Monthly Archives: March 2012

Republic of Lies, Kingdom of Truth

I am a liar.
I hate this thought, but it’s true. Believe me, just this once.   In fact, virtually every person of faith knows much of what I know about the dark deceit that so often dominates my heart:  How quick I am to exaggerate, conceal, “spin” or make excuses, especially when I feel insecure.  The personas that we fabricate in business or social settings seldom bear much resemblance to our “real” selves, if we even recall who that really is.
You and I know, of course, that this is horrid.  No one will respond with neutrality if you call him or her a liar.  No one. We lie, but we hate lies, except for the ones we’re living.
And that’s one reason that 2012 is going to be such a tough year for life in America.  It’s election time, always a tough time for truth.  But there’s a new twist this year: The Super-PACs now dominate the discussion, and they NEVER can be called to account for lies.  They don’t have to engage in debates. If you expose them, their candidates can deny responsibility. You can’t even find out who is paying for their “charitable” efforts.
And so, with the blessing of the Supreme Court, American electoral politics are now completely in the hands of deceit. Welcome to the United States of Lies.
I saw a striking example of this last evening, when I flipped on one of the news channels.  First came ExxonMobil, with an ad promising “500,000 new jobs” if only they were allowed to disregard the basics of creation stewardship. (Note: 500,000 means a 28% increase in all domestic petroleum employment, including gas-station attendants; and a more than tripling of the number of oil production workers.)  While Exxon’s paid good money for the 500,000-job study, anyone who thinks about it will know that it’s pure deception.
But then came a new ad by a Super-PAC called Crossroads GPS, reportedly linked to former Bush aide Karl Rove. (Don’t bother trying to find out who’s behind them.  That’s a secret.)
The ad’s message is simple: Gas prices are high, and it’s because the President won’t let us drill everywhere we want to – not in some parts of the Gulf, and not in some oil-shale regions.  And worse, he didn’t approve the TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
The ad starts cleverly, with the image of a gas pump with the low price of $1.83. The narrator says “Then.” And then a new pump appears with the high price of $3.74. The voice continues “…and now.”
“The difference?” asks the voice. The answer is simple, the voice assures us: The President won’t let us drill in places we want to.
Of course, you know that Federal limits on oil drilling offshore and on public lands — however stringent or permissive they may be — have nothing to do with current gas prices.  You know that U.S. gas prices are determined by global crude oil prices.  You know that those global prices have been rising because of supply interruptions and fears related to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 2011, and to Iran, Yemen and South Sudan in 2012. And in the face of these Middle East supply constraints, global gasoline demand has been rising because of positive economic trends all over the world, and especially in America, China and India.
You’ve probably heard that prices are up because of speculation in oil derivatives by Wall Street firms. I’m guessing you don’t know that prices have also been rising because of the shutdown of a number of American refineries made unprofitable by recent low American gasoline prices.
But we’ve found no industry analysts who argue that drilling policies in the U.S. have driven today’s gasoline prices – and that’s the Super-PAC’s core message.
But take a closer look at the ad: $1.83 was a pretty attractive price.  That was “Then.”  When was that exactly?  Well, if you freeze the frame, you can see the date:  January 19, 2009.
January 2009.  That was, presumably, a pretty good time, right? Crossroads GPS wants you to think so. Cheap gas! But what else might have been going on in the country in those days? 
  • Well, for starters, the American banking system was on the ropes, with more than $1.0 trillion in bank write-offs by 2009, on their way to approximately $2.0 trillion in write-offs overall. Images of 1929 haunted us all, with good reason.
  • The Dow was at 8,499 on that day, down 32% in one year – a one-third drop in wealth for U.S. investment portfolios in a single year.
  • U.S. nonfarm employment was down by 4,462,000 from the prior year.  In fact, the U.S. was in the middle of 25 straight months of absolute employment declines.  In all, 8.8 million fewer Americans had jobs by the time the trends reversed in 2010.
  • Unemployment rates had risen for 23 straight months by January 2009, and would continue to rise for another 9 months.
  • The Consumer Confidence Index was at 38, on its way to an astoundingly-low 24 two months later. Today, it’s at 70.2.
  • And U.S. home values were down 18.9% during the first quarter of 2009, the fifth straight double-digit quarterly fall in home values, on their way to a 34% overall value loss.
So, Crossroads GPS – whoever you are with your $32.6 million anonymous advertising war chest – are you really trying to persuade us of the glories of your fabled “Then?” Those wonderful days when gas was cheap? You didn’t mention — did you? — that only six months earlier, our country had the highest gas prices we’ve ever seen. Did we change our drilling policies so dramatically in that short time? Or did the worst recession in memory have something to do with it?

