Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whose Seed? Whose Food?

In January, seed catalogues start arriving in my mailbox: Burpees, Gurney’s, Stark Bros, others. I like to page through, thinking about what I might plant, marveling at the varieties of tomatoes, squash, peppers.

This year, though, my thoughts have been turning in a different direction. Last weekend I helped a local group host a screening of The Corporation, a sobering film about the role of multinational corporations and their impact on food supply, energy policy, rights of workers, and a wide range of other important topics.

One segment of the movie describes global agribusiness Monsanto’s sale of Bt cotton to illiterate, traditional farmers in India. In 1998, the World Bank forced India to open its seed sector to multinational corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto promised that its patented, genetically modified cotton would yield huge increases in returns and allow a decrease in the amount of pesticide used. Farmers were provided loans to shift to the new seed. They quickly discovered that Bt cotton required far more pesticide than previous varieties, needed twice as much water as traditional cotton, and that they would be prosecuted if they tried to save seed to plant the following year. The harvest yields were not large enough to cover the increased costs. In fact, most farmers found their yields were smaller.

Farmers who believed Monsanto promotions found themselves deep in debt, without seed for the new year ahead and without funds to buy more seed. For Indian cotton farmers, the margin was always slim, with seed, crop, and climate held in fragile balance. Since the introduction of Monsanto’s seeds, that balance has disappeared. More than 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide under the weight of crushing debt. In 2010, the Indian National Crime Records Bureau estimated that 46 farmers were killing themselves each day – one suicide every 30 minutes.

Monsanto’s disruption of traditional farming methods, in India and countries around the globe, goes far beyond false advertising and terminator seeds (seeds genetically altered so that the next generation of seed is sterile). While buying up seed companies large and small, Monsanto has also been applying for patents of traditionally grown crops that have been selected over centuries for disease or pest resistance. At the same time, company enforcers have been suing farmers, in the US and other countries, whose farms show signs of pollination from Monsanto patented plants. Since pollen can be carried by bees, or travel on the wind, and since seed itself can drift, Monsanto patented variants can show up in neighboring fields. Hundreds of farmers have lost to Monsanto in court, with hundreds more settling out of court rather than face bankruptcy in the face of legal fees. As the company patents seed traditionally passed on from farmer to farmer, farmers around the world can now be sued for growing the same plants they’ve grown for years.

For over half a century,  Monsanto has been working to control markets, and has been marketing products with false promises. Monsanto produced and marketed Agent Orange –the herbicide used during the Vietnam War. While Monsanto said it was non-toxic and could be sprayed safely to deforest large tracts of jungle growth, the chemical killed and maimed hundreds of thousands and caused an epidemic of miscarriages, stillbirths, and horrifying birth defects among the people of Vietnam.

Monsanto was also responsible for marketing and manufacturing DDT, promising the chemical was completely harmless to humans and other creatures. DDT was eventually banned in the US, but not before the bald eagle and osprey were almost extinct.

Roundup is another popular Monsanto product, the most widely used herbicide in the United States.  About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year. According to Monsanto, Roundup is bio-degradeable, non-toxic, and completely safe for birds and animals. According to independent researchers in a variety of countries, Roundup’s combination of ingredients can cause cancer, tumors, and birth defects. 

Another Monsanto invention –recombinant bovine growth hormone – rGBH (also called rBST, or Prosilic), is marketed to dairy farmers to increase milk production. The testing period in the US was only ninety days. According to Monsanto, “there’s nothing to worry about.” When a team of investigative reporters found that there were, in fact, health implications to consider, Monsanto bullied Fox News into killing that report. Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and other countries have banned rGBH. In the US, Monsanto fought consumer requests to have rGBH milk labeled, even pushing laws banning organic dairy farmers from advertising or labeling “no rGBH” milk.

