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The Economic Crisis
Page 2

Here are posts beginning with Oct. 10, 2008.
For earlier reports >>

Continuing unemployment – could there be method in this madness?

A comment from Gene Te Selle, former Witherspoon Issues Analyst
[8-7-10]

The joblessness report issued on August 6 turned out to be downbeat, with job creation slow and unemployment rising slightly. 

On the other hand, we keep hearing reports that corporations have plenty of money - both profits distributed to stockholders and cash kept in the bank - but are not spending it to hire more employees. (Click here for the Washington Post report.) This is not necessarily from lack of work to do. But many corporations have discovered that they can put their existing employees under increased pressure, with more overtime and less in the way of benefits. To have a job these days is not to be exempt from pressure and anxiety ("squeezed" and "hammered" are metaphors that workers often use).  Small business is, as usual, a more reliable source of job creation.

The slow economy means, in turn, fewer consumer sales and therefore lower tax collections by states and localities. The result is massive layoffs of government employees across the country. Those who disdain public employees and their unions think this is a good thing. Those who rely on public services of many kinds are finding that these services are simply not available, or have a long turnaround time. 

The low level of corporate spending may not be accidental. It may not even be a narrow matter of corporate prudence or the "fiduciary responsibility" to make money for stockholders, directors, and CEOs. An important motive may be to influence public policy by making the economy (and a Democratic president and Congress) look bad as we move toward the November elections.  They may be looking for a "favorable investment climate" and what we call in the South a "disciplined work force."  

But there is more. Even if there should be an increase in Republicans elected to Congress, we should not expect the economy to turn around in November. It is only after the November 2 elections that Congress will have the freedom of movement to tackle major policy issues - the Bush tax cuts, the inheritance tax, and the report of the "deficit commission" on how to deal with the national debt, currently around $8.6 trillion in publicly held debt and $4.5 trillion in intragovernmental debt, what the Treasury owes Social Security and other trust funds. The argument will be that all debt (except for the military budget) is indiscriminately bad, that Keynesianism is wrong in trying to stimulate the economy by directing more money to consumers who will spend it quickly, and that the solution is to put more money in the hands of the wealthy, who alone have the right to direct the economy, and who alone have a track record of expertise and effectiveness (the collapse of the economy in 2008 will not get much attention, except as an unfortunate and unpredictable "singularity"). 

Once these key policy issues are voted on by a lame-duck Congress (and they have to be voted on before the end of 2010), we could find a change. The economy could suddenly improve after January with a new flow of investment money and job creation, proving to those who have a short memory that the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party were on the right track all along. 

Perhaps we could keep these possibilities in mind during the next three months as we move toward the November 2 elections. I hope that I am wrong. But events just might play out this way, unless commentators and voters are too smart to be manipulated by short-term statistics.

Chamber of Commerce calls for less taxes, less regulation – to create more jobs???    [7-15-10]

This week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its economic recovery plan, with the goal of creating 20 million jobs in ten years. Immediate goals that the Chamber set before the President and Congress are 

bulletextension of all the tax relief passed in the last decade and a reduction in corporate tax rates,
bulletgenerating additional federal revenues through oil, gas, and shale leases on public lands and off our shores, and opening all national forests to timber harvesting,
bulletpassing the pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and Korea, on the theory that they will expand trade and protect jobs, and
bulletmodernizing all forms of infrastructure (transportation, power generation, communications) by opening them all -- including transportation and "water infrastructure" (which means water for consumers, all of us) to private investment.

Some of these will cause readers to do an instant "double take" in the summer of 2010. Most of them lack any mention of regulatory safeguards to protect health, safety, and our common future; but of course the declared purpose is to bury regulation, not improve it. All in all, the statement is a dramatic example of the ideology of "neo-liberal economics" condemned in the Accra Declaration of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 2004. 

Thanks to Gene TeSelle, former Witherspoon Issues Analyst

SEC lawsuit of Goldman Sachs overdue and welcomed by Illinois People’s Action    [4-19-10]

We posted reports and commentary last November on a demonstration at the Goldman Sachs office in Chicago by an Illinois grass-roots citizens’ group, Illinois Public Action. They issued the following press release today, commenting on the recent SEC announcement of a suit again Goldman Sachs.

[4-19-10]

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the Federal Government announced over the weekend it is suing Goldman Sachs for its role in the financial market meltdown due to its role in predatory mortgage lending practices.

Illinois People’s Action (IPA/ciop) says it’s about time. “Last November about 200 IPA/ciop leaders went to Goldman Sachs in the Chicago loop,” said IPA leader, Jack Porter. “We called them out for their major role in the economic catastrophe we’re all going through. Now our judgment has been confirmed by the SEC.”


A week after the Chicago action, IPA leaders joined with other grassroots groups from around the country to march on Goldman Sachs in Washington D.C. When Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, claimed Sachs was doing God’s work, IPA Board President, Rev. Tony Pierce, stood before a crowd of hundreds, decrying Blankfein’s claim. Pierce received international press coverage for his comments. Both the Chicago and Washington demonstrations against Goldman Sachs were organized by National People’s Action.

IPA/ciop has been organizing on predatory lending since it saw a 2043% increase in foreclosures in central Illinois from 1993 to 1999. IPA noted that the increase in foreclosures was positively correlated with subprime and predatory mortgage lending and sounded the bullhorn that unless predatory lending was stopped, it could bring down the entire market. While IPA believes the SEC should have listened to warnings and taken action years ago, it is encouraged to see the SEC taking action now.

“Fortunately, our United States government is willing to back the people and deal with fraudulent activities in the business world. We are glad to see them stepping up at this time and hope they will look further at other big banks that have done the same,” said Rev. Charlotte Dotts, IPA leader and pastor at Word of Life Church in Bloomington. Many of Rev. Dotts parishioners have been negatively affected by predatory lending.

IPA is joining its affiliates across the country to demand accountability by the big banks and government. It held a Showdown on Foreclosures in Peoria last week that was attended by over 300 community leaders and the U.S. Department of Treasury. It held a similar meeting in Decatur last August that was attended by 500. It plans to take its case to D.C. again in May.

IPA is a faith-based organization whose membership is comprised of 40 churches and grassroots community groups across the state. For more information on IPA’s campaigns, go to www.ciop.org.
 
bullet Click here for our earlier report on the November 2009 action >>
bullet Click here for an April 14, 2010, report in the Peoria Journal Star on the demonstration in Peoria last week.
bullet Click here for the IPA report >>
bullet Here’s the report from the Central Illinois News Center >>
The religious case for moving your money where your heart is      [1-12-10]

A week ago we posted a bit of Ariana Huffington’s call for people who are concerned about the power and apparent irresponsibility of the nation’s super-sized banks to show their resistance by moving their own money to smaller, more local or regional banks.

Now the Rev. Paul Raushenbush, who is the Religion Editor for the Huffington Post and the Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University, offers an explicitly religious/theological/ethical perspective on the same proposal. He concludes:

It may be time for us as individuals and as churches, synagogues and mosques to move our money to smaller banks that are connected and responsible to our local communities.

I encourage you in your congregation to consider the following question regarding where you keep your money:

How does my religious tradition view money? What purpose does money serve in the ideal society envisioned by my tradition? Does it matter how our money is made? What is the best way to make my money serve the ethical mandates of my tradition? Does my bank reflect the values that I hold regarding money?

Each of us has many ways to live out our religious convictions. One of those ways is to be conscious and have a conscience about how we make, spend and where we save our money. If you are interested in learning more go to moveyourmoney.info

His full essay >>

A Happy New Year suggestion: move your money to a small bank      [1-4-10]

We received this note from a Witherspoon/Voices member on New Year’s Eve:

"Happy New Year" I'm sending this to wish us all a 2010 that has US citizens expressing "we the people" more effectively. Consider what Arianna Huffington and her gang suggest. I don't have any account in one of the BIG banks but I can at least suggest YOU read this amazing idea! which may by the grace of God plant other seeds for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE in 2010!

Mary Louise Ellenberger

A few snippets from Huffington’s article:

Too-big-to-fail banks are profiting from bailout dollars and government guarantees, and growing bigger. ...

The big banks on Wall Street, propped up by taxpayer money and government guarantees, have had a record year, making record profits while returning to the highly leveraged activities that brought our economy to the brink of disaster. In a slap in the face to taxpayers, they have also cut back on the money they are lending, even though the need to get credit flowing again was one of the main points used in selling the public the bank bailout. ...