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure

We know that U.S. oil drilling has next-to-nothing to do with global energy prices.  The recession, of course, killed off global demand for oil and gas.  The recent global economic recovery-has restored that demand.   And political disruptions in Iran and the Arab world have constrained supply, driving today’s high prices.

Sadly, this sort of deception is what we can expect for the balance of the political season, and it’s likely to come from all sides – whether or not anything this brazen will be repeated by others. 
 
Here’s the Crossroads 30-second spot.  See for yourself:
But even a liar like me can pray for a more honest world. The Hebrew prophets foresaw a kingdom in which truthfulness and justice would prevail – one very different from their country, or ours.  Isaiah told his listeners what it will look like:
See, a king will reign in righteousness
   and rulers will rule with justice.
Each one will be like a shelter from the wind
   and a refuge from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
   and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land…
No longer will the fool be called noble
   nor the scoundrel be highly respected.
For fools speak folly,
   their hearts are bent on evil…
The hungry they leave empty
   and from the thirsty they withhold water.
Scoundrels use wicked methods,
   they make up evil schemes
to destroy the poor with lies,
   even when the plea of the needy is just.
And so, perhaps we could work and pray with a renewed vision of the coming of the kingdom of truth.  Beginning with ourselves, we could start with a goal to confess and correct one misimpression we’ve created.  Beyond that, let’s steel ourselves for the coming season of lies in pursuit of injustice.
The truth often isn’t all that hard to know, but you’re not likely to hear it from the anonymous Super-PAC spin-masters. One day, God willing, we’ll have a Congress and Supreme Court, or — if you believe the prophets — a king, that will rid our political process of the corruption that feeds on deceit.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Shut Off Your Lights for Earth Hour!

I’ve never gotten around to doing much on Earth Day. But this year, we’ve got Earth Hour 2012, and it’s this weekend: 8:30 PM local time on Saturday. 
What we’re doing is simple. For one hour, turn off the lights. That’s it. From 8:30 to 9:30.  Even if you have kids. ESPECIALLY if you have kids – or love kids.  A tangible statement of your awareness that our impact on God’s creation has become too heavy, too selfish, too abusive, and too negligent.
 
