silence being golden and all

No. No. NO!

Not again.

Please. Just. Stop.

Remember I said in the beginning that this would sometimes be my shouting place? I’m feeling a rant coming on. Fair warning.

An acquaintance this week posted on facebook that she was remembering her mother’s admonition to speak kindly. “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It was to be her theme for the day, she said. Thought it would improve the world. And she made a good case, sort of: “No school bullying, no work place gossip, no racial, religious or homophobic slurs, no Rush Limbaugh or the like, no ‘airing of your dirty laundry’ or derogatory, demeaning comments on FB…” My own mother said it too. And maybe it’s a reasonably good rule for children. Maybe.

But just this week in the news, there have been stories about the income disparity that continues to grow in our country, abetted by politicians enacting laws that favor the wealthy; about health insurance companies lying to customers and trying to trick them into committing to more expensive insurance plans; about phone companies over-charging those in prison, and banks charging fees of $8 and more for the “privilege” of re-loading pre-paid debit cards. A story from the Washington Post told about cities selling off minor tax debt to unscrupulous “investors” who then evict poor people from their long-time homes — their homes being in many, many cases their only asset. One man living with dementia was evicted and stripped of every bit of equity in his paid-off home; after his memories and belongings were removed against his will and without even his understanding of what was going on, he spent the night in a chair on his former front porch. All over a $134 tax bill.

Say-nice-or-say-nothing would leave us painfully mute in such circumstances. What “nice” is there to say about these predators? Silence is complicity, it is refusing to stand up to power, it is staying “in our place,” and being ladylike and not causing a fuss and not rocking the boat and minding our own business and all those other things people have told us we are to do instead of standing brave and tall and saying this is wrong, this is evil.

So, with all due respect to your mom and mine, I disagree. The problem is that the ones who would follow such a rule aren’t the bullies, the limbaughs, the racists and homophobes. The ones who would follow the rule are the ones who should be the anti-bullies, the anti-limbaughs, the anti-racists, the anti-homophobes. I know because I’ve done it. Failed to speak when someone said something objectionable, ignorant, unjust. Failed to speak when “the powers” steamrolled one of us one more time. I’ve also been the one to speak, and then the one blamed when the situation got awkward or contentious. “For heaven’s sake, do you always have to make a scene? does everything have to be political with you?” Yes. If i’m faithful, yes.

But “faithful” needs a bit of dusting off, reconsidering. My friend says she is doing this as homage to Jesus, suggesting that this was his rule as well, that we best emulate him by only say nice things, and she isn’t alone.

The church has taught us this. Through our mamas, and sunday school teachers and children’s sermons and whatnot. The church has also taught us this by its example: the church is way too often way too silent. I’m in the search and call process right now, and reading more than my share of church profiles. It astounds and disheartens me to read all the ways that churches insulate themselves from the brokenness of the world, from the evil that persists and the predatory nature of our national culture right now. From “we don’t talk out loud about politics or that kind of thing” to “we are a family church and want our pastor primarily to engage in community activities like little league games” to “our pastor should visit the sick and preach sermons that help us stay close as a congregational community,” the church is hell-bent, perhaps literally if there is a hell, hell-bent on staying clean of the poison dust of exploitative economic practices and the gear-clogging grime of politics-as-usual.

And we think Jesus told us to do this? to be quiet and just take it?! Politely put, that doesn’t pass the sniff test. Bad theology. Drunk-reading of scripture.

There is nothing Jesus-like about silence, nothing righteous about keeping our mouths shut in the face of despicable, exploitative, predatory, gluttonous behavior. Rather, we would be really wise to follow the trail of power and money, to see who has a stake in our silence. Bet that SOMEONE or something is benefiting from our acquiescence; who is it? Church leaders? Elected officials? Wall Street masters of the universe? The NRA or AARP or CEOs of our biggest corporations? Our mamas didn’t make up that little rule for children; it has been passed down from generation to generation for so long that no one can say for sure who said it first and what they were hoping to gain by making us keep our mouths shut.

But it sure as hell wasn’t Jesus. If he’d just been about saying nice things, no one would have killed him. How do we keep forgetting that?

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Style, life.

I style my hair. You may not know it today, and frankly I’m not happy with it, but I do spend time on it. It’s too short right now, but it will grow. It always does.

I have a style of clothing that makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable and confident as I do my daily whatever. It usually includes Birkenstocks. About 13 years ago, pumps and stockings fell by the wayside, no longer a style I was willing to deal with. I do still wear suits. And black Birks and flip-flops for dress-up. (They go well with clergy collars.)