Monsanto has a reputation for saying “this is harmless,” without doing the necessary research to be sure that’s true. Untested Monsanto products have left a wide swath of misery in countries around the world.
Which brings me back to my seed catalogs. As Monsanto buys up smaller seed companies and introduces unlabeled genetically modified seed, how do I know what I’m growing? The Monsanto seed monopoly is hard to track, but food activists believe the company now controls 97% of the world’s maize market, and 95% of the global cottonseed supply. Seed prices are skyrocketing, as Monsanto exercises control over the supply.

Trying to sort out the implications of the Monsanto seed monopolies and the introduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), here’s what I’ve discovered:  
  • Genetically engineered foods can contain genes derived from bacteria, viruses, insects, fish, animals, or unrelated, sometimes toxic, plants.
  • 93 percent of US soy, cotton, and canola seed planted in the US in 2010 was genetically engineered.
  • 86 percent of field corn and, according to Monsanto, half of the sweet corn planted in the US this past season was genetically modified.
  • 70 to 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.
  • Any American meat not labeled “certified organic” or “non-GMO” carries traces of GMOs, since corn and soy are the primary feed grains.
  • Some strawberries, citrus, bananas and papayas, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, yellow squash, and zucchini are genetically modified. They aren't labeled. 
  • “Natural” foods are not regulated. They usually contain less, or no, artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners, but can contain GMOs. 
I’ve been wondering, for years now, why there are so many mystery illnesses that didn’t seem to exist when I was younger, or which occurred with much less frequency: autism, Alzheimer’s, asthma, food allergies of every kind, chronic fatigue, persistent acne, unexplained digestive disorders. Biologists and physicians around the globe are tying these to the untested, undisclosed additives and alterations in our food.

GMOs have been flooding the market in the US for the past fifteen years and the upswing in most of these ailments, along with increases in some kinds of cancers and tumors, tracks almost exactly with the increase in GMOs. As a result of proliferating health concerns, and ongoing research, almost fifty countries now insist that any genetically modified food be labeled; some nations ban all GMOs, including honey from bees in countries like ours where GMOs are permitted.

“Nonsense,” says Monsanto. “Nothing to worry about.”

At what point does this become my concern? Should I care about what happens to cotton farmers in India? Rice farmers in China? Corn farmers in Haiti?

Should I sign on in support of organic farmers here in the US, facing Monsanto in court this week in the opening hearing of a lawsuit, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) et al v. Monsanto, challenging Monsanto’s abusive seed patenting practices and struggling to keep the organic food movement alive?

Should I join the many health and food democracy groups begging the FDA to require that GMOs be labeled, so those afflicted with mystery illnesses can shop with greater confidence and protect themselves from the harm of altered foods??

In 2 Corinthians, Paul urged the Corinthian Christians to express their support of their struggling brothers and sisters in Macedonia. He reminded them that as they reached out with generosity and concern: “he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.”

In all the talk about seeds, GMOs, farmers, I find myself thinking about the amazing gift of seed, the dangers of selling tampered seed without years of careful research, and the disaster waiting for all of us if Monsanto and its agribusiness colleagues are allowed to continue putting profit before human health and sustainable farm practices.

The tipping point in all this will be an informed American public speaking out, not only on behalf of our own safe food supply, but on behalf of small farmers here and around the world.

Want some action points?

Express support for the organic farmers in their hearing this week against Monsanto:   Add your voice

Ask the FDA to require GMOs to be labeled:  Just Label It

Download a non-GMO shopping guide as an ebook, iPhone app, or pdf file, and vote with your dollars for GMO-free food.  Shopping guide.

As always, your thoughts, suggestions and comments are welcome.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


The Kingdom of Heaven is Like unto the Leaven
Hidden in the Lump, Yelena Cherkasova, Russia
Listening to the radio while organizing boxes in my basement, I was intrigued at the way discussion of a new book, You Lost Me, about young Christians leaving the church, segued into discussion of evangelicals and right wing politics in the North Carolina primary. Minutes later, the broadcast turned to the recent debate in which Newt Gingrich was asked about his alleged request to his second wife for an open marriage.