Meanwhile, America's Main Street community banks – the vast majority of which avoided the banquet of greed and corruption that created the toxic economic swamp we are still fighting to get ourselves out of – are struggling. ... As a result, a system which was already dangerously concentrated at the top has only become more so. ...

Our money has been used to make the system worse -- what if we used it to make the system better? ...

The idea is simple: If enough people who have money in one of the big four banks move it into smaller, more local, more traditional community banks, then collectively we, the people, will have taken a big step toward re-rigging the financial system so it becomes again the productive, stable engine for growth it's meant to be. It's neither Left nor Right – it's populism at its best. ...

Think of the message it will send to Wall Street – and to the White House. JP Morgan/Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America may be "too big to fail" – but they are not too big to feel the impact of hundreds of thousands of people taking action to change a broken financial and political system. Let them gamble with their own money, not yours. Let's turn big banks into smaller banks. We'll all be better off – and safer – as a result.

Make it your New Year's resolution to move your money. We can't think of a better way to start 2010.

For Huffington's full article >>

For more info, go to: www.moveyourmoney.info

Is it possible to reinvigorate our communities in the midst of a global financial crisis?

Here’s one intriguing possibility!
[11-14-09]

WebWeaver’s note: We’ve had no direction connection with this movement, but we’d like to hear an experiences or impressions you have. Please send a note, to be shared here!

Fear and isolation often prevent us from seeing ways to make our economy work for everyone. But there are alternatives. People are creating communities of support and mutual aid around the pain and fear of this moment, and in doing so they are quietly building a new economy.

One example of this sort of community organizing is the Common Security Club, a simple model which combines mutual aid, a support group, and a venue for social action. Common Security Clubs are springing up around the country. In churches, unions and workplaces, unassuming groups of 20-25 people meet to share their troubles, try to make sense of this moment in our economic history, and plan action together.

A network of religious and community organizers has developed a number of free tools to help start-up clubs, including a five-session curriculum. The program covers the origins of the economic crisis and how to take social action towards a more just economy. It also encourages mutual aid among members, such as skill-swaps, potlucks and cooperative child-care, in many cases the norm for our grandparents’ generation.

The strength of the approach seems to lie largely in simply facing common problems together, listening to one another, and the relief of breaking down barriers through open discussion about finances.

One group in suburban Washington describes themselves as a “Reality Club,” determined to keep reminding each other that there’s no going back to the old self-protective economy based on phantom wealth. In one Boston club, members are taking turns bringing in their household budgets for “makeovers”: sharing their financial quandaries to the group and receiving its collective wisdom on ways to either cut costs or enhance income. Other groups have formed “Get Out of Debt Club,” to reduce expenses, and have created bartering networks and skill banks – exchanges of work and skills without money changing hands.

Common Security Clubs are also a place for people to get organized to assert people power over the economy. Groups organize meetings with their congressional representatives, fight cuts in local services, and agree to keep their spending dollars local. Many group members find themselves inspired to engage politically again, after years of discouragement.

While the pundits rant, the politicians flounder and the CEOs make out like bandits, life in the real economy goes on with a reassuring tenacity. We can remember what the good life was, in simpler times, and we can recreate it from the bottom up.

Andrée Zaleska helps coordinate common security clubs in the Northeast. For more information, visit  www.commonsecurityclub.org.        

Presbyterians were active in protests at ABA meeting in Chicago
[11-3-09]

The American Bankers Association's annual convention in Chicago, October 25 - 27, was the scene for a widely-reported series of major protests. Dubbed "the Showdown in Chicago,"
 the protest included groups like the National People's Action, the Service Employees International Union, Americans For Financial Reform and the AFL-CIO. Sen. Richard Durbin (D - Illinois) addressed the protesters on Sunday evening, while on the “inside,” conference speakers included Newt Gingrich, conservative columnist George Will and FDIC chairman Sheila Bair. (Bair also spoke to the protesters, adding her support to the movement by decrying bailouts and the notion of "too big to fail" institutions.)

Among the group of some 200 protesters from Central Illinois, members of the Central Illinois Organizing Project (CIOP), was Witherspoon member Jack Porter, of Bloomington, who has been sending us a variety of news reports of Presbyterians and others who took part.

There were four busloads from Central Illinois, including groups from First Presbyterian Church of Normal, IL, and New Covenant Community of Normal, which is affiliated with PCUSA, UCC, and Disciples. First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, IL, which has been active in helping the creation of Homeless United for Change (HUC), which participated in the Chicago action, and First Presbyterian Church of Decatur, were also involved in the organizing for the event.

How did this all get started?  A little background:

William Greider wrote in The Nation (August 25, 2009)  about Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s ability to charm the nation and the media – right, left, and center – into trusting him to deal with the financial crisis when in fact he was ignoring many of the most dangerous developments in the banking system. But then Greider mentioned one exception: 

While the big media led cheers for Bernanke's reappointment, I was out in Decatur, Illinois, with a group of ordinary citizens who confronted the Fed for its failure to address the real pain and loss people are suffering. The Central Illinois Organizing Project brought together 500 people on a Saturday morning to deliver their own demands to the three Fed officials in attendance (Bernanke was invited but did not show). Among the propositions was a brilliant challenge to the central bank: the Fed should use its awesome influence (and maybe some of its money) to organize an investment consortium of banks to finance some real-life development projects in Peoria and Pekin. This could be a pilot project that demonstrates how this venerable institution can reform itself by serving the broader public interest.

That August meeting in Decatur was a crucial step toward the “Showdown in Chicago” event in October. CIOP was deeply involved in that meeting of 500 people with representatives of the Federal Reserve. As Jack Porter notes, “that gathering of 500, with all the preparation involved, directly led to our participation in Chicago. It helped to frame the issues and to empower our relatively conservative Central Illinois folk to get into the streets.”

According to Don Carlson, executive director of CIOP, the themes of the CIOP participants in the Chicago event were "Break up the big banks!", "Stop foreclosures, use bank bonuses to keep families in homes!", and "Reclaim America!"

The Rev. Eugene Barnes of the CIOP opened one evening session by saying: "Welcome to the Showdown in Chicago. We have come together to reclaim America and hold Wall Street accountable. Imagine a story as terrible as this: the same financial institutions that created the crisis, sent the economy into a tailspin, handed out bonuses on top of bonuses, and needed hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayers money, are back in business as usual."

A number of high school youth from the churches were part of the group. One of them, Catherine Holland, wrote this in reflecting on her experience:

As a 15 year old, I attended the Showdown in Chicago because I wanted to be a part of change in America. I wanted to observe it, learn from it and participate in it. There is more to a person’s education than books and this was an opportunity for me to get connected with the real issues at hand. When I got on that CIOP bus Sunday afternoon, I knew that banking in America was defective, however, I didn’t understand to what extent. In less than 48 hours of being a part of this protest I learned of the misuse of bailout money given to the banks, housing foreclosure being widespread (every 13 seconds a home is foreclosed) and that, although Wall Street is trying to set the reforming agenda, we must not let this happen. As a citizen of America I feel it is my duty to speak out against what is unjust, that is why I attended the Showdown in Chicago.



Huffington Post provides a varied sampling of brief reports and videos of the event, including protesters gathering in the Chicago offices of Wells Fargo.
Access to safe, affordable credit must be part of financial reform

[6-19-09] 

Information received from PICO National Network  and National People’s Action

National People’s Action and the PICO National Network applaud the Obama administration’s focus on protecting consumers. The creation of the Consumer Financial Protections Agency (CFPA) could be a positive step in the right direction. Real regulatory reform, however, must include an expansion of the Community Reinvestment Act and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act to ensure fair and equal access to credit for all Americans.

“What led us into this economic crisis was a deregulated system that allowed risky loan products into our communities. Holding financial institutions accountable through a strengthened CRA is critical to ensuring history does not repeat itself,” said George Goehl, executive director, National People’s Action who with Gordon Whitman of PICO National Network is in attendance at today’s announcement from the White House.

Yesterday, faith and community leaders from PICO National Network and National People's Action reiterated our support in a letter to President Obama urging him to make strengthening the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) a part of the financial reform plan. The strengthening and modernization of these elements has been part of our discussions with the Administration for some time.

