo is, to me, a monumental, if not unthinkable, task. Yet Walter Isaacson has written a remarkably accessible biography that reveals Leonardo in his humanity and social reality. This is an extraordinary accomplishment about an extraordinary figure. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Married to a Bedouin, Marguerite van Geldermalsen. A young Ms. Geldermalsen, of Dutch and New Zealand extraction, was traveling with a friend through the Middle East when she met and fell in love with her future husband, Mohammad Abdullah, a Bedouin. After further travels she returned and married Mohammad and they lived most of their adult lives in caves in Petra, the Nabatean city in Jordan, which has since been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This is a revealing look at family life through the eyes of Ms. Geldermalsen, who managed with her husband to bridge two cultures, raise two sons and lead an interesting, remarkable life. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright. Having escaped Fascism in her youth, and writing from her rich global experience as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright says that Fascism started in the 20th Century with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things. As authoritarianism rears its ugly head in politics around the world, her warning is one I take seriously and one which should make each of us in democratic societies more alert and attentive to our obligations as citizens. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Forgotten Road, Richard Paul Evans. I hoped this would be a novel I would really enjoy as it involved the journey of a man searching for renewed understanding of his life by traveling route 66 in an attempt to reunite with his estranged wife. I grew up living only one block from route 66 in a small Oklahoma town and the highway holds more than a dose of romantic nostalgia for me. But this novel doesn’t cut the mustard. Fiction. Not recommended.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan. Frankopan offers a sweeping history of the world by examining trade relationships. He makes the case that the center of world power resides in what we in the global North call the Middle East. Frankopan says this crossroads of civilization has been the most influential region for the exercise of global power and influence, and if we are to understand global dynamics, we must seek to understand this part of the world. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande. As we age, how do we continue, in so far as possible, to shape the story of our lives and maintain connection to significant others? This is the central question Dr. Gawande addresses in this sensitive and insightful discussion of end of life care. This could be a depressing subject but Gawande makes it a warm and compassionate exploration about our common humanity. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Living Faith, Jimmy Carter. For President Carter, faith finds expression through compassion and justice. He is an evangelical who gives substance and depth to faith. His search to understand faith as a way of life informed by the great theologians of contemporary times is a rewarding read. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Educated, Tara Westover. Reared by a radical Mormon survivalist father and a mother compliant to his harsh, often violent, rule, it’s amazing Tara Westover escaped and developed her own independent, educated life. Without condemning her family, this first person account provides insight into a unique and horrifying upbringing, and it is a testament to the value of education. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson. This small book offers brief explanations of significant issues in cosmology in language that makes them understandable to those of us not familiar with complex scientific language. It’s just a so-so book, far less helpful, in my opinion, than Hawking’s book reviewed above. Non-fiction. Meh.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari. A look into the future that is enlightening, provocative and even frightening. For example, Harari, among other things, says “democracy and the free market will collapse once Google and Facebook know us better than we know ourselves, and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorihthms.” Whew! Non-fiction. Recommended.

Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig. Set in the 1950s, this is a wonderful coming of age tale about a young boy from Montana. He lives with his loving grandmother who must send him to stay with an uncle in Wisconsin as she faces surgery and cannot care for him. He travels by Greyhound bus, meets a cast of characters and has experiences that broaden the narrow horizons of his innocent, rural life. The twists and turns, deeply human characters and loving relationships in tension with tough reality make this a wonderful tale. Fiction. Recommended.

The Book That Matters Most, Ann Hood. A mysterious book from childhood becomes the object of a life-long search for meaning. Our lives are more complex than we reveal on the surface, and we choose to conceal much that is painful and troubling. The narratives we shape, and the secrets we conceal, make for a life. In this interesting novel, the twists and turns of secrets, loss, love and healing relationships make for an engaging read. Fiction. Recommended.

What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton. It seems there’s no neutral position regarding Mrs. Clinton. She’s either respected or hated. In this account of her campaign she explains why she followed the course she did and what it was like to run against Donald Trump. The recounting is more personal than we’ve seen in much of the coverage of her, mainly because she felt she had to protect herself from prying media. That led to a distance that has yet to be overcome. Non-fiction. Recommended.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, James Comey. By now we’ve heard the case Comey makes for his behavior during the campaign and why he acted to reveal investigations that ultimately played a role in the election of Donald Trump. I find Comey’s explanations lacking and self-serving. I don’t doubt his commitment to ethical standards, but I do question his rationale for breaking precedent and injecting himself and the FBI into the campaign in a way that influenced the election. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Faith: A Journey for All, Jimmy Carter. At 96, President Carter continues to display an openness and activism that reveals a powerful, living faith. In this volume he defines faith as “a belief in something that has always existed; it is never based on scientific discoveries, or what we learn as facts, but always on a moral concept or a vision of something superlative or idealistic.” Non-fiction. Recommended.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ Zora Neale Hurston. This work went unpublished for 80 years due to copyright complications. But it remains a compelling, important story in 2018. Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the of the last slave ship to make the transatlantic crossing to the United States. Told in Mr. Lewis’ own words, this is a powerful recounting of the inhumanity of the slave trade, an insight into the deep emotional wounds it inflicted, and a study in dispossession, alienation, and accommodation. Powerful. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman. Anne Hillerman has picked up where her father left off with the tales of Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito, Navajo police officers solving crimes on the reservation in the Four Corners of the U.S. Her tales of the Southwest ring true, and offer entertaining respite from the daily grind of political rhetoric, corruption and criminal behavior inflicted upon us daily in real life. Fiction. Recommended.