Oh, you can do more too. 
  • You can sign the World Wildlife Fund pledge to observe this hour.
  • You can forward this to your friends or like/share it on Facebook.
  • You can put luminaries by your front door to signify what you’re doing inside.
  • You can write your elected officials to tell them what you’re doing and to urge them to act justly. Here’s a great website that makes this really easy.
  • And for followers of Jesus Christ, consider taking the hour to pray. If this world belongs to its Creator, maybe it’s time we started talking to him about it.  You might be glad to print out the text below, and pray through it by candlelight. 
And if you have a second right now, watch this great video promoting the Earth Hour observance:
Thanks for reading, for praying and may God bless you.
J.Elwood
Our World Belongs to God
  • As followers of Jesus Christ, living in this world—
    which some seek to control, and others view with despair—
    we declare with joy and trust: Our world belongs to God!
  • Our world, fallen into sin, has lost its first goodness,
    but God has not abandoned the work of his hands:
    our Maker preserves this world, sending seasons, sun, and rain,
    upholding all creatures, renewing the earth,
    promising a Savior, guiding all things to their purpose.
  • Made in God’s image to live in loving communion with our Maker,
    we are appointed earth-keepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it,
    and love our neighbors. God uses our skills for the unfolding and well-being of his world
    so that creation and all who live in it may flourish.
  • Even now, as history unfolds in ways we know only in part,
    we are assured that God is with us in our world,
    holding all things in tender embrace and bending them to his purpose.
    The confidence that the Lord is faithful gives meaning to our days
    and hope to our years. The future is secure, for our world belongs to God.
  • When humans deface God’s image, the whole world suffers:
    we abuse the creation or idolize it; we are estranged from our Creator,
    from our neighbor, from our true selves, and from all that God has made.
  • All spheres of life—family and friendship, work and worship,
    school and state, play and art—bear the wounds of our rebellion.
    Sin is present everywhere—in pride of race, arrogance of nations,
    abuse of the weak and helpless, disregard for water, air, and soil,
    destruction of living creatures, slavery, murder, terror, and war,
    worship of false gods, the mistreatment of our bodies,
    and our frantic efforts to escape reality. We become victims of our own sin.
  • Remembering the promise to reconcile the world to himself,
    God joined our humanity in Jesus Christ—the eternal Word made flesh.
    He is the long-awaited Messiah, one with us and one with God,
    fully human and fully divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit
    and born of the virgin Mary.
  • The church is a gathering of forgiven sinners called to be holy.
    Saved by the patient grace of God, we deal patiently with others
    and together confess our need for grace and forgiveness.
    Restored in Christ’s presence, shaped by his life,
    this new community lives out the ongoing story of God’s reconciling love,
    announces the new creation, and works for a world of justice and peace.
  • Jesus Christ rules over all. To follow this Lord is to serve him wherever we are
    without fitting in, light in darkness, salt in a spoiling world.
  • We lament that our abuse of creation has brought lasting damage
    to the world we have been given: polluting streams and soil,
    poisoning the air, altering the climate, and damaging the earth.
    We commit ourselves to honor all God’s creatures
    and to protect them from abuse and extinction,
    for our world belongs to God.
  • Our hope for a new creation is not tied to what humans can do,
    for we believe that one day every challenge to God’s rule will be crushed.
    His kingdom will fully come, and the Lord will rule.
    Come, Lord Jesus, come.
  • On that day we will see our Savior face to face,
    sacrificed Lamb and triumphant King, just and gracious.
    He will set all things right, judge evil, and condemn the wicked.
    We face that day without fear, for the Judge is our Savior,
    whose shed blood declares us righteous.
    We live confidently, anticipating his coming, offering him our daily lives—
    our acts of kindness, our loyalty, and our love—knowing that he will weave
    even our sins and sorrows into his sovereign purpose.
    Come, Lord Jesus, come.
  • With the whole creation we join the song:
    “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth
    and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
    He has made us a kingdom of priests to serve our God,
    and we will reign on earth. God will be all in all, righteousness and peace will flourish,
    everything will be made new, and every eye will see at last that our world belongs to God.
    Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!
Amen.

© 2008, Christian Reformed Church in North America, Grand Rapids MI. www.crcna.org. Reprinted with permission.

How High is Your Gasoline IQ? Take the Test!

With gasoline prices rising and American electoral politics in high gear, there’s a lot of talk these days about who’s responsible for the cost of fuel and what to do about it.  In case you’re among the interested, we thought it would be good to offer a Gasoline IQ Test, so our readers could assess their expertise in this topic of near-universal interest.

Answers are provided below.  We’re on the honor system here at the Clothesline Report, so we’re counting on you not to peek before giving your answers.  So have a go, and show  us your stuff.
Gasoline IQ Test
  • True or false:  Gasoline prices today in America are higher than they’ve ever been.
  • True or false:  Today’s high gasoline prices are the result of government restrictions on drilling.
  • True or false:  The U.S. imports too much gasoline.
  • True or false:  Gas prices would be lower if the President approved the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
  • True or false:  Rising gas prices make us less competitive with foreign countries.
  • True or false:  If we produced enough oil to meet U.S. demand, gasoline prices would be lower.
  • True or false:  Oil imports make us hostage to Middle East petro-states.
  • True or false:  Compared with other countries, Americans use gasoline with about average efficiency.
  • True or false:  In a perfect world, gasoline would be as cheap as water.
  • True or false:  The Federal government could do a lot more to reduce the cost of gasoline.
End of exam.  Congratulations! You’re done. How’d you do?  Pretty easy questions, right?  I thought so.  So, now, you can peek at the answers below, as long as you promise not to change yours before turning them in.

