Day 21: The Triumph of the Golden Arches

In his seminal book, Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser reports on an annual convention held by the fast food industry. One year, the event’s speaker was impressive – no less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. As Schlosser observed, Gorbachev’s speech, on the topic of changing world economics, was an insightful presentation on a very relevant topic. However, the author reports that his audience – executives in the fast food industry – was largely disinterested, distracted and thoroughly disengaged.

[insert passage from FFN]

The passage is striking in its description of the CEOs’ raw wealth and power, and in the dismissive way in which a legendary statesman like Gorbachev was treated. So you instituted détente? Well I launched curly fries and got a $40 million bonus. The image shows us that corporations are increasingly above politics in today’s global economy. CEOs can afford to be dismissive of national leaders, local customs, the nutrition of their customers, the poverty of their workers or the health of the rivers and streams that surround their plants.

[find Bible verse about the dismissive nature of wealth and prophetic opposition to that]

I have to admit, in looking at this situation it is hard to find hope. However, there is some to be found. There is increasing evidence that people are beginning to question the status quo in many areas – avoiding fast food, calling companies to accountability for their actions, and looking beyond public relations “spin” to seek the truth about the actions of the powerful.

If the wealthy have “triumphed” it will not be a long victory, because it is unsustainable. The crushed poor and the dissolving middle class will cause the whole entity to collapse. And as it collapses, let’s work for a more compassionate, Christ-centered alternative to take its place.

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Day 20: Sub-Standard of Living

For the middle class, the U.S. standard of living has decreased significantly since it’s early-70s peak. [give stats]

And the American middle class is, literally, dying. Not only is it shrinking in percentage terms [stats], it is also undergoing a disturbing phenomenon where illness and death are increasing in middle America. [cite article]

People are losing hope, in other words. And predictable emotions accompany hopelessness, primarily anger and fear. Which quickly morphs into suspicion, resentment, hostility and even violence. We see it in racist posts on Facebook, in support for politicians who want to build walls and who are quick to identify scapegoats (immigrants and Muslims, maybe?). Fearful citizens cling to angry leaders who encourage them to embrace solutions like austerity and small government that benefit no one but the leaders. It’s a never-ending death spiral.

The alternative is never easy, which is why you see it so rarely. It is never easy to impart hope to the discouraged or peace to the agitated; far easier to rile people up than to calm them down. But our faith asks us to be peacemakers. The message of the Cross, unlike the shouts and echoes from talk radio, is one of peace and hope and deliverance from fear. And that message can also extend to our approach to culture and politics, when we refuse to demonize other races or nationalities, and when we are not afraid to build society in positive ways rather than exploit fears for monetary gain or political power.

We are the country that once extended the GI Bill to our veterans, and created Social Security for the elderly. Can we do no less for this generation of hurting neighbors?

Day 19: Behind Bars and Out of Sight

On the weekends, I’ve often been curious why cable networks broadcast so many hours of programming focusing on U.S. prisons. The shows typically feature interviews with men and women serving long sentences in some of the country’s most notorious prisons. The backgrounds are familiar – poverty, broken homes, bad decisions, violence, substance abuse – which lead to a downward spiral and an inevitable landing in prison.

These shows present life at the bottom. I used to ask, “Who needs so many prison shows?” Now I know the answer: we all do.

There are two reasons for my change of heart on prison shows. First, Scripture commands us to remember the people that society forgets, and lest we miss the point, the Bible gets quite specific; it includes prisoners alongside widows, orphans, the hungry, the sick and the impoverished. Many Christian organizations have taken Jesus’ words to heart and have launched vibrant prison ministries that meet the spiritual needs of inmates.

I’ve also come to see a second reason for why it is helpful to see inside our nation’s prison through these television programs: the sheer numbers of prisoners in modern America. Today, the U.S. has a massive population of people serving time, and that number has exploded in recent years. Particularly in the African-American community, the incarceration percentage among adult males has reached scandalous proportions. We can’t simply pretend they aren’t there, and these programs help us confront one difficult reality of our current culture. Our nation needs to wrestle with some hard questions, like whether we have sentenced too many people for too long in prisons that are too overcrowded. Are there better ways to rehabilitate offenders?