A Theology for the Earth, Anne Marie Dalton. Exploring the writing of Thomas Berry and Bernard Lonergan, this is one of the most sound, and meaty, theological studies on the environment and spirituality I’ve read lately. There is too much in this writing to crystallize in one phrase, but the discussion of immanence is especially important. Dalton writes, “The doctrine of God’s immanence maintains that God is not distant from creation, but that all creation participates somehow in the divine reality.” At a time when we hear rigid dogma presented as the content of faith, this open-ended, sacramental understanding of Creation is a corrective to non-sensical fundamentalism and sentimentalized spirituality. Non-fiction. Recommended.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy. A posthumous collection of letters and essays written by the southern novelist Pat Conroy. Despite his harsh childhood, he found meaning in the stories of others and made it his life’s work to draw out those stories and enlarge upon them through fiction. He reconciled with his authoritarian father and chronicled the low country culture of his native South Carolina. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer. I have a terrible deficit remembering names. It’s complicated by a medication I take. I was interested in working on mnemonics to help me remember names and avoid embarrassment and frustration. Foer explains how he became a world class competitor in USA Memory Championship competition using mnemonics. The key: to create as outlandish, and lewd, a mnemonic as possible. Enough said. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams. This is such a pleasure to read. It’s a mix of poetry, narrative, spirituality and personal reflection based on experiences at national parks across the country. Tempest Williams’ activism is a gift to us. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Faith of Dolly Parton, Dudley Delffs. Dolly is such an interesting character an in-depth biography of her life story would be an intriguing read. I hope some biographer gets beyond the managed image to the person. This is not that book. It’s a collection from second-hand sources interjected with evangelical religious reflections. Non-fiction. Don’t bother.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel. Finkel established a relationship with a true hermit who lived in the North Woods of Maine for most his adult life, scavenging for survival, sometimes terrifying local people as a result. Non-fiction. Recommended.

M Train, Patti Smith. Patti Smith is a performer, writer and visual artist. Her album Horses has been hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the best 100 albums of all time. In this first person narrative she reflects on her life, in no particular timeline, but over the accumulation of a lifetime of experiences. The book offers insight into the mind of a creative multi-platform artist. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Chasing Hillary, Amy Chozick. I thought I would get a picture of the Clinton campaign from the viewpoint of this New York Times writer as she traveled in the press corps. There’s some of that, but there’s also the writer’s reflections about her tense relationship with Mrs. Clinton, reflections that, frankly, seem less informative than embarrassing. With due respect to Ms. Chozick, I had hoped for more reportage and I didn’t need the interpersonal reflections. Non-fiction. Not recommended.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls. This is the most informative and complete biography of Thoreau that I’ve seen. Dr. Walls presents Thoreau in a wider view than the writings for which he is known. His relationship to Emerson is threaded throughout the narrative, and his interests and activities beyond Walden are presented. It’s a worthwhile look at an iconic figure in U.S. history. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes. While doing photography at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, I picked up this volume. It earned Rhodes a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a wide-ranging account of the lives of the scientists who developed the bomb, their evolving knowledge of the atom, the political environment in which they worked, the secrecy to which they were sworn, and the isolated social setting in New Mexico where they lived. It’s a thorough, and thoroughly engaging, account of a scientific accomplishment that has changed our world forever. Non-fiction. Recommended.

Walden and Other Writings, Henry David Thoreau. I started the year re-reading Thoreau. I suppose I would have been a Transcendentalist had I lived in his times. What strikes me about the Transcendentalists is their sense of the sacredness of nature. Thoreau witnessed the full-blown industrialization of the country with skepticism if not disgust. As we face a crisis of environmental degradation today that threatens human existence on the planet, Thoreau’s view of nature seems more prescient than peculiar. Non-fiction. Recommended.

The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman. Bird brains are far more complicated than that phrase implies, according to Ackerman. Birds are intelligent creatures, some more so than others. But in this account Ackerman reports on research around the world that establishes that birds are much more intelligent than has been recognized, and they deserve our respect and appreciation. Non-fiction. Recommended.

My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South, Rick Bragg. Ever since he wrote for the New York Times, I’ve been a fan of Rick Bragg. I must confess, however, that I’ve become weary of southern males writing about their relationship to their mothers. It’s an overworked theme in country music and there’s plenty of it in this volume. I don’t mean we should disrespect our mothers, but this trope is over done. Non-fiction. Recommended.