“Any comprehensive plan to reform the financial regulatory system needs to include better protections for consumers, especially against [the] toxic mortgage and other predatory loan products responsible for our current crisis,” said Rev. Lucy Kolin, spokesperson for the PICO National Network, a coalition of 52 faith-based community organizations representing 1,000 congregations in 17 states.

National People's Action, a network of state and community organizations from across the country, led the national campaign for passage of HMDA in 1975 and CRA in 1977. The Community Reinvestment Act has brought over one trillion dollars of reinvestment into low- and moderate-income communities, helping to breathe new life into once devastated neighborhoods and to lift families out of poverty.

Mortgages made under Community Reinvestment Act regulations have avoided the high default and foreclosure rates that continue to plague our economy, but the law currently regulates banks and not mortgage companies or bank activities outside of areas in which they have local branches. This exception was widely exploited in the current crisis. The Federal Reserve Bank and other studies show that mortgage companies not subject to the Community Reinvestment Act made over two-thirds of the loans that went into foreclosure, most of which were predatory.

“Sustainable economic recovery and growth depends on having good and affordable credit available to families and businesses, including those in low- and moderate-income communities,” said Marilyn Evans, spokesperson for National People’s Action. “The foreclosure crisis would have been less severe if mortgage companies had been regulated under CRA.”

Strengthening the Community Reinvestment Act to include all financial institutions with measurable standards and to require institutions to meet all credit needs with proactive plans would provide access to safe and fair credit to all Americans. Real regulation and community reinvestment will protect struggling communities from the kind of practices that led to millions of foreclosures and neighborhood deterioration in cities and suburbs alike.

To build support for modernizing CRA and HMDA, PICO and NPA will hold a series of Federal Reserve community meetings in ten hard-hit communities across the country this summer. This first hearing took place last week in Richmond, CA, where ten percent of homes have been foreclosed. Additional hearings will take place in New York City, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Des Moines, and Decatur (IL).

bulletFor more information about PICO National Network, visit www.piconetwork.org  
bulletFor more information about National People’s Action, visit www.ntic-us.org
The Editor’s Spot

How shall we respond to this time of crisis?

by Doug King [published in the Winter 2009 issue of Network News, and posted here on 4-20-09] 

Well, we’re living in interesting times, aren’t we? A time of crisis, it’s been called. We’ve heard about hope and fear and much more. Too much, maybe. But I’d like to invite you to think now about how we as a church, as part of the people of God in the world, might respond to this time. 

John F. Kennedy is frequently quoted as saying, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” The election of our new President seems to many of us to open a new time of opportunity – for change, for truthfulness, for greater hope for justice for our people, for greater hope for peace for the world. 

In this issue of Network News, theologian Doug Ottati offers his thoughts on the state of the union, and the state of the church. (See p. 12 ff.) He offers great insights on both, but I’d like to look a little more specifically at how we might live and act in this crisis time – both in our church and in our society.

Perhaps we should start with facing our fears and naming our anxieties. Many of us are threatened very directly with unemployment, illness for which we can’t afford treatment, loss of our homes, decay of our communities, and the radical shrinkage of our savings and investments. For many of us – including those who have felt secure and comfortable – the future looks bleak and frighteningly uncertain. 

Of course we’ve always had things to worry about, and perhaps this makes a nice change from our worries about Marxists, and now “terrorists” and Muslims and migrants.  

Whatever it is that raises our anxiety level, we tend to react by protecting ourselves – defending our homes, our loved ones, our way of life. And one of the most reassuring ways we do that is by building walls. Whatever the threat, we try to shut it out. In many cases that makes good sense. Sometimes it even works. 

But what happens when we build walls? We may shut out the threats – the strangers, the enemies – but we pay a price. Recently I heard a meditation on walls, given in a Lenten worship service in a Mennonite fellowship that my wife and I happened to attend. I think it offers thoughts about walls far better than mine, so I’ll share it here, with the kind permission of the authors.

In a time of crisis, when the threats loom so large and so close, what can we as people of faith offer to our churches and our communities? Hope, of course! Hope is the answer, right?  

But what can we do or say that will offer authentic hope and not just platitudes or nice sentiments? 

Doug Ottati in his essay reminds us that “Ours is a time of hope. But, especially in the church, we ought to remember that hope in things that are seen is not hope, and that, if we hope for what we do not see, we also wait for it with patience (cf. Romans 8:24-25). Moreover, we should also recognize that no person, community, or nation brings in the kingdom.” His thoughts have led me to pay more careful attention to the proclamations of hope that we have been hearing from President Obama, and there’s a very interesting difference. 

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, on February 24, Obama used the word ‘hope’ just three times, by my count. (Well, four if you include one use of ‘hopeless.’) At just one point he addressed the meaning of hope explicitly, warning that in these very difficult times we may easily give in to cynicism and pettiness. “But,” he went on, “in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.”  

Then he told his concluding stories of people who have demonstrated that kind of practical hope: the bank president from Miami who took his $60 million bonus and shared it with over 400 people who had worked for him; the town Greensburg, Kansas, that is rebuilding from the devastation of a tornado, aiming to rely on clean energy – and so to provide a model for others; and of course he introduced Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the girl from Dillon, South Carolina, who attends an impoverished, decaying school, and who took the trouble to write a letter to Congress asking for help. She and her fellow students, she wrote, simply want to “make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.”

So where’s the hope? Our Reformed theological perspective warns us (rightly!) against putting our hope in persons or institutions. But our new President is calling us to recognize that it is, after all, human beings, one by one and together in communities small and large, who do make change happen.  

So if we in our own communities of faith are to offer anything to our troubled nation in these hard times, it may be in holding together the Reformed and the pragmatic in our own actions: finding concrete ways to enact the divine calling to being good neighbors, while never putting all our hopes in what we think we’re doing for the world. 

But action there must be, or we’ll be merely hearers of the Word and not doers, clanging gongs and crashing cymbals, not partners in God’s work to make the world a better, fairer place. 

And many of you who read this little journal are doing things already, as you’ve been “doing” for years. But what do we need to be doing in these days? 

Let’s talk about this! Here on our website, on our Facebook page where chatting is even easier and more direct, or by sending a note to your editor to be shared in the next issue of Network News and on our website as well – however you do it, please let us know what you’re doing (or what’s been done in your city or neighborhood even if you’re not directly involved in it) so we can help each other find our way through these hard times. 

And if you’re looking for ideas, you might scroll down through the rest of this page, and look at our earlier posts as well.

Theological musings

The State of our Church in a Time of Hope 

A regular column by Dr. Douglas F. Ottati,
Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice Ministry at Davidson College, Davidson, N.C.

[published in the Winter 2009 issue of Network News, and posted here on 4-20-09] 

The state of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or indeed of any church, can be difficult to get hold of. Important matters of polity and worship occupy our various communities and structures, e.g. questions concerning gay ordination and marriage, and the frequency and scope of participation in the Lord’s Supper. The state of any church, and particularly of one with a strongly participatory heritage such as ours, is also intertwined with wider cultures and societies, their current possibilities, patterns, and limits. And then, of course, there is the perennial and also decisive question of the gospel and our faithful witness to it. 

Some Matters before the Church 

The communities and structures of the PC (USA) face no shortage of important, often contentious issues. The recent General Assembly took some significant actions – voting to eliminate old authoritative interpretations of G.60106b, sending an amendment of same to the presbyteries, calling for a new and more accurate translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. These actions all but ensure that our church will continue to face the question of what counts as normative human sexuality. It is true, of course, that some of those who favor the amendment theologically and in principle believe now is not the time for our church to decide the theological question of what counts as normative sexuality, and therefore urge no action on overtures to amend. (To date, interestingly, the amendment has done surprisingly well in many presbyteries.) In any case, it seems certain that the basic issue is not going away. 

At the same time, the PC (USA) faces other important questions. Consider the frequency and also the scope of participation in the Lord’s Supper. How shall congregations prepare their members to receive the Supper? How shall they educate persons into its deep realities, mysteries, and meanings? Shall participation be restricted to baptized and confirmed members, or opened to all who are baptized and profess the faith? Shall it be opened to all the baptized or perhaps even simply to all people? There is also the question of a faithful Christian estimate of other religions. Shall we view other faiths as false and pernicious or, perhaps, as false and benign? Shall we look upon them as alternative wisdoms having to do with God, the world, and ourselves that we also know and approve as true? Shall we look upon them as other avenues that may also be true? How, in the light of the way we resolve these questions, shall we understand Christian missions?