My home has a style. Across the pine living room floor, an old 8-foot shutter leans against one wall; a black window screen from a much earlier era hangs on a different wall – next to the charred oak lid from a Four Roses bourbon barrel; a bowling pin signed by my high school teammates is on a bookshelf, along with a marching band hat, a wooden shoe-form, spindles from an out-of-production textile mill, a hurricane lamp filled with buttons, and several small flower vases in the shape of dogs or antique cars; there’s an ancient mirror that used to be on someone’s dresser now resting on the andirons to cover the fireplace in the off-season, and in the wine rack are scarred rolling pins that once belonged to someone’s great-grandmother. In the middle of the floor is a long-retired and fairly squeaky railroad cart, gray with age and – some would say – begging to be restored. I like it better unrestored.

Old, worn, used, perhaps unkempt. This is my style.

This is the busy season at UrbanSpirit. Groups from other places have come to Louisville for an experience, a simulation, of life in poverty in America. They are well-meaning, out of their comfort zones, encountering realities they never knew existed, discovering causes and consequences they couldn’t have imagined. And they are struggling for words. Trying to put language to such an unbelievable state of existence. I appreciate their efforts. And one day I’ll be excited to vote for one of them, the candidate who can see something new and isn’t afraid to pursue it. But in their struggle and ours, there is a word I would like to banish.

“Lifestyle.”

Poverty isn’t a lifestyle.

Lifestyle suggests preference, taste, choice, options. Lifestyle is about whether to buy porcelain or pottery for your everyday dishes; lifestyle is whether to go camping or stay in 4-star B&Bs for vacation. Whether to tailgate at the stadium or hang out in a sports bar – or eschew sports altogether and take up knitting. Lifestyle is about cashing in your split-level ranch and moving to a condo in a high-rise. Downsizing so you can travel more, deciding to move to a city where you can take the train instead of owning a car. Lifestyle is vegetarian or pantheistic or community garden or philanthropic. Lifestyles are subject to change, to whims, to trends.

Lifestyle is voluntary. Even if you prefer picking foods from dumpsters, buying clothes from consignment stores, and bartering for babysitting, if you choose to live this way, this is lifestyle.

Poverty is not a choice. In fact, poverty is lack of choice. Social mobility is a huge problem in America. People born poor tend to stay poor, held there by myriad social policies and political agenda. Our simulation participants learn the very difficult lesson that poverty is not merely lack of ambition or a poor work ethic. Despite their creativity and effort, they are knocked around and tripped up by a system that doesn’t much give a damn. As I’ve argued before, the “system” depends on poor people, thrives on poor people; the system – the ‘American Dream’ for some – requires there be poor people in America to do the jobs that we need but don’t want to pay a lot to have performed.

Lifestyle? Living every day uncertain of food, shelter, employment, health?
Lifestyle? Sleeping poorly at night worried about what the next day will bring to shatter the fragile equilibrium or undo the tiny step forward you’ve somehow made?
Lifestyle? Knowing that people are blaming you, demeaning you, sacrificing you for their own comfort?
Lifestyle? Living with hopelessness, having no reason to believe that anything will ever be different?

Worn, used, perhaps unkempt.

Not a lifestyle. Not even much of a life.

Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?

taxes and churches: time to talk?

The ministry center I run, UrbanSpirit, used to own a church building. A big, old church building, with, um, issues. Not the least of the issues were the beasts that constantly set off the motion detectors — spider webs, a rattling door. My cat Beckett, which is how I came to adopt him. The alarm system also warned of actual intruders. It was these the alarm was intended to guard against. The problem was there were way too many of the other things. In the beginning, the alarm company would call the police, and I would meet them there, sometimes deep into the wee hours, fearful of what we may find. Most times it was nothing, but sometimes it was something. Either way, I was awfully happy the police were willing to be the ones to figure it out. Eventually, the police department began charging a fee for false alarms — not just us, but folks all over the city. You get one or two freebies, and then you pay. First $25, then $100, I think. I’m not exactly sure of the fee scale.  I thought about being annoyed by this, or trying to appeal. And then it hit me. As a church, we pay no property taxes, so this fine is our way of supporting the work our community protectors do. I began to think of all the other things we get free — lights and streets, bad weather alarms. We had a fire once, and no one sent us a bill for the firefighters’ effort, or the truck time, or depreciation on the equipment, or for the water, which came from a hydrant and wasn’t on our meter. We get a lot of stuff absolutely free. Because we are a church. Are we worth it?