This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, Elizabeth Warren. I know she sets conservatives’ hair on fire, but she’s bright and clear-headed about the role of government functioning on behalf of the people and contributing to a more prosperous life. Perhaps it’s because she’s so competent that she causes such a stir. And maybe that’s why she garners such a strong negative reaction from the banksters and politicians they’ve bought. She’s a threat and she perseveres. Non-fiction. Recommended.

So, that’s it. I read a few other books about birds and nature, but they are of limited interest and not reviewed here.

I’m interested in hearing from you about your most interesting reading in the year past. Feel free to share in the comments section of this post.

Bonds of Mutual Affection

Institutions that worked in the 20th century and earlier are faltering and in some instances failing to fulfill the functions for which they were created.

Banks and financial institutions crashed the economy. Our federal government is dysfunctional–and in actions like family separation, it is demonic.

Wherever you look institutions are under duress. Education, government, religious organizations and health care are among them.

I was reminded of this as I sat through a recent meeting in which church officials and third party vendors explained a change in health insurance for retirees from church agencies.

Before you turn away for lack of interest in retiree health insurance, hang with me for a moment because the issue is about much more than that.

In various ways our failing institutions are grasping for alternatives. Some, like banks, seek even more power and freedom to move without regulation. Others, such as churches, are struggling with divisions that threaten their survival.

The move by my national church to put retiree health care into the private market through a third party broker represents how changes in the larger society are eating away at the institution.

In the church, as in civil society, we have viewed ourselves as interconnected. In religious language, we call this “community.” We care for each other and for the larger world.

Community is not only immediate, it includes “the great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before over the centuries.

We are connected. Our humanity binds us in ways that are profound and enduring.

In civil society, Lincoln put it poetically and realistically in his first inaugural address in 1861. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

These bonds of affection, however, are strained today, and in some cases they are breaking.

We’ve moved from these communitarian values to transactional values. We are less connected by bonds of mutual concern and more connected by the exchange of money.

The market economy has replaced the blessed community.

In the case of the church and retiree insurance, the church agency responsible for managing insurance is turning it over to a third party broker who will put the retirees into the private insurance market.

At the meeting where this was announced, everyone who spoke stated how much they care for retirees. I believe them.

However, this affection yields to the necessity of changing the connection between the retired employee and the institution.

Our speakers promised concrete advantages by including more choices in insurance packages. For some in the room that is vitally important.

Some of us might even get insurance at no cost, they said.

To check this out, I used the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation insurance calculator to explore scenarios for no-cost insurance.

I can’t find a no-cost insurance scenario for my state, a state that chose not to expand Medicaid, and therefore, chose to deny some of the benefit of the Affordable Care Act to its low income citizens.

But I did find that an individual with $15,000 annual income and no spouse who is eligible for insurance through an employer could qualify for a subsidized policy at a cost of $20.00 per month.

I truly fear for you if you’re living at a level that qualifies you for no-cost insurance. You’re on the edge of survival.

And more than 40,600,000 U.S. citizens subsist below the poverty line.

The market economy erodes the bonds of affection. It puts relationship on a fee for service basis.

The Affordable Care Act is based on the principle that those of us in better health would support the health and well-being of those less fortunate through mutually affordable insurance.

This is civic interconnectedness. It is based on the idea that we are a better society when we reinforce our mutual bonds of affection and care for one another.

But both our political institutions and corporate health care have broken these bonds. They have imposed a survival of the fittest system upon us in which wealth correlates to access to health care.

Nearly 40% of U.S. citizens say they have gone in debt to pay medical expenses and 31 million have no insurance.

The projections for the future of the health insurance maketplaces are not good. The actions of Republican legislators to destroy the ACA have charted a course that looks like it will further undermine the principle of mutual benefit through cost sharing.

The church is caught up in the transactional model that is strangling us through the market-based economy led by politicians bought and paid for by large corporations and by the insurance industry that profits from this system.

I do not fault my church officials who made the decision to move us to the private market. They see no viable option.

If we are to recover meaningful civic and spiritual engagement–to be the kind of society that cares for all its people–we must create alternative models and new structures that connect us and restore our mutual bonds of affection.

It is left to grassroots people to organize around the issues that affect us and to seek solutions. We now understand that the political, health care and health insurance institutions are too entrenched and controlled by principalities and powers to create change.

Christian communities and their humanitarian organizations must partner with community organizations addressing poverty and health care to envision new ways of interconnecting.

It is up to those at the ground level to restore the mutual bonds of affection, and to construct new, more humane policies that foster community, equity and justice.

We must do nothing less than envision new ways to connect in order to create new institutions for the future. Difficult as it will be, health care is as good a starting place as any.

The End of Diplomacy

Several years ago I produced a film in Ethiopia about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Research took me across the country and I was privileged to see the breadth of this ancient, colorful culture and the landscape in which it has evolved.

At one point, my traveling companions told me about the “China bridge.”

It was a new structure that replaced an older, less reliable bridge over a mountain pass.

Later, I was in another African country and heard about the “China road.”

I began to keep my eyes and ears open to the presence of China in this part of the world.