Further, as with any significant problem, we need to “follow the money” to determine if it is in someone’s financial interest to lock up so many. Evidence tells us that some entities in the corrections industry have a vested interest in maintaining a pipeline of prisoners, and that leads to some troubling conclusions. For-profit prisons and the creation of a low-wage prison workforce that benefits many corporations suggest that the massive U.S. prison population is not accidental. Thankfully, some reformers are calling for significant changes to our corrections policies.

Day 18: Cockroaches

Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing account of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, we regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, describes the environment in which an entire nation can be plunged into the nightmare of mass murder and violence against a minority group.

The killings seemed to happen overnight. Gourevitch notes that the swiftness of the violence – with 400,000 members of the Tutsi minority group slaughtered in an 8-day span – is unmatched in world history, even by murderous regimes like Nazi-era Germany.

But the author also indicates that the racial attitudes and hatreds were brewing for many years. Majority Hutus would refer to Tutsis as “cockroaches” in radio broadcasts. When the nation’s president died in a plane crash, plunging Rwanda into chaos, national leaders took to the airwaves and encouraged the Hutu population to “kill the cockroaches.” Tragically, the populace responded, sometimes butchering their own neighbors and co-workers with machetes.

Referring to a population as “cockroaches” or “rats” is the familiar language of dehumanization. And when a population is dehumanized, it becomes easy to strip them of rights, mistreat them, or even kill them. And while we may believe we are above genocide, our tendency to dehumanize continues. Populations are referred to as “wetbacks” or “leaches.” People with differing ideas are “extremists” or “radicals.” Democrats are “libtards.” Anyone with a head covering or an unusual last name is a “terrorist.”

Day 17: Snow Shovels and Value Systems

In his book The Price of Inequality, the author Joseph Stiglitz discusses an interesting study that points out the ways in which economists think differently than non-economists (ie, most of the rest of us).

A group of random people were asked the following question: “After a severe blizzard has dumped several feet of snow on a city, is it ethical for hardware stores to double or triple the prices of snow shovels that are now in high demand?” The vast majority of people believed it is clearly unethical for a store to do such a thing. When the same question was asked of people who had studied economics, the response was quite different; a large percentage of that group felt that the store owners were well within their rights to seek to maximize profits if circumstances gave them the opportunity to do so.

Stiglitz was seeking to make the point that much of economics training actually causes the student to adopt an alternate value system, where profit maximization and the self-interest of the individual or the firm is preferred over the well-being of the community. Rather than advising a firm to seek reasonable profit and good corporate citizenship, the economists defend as much profit-taking as the law will allow.

What makes this study particularly disturbing is the realization that such alternate value systems have dominated our entire economic system. Business school graduates often lack ethics, and the entire culture pays the price. Corporations value the well-being of shareholders over communities, customers and even their own employees. Banks maximize profits even if doing so harms taxpayers and the bank’s own depositors.

Day 16: Generation Next

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.  I Timothy 4:12

I noticed the other day that of all the music CDs in my car, none had been recorded after 1984 – more than 30 years ago. When I was younger, I always swore that I wouldn’t be “that guy” who only listened to the music of his youth. But I guess despite my best efforts, I turned into that predictable old man. I’m unashamedly a fan of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Although I like a few modern bands, I tend to gravitate to music from a certain era.

Nostalgia — the idea that the things of our youth are superior to the present reality — can be a dangerous thing, however. There is a tendency among middle-aged people to think the worst of the generations that follow them. Twenty years ago, culture was seeking to come to terms with the quirks of the age cohort known as Generation X. Today, there is a lot of handwringing and consternation over “Millennials.”

Frankly, the criticisms – that they are lazy, disloyal, opportunistic, shallow, and lack values – have been lobbed against every generation. And as people age, and begin to take on mortgages and fight wars and start companies and become mayors and governors, suddenly we see that they weren’t as awful as we thought.

I have an idea – how about we stop attributing certain characteristics to vast groups of people in the first place? In the average high school, there may be a future world leader, business tycoon, and career criminal in the same math class. Is it fair to paint all of them with the same brush?

Generational conflict is convenient because it provides one more opportunity to blame a specific group of people for complex problems. Blaming millennials for certain negative cultural developments is as easy (and wrong) as blaming women, Asians, immigrants, or anyone else you can view as “the other.” Can we train ourselves to stop doing that? I hope so. Generational conflict serves only to build up more mistrust and negativity in a culture that needs more cooperation and empathy if we ever hope to survive.