True or false:  Gasoline prices today in America are higher than they’ve ever been.

False.  In the summer of 2008, when George W. Bush was wrapping up his second term, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. was $4.34 for two months straight.  Today, average prices have just broken $3.70.

True or false:  Today’s high gasoline prices are the result of government restrictions on drilling.
False.  Crude oil prices are the main determinant of gasoline prices. A key issue affecting crude oil prices in recent months has been uncertainties around supply stemming from tensions with Iran as new U.S. and EU sanctions come into place. Unrest in several small oil producers, including South Sudan and Yemen, has also led to supply disruptions. Also, there are persistent concerns about the adequacy of global supply in the face of sustained demand growth in emerging economies such as India and China. Recent refinery closures in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere also contribute to higher gasoline prices, particularly in parts of the East Coast.

We cannot find any industry experts who argue that today’s prices are linked in any way to U.S. drilling levels, which are actually very high.

True or false:  The U.S. imports too much gasoline.
False.  The U.S. is a net exporter of gasoline, not an importer.  Of course, we are the world’s largest importer of crude oil, but we refine and sell gasoline – the thing that’s got us so worried – to the world at world prices.

True or false:  Gas prices would be lower if the President approved the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
False.  Gasoline is cheapest in the Midwest today for one reason: There is no Keystone XL Pipeline.  Canadian crude oil comes by pipeline to the heartland of America, and is refined there for domestic use. If the KXL pipeline is built, the oil will bypass the Midwest, and go to Gulf Coast foreign-owned refineries for export to world markets.  There is ample research indicating that gasoline prices will rise, and Midwesterners will be hit the hardest.
True or false:  Rising gas prices make us less competitive with foreign countries.

False.  Gasoline in the U.S. is incredibly cheap already by world standards.  Of 141 countries tracked by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the U.S. ranks 101 in retail gasoline prices.  U.S. consumers pay only 77% of the world average price for gas.  And among the 100 countries whose residents pay more than we do are Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, all of Europe, Brazil, South Korea and Japan (whose people pay 2.3 times as much as we do).

We think our gas is expensive?

True or false:  If we produced enough oil to meet U.S. demand, gasoline prices would be lower.
False.  U.S. gasoline prices are determined by global supply and demand.  As a free market economy, we permit oil companies (most of which are multinational or foreign) to sell at home or abroad.  Whenever there is a threat to stable oil supplies – as we see in Iran, Yemen and Sudan today – world prices will rise.  And even in good times, meteoric demand growth in China and India will snap up existing supplies at increasingly high prices. 
True or false:  Oil imports make us hostage to Middle East petro-states.

Mostly false.  Granted, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States export lots of oil to the world.  But of America’s six largest oil suppliers, five have nothing to do with the Middle East: Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria and Russia.  Only Saudi Arabia – with only 13% of our imports – makes that list.

True or false:  Compared with other countries, Americans use gasoline with about average efficiency.
False.  Really false.  To begin with, no one anywhere in the world comes near the U.S. in gasoline consumption per capita.  The average American burns as much gasoline in a year as 2 Aussies, 4 Britons, 5 Italians, 7 Frenchmen, 8 Koreans, 18 Brazilians, 37 Chinese or 163 Indians. Here’s the data:

U.S. gasoline use per capita (in red): highest on the planet

And it’s not all because we drive so much further (although we do).  Our cars are so much less efficient.  Here’s a look at our past and projected national fuel efficiency, compared with Europe, Japan and China.  When it comes to efficiency, we’re dead last.  Here are the facts:

True or false:  In a perfect world, gasoline would be as cheap as water.
False.  Our world isn’t nearly perfect, and gasoline is already cheaper than most brands of water.  You might object: tap water is much less expensive.  But I would reply, I’ve been generous, pricing bottled water on liter-size purchases.  Most people I know buy their drinking water in 20-ounce bottles for $1.00 or more, raising the price to more than $6.00 per gallon. Here’s where gasoline ranks in price:

True or false:  The Federal government could do a lot more to reduce the cost of gasoline.
Mostly false.  There are limited short term options available to policy makers to address gasoline price increases. In theory, the government could pursue several shortterm options, each of which is possessed with problems.
Release the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. This has been done twice in our history: first by President  Bush 1 during the Kuwait “Desert Storm” war, when the Straits of Hormuz were effectively closed; and second, by President Bush 2 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Both were examples of what the reserve was designed for – an alternative source when supplies are temporarily constrained by international or natural disruptions.  If we released the reserve because of fears about war with Iran, what would we have if that war actually broke out? And what would the process of refilling it do to prices?
Declare a Gasoline Tax Holiday.  We pay a small tax – only 18 cents per gallon – to fund the National Highway Trust Fund and to help clean up leaking underground storage tanks.  For the sake of $0.18, we’d let our highways crumble and our groundwater become contaminated from thousands of leaking underground tanks?  I don’t think so.
Relax Fuel Specifications.  Every summer, the U.S. tightens fuel cleanliness standards to alleviate smog and related respiratory diseases.  We could try to cut costs by permitting oil companies to sell dirtier fuel.  But to do that, Congress would have to amend the Clean Air Act, resulting in dirtier urban air and increased infant respiratory diseases.  Even this Congress won’t find the required majority in both houses to sacrifice our kids for a few cents at the gas pump.
Restrict Gasoline Exports. Of course, it’s tempting to think that we could just force the oil companies to keep the gasoline here, isn’t it?  There are problems: GATT, NAFTA, and basic American economic principles, among others.  Stalin or Ahmadinejad could pull this off.  We can’t.
Limit Financial Speculation.  Much has been said recently about Wall Street traders driving up the cost of oil by placing bets on commodity trading markets.  While the derivatives they use have real value for refiners and oil producers, raw financial speculation in oil futures has shot up in recent years.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act just took effect, and it includes measures that limit speculation in oil markets.  However, market participants are not required to comply for several months until certain procedures are completed.  And while – of all the proposed “fixes” – this is probably the most promising, there is much uncertainty about the extent of the help it will provide.
So, you’ve taken the test and checked your answers.  How did you do?
More importantly, in light of these answers, what should we do to bring down gas prices?
Well, why do we think they should come down?  In a world of finite fossil fuels, who says that we should deal with energy costs by exhausting our resources faster and cheaper ? Get the price down, and drill, baby, drill? So that our children will have nothing left, but a degraded, sickly and resource-poor planet? Why is that so appealing?
I think we’ve got a much better way.  We didn’t invent it, but the logic is compelling:  Fossil fuels are only cheap because someone else bears the costs of their side effects.  Urban children bear the lifelong cost of  asthma and other diseases related to smog; Appalachian babies bear the lifelong costs of toxic levels of mercury and other heavy metals from coal production and burning; people everywhere bear the cost of bottled water because of ground and surface water contamination from gas drilling and oil leaks; and people in every country bear the costs of drought, flooding, disease and crop losses brought on by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Why should oil buyers and sellers expect to be subsidized by all these innocent victims?
So here’s the idea:  Make fossil fuels pay for their own side effects.  In gradual increments, impose a national fee on fossil fuels so that the initial cost more fully reflects the real cost to our country and our world.  But don’t pocket the money in the U.S. Treasury.  Instead, pay an equivalent dividend back to each American adult, so that all the money goes right back into the economy.  Sure, gasoline would be more expensive, but everyone would have an offsetting sum of cash to handle the increase.  And with gasoline now reflecting more of its true cost – like in most other countries in the world – American consumers could make thousands of daily decisions that would make us more competitive, healthy, and better stewards of the world God has entrusted into our care.
[To learn more about this idea, take a look here at a proposal by NASA’s chief climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen.]
The next time someone complains to you about the cost of gasoline, or their big plans to bring the price down to something like $2.50, you’ll have all kinds of interesting things to tell them, won’t you?  Maybe we’ll finally come to accept that we’re part of world markets that we don’t control, and a world ecosystem that’s in dire peril due to our ongoing fixation on cheap fossil fuels recklessly wasted.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Joseph Kony and Structural Injustice