I knew Chinese workers had provided the labor to build the Nairobi to Mombasa railroad in Kenya under British colonial rule, but it was not a strategic actor in modern times.

China into Africa

However, it was becoming clear that China was inserting itself into the continent by building infrastructure, doing business and exploiting natural resources.

At first, it was a bit clumsy because Chinese workers weren’t there for diplomacy, they were there to get a job done and they didn’t interact well with local populations.

Moreover, China was also buying large tracts of land for agricultural development and this didn’t sit well with locals who were often thrown off the land.

In effect, I was witnessing a new geopolitical move by China to extend its reach into a continent to which it had not given much attention in recent decades.

I thought of this as I read the excellent account of the decline of U.S. diplomacy by Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.

The Decline of U.S. Influence

Farrow provides first-rate reporting about how U.S. diplomatic strategies were implemented, ignored, or compromised, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

He offers unique insight and detail about the efforts of special representative Richard Holbrooke, among others.

It’s a compelling story, as well as one that should be of great concern. It illustrates how elections in the U.S. make a difference.

Importantly, it makes it clear how the loss of U.S. influence puts national security at risk in these days of geopolitical crises.

As I read Farrow’s account of U.S. involvement in Somalia as recently as 2004, I recalled my own experiences there two decades earlier.

It concerned me way back then that Somalia in anarchy was a destabilizing force in east Africa. But it seemed a mere blip on the radar of U.S. politicians until Somali pirates began to highjack tankers moving down the Gulf of Suez into the Indian Ocean.

To be sure, they were interested in the region much earlier and appropriated the island of Diego Garcia for an airbase, and later estabished a large militay presence in Djoubti, but less about Somalia.

From Diplomacy to Military Think

The crux of the case Farrow makes is that the U.S. has reduced its diplomatic capacity worldwide in favor of increasing its military footprint. This has the effect of putting our international relationships in the hands of generals who have military power but are not skilled at, nor assigned to develop the kinds of relationships with civilian populations as diplomats have cultivated in the past, nor to assist to in the development of countries to encourage democracy.

They enter under security-building protocols, and this is very different.

In fact, so-called “nation-building” is derided and ridiculed today. There will be no Marshall Plan coming from politicians who quietly and spinelessly accept modern-day isolationist ideology.

And that’s a shame as well as a danger.

What is Being Lost

Farrow writes that what is being lost is generations of skill, knowledge and relationships that undergird the U.S.’s efforts to grow democracy and create a more peaceful world, as idealistic as that sounds.

He notes in precise detail how frequently the ideal has been hypocritically betrayed.

China, on the other hand, has stepped up its efforts—it’s transactional diplomacy, not the type of relationship diplomacy the U.S., at its best, has attempted to do—and China is filling in the gaps.

Among other things, this means that youth around the world are interacting with Chinese programs and receiving a worldview from the Chinese perspective, business people are developing transactional relationships with China for business and infrastructure, and politicians are interacting with Chinese officials more directly.

And the U.S. is in the background diplomatically.

A Lost Future

In his epilogue, Farrow quotes senior State Department official Bill Burns as he is leaving his post in the opening days of the Trump Administration.

Burns summarizes the dilemma, “There’s a real corrosion of the sense of American leadership in the world and the institutions that make that leadership real. You end up creating circumstances where you wake up fifteen years from now and say ‘Where are all those Foreign Service officers who should be just short of the mark of becoming ambassadors?’ and they’re not going going to be there.”

But, Farrow writes, China will be there.

Here are two interesting takes on the decline of U.S. diplomacy, not directly related to Farrow’s book, but certainly complementary to the core idea: Trump’s America Does Not Care and Trump Has Put America in the Worst of All Possible Worlds, This Should Have Been the Real Headline of the Trump Kim Summit.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Where to From Here?

Watching Jesus Christ Superstar last night brought memories of the introduction of this musical in 1970.

It was part of a much larger cultural turning point. Preceded by the musical “Hair,” which condensed and commercialized hippie counter-culture on stage and created a new form of musical theater (the “rock musical”), Jesus Christ Superstar went even further.

It reinterpreted the biblical account of Jesus’ life in rock opera.

The Fusion of Culture and Biblical Story

It was the fusion of pop culture with biblical storytelling, and it captivated young audiences in a way that traditional Christian education could not.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I returned to speak at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Bellevue, Nebraska, where I served as pastor during those years.

Adults who were in their teen years while I was there reminded me of the study groups in which I used Jesus Christ Superstar as the subject matter.

Whatever their reaction was at the time, the experience stuck, and after all these years, they remembered it.

Before Superstar, the sickly sweet images of a pale Jesus by the artist Warner Sallman defined him. They hung in virtually every local church in the country.

Superstar brought him into the streets. It was gritty. The language was in the vernacular. It captured the human dilemma of power politics and self-serving religious leaders.

It showed us his followers were sometimes faithless and they fought among themselves.

Humanizing the Biblical Story

Superstar humanized the biblical story and made it accessible.

Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene—even Pilate—became true to life.