Read: I Timothy 4

Prayer: Help me to develop an appreciation and love for those in the generations behind me — and respect for those in the generations before me.

Day 15: Politically Correct

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.   Ephesians 4:29

Some people insist that “political correctness” is ruining us. In general, I don’t agree, but because the concept of political correctness is so vague, I should offer some clarification. If people think political correctness is the tendency to avoid dropping truth bombs on people who need them, then I guess I agree that we are too PC. For example, it’s probably un-PC to blurt out to a bunch of fast food CEOs that their food is killing people and their wages are pitiful.

But I don’t think that’s what the PC opponents mean.

No, it seems the proudly “politically incorrect” long for the good old days when you could insult Asians, pat the secretary on her rear end, and complain about “the blacks” during an elevator ride. I suppose for some people, remembering that all humans deserve respect is an exhausting chore, and they’d just rather not bother. And if that’s the true rationale of political incorrectness, then I say hooray for the PC. Being reminded that Native Americans are more than a football mascot should not be something that mature adults fight about.

Perhaps people yearn for some misplaced nostalgia when they claim to be proudly un-PC. They want that old world back, when derogatory or sexist nicknames were common. But wishing for a return to insensitive speech is an immature and rather pathetic goal for the Christian, to be perfectly blunt. Jesus called on his followers to be harmless as doves. If he had wanted us to be ego-driven, offensive blowhards, he certainly would have mentioned that (perhaps as an addendum to the Great Commission). But of course, those verses don’t exist.

Today, say something kind to someone. Ask them about their day. Annoyed by a minority? Remember they probably get annoyed by the majority, too. Respect others with the respect that you would want to receive. In other words, act like Jesus.

Prayer: God, help us speak truth but also speak love. Help us not to seek to offend, but to inspire, with our words. 

Further Reading: Ephesians 4:29-5:10

Day 14: They’re Changing the Conversation

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Matthew 23:27

“Mad Men” is one of the most acclaimed programs in television history, and it also boasted one of the greatest-ever pilot episodes. In that initial episode, titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” we meet the show’s main character, Don Draper, along with the other characters that populate the ad agency of Sterling Cooper. Throughout the episode, the agency is wrestling with a significant business problem – the public is becoming increasingly aware of the hazards of smoking. And Sterling Cooper’s largest client is Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Searching for a strategy that will help them continue to market cigarettes effectively, a research firm suggests that the agency appeal to people’s desire to take risks. Thus, cigarettes are seen as a product for people who wish to show that they have a perverse “death wish.” Draper, the agency’s Creative Director, dislikes this strategy, and he pitches the research file in the trash.

As ad execs and clients alike smoke continually in boardrooms and offices, the idea that tobacco causes lung cancer is waived away as nonsense. A Reader’s Digest story on the harm of cigarettes is scoffed at, and the publication is derided as a “women’s magazine.” Most of the ad men are sure the controversy will blow over; after all, in 1960 America, cigarettes are everywhere, and represent one of the country’s most vibrant industries. Surely nothing as modest as a single scientific study can change people’s habits and thinking, can it? Eventually, the clever Draper comes up with an alternate strategy. He suggests Lucky Strike go with a new tagline – “Lucky Strikes. It’s Toasted!” – which changes the conversation away from the danger of smoking, and instead shifts the focus to a minor product feature that subtly makes the cigarettes seem harmless.

The 21st century “Mad Men” viewers, of course, know better. We know that the 1960s was the beginning of an awareness of the harm caused by cigarette smoking, even if the characters can’t imagine it. And we also see in the admen’s self-interested disbelief some echoes of current issues, such as gun control or climate change, where people also refuse to believe that anything can be done, or that the scientific data belongs anywhere but in the trashcan. And we wonder if the next 50 years will also unfold in surprising ways on these issues just as they did for cigarette smoking.

And we also see the effectiveness with which powerful and clever people are able to change the conversation by re-directing our attention. We see that tendency today. Want to avoid discussion of climate change? Claim that former Vice President Al Gore and other environmental advocates are “hypocrites.” Uncomfortable with discussions of income inequality? Insist that the critics are practicing the politics of resentment, or that the poor have only themselves to blame. Or just avoid the issue altogether and run another gushing article on a celebrity’s glorious wealth.

Pray: For collective wisdom in the population, that we will understand when the conversation is being subtly but deliberately changed on issues of import.