A young man told me recently, “I feel that you wouldn’t be so skeptical about the Kony 2012 movement if it weren’t so successful.”
Without question, this is true.  Well said.  As one who has labored for years – with very limited success – to raise awareness of the deadly impacts of global environmental abuse upon the poor and vulnerable of the world, I was amazed at the overnight wildfire that swept away more than 83 million viewers of the Kony video.  I took something of a professional interest in the movement.  How did they do it? What do they got that I ain’t got?
The “Invisible Children” message about Kony is clear and compelling: One evil man and his henchmen have abducted hundreds of boys and girls and turned them into killers and sex slaves; and we can help rescue these children by demanding that American forces assist with his capture.
83 million viewers and counting
That sounds compelling right? For the sake of several hundred people in a distant land, I might expect support from hundreds or even thousands of Americans.  But 83 million viewers? Clearly, I’ve been missing something.
Well, I’m not sure I’ve got it all figured out, but I’m going to suggest an answer. It comes from one of the wisest and most just men I know: Ron Sider, Founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and author of many books on social justice.  I think of Ron as the conscience of the American evangelical church.
At a lunch meeting several months ago, Ron said something like this to me: “American Christians are really generous when it comes to relieving tangible suffering – famine, drought, violence and the like.  But we’re not so good when it comes to structural injustice – those background conditions like discrimination, corruption and illiteracy that inevitably lead to tangible suffering.”
Of course, we all know that Sider is right.  Our hearts are broken at the sight of a starving Somali child or a burning village in Darfur.  We are repulsed by stories of militias using rape as a weapon of terror in Uganda or DRC Congo.  With every fiber, we want to bring the perpetrators of these horrors to justice.  And many of us are quick to write checks to charities that are bringing tangible relief to victims.
But the background conditions that make these horrors possible – or inevitable – these don’t have nearly the power to stir our passions.  Who breaks into tears at the mention of illiteracy?  No one’s pulse quickens at the vestiges of colonial rule that fosters tribal enmity and corruption.  And few of us make the connection between environmental degradation or human-caused climate change, and the related famine, drought and disease suffered by people in distant lands.
Structural injustice just doesn’t have the power to move our hearts, does it?
The problem is this:  In reality, the larger part of injustice is – in fact – structural.
Consider Darfur.
In 2007, the UN called the genocidal Darfur war the first major conflict brought on by human-caused climate change. And they predicted further conflict in South Sudan and in the mountainous Nuba region.
“With rainfall down by up to 30% over 40 years,” reported the UN, “and the Sahara advancing by well over a mile every year, tensions between farmers and herders over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes threaten to reignite the half-century war between north and south Sudan, held at bay by a precarious 2005 peace accord.
“The southern Nuba tribe, for example, has warned they could ‘restart the war’ because Arab nomads – pushed southwards into their territory by drought – are cutting down trees to feed their camels.”
Of course, the UN predictions in 2007 proved tragically accurate, with an unending stream of massacre reports coming out of Darfur, and the ongoing genocide in the Nuba region.  In the West, we tend to blame Sudan’s iron-fisted dictator, Omar al-Bashir, wanted in The Hague for genocidal crimes. 
 
But the UN report tells us that we share the blame: The Darfur genocide is at least partly the result of climate change which has parched the region and driven a struggle for survival between nomadic and farming tribes.
Or consider Uganda itself, where Kony committed most of his horrors.
We know that the backdrop for Kony is the pervasive poverty and food insecurity that drive so much tribal strife in Uganda.  We also know that coffee production has been a significant source of subsistence for Ugandans for many decades.  But the warming climate has already destroyed most of Uganda’s coffee industry.  And Oxfam warns: “If average global temperatures rise by two degrees or more, then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee.  This may happen in 40 years, or perhaps as little as 30.”
  