They were more like us than the unapproachable, elevated mythical figures presented in our Sunday school instruction to whom we were told we owed pious devotion.

Last night’s mounting of Superstar by NBC adapted to our steampunk era and performed the same function.

It leads me to this thought: It is imperative to reinterpret the Christian story to make it accessible to justifiably skeptical seekers today.

White evangelical Trumpian Christians have trashed the faith. They have done more damage than most dedicated detractors.

After this, how will Christian faith recover?

Strong Headwinds

The headwinds are strong. Here are a few: the enormous capacity of corporate capitalism to commercialize and exploit virtually every humanistic impulse making life transactional and materialistic, economic inequality, extra-judicial killing of Black people, incessant messages inviting consumption and self-gratification, degradation of the environment, and anti-science religionists all make the challenge of humanizing the culture and re-sacralizing life enormous.

As Franciscan Richard Rohr is saying, it is the challenge to rebuild the faith from the ground up.

In a small way, and as an unintentional consequence of commercial theater, Superstar abets this process. But it will require creative, innovative, biblically informed followers to move the process forward.

Superstar reminds us that our best intentions are not enough. It’s the price we are willing to pay that makes the difference. And the cost may be higher than we bargained for.

Making Disciples, Pale Response

Now, I’m aware that new forms of white suburban upper middle class faith communities are seeking to “make disciples,” but I wonder if they pale in the face of the existential dilemmas experienced by the poor and vulnerable, the opioid addicted and LBGTQI people. They are soft on discrimination, racism, economic injustice and environmental destruction, and strong on personal growth and personal piety.

They are destined, I suspect, to become the equivalent of Sallman paintings when viewed backward from the future.

And Trumpian white evangelical leaders who make so much noise. Well, I’m done with them.

Lest I sound cynical and pessimistic, it’s because I’ve visited dozens of faith communities over the past dozen years, evangelical, progressive, and middle of the road.

Preachers in flannel shirts and blue jeans, backed by praise bands singing an interminably repetitious version of “Our God is an Awesome God,” is a lot like being pummeled by marshmallows. If you swallow them it’s a sugar high that dissipates by the time you leave the parking lot.

Rooted in Community

On the other hand, some local churches are deeply involved in their communities. Mostly, in my experience, these are in areas where people are up against the odds, vulnerable to systemic injustice and troubled by economic hard times. These churches are rooted in places of vulnerability where troubles are on open display.

The Jesus of Superstar was with these people. He was prophetic, and he paid for it with his life. Oh, wait, that is the Jesus of the Bible.

And that is the value of Superstar. It focuses us on the Jesus of the gritty streets. It shines light on conflicted human passions, political power and religious hypocrisy.

Discipleship and the Uneasy Questions

It reminds us that discipleship is not easy, and asks if we’re up to it.

Mary and Peter remind us of ourselves when they sing to him:

“I think you've made your point now.
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening,
We ought to call a vote,
So could we start again please?”

(from MetroLyrics)

I’m left with this. How to start again. To be an authentic follower of Jesus today, what is required of me, and am I up to the challenge?

And, most importantly, the plaintive song Mary sings, perhaps the most moving in the whole opera:

I don’t know how to love him
What to do, how to move him,
I’ve been changed, yes, really changed
In these past few days when I’ve
seen my self,
I seem like someone else.

I don’t know how to take this,

(from Metrolyrics)

In the confusing times in which we live, a turning point in history, a time when the faith has been trashed by hypocrisy and ideology, the wonder, and enormous challenge before those who would seek to live in the faith he inspires, I am haunted by these two questions.

What does it mean to love him?
And, could we start again please?

Impending Famine

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

I just finished watching We Who Remain, a new virtual reality film from the New York Times about survivors of the Sudan civil war. They are from the Nuba mountain region that was retained by the government in the north when South Sudan was created.

But rebels from the south continued to operate in the Nuba mountains, resulting in ongoing warfare between the northern government and southern combatants.

The immersive film, which is viewed by placing a cellphone into a simple two lens cardboard device, provides a 360° view into the lives of those who remain in the region. It’s also viewable without the 360° viewer.

While they feel trapped by the horrific fighting, this is their home. They have no place to which they can flee, so they remain.

Their stories are touching, engaging and sad. Children have seen bodies dismembered by bombs dropped from the air. They have learned to jump into large holes dug into the earth when the bombs drop or the shooting starts.

This is, unfortunately, not a new story. It’s one of the oldest conflicts in recent history. 

Social Conflict

It’s continued, in part, because the region for many years was not viewed as strategically important to the Cold War powers. After the end of the Cold War, Eritrean separatists fought and won independence from Ethiopia. Somalia came apart and descended into anarchy. And in Sudan rebels in the south took up arms and won independence from the north.

Then the Middle East region became a hotbed of violence. Today the U.S. has a base in Djoubti and China is moving in next door. After displacing its residents and leasing it from the British, the U.S. established a base on the Indian Ocean atoll, Diego Garcia. The area is strategic due to its position between East Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

I’ve traveled in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia several times and the region looks today much as it did when I was there several years ago. Southern Sudan, including the Nuba mountains, is an arid, bare landscape. The people have adapted by learning to live on the edge of survival, primarily by tending cattle.