Then, of course, there are issues and challenges before us that have emerged from our wider cultural, social, and political circumstance. Among these are questions surrounding patterns of human activity and the health of natural environments, questions about immigration, the availability of good quality health care, retirement and social insurance. There can be little doubt, moreover, at least in the near term, that our society’s responses to these and other matters will be shaped in part by the current economic crisis – something that itself will need to be addressed and, if possible, also ameliorated with effectiveness, justice, and compassion. And then, there are also the deadly serious matters of widespread poverty, starvation, and disease, two wars, and the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. Not to mention the question of how to deal with failed states, genocidal conflicts, and the prospects for humanitarian military interventions, the strengthening of tolerably equitable and effective international structures for cooperation, the question of nuclear proliferation, and so on. 

A Time of Hope 

Despite their daunting cumulative effect, we should also note, I think, that our church faces these questions and more at a particular point in history which, for many in our society and elsewhere, can only be described as a time of hope. The dynamics are extraordinarily complicated. Even so, we can point to a comparatively simple and symbolically articulate fact. The citizens of the United States of America, the world’s most powerful nation, have elected Barak Hussein Obama President.    

At least two things about this seem especially significant.

•  Consider the President’s name. At a time when some say we are engaged in a clash of civilizations, it has unmistakably Muslim overtones. After hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, and discrimination, it is the name of a mixed race man of color who is the son of a black man from Kenya. It is the first name of a President-elect of the United States to end in a vowel. These are only some of the more obvious ways in which the name of the President signals an apparent broadening of American attitudes and horizons, perhaps even a down payment on the enfranchisement of historically oppressed and marginalized persons and communities as fuller participants in American civil society. 

•  President Obama often speaks publicly, as he did in his victory speech at Grant Park, of being a president for all Americans. Nothing particularly new there until we hear him mention Hispanic Americans, Black Americans, white Americans, and (importantly) also gay and lesbian Americans as the people he intends to be President of. He invokes the idea of a changed society in which there will be greater attention to national service and also better access to education and health care. He tries to articulate a new stance for the nation that combines a resolute commitment to resist enemies with a renewed preference for international diplomacy and cooperation. In short, he seems to promise a more inclusive sort of politics. 

Having noted these things, of course, we also do well to remind ourselves of their anticipatory, provisional, contingent, vulnerable, and certainly unfinished character. Ours is a time of hope. But, especially in the church, we ought to remember that hope in things that are seen is not hope, and that, if we hope for what we do not see, we also wait for it with patience (cf. Romans 8:24-25). Moreover, should also we recognize that no person, community, or nation brings in the kingdom. All fall short of the kingdom and its glory. All are at present and shall also remain subject to criticism in the light of what remains corrupted and unfulfilled. 

The Gospel of Grace 

We can meet the issues and matters before us with integrity and we can meet them as we participate faithfully in a time of hope, if we are clear about the most important single question before us, namely, the question of the gospel. 

Gospel means good news and glad tidings. It is the message of grace that moves the Apostle Paul to say “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). We might summarize the Gospel by saying that Jesus Christ reveals the true God to be the faithful God of grace. But perhaps we do better to stick with the Apostle who, in Romans 5, links Adam and Christ. “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many” (Rom. 5:15). And then, famously straining toward a good and universal hope for all, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). 

Again, as Paul says in Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” John Calvin took this and similar verses to summarize the word of faith. He took them to indicate that God always already is faithful and that, in Jesus Christ, the divine faithfulness is decisively impressed upon us. There not only may be, but surely are, additional angles of vision on the gospel besides this one. For example, there is also the perspective of the Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that emphasizes the new law in Jesus, a reign of Christ that opposes all earthly powers and that calls for a radical and pacifist discipleship. But for those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition the bottom line and the fundamental point of the Gospel is this. God is faithful. The Gospel therefore is a word of grace founded on the apprehension that, in Jesus Christ, the true God is the faithful God of grace. 

Calvin never tired of pointing out that this same message also permeates the law and the religion of Israel. God elects Israel by free grace alone, and in demonstration of free grace and faithfulness, God blesses all the people of the earth in Abraham, and brings up Israel out of Egypt (not to mention, as Amos does, the Ethiopians, the Philistines, and the Arameans). We don’t have time to dwell on all of this here. Suffice it to say that, for Calvin, there is one covenant of grace in two dispensations, and this one covenant finally extends all the way back through Abraham and even to Adam. The Gospel is a word of grace, and there never was a time when God was not the God of grace. 

The basic theology that emerges from this can be outlined easily enough in a few broad strokes. The great God of glory who creates and bears all things in nature and in history is the good God of grace who redeems. Thus, we begin by noting that God is both Creator and Redeemer. As Redeemer, the faithful God reconciles and renews by grace alone and thus bestows new life. But, of course, redemption implies, presupposes, and points toward a difficulty, a fault that needs to be set right. This is where sin comes in and it is also where God as Judge comes in. So, we obtain an outline of a basic theology. 

•  God = Creator, Judge, and Redeemer.

•  Humanity = good, capable and limited creature; corrupted good who suffers consequences of sin; and beneficiary of reconciliation and renewal. 

Each of these affirmations is keyed, in turn, to the fundamental apprehension in Jesus Christ that God is faithful or that the true God is the God of grace. This means that, as Creator, the God of grace freely gives and bestows the good gifts of creation, existence, and life. Creation, then, is an act of grace. As Judge, God turns persons and communities away from corrupted loyalties, loves, and patterns toward new possibilities. (Thus, Calvin understood repentance as mortification + vivification, a turning away from evil and a turning toward good, or the death of the old person and the emergence of the new. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge – literally an old man made new – is blessed with the right nightmares.) Judgment therefore is not simple destruction. To judge is not to vaporize, but to turn recalcitrant persons and communities. As Judge, the God of grace bestows the grace of repentance. Finally, as Redeemer, the God of grace bestows reconciliation or forgiveness and renewal or new life. (Justification and sanctification, as Calvin says, are “a double grace.”) 

One feature of this theology and its typical human reception within and also beyond the church that bears mentioning here is this. Much of the time we find the news both too good and too bad. 

If the true God who always already stands in relation to all as Creator, Judge, and Redeemer is the faithful and good God of grace, then God is faithful and gracious to all. But much of the time, we find this news too good to be true, and also too good to accord with our cherished devotions to ourselves and to our own in-groups. Therefore, we try to diminish it. We say that the faithful and good God of grace disclosed in Jesus Christ is faithful and gracious only to some. We claim that God is faithful and gracious only to those whose righteous behavior merits or deserves divine favor. Or, perhaps we claim that God is faithful and gracious only to those who hold correct beliefs. Perhaps we will even maintain that the faithful God of grace is only faithful and gracious to us. But the point is always the same. The good news of the Gospel of the God of grace is too good. 

Of course, it follows, too, that if God is faithful and gracious to all, then all must stand in need of grace and redemption. All must be mired in a difficulty from which they cannot escape. All stand in need of help. The Gospel of the God of grace therefore presupposes and points to a radical and universal human fault. It presupposes that all fall short and that none is righteous, no not one. Sin is persistent, radical, and universal. Persons and communities cannot overcome it either by their own wisdom or their own efforts. Therefore, human agents and communities, and indeed the entire human project, are unavoidably skewed. But much of the time, we find this news too bad and too difficult to bear. So we qualify it. We tailor it to our most cherished devotions and commitments. We maintain that, while many may be corrupted, some are not; some are not sinners and are not skewed. Perhaps we claim that the best people, the best communities, the best movements, or the best institutions are without fault. Perhaps we say that the true politics or the true church is without sin. Perhaps – like a parishioner offended at having to say a corporate prayer of confession – we may even maintain that, while there are many nefarious and chronic sinners in the world, we are not among them. Or perhaps we shall claim that there really is no radical and persistent human fault at all; there is only misguided immaturity followed by dynamic growth toward goodness. 