Not the stuff of viral videos: The end of coffee in Uganda
Horrible as they are, Kony’s crimes haven’t happened in a vacuum. And as the largest per capita climate-changers in the world, you and I – and all Americans – share in the structural evil that results in Kony and the Darfur genocide.
Now, do our crimes in Uganda and Darfur make you mad?  Is your heart racing at the thought of this injustice?  Are you screaming for carbon emissions to be reduced? Probably not, right? It’s not like someone’s being abducted. Or raped. Or mutilated with sharp steel pangas.
Or is it?
Maybe I should make a catchy video demanding justice.  But something tells me that it would never go viral. The injustice is structural, and you and I are the ones to be arrested.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Reconciling With a Murderer: Joseph Kony


Quick: Who’s the guy 83 million young people around the globe want arrested ASAP?
Of course, you know the answer, because – like everyone else – you’ve watched the “viral video.” Joseph Kony, the Ugandan maniac who controls the horribly-misnamed Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.   
You know from this site something about the LRA: how for two decades they have kidnapped, raped, tortured and massacred thousands of innocent noncombatants in Uganda, South Sudan and DRC Congo; how Rush Limbaugh pathetically came to their aid, calling them “Christians … fighting Muslims in Sudan;” and how our many friends in Uganda and Sudan have kept an uneasy eye on the news over the years, at the very thought that his murderous forces might be heading their way.
So you might be surprised at the discomfort I felt last week as I sat among hundreds of students in a college lecture hall watching the video and listening to young enthusiasts speak.  They called for mass action to demand that the U.S. keep American soldiers on his trail in the Congo.
First off, let’s affirm the obvious: No one anywhere can prefer Joseph Kony on the loose over Joseph Kony on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. That’s not even controversial.
So what was my problem? It took me a while to put my finger on it.  Of course, much has been said by thoughtful commentators already: The simplistic “get-the-bad-guy” mantra that largely ignores the context of tribal violence, corruption, hunger and illiteracy in post-colonial East Africa, much of which is the product of Western interference in the first place; the tricky little fact that Kony has already been marginalized and on the run for many years now, but just might be reinvigorated by a high-profile military campaign against him; the “white-man’s-burden” assumption that Americans – and even their little children – know what’s best for Africans; and the stark reality that relieving Majority World suffering is the work of many lifetimes, and ill-suited to catchy films and social media campaigns.
But yesterday, something came to my attention that brought it all into focus. It turns out that Kony film creator and central character Jason Russell was arrested in San Diego.  The circumstances appear tragic, and we hope the best for Russell and his organization, Invisible Children. Without going into detail, the police apparently struggled to determine whether Mr. Russell needed to be imprisoned for lewd conduct, or hospitalized for mental problems.
After the event, Russell’s wife Danica did her best to explain the reasons for his conduct: Russell’s misconduct wasn’t due to drugs or criminal intent. Rather, he “did some irrational things brought on by extreme exhaustion and dehydration,” she explained. “We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week, millions of people around the world saw it,” she said.  “While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason and, because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”
Okay. So there’s more to the story than I knew. It’s complicated. Maybe if we took the time to understand, we’d be cautious about leaping to conclusions. Maybe we shouldn’t be making snap judgments about others.  Maybe we should remember that extreme circumstances sometimes drive “irrational things.” 
I’m talking about Jason Russell, of course.
Now let’s talk about Joseph Kony. Is there any more to the story?  Maybe it’s complicated?  Maybe we should know something about the backdrop for his crimes?  Is it possible that acting in ignorance might do more harm than good?
I knew a little, but I asked for more from Dr. Jennifer Myhre, a pediatric missionary who has spent decades in East Africa caring for the very poorest. Jennifer watched the Kony2012 video, and offered a mixture of praise and concern.
“Eight million children die in the world every year,” she said. “Four million of those deaths occur in Africa, invisible to most of the rest of the world…. So when talented, passionate young people with resources pour their lives into making the invisible visible, that is a step towards change.” So far, so good. A clear note of praise for Russell.
But then comes the sober wisdom of one who has saved thousands of poor children, and lost more than almost any of us could bear: “One ‘bad guy’ is not the root cause of the problem,” said Dr. Myhre. “Kony only continues to survive, and perhaps thrive, because the issues he feeds on are broader and deeper.
 