Read: Matthew 23

Day 13: Love in Truth, Love in Action

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  I John 3:17

I John 3:17 asks a pointed question: How can you claim you have love if you have the world’s goods and see a brother or sister in need and you refuse to help?

It would take an entire book, perhaps an entire library, to pull that verse apart and examine all its angles. And in light of 21st century culture, where global economic inequality has reached unprecedented levels, the verse hits even more squarely between the eyes.

I John 3:18 then digs a little deeper into this thought. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.”

“Loving in action” is something we understand; for example, actually taking the initiative to feed the hungry (in your own home or at a soup kitchen) is “love in action,” whereas saying “I love the poor” is inactive (and ineffective) love. But do we also understand “love in truth”? I think the Church is often guilty of loving in untruthful ways. For example, if we learned that our church’s popular short-term mission trips were not welcomed by the people we intended to help, would we be willing to humble ourselves and cancel a program that was liked by so many of our congregants? This is an issue that many churches are wrestling with as they seek to be global-minded yet also culturally sensitive.

“Loving in truth” asks us to be honest, and that’s not easy. If the statistics tell us that government food aid programs are the most efficient and fair mechanism for feeding hungry children, are we willing to admit it, or do we stubbornly cling to clichés like “the church is better able to assist the poor” even if we have no way to support that statement? And if we truly believe that statement, shouldn’t we be proposing a genuinely wide-scale, church-based feeding program that could relieve local authorities of the responsibility to feed the poor?

Although I have heard many people insist the church can feed people better, I’ve never seen a church do that on a large scale, and I suspect it’s because the price tag is just too high; hunger remains a massive problem, far too big for even the swankiest church to tackle. Perhaps we should stop trying to tear down government aid programs when we honestly do not have a viable alternative in place.

Pray: That our love would be pure — that it would be truthful, and active, rather than just mere words, and thus reflect the love that Christ gives all of us.

Read: I John 3:12-18

Day 12: The ‘Worthy Poor’ and Other Stuff Jesus Never Said

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.    Luke 17:14-15

I hear this all the time: “I don’t mind helping others, but not when people abuse the system.”

There’s no way to continue a conversation after that. It’s similar to one of those “I’m not racist, but” declarations that, despite the author’s protestations, end up being really, really racist. If you want to make sure that every dollar of your charitable giving will never support an “unworthy recipient,” you should probably start donating to an animal shelter or an environmental cause; by all means, avoid charities that actually help human beings, who are imperfect and unpredictable.

So, do I endorse charity without accountability? Certainly not. I have spent much of my professional life working for, with, and on behalf of charitable organizations. All of them have had systems of checks and balances. These organizations have engaged board members and auditors and external consultants to evaluate their efficiency and effectiveness and help them uncover potential problems.

My advice is to give to good causes and exemplary organizations. But don’t expect perfection.

Taking this thought a step further, I think the criticism of “people abusing the system” reveals something else. It’s not so much that they are concerned about the fiscal responsibility of a charity, but rather that they frankly don’t trust the poor. They’re sure that people who have needed a lot of help for a very long time, and who don’t seem to appreciate the help they are getting, represent a serious problem. The problem is so serious, in fact, that for some it becomes an excuse to not help at all.

Is that an acceptable stance?

Our ultimate example in matters of compassion and human relations, Jesus Himself, seemed to avoid making such exceptions. There’s no record of any of the following statements:

  • “I’ll feed five thousand but can we make sure no one takes home leftovers?”
  • “I’ve been here all day, so I’ll heal these next two lepers but after that, I’m done.”
  • “I’ll turn the water into wine today, but don’t go thinking this will be a regular thing.”

We can be thankful that Jesus was so much less petty than we are! And we are even told in Scripture that the reality of human self-centeredness and ingratitude was something that Jesus faced. In Luke 17, Jesus was met by ten men with leprosy. His response? He healed all ten.

One of the ten fell to his feet and thanked Jesus for the gift of restored health — while the nine others moved along. Jesus remarked on the lack of gratitude, but it didn’t stop Him from doing good deeds. In the very next chapter of Luke, we see Jesus welcoming children and restoring sight to a blind man.

To truly follow Jesus, even when people are not grateful, we must continue to err on the side of generosity.

Pray: That our compassion will be perpetual, even when we do not receive the thanks we thought we deserved. Also pray that we will resist those who want to restrict aid based on arbitrary criteria.

Read: Luke 17:11-19