George Barna, respected Christian leader and founder of the Barna Group, announced this week that “After a lot of study, soul searching, and prayer,” he is endorsing Newt Gingrich for president, and has agreed to lead Gingrich’s “Faith Leaders Coalition,” the Gingrich campaign’s outreach to the Christian community.
You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith, describing the departure from the church of more than half of those in their twenties, is by David Kinneman, Barna’s successor at the Barna Group. The new book, and a previous work by Kinneman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks of Christianity ... And Why It Matters, make use of a three-year Barna study of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds. The results of that study demonstrated, with painful clarity, that the majority in that demographic view Christians with hostility and disdain.

Here’s the critique:

* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%

Surely George Barna has at least heard of Kinneman’s books? Knows at least a little of their content?

The overwhelming grief for me, in this season of angry partisan rhetoric, mudslinging and attack ads, is that the sorry reputation of the Christian church is pulled through the mud along with the candidates. And that Christian leaders, pretending that there is one, correct, “faith leaders” point of view, hurry that process along.

“Are outsiders asking us to stay out of politics?” Kinneman asks in unChristian in a chapter titled “Too Political.”  “According to our research, not exactly. Many outsiders clarified that they believe Christians have a right (even an obligation) to pursue political involvement, but they disagree with our methods and our attitudes. They say we seem to be pursuing an agenda that benefits only ourselves; they assert that we expect too much out of politics; they question whether we are motivated by our economic status rather than faith perspectives when we support conservative politics; they claim we act and say things in an unChristian manner; they wonder whether Jesus would use political power as we do; and they are concerned that we overpower the voices of other groups.” (165)

Kinneman quotes one young man, Brandon, an agnostic, active in the Republican party: “I believe that American Christians have become tools of the Republican election machine—at the expense of their own image and message.” (166)

He quotes another young adult raised in the church who “became disillusioned with his church and eventually his faith because he started to question the heavy-handed political involvement that seemed to be a requirement. His comment: ‘A lot of times the church would take a conservative Republican stance, and anyone who did not fit into that mold was judged as not as good a Christian as everyone else.’”  (166)

As Kinnemann makes very clear, there is no one, unanimous “Christian” presence in politics, despite the rhetoric of groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition, or the new "Faith Leaders Coalition": “among the evangelical segment, only a slight majority are registered Republicans (59 percent). That’s a high proportion, but far removed from the monolithic levels one might expect based on media pronouncements or the expectations of Christian leaders.”  (161)

Last fall Christianity Today published an article with this headline: “Survey: Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal." In the article, Aaron B. Franzen summarized conclusions from a recent poll by LifeWay Research:    
  • For each increased level of Bible-reading frequency, support for the Patriot Act decreased by about 13 percent.
  • Support for abolishing the death penalty increased by about 45 percent for each increase on the five-point scale measuring Bible-reading frequency.
  • The more someone reads the Bible, the more likely he or she is to believe science and religion are compatible. (For each increase on the five-point scale, the odds that they see religion and science as incompatible decrease by 22 percent.)
  • "How important is it," the survey asked, "to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?" Again, as would be expected, those with more liberal political leanings were more likely to say it's very or somewhat important. And those who read the Bible more often were more likely to agree. Indeed, they were almost 35 percent more likely to agree at each point on Baylor's five-point scale.  
  • The survey asked whether one must consume or use fewer goods in order to be a good person. Political liberals and frequent Bible readers are more likely to say yes.  
Just last week, Abington Press released a new book called Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, by Mike Slaughter and Charles Gutenson. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but the problem it addresses is a real one, and growing worse by the day.