By contrast, to hold together the too good and too bad – grace alone and abounding as well as a human fault that is radical and universal – is to adopt a posture or stance I call hopeful realism. Hopeful realism refuses both easy optimisms and cynical pessimisms. It suggests that we do not really know ourselves when we concentrate on our abilities apart from our limits and our faults. However, it also claims that we do not truly know ourselves when we consider our limits and our faults apart from our created abilities and apart from the traces of grace and renewal we find in God’s world. Hopeful realists recognize the chronic constriction of human spirit and its destructive, even death-dealing consequences, and they know that it calls for strategies of restraint. They accept what others find too bad. At the same time, however, they also remain at the ready for possibilities for truer life and renewal. They also affirm what others find too good.

Our Church’s Witness in a Time of Hope 

If this is correct, then clarity about the Gospel of the God of grace does not immediately resolve the many issues and challenges before us. Instead, a commitment to witness in word and in deed to the faithful God of grace lends us a basic orientation or posture. It disposes us toward the many issues and challenges in certain ways.

Being clear about the Gospel of grace does not immediately tell us which particular energy policy is best. It does not tell us which agricultural practices are most helpful, and it does not tell us how to go about urban planning. But it does tell us that environmental questions have to do with our stewardship of God’s good gift of creation, and so it disposes us to take these questions very seriously. Indeed, when we look at it theologically, we recognize that God’s good creation is not simply all about us humans. Clarity about the Gospel therefore also disposes us to recognize that, when it comes to the natural environment, human welfare is not the only good at stake. 

Clarity about the Gospel of grace does not, in and of itself, formulate an appropriate immigration policy. It does not tell us whether and how to combine a documented worker program with amnesty and / or paths to citizenship. Again, clarity about the Gospel does not tell us just how to formulate international agreements about human rights or how to structure and oversee fair courts and tribunals. It does not immediately tell us just who should and should not be afforded the status of prisoners of war. But, as the Gospel insists that all persons have worth in relation to the God of grace, a faithful witness to it disposes us to treat the immigrant with hospitality and fairness, and also to take seriously the question of how we treat prisoners. It encourages us to recognize that we have duties toward the strangers within our gates and even toward our enemies. It tells us that oppression and torture are simply wrong. 

When we turn to questions of ordination and marriage, a faithful witness to the Gospel of the God of grace does not tell us precisely how to write our rule books. It does not furnish a detailed reading of the sensibilities, possibilities and limits of Presbyterians in America in 2009, and so neither does it specify which practical and political strategies are likely to be most effective in our present particular circumstance. But it does anchor an unshakably strong bias toward inclusion and toward a capacious and generous church that recognizes the needs and talents of all and that also invites their faithful contributions to the church and its leadership.

We can make a similar point about the question of world religions. You and I may ask what we must do and / or believe in order to be saved. We may ask whether one or another person, group, or community can be saved. What if we behave badly? What if they believe differently and do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Can other religions be saving? What about secular and even atheistic philosophies? These are important questions, particularly in a time when some speak of a “clash of civilizations,” and when some Americans mimic the earlier rhetoric of Christian crusades against the infidel. But the apprehension of a gracious God cuts against the grain of all of them. Now the question is no longer whether human actions and beliefs (our own or anyone else’s) can be saving. Now it is simply about the God of grace. How far do the faithfulness of the faithful God and the grace of the gracious God extend? The classical answer is even to the sinner, even to the betrayer. If we believe this, then we have little reason to exclude ourselves or anyone else from the scope of God’s grace and redemption. 

There are also implications for worship and prayer. Here, again, clarity about the Gospel of the God of grace does not gives us detailed directions so much as an orientation and disposition. Take prayer. While we remain alive to its many forms and functions, theologically speaking, we will be disposed to view it much as the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism did, namely as an effort at communion with God undertaken fundamentally out of gratitude and thanks. We will understand baptism, at least in part, as a sacramental acknowledgement of what is always already the case, namely, that persons are children of God, participants in the one covenant of grace. We will be disposed to look upon the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of Jesus Christ, his sacrifice, last supper, and table fellowship that is also a sacrament of spiritual presence, nourishment and empowerment for true life. And, I believe, we will be inclined to open it to all without qualification, and so ensure that it enacts sacramentally the reality of being swept up into a single community before the faithful God of grace who always stands in relation to all. (As Jonathan Edwards’ father-in-law, Solomon Stoddard, once maintained, the Lord’s Supper is not a gift only to the faithful, but “a converting ordinance” to be shared with all.) 

With respect to participating faithfully or both constructively and critically in the present time of hope, clarity about the Gospel will help to render us – indirectly by our sacramental practice, efforts at an inclusive polity, and our estimate of the question of world religions, and directly by our disposition toward immigration, health-care, the treatment of prisoners, etc. – supportive of the hopeful rhetoric and politics of inclusion and diplomacy. At the same time, it will dispose us to be realistic about the domestic and international challenges of the present age, to recognize that, of necessity, many of the most important steps will be piecemeal compromises. It will also dispose us to acknowledge the continuing importance – with respect both to defense and to humanitarian interventions – of a well-trained military that is responsive to civilian leadership and to international law. 

Finally, clarity about the Gospel of grace should dispose us to say to American progressives some of the same things we also should have been saying to neo-conservatives. The danger of naïve idealism is that, attending too little to constraining realities, it underestimates the extent to which relevant outcomes depend on factors (including our own interests and the interests of others) that remain largely beyond our control, and so it overestimates our capacities to enact moral goals and ideals. Overly idealist and ideologically-committed political leadership is therefore especially prone to miscalculate consequences. A second danger of naïve idealism is that it sometimes tempts those who occupy positions of leadership to believe that they do so as the result of their own virtue. It tempts people to self-righteousness. But, in the light of the Gospel, all persons and political movements need to be reminded that they fall short of true righteousness and that much depends on accident, fortune, grace, and providence. This is true not only of social and political conservatives, but also of American progressives who now find themselves nearer the seats of power than they have been for some time. 

The World’s Witness in a Time of Hope 

Let me make one further point. When estimating the state of the church it is almost never enough to discuss the church’s witness to the Gospel; it is often also necessary to mention the strange testimony of the world on behalf of the Gospel. I say strange because, so often, we think of witnessing to the Gospel as something that the church does. But it is also possible for the world to witness to the Gospel and to do so even over against the church. 

It has happened before. Diverse communities and groups in the world have sometimes and quite justifiably criticized inordinately partial loyalties, visions, practices, and prejudices that have captivated and corrupted the church. One thinks of churches in America and elsewhere finally relinquishing the ideal of a state church in favor of a politics more tolerant of religious diversity. Again, one thinks of churches in this country and the issue of slavery. More recently, one thinks of Protestant churches that finally altered long-standing traditions which excluded women from ordained leadership. These were changes that accord with the Gospel of grace, and they were made, at least partly, in response to broader cultural, social, and political pressures and currents. 

Now, it may be that the rhetoric and the politics of inclusion during this time of hope will inspire a new “culture-Protestantism.” It may be that a new cultural climate will press our often altogether too reluctant church finally to take some decisive steps. In our own time, there really is no place for a Christian exceptionalism that continues to regard all other faiths as false and perhaps even pernicious. In fact, such a stance can only have the most highly destructive consequences in a pluralist society of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others. It also corrodes whatever fragile prospects we may have for a more stable and responsible community of nations. Perhaps, during this time of hope, the wider culture will push us to clarify and to change some of the more destructive positions we sometimes take. I should also not be surprised if we experience increasing cultural pressures on the question of ordination. And so, among other things, in this time of hope I hope that the world’s strange witness will help to make our church more faithful. I hope that it will help us to avoid the studied irrelevance we too often embrace, and I hope that it will drive us toward a more profound appreciation for the Gospel of grace.

A Meditation on Walls

Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship, March 8, 2009
Composed and led by Lisa Pierce and Karen Abshier

[published in the Winter 2009 issue of Network News, and posted here on 4-20-09] 

This Lent, we will reflect together on Jesus nature as “The Other.” What is so fascinating to me about Jesus’ otherness is that he both claimed it and transcended it. He cast himself outside the walls of power and providence, yet transcended the dividing walls, sitting at tables with prostitutes and tax collectors alike. In the end, he transcended even the walls of his own tomb.

Israel is building a “Separation Wall,” reportedly to protect Israelis from Palestinians, although some argue that it serves primarily as an annexation of disputed territory into Israel.         

The construction of the nearly 450-mile-long wall will cost approximately four billion dollars.         

It consists of a series of 25-foot-tall concrete slabs, trenches, barbed wire buffer zones, electrified fencing, watch towers, thermal imaging video cameras, sniper towers, and roads for patrol vehicles.         