Many of the children have grown up knowing nothing but social conflict. Many have lost parents, siblings and whole families. The conflict seems intractable and the suffering unending. Only days ago seven humanitarian aid workers were ambushed and killed in South Sudan.

Perhaps this intractability is why it doesn’t attract much attention anymore. But that’s an unsatisfactory reason for not attempting to alleviate the human suffering that is growing by the day.

Impending Famine

The United Nations says it needs $4.4 billion by July to prevent famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Famine threatens 20 million people. Some reports claim it could be the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

In addition, millions of Syrians are displaced and living in temporary conditions that are miserable, or worse. 

While this global crisis develops, the U.S. and some European nations are engaged in interminable debates over national politics to the neglect of a world that is broken and divided. We are preoccupied by a nationalist, nativist ideological dispute that detracts from global perspective.

For people of goodwill, and most especially, for people of Christian faith, this is also a distraction from the historic teachings of the faith. Scripture tells us we are citizens first of the kingdom of God, and that our responsibilities for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering water to the thirsty and making peace have no boundaries. It is all God’s world. And we share responsibility for its nurture and care.

A World of Abundance

Thus, despite the false preaching that offers Bible-blessed nationalism, the call to Christians today is to maintain a global view and to act accordingly. This means to provide aid to those who are vulnerable, those who for no reason but birth, find themselves living in life-threatening conditions. It means caring for people within the borders of our own nation and beyond. It means understanding that there’s enough for all. We live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity.

And it means advocating for funding for humanitarian aid and keeping foreign assistance.  

Among those groups that I support offering direct service and advocacy are the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service. Both organizations help me keep this perspective.


Hope in a Post-truth World

In a helpful analysis of the uses of social media by the water protectors at Standing Rock, Ginny Underwood points out how social media were used to tell the story of the people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The analysis was published by United Methodist News Service, the news arm of The United Methodist Church.

Ginny points out how the water protectors used social media strategically to overcome lack of coverage by mainstream media. In doing this, she notes the people were enabled to tell their own story, something that’s been more difficult in the past because of lack of access to media controlled by others.

Key to Success

A key to the success of the resistance was the strategic use of social media to tell a story that for many weeks was not told by mainstream media. The water protectors built a movement through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media from a remote hillside in the middle of the country far from the communication hubs of the established media.

They told a story that was easy to understand and with which anyone could identify. When dogs and rubber bullets were used by local authorities and water cannons turned on the protestors, it was on Facebook within minutes. 

Creating a Movement

Out of this communication a movement was built. A movement can defeat the establishment almost every time if it holds together and if it communicates effectively.

There are other components of this story that bear attention.

UMNS published this analysis before any other media outlet recognized the importance of the communication strategy. This is an important and appropriate role for the church’s communication arm to fulfill.

UMNS (for which I once had executive responsibility) should be an authoritative information source for the stories of those without voice, on the margins, and otherwise at a disadvantage in a media environment dominated by big money and big corporations.

It’s not a public relations function that serves on behalf of the church.

Truth-telling Rooted in the Gospel

It is the truth-teller rooted in the church’s claim of the Gospel of Jesus that the truth will set us free.

In the post-truth world of Trump, and the fact-free disinformation of fake news, the mainline religious traditions should be standing in the breach doing truth-telling and fact-finding, and enabling those who lack the capacity to tell their own stories without an assist to do so.

Mainstream electronic media, subject to the greed of corporate executives and the demand for ratings, failed us at truth telling in the past election. Don’t look for this to change.

Mainstream Fail

Mainstream religious institutions have failed and continue to fail to engage the public conversation about just treatment of people, fair wages, economic justice, humane ways to resolve conflict, and the global environmental crisis.

The mainline denominations have decimated their news services. In doing so they have removed their capacity to fulfill one of their most sacred responsibilities, to speak truth to power, and to do what Jesus asked us to do, to identify with the poor and oppressed and to raise our voice on their behalf for justice and equity.

When religious institutions fail to protect us from the principalities and powers, other means must be found. In the DAPL issue, the water protectors are playing that important role.

And it’s important that communicators like Ginny Underwood and services like United Methodist News Service fulfill their responsibilities to tell the stories of the people.

Sacred Stories, Spirit Movement

That’s because these are sacred stories. They will be overlooked by those who serve corporate masters and moneyed interests.

At this moment in global history, there may be no more important role for religious communicators than to be the story-tellers who inform us of the movement of the Spirit to protect, heal and save us from our own hubris, greed and false worship of power.


Postscript: Faith in Public Life (FPL) is providing religious leaders with the means to speak to moral issues by providing a platform for exposure. The Rev. William Barber, for example, is an effective public voice for justice and FPL has assisted him and others with media access. I am a board member of FPL.

Aylan, When Did We See You?