This Sunday, I’ll be leading a discussion at a local church about churches and taxes. I prepared a sheet of info as a discussion prompt. It isn’t a research paper, and all the numbers may be wrong. But it seems worth conversation in a time of stretched government budgets, whether the church is sucking communities dry or providing in-kind value that is way more than the exemptions. The discussion page is below, and you’re welcome to use it for discussion in your own congregation. I’d love your comments here, which certainly would enrich the conversation I’m about to have at church this Sunday.

The church, we say, is all about justice. What is just in this regard? And since no one is likely to change the exemption laws anytime soon, the question for clergy and churches is, as always, what kind of neighbors are we?

hoping for your thoughts…

Taxes and churches… Who’s Zooming Whom

Coal to Newcastle

A five-hundred–year-old punchline jabs the pointlessness of sending coal to Newcastle, because Newcastle, in England, actually produced coal and had enough. Sending coal to Newcastle is about pointless gestures.

According to this morning’s Associated Press report, gifts are pouring into Newtown, CT, from around the world. Money, toys, food, whatever. Two-point-eight million so far – that is $2,800,000. “On Saturday, all the town’s children were invited to the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown to choose from among hundreds of toys donated by individuals, organizations and toy stores.”

But Newtown’s median household income is $110,000, 220 percent of the national median. Commuters to Manhattan and elsewhere. Doctors, executives, white collar folks. According to its own website’s economic development fact sheet, Newtown has a total population of 27,000, a poverty rate of 2.2 percent, and ZERO children under age 6 living in poverty. Its housing is 94 percent owner occupied. This is a devastated community, absolutely, but it is not a deprived one. I’m guessing the children had enough toys.

At the risk of seeming heartless and cynical, let me be clear: their heartache wasn’t caused by lack of money. And won’t be fixed by contributions. Money – even large amounts of money – can’t make up for the loss of children.

Meanwhile, in Chicago on Saturday, two children died in a fire. Firefighters tried hard to save them. Two others escaped. The fire was started by a hotplate used to heat the house. Two children dead and Child Protective Services took the other two away. Mom wasn’t home at the time of the fire. But she wasn’t known for leaving the kids alone, neighbors said. Maybe she was working? The babysitter bailed, and Mom left the 7-year-old in charge, maybe taking on an extra shift so she could afford toys for Christmas? At UrbanSpirit, we regularly have groups solve their simulated budgeting and childcare issues by leaving it in the hands of the 8-year-old. Maybe rank-and-file newswatchers are already assuming the worst, ready to blame this mother. Prosecutors are thinking of felony child endangerment charges, according to the CBS affiliate in Chicago.

It is possible that we’ll charge the Chicago mother with neglect. And maybe she is at fault. Or maybe not. Sadly, poverty is a crime in America. When you choose among bad choices, you end up with a bad choice. But we’ll blame her. Then, we’ll put the surviving kids in foster care and pay the foster parents a stipend to care for them. We will NOT send large amounts of cash to her, and maybe we’ll continue to resent the roughly $103 per taxpayer per year (based on the $50,000 median income) that we contribute to things we call “welfare.”

We feel powerless; I get it. And sending money to Newtown is a nice gesture, I guess; makes us feel better. But there are more effective things we could be doing.

We’ll probably have some kind of show of a “national conversation” about gun laws. But we’ve never shown the kind of political will it would take actually to change the laws.

While we’re at it, though, while we’re on the topic of alleviating human misery inflicted by others, let’s have a conversation about regressive taxes, unlivable wages, inaccessible childcare. In Illinois, the average annual cost of infant care is $12,199. The median income for a single mother is $24,833. Illinois has a childcare support program, but does it work? We know that applications and processes can be overwhelming, and changes in work hours or address or income can wreak havoc, and social services are generally the first to get cut when times are tough — indeed draped over the altar of bipartisanship in Washington today. What went wrong here?

Maybe we can also have a national conversation about the state of low-income housing. The building owner in Chicago was “crushed” by the news. “Wind back the tape and a parent could have been in the house, get everyone evacuated and then everyone would be fine,” he said. But, despite his skillful deflection, it is worth asking what shape the rental was in. How was the wiring? The electricity apparently wasn’t shut off (appliances were working), so why were the hotplate and space heater needed? Is the building owner negligent? complicit? Are prosecutors considering charges against him?

One could argue that Newtown doesn’t need the money. Maybe they’ll use it to build a monument, dedicate a park in memory of the children. Maybe they’ll hire more police officers, though they’ve recently been #10 on a “Top 101 Cities” list for numbers of police per 1000 residents. Maybe they’ll establish an anti-gun lobby.

Meanwhile a mom in Chicago cannot afford to bury her dead children, and won’t be trusted to care for the living ones.

There are a lot of conversations to have. But we just keep sending coal to Newcastle.