In his own blog, Slaughter writes “As Christians we have too often allowed worldly political ideologies to become determining factors for our theology rather than grounding ourselves in sound biblical theology for determining our politic. Some well-meaning believers have become more passionate about engaging in the heat of partisan political debate than they have been in sharing the good news about Jesus. Left and right, blue and red are but imperfect systems that are passing away. These systems, by their very nature, create barriers of division. The way of the cross is eternal and tears down the dividing walls that stand between us. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

George Barna and other Christian leaders are free to vote as they wish. They are free to endorse the candidates of their choice. But when they include the word Christian or faith in their endorsement, they hijack, once again, the name of Christ, and the community of believers, for their own less than perfect causes. As a follower of Christ, I pray for our disillusioned generations, and encourage our leaders to reconsider their allegiance and their misuse of influence. As Christ's people, we are called to be agents of reconciliation - to God and to each other - not agents of one political agenda.

I'd love to hear what you think on this. Your comments and questions, as always, are welcome. And I've been working on moving to an easier commenting platform - but not sure it's an improvement. I'd welcome your thoughts on that as well.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Perplexed, but still hopeful

Untitled, Ben-Zion,
New York, 1950s
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—
    these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, 
   not choose not to be.
     (from “Carrion Comfort”
      Gerard Manley Hopkins,1887  )

We see through a glass darkly – but there are times that seem darker than others. Winter nights close in; the accumulating sorrows of friends and family pile like snowdrifts against our windows. We find ourselves wishing for summer, or surfing vacation rental websites, longing for escape. We wrestle with hope: Is healing possible? Is wholeness an illusion? Does it make sense to invest, again, and again, in systems that seem irrevocably broken, in people who seem determined to fail?

Reading Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort”, I find myself wondering what struggles sapped his strength, stole his joy, led him toward the dark place of doubting God’s goodness. His poem points back toward Jacob, running from home, wrestling in the dark with God.

And it calls to mind Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, confessing his own  temptation to despair.

For some reason, we pretend that conversion to Christ is a guarantee of a smooth and easy ride. Trust God and all will go well. Believe and your problems are solved. Let go and let God.

Praying Monk, Frank Brangwyn, Belgium, 1930s
But there’s Hopkins, a Jesuit priest in his prime, bruised by his dark night of the soul. And Paul, acknowledging that he and his fellow workers were “under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1).

I could list countless friends, faithful people living lives of deep obedience, who struggle with unexplained tragedies and wrestle with doubt, with a sense of abandonment that rivals David’s when he cried out:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me,
   so far from my cries of anguish? 
I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
   it has melted within me."  (Psalm 22)

If suffering is part of the human condition, God's people are not exempt.

There’s a word play in 2 Corinthians 4 that we miss in English translation. Paul says “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Aporeo (perplexed) means to be without resources, in doubt, not knowing which way to turn: stuck. I’m beginning to feel that’s my natural state. Daily, I find myself perplexed. I don’t have what’s needed. I can’t do what I promised. The challenges I face are more than I bargained for. My resources are few, my wisdom is slight, and the situation is beyond me. I laugh as I write this: I thought that state of perplexity would end when I stepped away from full-time ministry with youth. Instead, it’s more pronounced, as God leads me into more and more perplexing missions, with fewer resources at hand.

Paul says: aporea, but not exaporeo. Perplexed, but not to the point of despair. Without resources, but not without hope of help. In doubt, but not in such confusion I can no longer pray, or trust, or wait. Stuck, but not - literally - "out of a way through."

When I look back on the past year, and the years before that, I see that some of the moments when I was most perplexed, God was most at work. Those places where I found myself standing still – uncertain, doubtful, at the end of my resources, ingenuity, understanding - God’s grace intervened, sometimes in ways that were immediate and dramatic, much more often in ways that could only be seen looking back across time.
The Man with the Burden
Rachael Robinson Elmer, New York, 1913

Yet there are situations where I still wrestle, still stand in perplexity, still see no sign of resolution, no clear way through. What then?

In Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 4 I find clear advice for my own cases of “aporea”:

One: Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. He says it at the beginning and end of the chapter: We do not lose heart.

Easy to say. Not so easy to do.

Two: Admit, acknowledge, even embrace weakness. We aren’t the ones who need to be strong. I love that. We are jars of clay. Frail, flawed, struggling creatures.