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14)          

Friendship Park, between Imperial Beach in California and Tijuana in Mexico, was dedicated by Patricia Nixon, then first lady, in the early 1970s, and has long been a popular meeting and picnic spot.         

Although a chain-link fence divides the space along the border, the barrier allows people on either side, often those separated by immigration status, to have contact, share food, talk and kiss.         

But the U.S. Border Patrol has ordered that the area be permanently closed to the public and a secondary, solid border fence be erected north of the existing fence stretching out to the Pacific Ocean.      

Isn’t it interesting how the walls that we build to protect ourselves so often become our prisons?

The Roman Empire built walls, including Hadrian’s Wall, to protect Roman Britain from the Pictish tribes of ancient Scotland, making the northern British border the most heavily fortified in the Roman Empire.

The Ming Wall in China, part of the Great Wall, stretches over 4,160 miles and was once guarded by more than one million men.

Some estimate that two to three million Chinese died as part of the project of building the Great Wall.

You shall call your walls Salvation. (Isaiah 60:18)          

The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel, is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. Just over half the wall was constructed around 19 BCE by Herod the Great. The remaining layers were added from the 7th century onward.

Jews regard the wall as the sole remnant of the Holy Temple and practice prayer at the wall, sometimes placing slips of paper containing written prayers into the crevices of the wall.

Muslims also claim the wall as a holy site, saying it is referred to in stories about Muhammad and is part of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The wall is one of the most disputed sites in Israel/Palestine.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. (Luke 23:44-45)

Good fences make good neighbors. (Robert Frost)        

The Berlin Wall was erected in the night of August 13, 1961. It was a weekend and most Berliners slept while the East German government began to close the border. In the early morning of that Sunday, most of the initial work was complete: the border to West Berlin was closed. The East German troops had begun to tear up streets and to install barbed wire entanglement and fences through Berlin.

Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! (President Ronald Reagan)         

The people raised a great shout and the wall fell flat. (Joshua 6:20)

Sometimes walls are as invisible and impenetrable as silence

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, originally designed as a student project by Maya Lin at Yale University’s School of Architecture in 1981, has become a symbol that has served to unify and reconcile a nation sorely divided by a foreign entanglement.

Lin envisioned a black granite wall, in the shape of a V, on which the names of the American military dead and missing would be inscribed.

The architect hoped that “these names, seemingly infinite in number, [would] convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.”        

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. (John 20, verse 1)

Without walls, there is no shelter.

Truth is, we all need boundaries. We all need some sort of wall or fence.

The trouble comes when there are no boundaries and others come and go, taking what they need without regard for you.         

But the trouble also comes when the boundaries are too rigid, when we won’t let anyone in and we won’t let anyone or anything go.

The best walls have doors and windows.

The best fences have gates.

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10, verse 9)    

World Council of Churches leaders: G20 must deal with 'greed' of financial system
[4-1-09]

Stephen Brown

Geneva (Ecumenical News International) – 30 March 2009 – The world's biggest grouping of churches has urged a "drastic transformation" of financial institutions, claimed that greed has become the basis for economic growth, and said that G20 leaders must build a new system based on ethical principles.

"What we need are brave and new measures to correct this unjust and unethical system in order to prevent such a crisis from occurring once again," said the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, ahead of a 2 April summit in London of leaders from the Group of 20 leading economies.

"The need of the hour is to construct a system in which market forces are checked [not only] through ethical regulations and oversight but also by a framework of common values that sets clear limits to excessive and irresponsible actions based on greed," Kobia said in a letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made public on 30 March.

Kobia urged G20 leaders, "to go beyond short-term financial bail out actions and to seek long-term transformation based on sound ethical and moral principles".

The WCC gathers 349 churches – principally Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox – from 110 countries.

In his letter to Brown, Kobia highlighted 12 proposals for the G20 leaders. These included mechanisms to deter currency speculation and to control capital flows; the eradication of financial speculation on commodities such as food and energy; the dismantling of tax havens; a system of global taxes to finance public needs; and debt cancellation.

Kobia said he welcomed moves by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a global charter for sustainable economic activity.

Still, said Kobia, who is a Methodist from Kenya, such a charter should be formulated on a "participatory basis" that involved all U.N. countries.

"More importantly," the WCC secretary general added, "the churches believe that fighting global poverty, the food crisis and climate change should be given the same attention as salvaging the financial meltdown."

Separately, religious leaders in Britain have urged G20 leaders not to forget promises made to the world's poor, nor commitments to tackle climate change.

"Even in these difficult times, we strongly urge the leaders of the G20 to hold fast to the commitments they have made to the world's poorest people," said leaders drawn from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths in a joint statement. "Morally binding commitments to cut carbon emissions and so to slow the devastating effects of man-made climate change have been made in recent years. They should not be forgotten or postponed."

Signatories included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion; Mohammed Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor; and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

They stated, "Some aspects of this crisis will require technical economic solutions. However, those solutions alone will not be enough to address all the questions that we face. At the roots of this crisis lie important moral issues."

WCC proposals for the G20 meeting and United Nations general assembly in May 2009:

1. That this crisis is an opportunity for the international community to create a new financial architecture to be developed under the aegis of the United Nations where broad participation of all countries and the civil society could take place. The G20 discussion should therefore prepare the way for a fuller discussion at the May U.N General Assembly debate on the issue.

2. Set a process for democratisation of all global finance and trade institutions.

3. Deter destabilising currency speculation by transforming and strengthening regulatory institutions.

4. Develop a practice of ethics and social justice that can guide financial markets in the world.

5. Establish international, permanent and binding mechanisms of control over capital flows and capital flight.

6. Implement an international monetary system based on a new system of reserves, including the creation of regional reserve currencies in order to end the current supremacy of the U.S. dollar, and to ensure international financial stability.

7. Prohibit hedge funds and over-the-counter markets, where derivatives and other toxic products are exchanged without public control.

8. Eradicate speculation on commodities, primarily on food and energy, by creating public mechanisms that will monitor speculative behaviour.

9. Dismantle tax havens, bring the users to justice (individuals, companies, banks and financial intermediaries), and create an international tax organization to combat tax competition and evasion.

10. Establish a new international system of wealth-sharing by creating a system of global taxes (on financial transactions, polluting activities and high income) to finance global public goods.

11. Cancel illegitimate debt and address unsustainable debts of impoverished countries, and establish a system of democratic, accountable, fair sovereign borrowing and lending that serves sustainable and equitable development.

12. Ensure that this crisis will not lead to the reduction of the Official Development Aid to poor countries, nor adversely affect the Millennium Development Goals.

Kobia's letter >>

For more news from Ecumenical News International >>

How are congregations responding to the urgent needs of people in this time of economic crisis?
[3-9-09]

Steve Thorngate, assistant editor and Web editor of The Christian Century, contributes a brief blog to the Century’s “Theolog” in which he raises the question and mentions a few responses. You may want to check in on the conversation and add ideas and experiences of your own.   More >>

An alternative view of globalization as it seems to unravel

A report on the World Social Forum: Is Another World Possible?
[2-16-09]

The Nation magazine carries a report by Tim Costello and Brendan Smith, that begins: 

The recently concluded World Social Forum is a good gauge for assessing the state of the world's alternative social, economic and political movements. Organized in 2001 as a counterpoint to the World an emerging globalization from below. It's a massive affair--this year more than 100,000 people gathered here for the five-day event. Part political convention, part carnival, part countercultural happening, the WSF serves as the center of gravity for the global justice movement that emerged in the late 1990s to contest corporate globalization.

The question on the minds of many was how to respond to what some call the "crisis of crises"--the economic, climate, political and cultural catastrophes that have engulfed the planet--and whether social movements can provide a unifying alternative vision for a better world. Economist Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South summed it up: "There is a sense of urgency and seriousness combining both pragmatism and principle. There is much less rhetoric. Things are taking place very fast outstripping what many predicted. There is a clear collapse of neo-liberalism. We have been triumphant over Davos.... Now we need alternatives and must get down to the hard work of creating them."

The full article >>

We have money problems, right?