NY Times Page (1 of 1)I awoke this morning from what I thought was a dream, or nightmare. I had dreamt I was profoundly sad and on the verge of tears.

I saw in my mind’s eye the photo of a little boy who was a refugee.

He had drowned. His body washed ashore and was picked up by a Turkish gendarme.

I touched my arm and realized if I was dreaming I was now awake and the scene was not a dream, it is reality.

The body of 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a beach has galvanized the world to become aware of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

News reports say his mother and sister died as well when their overloaded boat sank in rough seas. They were trying to get from Syria to Europe.

11 million Syrians have been displaced by war and more than 2,600 Syrians and Africans have died this year trying to make the crossing.

The most conservative estimate I’ve seen is that 20,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe from the African continent through extrajudicial means in the past two decades.

The Global Crisis

Opinions about the crisis abound. World leaders, particularly European politicians and policymakers, have ignored the humanitarian tragedy that’s been underway for years.

The U.S., neighboring Middle Eastern countries, and other civil leaders could have done more, sooner.

I am complicit, too. I wrote to leaders of my own religious community meeting in Europe asking them to speak publicly and they chose not to. And I did nothing more.

At that moment, I became part of the problem. One more inattentive, distracted, distant person whose empathy means little if it does not lead to action.

I awoke this morning to the guilt of my own complicity. And it’s painful.

There’s enough blame to go around. But blame won’t solve anything.

Nor will guilt. Guilt isn’t enough. It’s only useful as a motivator.

I hope the visual awareness that comes from that stunning photograph is motivation for millions to do more than feel guilty for a brief moment.

Global Citizenship

I hope, for example, that for those who, like me, try to follow the values that are in the teachings of Jesus, recognize that we are called to be citizens in a different way.

We are citizens of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is much greater than our neighborhood, state, region or nation.

To be in this kingdom is to be called to global citizenship, caring for and taking responsibility for how the dispossessed, vulnerable and voiceless are treated, no matter where they reside.

In this kingdom we are connected, and responsible for one another; even in the conflicted, messy, complicated, and difficult to understand world we inhabit.

The image of a lifeless child lying on a beach reminds us of the consequences when we forget this connection.

Jesus was clear about what it means to follow him. It means to live into this understanding of our global responsibilities and to act on them.

In explaining what is expected he said, “When you have done it (provided food, shelter, clothing, water, comfort) for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25: 40 Common English Bible)

We have seen Jesus. His body washed ashore on a beach three days ago.

Making Personal Change

What must happen? First, I must change my interior.

It’s too easy for me to distance myself from the suffering of those an ocean away in a culture I don’t understand caught in a conflict so complicated I cannot fathom.

But I can understand the human suffering that results. This is a starting point.

In his current meditation series, Fr. Richard Rohr discusses the practice of tonglen as a pathway to interior change.

In  tonglen we “breathe in” others’ pain, “so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

This builds our awareness and also gives us insight into our own brokenness and need for wholeness. A quick read of his meditation gives a more complete description.

Championing Institutional Change

I believe I must advocate for a change in budget priorities including greater amounts for humanitarian aid and changes in foreign policies that seek peaceful resolution to conflicts over armed force.

In a commentary in The Guardian, Sabrina Hersi Issa writes: “To continue to under-fundundermine and ignore humanitarian fallout from our military actions and foreign policy failings is moral malpractice. To do so because of xenophobia and Islamophobia is an even greater sin.”

There are many worthy organizations at work relieving the suffering. We can take immediate steps to support them with financial and material aid. Others are working on policy. And Pope Francis has called on Catholics across Europe to take in the refugees.

Seeking Wholeness

It’s clear that the systems that allowed Aylan to die are broken.

And it’s also clear that we who live in these systems are broken and must seek wholeness.

The way to healing is to seek change–individually and collectively.

We need not ask, as did those who followed Jesus centuries ago, “Lord, when did we see you?” We already know what we have seen. And who.



Dying to Get From Africa to Europe

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.00.15 PMThe immigration crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean is hard to watch. It brings to mind mass migrations by sea of Haitians and Cubans in this hemisphere in the 1980s and 90s.

But with an estimated 900 fatalities when a boat sank this week off the coast of Italy, the toll is even greater.

I’ve felt a particular burden, even from a distance. For many years I’ve traveled to Africa and on many of those trips I’ve been implored by young people to help them emigrate. Some requests come quietly. Some are insistent. All are poignant.

The refugees who drowned, and the hundreds who preceded them on dangerous crossings, are not among those with the wherewithal to emigrate legally. They lack the contacts and the legal justification required for state sanctioned immigration. They are the invisible people.

There are myriad reasons for wanting to leave their homelands. Most seek relief from oppressive poverty. Some lack opportunity in their home countries, while others face oppressive regimes that make life unbearable. And some, such as Somalis and Syrians, live in countries where daily survival is a dangerous, risky thing.

These migrants are the poor and desperate. For too long Europe has turned a blind eye to those who risk life and limb in the vain hope that they will find security, prosperity and opportunity to the north. If they survive, most find confinement in a camp that is poorly equipped, only to be returned in a revolving door of frustration and risk.