I’ve certainly had the temptation, at different points along the way, to “look strong for the kids,” to try to hold it together. That never works. Much better to say “I’m struggling here. But don’t worry: God will help us.”

Third, Paul says: Keep your eyes on what’s ahead. Don’t let this present moment drag you down. “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

I have lots of areas of weakness, but one in particular has sometimes been a problem. I hate long, high bridges. I start focusing on the side: the flimsy rail, the too-close edge, the long drop to deep water below. And then I focus on myself: my sweaty hands, the fact that I can’t breath. If I can keep my eyes and attention out ahead, I’m okay. If I start thinking “what if . . .” I’m in trouble.  

The bridges are hard. But the other side is worth it.

And these struggles we face are hard, but they’re not the end of the story, just as those miserable bridges are never the end of the road. As Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

I pray that will be so.

We travelers, walking towards the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessings brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
                  (Sabbaths 1999, IV, Wendell Berry) 

The Pilgrim of the World at the End of his Journey,
Thomas Cole, New York, 1846-47

This post is part of the January Synchroblog on hope, done in partnership with Provoketive, an online magazine devoted to creating space for dialogue about faith, life, justice and culture. As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome. And if you're needing wrestling with hope yourself, or in conversation with others who are struggling, please take time to visit some of the other websites linked below. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012


In 1960 Martin Luther King, describing his own spiritual and intellectual journey, wrote: "The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." (Pilgrimage to Non-Violence)

My intent in this blog has been to wrestle with the realities of faithful living in the widest sense possible: what does it mean to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? What does it mean to do the things Jesus did, to live as his friend, to abide in him in this culture where I find myself? What does it mean to care about the people God has put in my life, but also to care about the systems that hold them captive? What are the fragments of beauty and light and joy I can point to as signposts of the kingdom of grace I see off in the distance?

The Story of Citizens United v FEC
Some weeks I find this a pleasant task. Some weeks it’s more of a brain puzzle. This week I’ve been unhappily mulling over the upcoming anniversary of the Supreme Court decision affirming “corporate personhood” and the idea that free speech implies unlimited corporate expenditure in elections. I never studied economics, am not really interested in the flow of money, would rather spend the morning birdwatching, or taking a young friend or two to the nearest library. But if our current economic system strangles and cripples people struggling toward freedom, am I responsible to care? If good people believe - as many I know do - that democracy is dead, or dying, do I need to understand what it is they're saying? 

I have a foreboding sense that we are at a crossroads. I fear that unless more of us, people who love the earth, who long for justice, who believe in compassion, unless more of us take the time to understand our current economic and political conditions, we will make the wrong turn and find there’s no way back. Some I know say we've already made that turn. I"m hoping they're wrong.

Last October I began attending a local Occupy group. Occupy Phoenixville has never had an encampment, rally or demonstration. We haven’t even made any homemade signs. Our first move was to promote Occupy the Polls – with a website offering voter information and encouragement to engage. Since then we’ve done some work about billboards, helping Phoenixville oppose a corporation trying to force large digital billboards on a community that doesn't want them. And now we’re working with Films for Action to use documentaries to promote conversation about issues like corporate personhood. Our first film. The Corporation, will be screened this Saturday, January 21, the anniversary of the Citizens United decision.

As I said, I’m not an economist. And while I studied and taught American lit for years, I confess, I never read Ayn Rand. Is capitalism moral? Evil? Neither? Are free markets the answer to all our troubles, or the cause? Are corporations our friends, benevolent job-creators, the source of our prosperity, or are they evil empires, intent on ruling the world, oblivious to the pain they leave in their wake?

We tend to talk in absolutes: all capitalism is good, or all corporations are bad. The truth is obviously somewhere in between. I fear that unless we spend some time sorting out the good from the bad, the helpful from the harmful, we’ll be more and more overrun by the freight train currently in place: runaway corporatism, an economic system run by a handful of multinational corporations who hide their profits in offshore banks, shift jobs from place to place in search of the lowest wage, and control the political arena with huge invisible contributions, slick attack ads, revolving door lobbyists, and regulatory agendas promoted far from public scrutiny.