Let’s look to the military (budget) for help
[2-16-09]

Rep. Barney Frank (D - Mass.) urges looking to the military budget as a source of funds for health care and more

Frank’s article, published in The Nation, begins:

I am a great believer in freedom of expression and am proud of those times when I have been one of a few members of Congress to oppose censorship. I still hold close to an absolutist position, but I have been tempted recently to make an exception, not by banning speech but by requiring it. I would be very happy if there was some way to make it a misdemeanor for people to talk about reducing the budget deficit without including a recommendation that we substantially cut military spending.

Sadly, self-described centrist and even liberal organizations often talk about the need to curtail deficits by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs that have a benign social purpose, but they fail to talk about one area where substantial budget reductions would have the doubly beneficial effect of cutting the deficit and diminishing expenditures that often do more harm than good. Obviously people should be concerned about the $700 billion Congress voted for this past fall to deal with the credit crisis. But even if none of that money were to be paid back – and most of it will be – it would involve a smaller drain on taxpayer dollars than the Iraq War will have cost us by the time it is concluded, and it is roughly equivalent to the $651 billion we will spend on all defense in this fiscal year.

The full article >>

Faith leaders call for raising minimum wage

Living Wage events link MLK dream to end poverty wages

by Jerry L. Van Marter, Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE ― January 9, 2009 — With the U.S. economic crisis deepening and unemployment soaring, a group of 11 denominational and religious organization leaders are among the inaugural signers of a call to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 in 2010.

The signers include the Rev. Gradye Parsons, General Assembly stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Nearly 400 faith leaders from all 50 states have already endorsed “$10 in 2010,” a campaign led by Let Justice Roll, and more are signing on each day.

Let Justice Roll, a national coalition of faith, community, labor and business organizations, will hold Living Wage events this weekend and on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend as part of the “$10 in 2010” campaign and in support of state and local living wage campaigns.

“Well before the recession, growing numbers of employed men and women sought help at food banks and homeless shelters because they could not live on poverty wages,” said Rev. Steve Copley, chair of Let Justice Roll.

According to economists, when the federal minimum wage increased to $6.55 an hour last July, it still left workers with less buying power than they had in 1997 ― the start of the longest period without a raise since the minimum wage was enacted in1938.

“Our economy wouldn't be in such a mess if wages had not fallen so far behind the cost of living and income inequality had not grown to levels last seen on the eve of the Great Depression,” said Holly Sklar, senior policy adviser for Let Justice Roll and co-author of A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future. “As we are seeing so painfully, an economy fueled by rising debt rather than rising wages is a house of cards,” she added.

U.S. Department of Labor analysts say it would take about $10 to match the buying power of the 1968 minimum wage.

“It is immoral that the minimum wage is worth less now than it was in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King was killed while fighting for living wages for sanitation workers,” Copley said. “It’s also bad for the economy. Minimum wage dollars go right back to local business through spending on food, healthcare and other necessities.”

Most of the 27 states with minimum wages higher than the federal level have unemployment rates that are lower than the federal level, Let Justice Roll says.

Congregations and organizations in states such as Tennessee, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California and Colorado will hold living wage services and events this month. For example:

 •          In Nashville, TN, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian services will be part of a campaign for a citywide living wage ordinance, and the interfaith coalition will march in the annual Martin Luther King Day parade with signs that say “Living Wage Was Part of His Dream” and “Let Justice Roll.”

•          In Nashua, NH, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, will preach at a living wage service.

In addition to the “$10 in 2010” campaign, Let Justice Roll is currently organizing to raise state and local minimum wages in Georgia, Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

A recent campaign in Kansas City, KS successfully doubled that city’s lowest in the U.S. minimum wage of $2.645 an hour.

Most of the ten occupations projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to have the largest employment growth during 2006-2016 ― such as retail salespersons, fast food workers, home health aides and janitors ― have disproportionate numbers of minimum wage workers.

“A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it, said Sklar. “The minimum wage sets the wage floor, and we cannot build a strong economy on downwardly mobile wages and rising poverty, inequality and insecurity. As President Roosevelt understood, we have to raise the floor to lift the economy.”

In addition to Pasrons, Copley and Sinkford, inaugural signers of the “$10 in 2010” call are the the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary, National Council of Churches USA; the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in US & Canada; the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president, United Church of Christ; Rabbi David Saperstein, director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary, American Friends Service Committee; Sister Simone Campbell, executive director, NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby; James Winkler, general secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church & Society; the Rev. Alexander Sharp, executive director, Protestants for the Common Good; and the Rev. Kim Bobo, executive director, Interfaith Worker Justice.

More information about “$10 in 2010” is available on the Let Justice Roll Web site.

 

Information for this story furnished by Betsy Leonder-Wright of Let Justice Roll.

Interfaith Worker Justice provides ...

A congregational toolkit for helping unemployed workers
[1-12-09]

Friday's grim news that 524,000 jobs were lost in December and that the unemployment rate hit 7.2 percent starkly underscores the need for all sectors of our society to support unemployed workers and to encourage employers to treat all workers justly in times of economic crisis.

Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) has recently prepared a Congregational Toolkit to help unemployed workers. Available free of charge from the IWJ Web site, the toolkit outlines what resources are available to unemployed workers, suggests how to establish support groups for unemployed workers, and offers worship aids for lifting up unemployed workers and employers in this time of crisis.

"Congregations have always stood by unemployed workers in times of struggle," said Bishop Gabino Zavala, Co-President of IWJ's Board of Directors. "These congregational tools help us fulfill our mission of serving God's people."

Blessings,

Renaye Manley
Organizing Director
Interfaith Worker Justice

Click here for the Toolkit >>

About the financial crisis:

Subprime loans are not always a bad thing
[11-25-08]

The current financial crisis apparently stems largely from the vast amount of subprime lending and subprime borrowers over the past few years.

In a recent Newsweek article, Daniel Gross argues that “Many ethical subprime lenders still manage to make plenty of money.” But note that funny little word “ethical” in there.

Gene TeSelle, out of his own involvement with affordable housing efforts in Nashville, TN, over the past few years, supports the Newsweek article:

I've been on the boards of two nonprofit providers (and lenders) for affordable housing. In the late 1990s, Ed Latimer of Affordable Housing Resources was commenting that HUD, in response to the Conference of Mayors, was enhancing its Nehemiah and Ameridream programs, going to minimal or no down payment. This worked if home purchase was tied to prepurchase counseling. (I can remember going to a conference in Atlanta in the Eighties where they focused on "post-mortgage debt," which was no surprise to those who already had experience with housing counseling.)

The problem, as some saw eight years ago, was that this was bypassed by the "private sector" – mortgage companies that were not even regulated, as the banks and former S&Ls were, and, in addition, paid no attention to prepurchase counseling. They were working with the big homebuilding firms, which got into the "affordable housing" market once they saw the opportunity for a high volume of sales on these terms.

So the housing problem resulted from three things, all of them evident years ago – unregulated mortgage companies, lack of prepurchase counseling, and the ready availability of new homes. In all three ways they undercut the role of nonprofit developers, counselors, and lending intermediaries, which quickly saw their clients going through these "easier" channels.

It's not a surprise to people who were working in the field. They were in a position to warn about what was happening. But the ethos in Washington was one of encouraging the housing bubble, and doing nothing that might harm the reputation of the private speculative lenders.

THE ECONOMIC CRISIS AND THE CHURCHES' MESSAGE

by Gene TeSelle
[10-21-08]

In recent weeks we have seen the U.S. government, and then all the governments of the world's leading economies (the "G-8"), develop a series of "bail-out" or "rescue" measures to counteract the failure of investment banks, a massive slide in stock prices, and a continuing reluctance to be either a lender or a borrower.

Some legislators (usually located at the right and the left ends of the political spectrum) decried these measures on various grounds: that they rescued the very companies and executives that had created the mess, that they did little for ordinary people, or that basic principles about the relation between business and government were being violated.

At first the rescue measures took the form of loan guarantees, which would become repayable loans if they were used. When these were not enough, government took an "ownership" or "equity" position, though debate still continued whether this should include voting rights in the affected corporations. (If voting rights are not included, the corporations could more easily delay making loans or refuse to restructure mortgages.)  Government officials said at press conferences that they disliked taking these measures but that they were necessary to shore up a collapsing stock and credit market. Many who had vigorously opposed government regulation and intervention as a matter of principle, talking as though "free market capitalism" were prescribed by the U.S. Constitution, now indulged in socialism for the rich. Their karma had run over their dogma.