But the neglect is not only European. The developed nations view the world through the strategic lens of security and threat. Until a major crisis erupts, or an insurgency develops that presents a global threat, the response to poverty at scale is often limited, and slow.

It’s abundantly clear that poverty is a breeding ground for instability and desperation. And desperation is a motivator for civil unrest, and a tool in the hands of manipulative radicals seeking to overthrow weak, corrupt and oppressive governments.

The failure to address poverty with a consistent, long-term approach has consequences. It is a strategic as well as a humanitarian failure.

Neither you nor I can help every young person who seeks help to leave his or her country, but we can encourage public policy that addresses food insecurity and long term development. We can encourage public policy that rewards good government. We can tell our representatives that we favor proactive humanitarian policy as a preventative to military action that results from social instability. We can provide financial support and volunteer to work for those humanitarian organizations on the front line of human need.

Here are four things we can do:

  1. Become informed and speak out about the current immigration crisis so that developed nations cannot ignore the poor and desperate until they die in tragedies like the ship that sank off Italy’s coast this week.
  2. Support the work of groups like the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and others like it, Bread for the World and Church World Service who advocate for just public policy and provide humanitarian services to ease the burdens of poverty.
  3. Support the Global Food Security Act to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, strengthen maternal and child nutrition, and build capacity for long-term agricultural growth.
  4. Support global health initiatives including efforts like Imagine No Malaria which improve quality of life in regions where under-served people face hunger and disease without proper health care.

We can be persistent in attempting to improve life for those who otherwise are willing to risk their lives in a dangerous journey to improve their chances to find dignity, opportunity and prosperity.


This article, now two years old, remains a pertinent, practical overview of the immigration crisis in Europe with clear policy recommendations.

Relating to Cuba

Doctors attend to newborn in pediatric hospital in Havana

Doctors attend to newborn in pediatric hospital in Havana

A nurse slowly squeezed a manual respirator to keep the newborn breathing. Two physicians worked quietly and methodically on the distressed child. We were in the critical care unit of the central pediatric hospital in Havana, Cuba. It was more than 15 years ago, but as I hear criticism about the normalizing of relations with Cuba today, it makes me wonder how much has changed since then.

A Grave Situation

I was photographing medical care for children at the invitation of a pediatrics official as part of a visit with friend and colleague Joe Moran of Church World Service. We were documenting the humanitarian work of Cuban Christians and others. Cuba has long emphasized quality health care and many South American nations send patients to the island nation for care.

As I concentrated on photographing them, I was not aware of the gravity of their efforts. An X-ray negative was taped to a window. It revealed the baby had been born with a single lung.

As I looked through the viewfinder, concentrating on focus and composition, one doctor stood erect after having leaned over the child’s bed. The nurse put down the respirator. The three laid their equipment aside and looked toward me. The child had died.

I leaned against the wall, shocked and humiliated by my lack of awareness. Tears welled in my eyes. And these people who had just completed heroic efforts to save this child came over to console me!

Embargo Results

As we talked, they explained the difficulties of caring for the child. His chances of survival were dire. One of the challenges was a lack of needles small enough for the tiny veins of  newborns. As with many other medical supplies and equipment, they attributed the shortage to the U.S. embargo that had been in effect for the past 30 years.

Except for case-by-case humanitarian exemptions, medical supplies made in the U.S. were blocked from entering Cuba. And this had recently been extended to equipment under U.S. patent. This meant that materials from third party sources could not be imported if they were patented in the U.S.

This was only one of the hardships visited on the vulnerable, like this infant, that resulted from the embargo. The Cuban economy was anemic. Travel to the U.S. was  prohibited. Remittances from family in the U.S. were limited. Trade with the U.S. was restricted.

Tourism from other nations was just beginning to attract foreign exchange, but a dual economy–one for tourists and one for locals–only highlighted financial inequality.  Life was hard for most people.

Putting the Past Behind Us

I thought of this experience when I heard of the agreement to normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S. I thought of the Cuban people: the children in the pediatric hospital, the pleasant old woman in a senior residence who told me with a smile as I was leaving, “Remember, you have a grandmother in Cuba,” the teachers and children in the schools I visited, the farmers and the health care workers.

They are everyday people seeking to live meaningful, purposeful lives like you and me, under difficult circumstances made unnecessarily more difficult by political differences that have festered now for a half century.

I understand the Cold War ideology. I lived through it: the missile crisis, the political detainees, the human rights violations. But this baby had nothing to do with that. He was simply born into this world of hubris and hatefulness, without a fighting chance for survival.

Things have changed since my visit, but slowly and incrementally. And not enough to greatly improve the lot of most Cubans. The normalizing of relations will notch up the change. But it does not end the embargo. That requires an act of Congress.

It will be a political struggle. But this, too, must happen. So long as it continues, it undermines our best values, and punishes the innocent.


The National Council of Churches in the U.S. and Cuban Council of Churches have issued a joint statement about normalization nd future steps:

Page 1 of 3123»