Well yes, I do have some opinions. I’ve been doing some reading, and what I read alarms me.

Here’s a sampling: 
Thomas Jefferson:  "Yes, we did produce a near perfect Republic. But will they keep it... I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."  "The end of democracy, and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of the lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."
 Andrew Jackson: "Unless you become more watchful in your States and check this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges, you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given or bartered away, and the control of your dearest interests have been passed into the hands of these corporations."

Abraham Lincoln: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless."
 Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. "
 Justice Louis D. Brandeis: "We can have a democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." 
From Citizens United v. FEC
In the 1990s, management guru Peter Drucker worried that "The largest 100 corporations hold 25 percent of the worldwide productive assets, which in turn control 75 percent of international trade and 98 percent of all foreign direct investment. The multinational corporation...puts the economic decision beyond the effective reach of the political process and its decision-makers, national governments." 

Consider: of the largest 100 economies in 2010, more than half were corporations, not countries. One quarter of those corporations are invested heavily in fossil fuel, with a total income that would put the fossil fuel industry somewhere in the top 10 nations.

The Citizens United decision opened the door to increased money from fossil fuel industries in our political process. An industry publication asks “Is the Oil and Gas Industry Trying to Buy a Keystone XL Decision from Congress?” The answer is an obvious yes.   

Equally obvious is the way the shale gas industry has taken control of the energy equation here in Pennsylvania. After giving millions to the governor-elect and others in the last election, shale gas influence has overseen the deregulation of the industry while ensuring steep cuts to effective promotion of sustainable energy sources.

Broke: The Story of Stuff Project
According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, in 2009, “Fossil-fuel consumers worldwide received about six times more government subsidies than were given to the renewable-energy industry. State spending to cut retail prices of gasoline, coal and natural gas rose 36 percent to $409 billion as global energy costs increased. . .  Aid for biofuels, wind power and solar energy, rose 10 percent to $66 billion. While fossil fuels meet about 80 percent of world energy demand, its subsidies are creating market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption." 

Sustainable energy, care of creation, fair wages, healthy food . . . the more I read, the more connected I realize these are. And somewhere at the heart of them all is the issue of values, value, and economic policy: are corporations people? Is unrestrained capitalism the best way to get where we say we want to go?

from Citizens United v. FEC
This will be a big conversation in the year ahead, and an important one. The world we pass on to our children, and their children, will depend in large part on how many of us choose to engage, and how.

To continue the conversation, you might want to watch the two short videos (linked through the Citizens United and Broke graphics) that explain some of the issues at stake. Yes, both videos are oversimplifications, but any discussion short of a several volume work will simplify these complex, often-confusing questions.

Come join us for our screening of The Corporation (followed by some roundtable conversations). Or watch it free online.

A more sustained, long-term discussion about economics, public policy, and sustainable alternatives is  taking place at The New Economics Institute. Change is possible, but only if we pay attention and become informed voters and consumers, demonstrating our love by attentive concern to the challenging issues of justice and power. 

I'd love to hear what you think on this. Your comments and questions, as always, are welcome.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Midwinter Wisdom

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. 
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, 
      or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year.
Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.
    (Four Quartets: Little Gidding I, T. S. Eliot)

We often have a day or two of “midwinter spring” -  welcome days of warmth that melt the tops of frozen lakes and remind us that winter won’t last forever. This year, though, it’s been more like a midwinter summer. Our temperature reached 63 °C yesterday – a record high in a week that saw over a thousand new record highs.

I took my binoculars and new spotting scope to Marsh Creek Lake, not far from our home, and headed off on the dirt track on the far side of the lake. The path runs through thickets and brambles, skirting the foundations of old buildings abandoned when the lake was flooded back in the seventies. Dirt bikers plowed through muddy ruts, a young family scrambled happily over a massive downed sycamore, and a lomg line of gulls marked the half-way point in the perfect blue of the lake.