Commentators like Robert Reich and Paul Krugman have been wondering whether these measures mark the end of an era. Those who want to deny that it does are in good company. President Bush said on October 15 that these measures are designed not to replace the free market but to save it. Nevertheless, those who have professed that the market will always correct and regulate itself are now contradicting themselves. By doing what they have condemned as not only unjust but unfeasible, they find that their own principles have circled around and bit them.

Reactions from an international perspective have been even sharper. Countries all over the world have been forced to adopt "structural adjustment programs" (SAPs) as a condition for receiving loans — privatization of industry, education, health care, even water; deregulation of the economy; and elimination of "trade barriers," to the extent of letting corporations sue local, state, and national governments before the secret tribunals of the World Trade Organization. Now they see the U.S. and the other leading powers playing fast and loose with those principles in order to save their own economies. From their perspective, the arrogance of power has now been supplemented by massive hypocrisy.

The lectionary readings for October 19, 2008, include Matt. 22:15-22, in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking about paying tribute. His answer is, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." As F.C. Grant liked to paraphrase it, "Give Caesar his old denarius, it's not much." But then he goes on, "Give to God what is God's," presumably one's entire self which is in the image of God. And this also involves, if we can skip ahead a few chapters, ministering to the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless, the sick and imprisoned (Matt. 25:41-46).

Yes, it may not be out of place to pay taxes to whom taxes are due, even to "bail out" or "rescue" Wall Street and the managers of our tax-deferred retirement funds. These are aspects of our shared life together. But when it comes down to a decision about our basic orientation, this is not the last word.

In 2004 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) issued the so-called Accra Declaration, a statement entitled "Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth." In language that many observers in the U.S. considered far too extreme, it condemned "neoliberal economics."

This expression turned out to be puzzling to many lay people, so we need to explain. Neoliberalism is not the bad liberalism condemned by Bush I and II, John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and waved off by Barack Obama and most Democrats when the term is used to characterize their own approach.

Neoliberalism, as used in current parlance, is something good. It designates the laissez faire doctrine that was popularized by Milton Friedman, politicized by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, triangulated by Bill Clinton and key advisers like Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, promoted by pundits as the "Washington Consensus," and imposed upon the developing economies by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund when they made "structural adjustment plans" a key condition for receiving loans.

The Accra Declaration characterized neoliberal economics as based on the following "beliefs":

● unrestrained competition, consumerism, and the unlimited economic growth and accumulation of wealth is the best for the whole world;

● the ownership of private property has no social obligation;

● capital speculation, liberalization and deregulation of the market, privatization of public utilities and national resources, unrestricted access for foreign investments and imports, lower taxes, and the unrestricted movement of capital will achieve wealth for all;

● social obligations, protection of the poor and the weak, trade unions, and relationships between people, are subordinate to the processes of economic growth and capital accumulation.

The Declaration, using the language of "we believe" and "we reject" that was pioneered at Barmen, criticizes the motivations, the consequences, and the ideological justifications of this policy — its indifference to the poor, its spirit of consumerism and greed, its unregulated accumulation and unlimited growth, its indifference to and misuse of the natural world. It even uses the word "empire," by which it means "the coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power that constitutes a system of domination led by powerful nations to protect and defend their own interests."

If this sounds relevant to the current situation, it is.

For one thing, the criticisms of neoliberalism's effects on the global economy turn out to be applicable to the U.S. itself. Such policies not only victimize the rest of the world; they victimize the U.S., too — its own people and the economic relationships that affect them in such important ways. We may have been able to turn a blind eye to the effects of these policies on others in the past, but when those same effects are seen here at home it concentrates our attention in remarkable ways.

In addition, all of this should remind us of a dimension of the current financial crisis that has received almost no coverage in the U.S. media — its consequences for the less industrialized countries of the world. Even the economies of the G-8 countries have not yet been "rescued," and we may wait a long time to see what kind of recovery there will be and which sectors of their population will be the beneficiaries. But we have not heard many analyses of the consequences for the developing countries, many of which have already been devastated by privatization, deregulation, and elimination of trade barriers, often working in league with political corruption and "crony capitalism" which these measures have done little to correct.

There will be a need, then, to reinvent not only our own economy but the global economy. The same old inequities, the same old "empire," might continue to prevail. But it could be that the bursting of the credit bubble will bring more careful consideration of those aspects of the economy that are genuinely productive. If so, we must be sure that there will be benefits not only to the working people of the developed economies but to the hewers of wood and drawers of water (cf. Deut. 29:11, Josh. 9:21-27) in our increasingly unequal global economy.

The talk about "energy independence," which now seems to be a bipartisan consensus, may offer a start, since global inequality is often linked with extractive industries, of which oil is the most lucrative. In addition, concern about immigration might lead lawmakers to help make the economies of other countries more viable, not simply to exploit them. And then the outsourcing of jobs has had mixed results, especially with the costs of transportation rising, and there may be readiness to focus on genuine job creation, not only in our own country but in others. If it is genuine job-creation, it will include the labor and environmental protections that the Clinton and Bush administrations have cynically left out of international trade agreements. It will also mean that U.S. embassies pay attention to labor and environmental issues, not simply corporate investments and military liaisons.

And with the new attention that has been given to irresponsible financial practices, we might broaden our concern to include tax havens and the many forms of international money-laundering. The crisis has also focused much-needed attention on the huge salaries that go to corporate executives in many fields, and not just in finance and banking. This massive income inequality has created a new class system in America and distorts the life of the church itself. In these and other ways the current economic crisis might move our thinking in new and fairer directions.

We welcome your comments,
or suggestions of other items that might be posted, as we all struggle to deal with the economic crisis.
Just send a note,
to be shared here.

Responses from the global South to the world economic crisis

[10-21-08]

October 16th 2008, by Various Authors

The International Conference on Political Economy: Responses from the South to the World Economic Crisis took place in Caracas, Venezuela from October 8-11, 2008, and was attended by academics and researchers from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, South Korea, Cuba, Ecuador, Spain, the United States, the Philippines, France, England, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

The conference promoted a broad debate about the current economic and financial situation of the world, and about the new perspectives and challenges of the governments of southern peoples in the face of the international crisis.

The situation has worsened in the last few weeks. After repeated crises in the financial markets of a few central countries, it has quickly converted into an international crisis of enormous proportions. This places the countries of the South in a compromised position.

The crisis threatens the real economy. If energetic, effective, and immediate actions are not taken, it could bring overwhelming punishments upon the people of the world, particularly the sectors that are already the most vulnerable and left behind.

Today, the vulnerability of currencies, financial imbalances, and grave recessions reveal the neo-liberal myth about the benefits of market deregulation and the solidity and trustworthiness of the existing financial institutions, and they seriously put into question the foundation of the capitalist system.

The contributions presented during this conference have put into perspective the process of the crisis as it unraveled since August 2007, and the failure of the concessions, bailout packages, and bribes by way of state intervention in developed capitalist countries, measures which aim to save the remnants of an already dislocated world financial system.

We denounce the pretension to take on our shoulders the cost of financial bailout packages on the collective world system, which would worsen the situation of poverty, unemployment, and exploitation of workers and the people of the world.

Neither the gigantic state intervention that we have observed in the last few weeks to save disarticulated entities emptied by speculation, nor the massive increase in the public debt are plausible alternatives to solve the crisis. The current dynamic encourages a new round of concentration of capital, and if firm opposition from the people does not exist, the perverse restructuring which saves only the privileged sectors will be emphasized even more.

That could also bring the return of the dangerous authoritarian tendencies in the functioning of capitalism, a regressive sign of which is already apparent in the increase in discrimination and racism toward the immigrant population from southern countries in countries of the North.

If we maintain the current policies for restructuring the capitalist system, there will be enormous productive and social costs that could threaten environmental sustainability even more.

The need to re-construct the international economic and financial architecture is unavoidable today. With this perspective, the need for a post-capitalist outlet is evident, and Venezuela has named it Socialism of the Twenty-First Century.

In a critical moment such as this, national and regional policies should give priority to social spending and protect natural and productive resources. Governments should introduce urgent financial regulation measures to protect savings, stimulate production, and place immediate controls on currency exchange and the movement of capital.

The rest of the report >>

 

Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.

 

John Shuck’s new "Religion for Life" website

Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

Click here for his blog posts.

Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."

 

John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.

 

Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.

 

Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!

 

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