Normally most of the lake is frozen by this point in the year, but kayaks danced along in the bright little waves and a flat-bottomed fishing boat moved along so close to shore I could see the fishing line slice the water.
Kingfisher Pair, Suzanne Britton 

Pausing to watch a pair of belted kingfishers following each other along the lake edge, I found myself wondering: is this a good thing? This beautiful warm weather, this early pairing of solitary kingfishers? What if a day that seems like a reprieve is really a harbinger of harm?

I thought of a blog post I read just days ago: Scot McKnight, responding to a recent debate in The Spectator on global warming, asked “what would it take to change your mind?”  
“Put on the table one of your most cherished theological ideas — say creationism, the historicity of Jonah surviving in a big fish, Calvinism or Arminianism, penal substitution, the gospel as social justice, progressive ideas on the gay/lesbian debates… just put your major idea on the table and ask yourself one question:
What would it take to change your mind?”
McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, documents his own change of mind on the topic of women in church leadership, but his question has far-reaching importance in this contentious political season.  How do we know what’s true? What kind of evidence are we looking for? Whose voices do we listen to? What are we willing to question?

The Pharisees were sure of a long list of things, which made it impossible for most of them to hear what Jesus had to say. They started from a position of theological certainty and spent their energy looking for ways to discredit their opposition, rather than taking time to listen to see what truth they could learn from a very new perspective.

Can You See the Writing on the Wall?
Mary Padgelik
Ah, but isn’t it dangerous to listen to voices you’re not sure of, to consider ideas that don’t fit the currently accepted grid?

Standing still in the late afternoon sunlight, I listened to the wild cry of a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead, and the secretive scuffle of the white-throated sparrows, hiding in low bushes along the trail. There are voices easy to hear, like the raucous chorus of crows, or the constant chatter of the chickadees. And there are voices we prefer to hear: the mockingbird song. The sweet chirps of the pretty red house finch.

What happens when we shut out too quickly voices that are new, or difficult, or threatening? What happens when we refuse to hear those whose message doesn’t fit our own?

In Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb talks of an “ethic of listening,” learning to act from an awareness “that our knowledge and perception will always be partial, and that we learn best from dialogue with others.” Loeb notes the need “to cultivate a bit of humility. To hear the souls of others requires silencing the clamor of our own obsessions about how the world should be.” (238)

Humility is one of those words we don’t spend much time with. We like to be people who know the answers, who have firm opinions, who are quick to make those opinions known.  We like to know which voices are approved, who is on “our side,” and who is not. Discussions move quickly from ideas offered to ad hominem attack. Once we’ve labeled someone a communist, fascist, racist, heretic, we can stop pretending to listen and go back to celebrating our own strong opinions.

I grew up in a household where argument was plentiful, in a church tradition where the stronger your opinion, the more you were admired. I realized early on that the motivation in most arguments had little to do with the point being offered. What I heard loud and strong in most discussions I witnessed was power, pride, and a deep disregard for the people most affected. 

Reading on my own, I came across James 3: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” I had seen enough to know that opinions held in pride cause harm, that real wisdom is gentle, and shows up in action more than bombastic argument.

The Fruit of the Spirit: Peace, Mary Padgelik
In my early twenties, I memorized James 3:17 and 18: 
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” 
In this warm, strange, midwinter summer, marveling at the beauty of red hawks in flight, dodging mountain bikers who call “on your right!” as they pass me in the muck, I find myself repeating that ancient passage. I pray for humility, wisdom, peace. Not for myself only, but for all of us, fellow travelers on a tired planet, concerned citizens in a divided country. I pray for a wisdom humble enough to consider a change of mind, wide enough to hear all the voices crying to be heard, and for harvests of righteousness abundant enough to meet the needs of all.

Join the conversation: What would it take to change your mind? How do you know when you're holding an opinion from wrong motives, or pride?Where do you hope to see deeper dialogue in the year ahead?