Dr. Myhre & HIV-infected mothers
“Africans kill each other because they believe they have to for the survival of their own children…. I suspect many of us would be willing to fight against a group (another tribe, etc.) if we believed it was a choice between them or our kids.
 
“Adults join rebel movements when they are desperate.  You don’t find the well-off taking those risks.  It’s easier to believe the ‘other’ tribe is a danger to your survival when your survival hangs by a thread.  Poverty and fear are the context for [Kony and] the LRA, and those are complex problems that require life-long investment.  Perhaps life-ending investment.  Jesus defeated evil by laying down his life.  Christians today cannot defeat evil by pushing a share button or attending a fundraiser.”
  
Many Americans are becoming aware that Kony and the LRA are comparatively small problems relative to the issues African children face.  Dr. Myhre lists a few: “Poor care for pregnant women, unsafe deliveries.  Preventable infections.  Malaria.  HIV-AIDS.  Malnutrition.  Abysmal schooling.  These are killing 3,990,000 of the 4 million.”
And how does the gospel affect the way we look at a palpable evil like Kony?  Principally like this: We are always tempted to see evil as something outside of ourselves; something to be suppressed, arrested or even killed.  Something in them. Something out there. But Dr. Myhre reminds us: “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.  Kony’s heart and mine.
  
“Do I believe this man is redeemable?” asks Myhre.  “Am I?  Well, is there any evil too great for God to forgive?  Kony is a human being, not a virus.  As are his victims.  We can learn from our brothers and sisters in Rwanda and South Africa, and from those who are attempting peace and reconciliation in Northern Uganda, and South Sudan.  Africans lead the world in forgiveness.”
 “Africans lead the world in forgiveness.”
What do I think about that? Could I ever seek reconciliation with a man like Kony? It seems impossible. And yet, somehow Africans have done it.  They’ve done it after the genocide in Rwanda. They’ve done it after apartheid in South Africa. I wouldn’t bet against them doing it here. 
  
And for followers of Jesus, the call to reconciliation has no bounds.  “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Reconcile with all things?  Even Kony?
God is reconciling all things to himself. Africans seem to get this better than we do in the West.
So what do I have to say to my young friends who’ve joined the millions in the “Kony2012” movement?  Here’s my first shot: I’m so glad you care about suffering and injustice in Africa. You’ve seen and rejected the narrow self-interest practiced by my generation and shouted in virtually every political forum these days.  This is good. I’m proud of you.
But I hope you’ll examine carefully the core message you’re delivering, which rests firmly on the idea that finding and arresting – or killing – one man is the solution to virtually anything in the Developing World.
 
And remember, if we “get him” in 2012, four million African children will again die in 2013, unless you and I broaden and deepen our idea of justice for the poor of the world. And without a change in the background conditions, new “Konys” are sure to emerge faster than you can ever hope to arrest them.
Lastly, if you’d like to follow Dr. Myhre’s daily pursuit of  justice for the poor, take a look here, and follow her blog. You might never be the same.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Jesus of Nazareth, quoted in Luke 4.)

The Real St. Patrick

I don’t always wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.  And even though I’m so close to New York, I’ve never been to the parade.  But as long as my kids can remember, I’ve read or sent them “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” the great gospel meditation and prayer for protection.
St. Patrick on the Clothesline Report?  Well, the connections are stronger than you might think.  Because while we labor under worldviews that tend to segment everything into physical and spiritual realms, Patrick presents a radically unified view: “I arise today,” he declares, “through confession of the oneness of the Creator of Creation.” Patrick lays the foundation for hope in the day ahead: God the creator.
But seamlessly, the saint moves on to his reliance on the creation itself: “I arise today through… swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock.”
Pantheism, perhaps?  Not at all.  Because everywhere he looks, Patrick sees his Redeemer. “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left… .”
It’s the same unified vision revealed by an earlier saint – Paul of Tarsus.  Speaking to scholars in Athens, Paul declared: “The God who made the world and everything in it … is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.”
So enjoy your corned beef, soda bread and Guinness today.  But also, take moment to enjoy the real St. Patrick, and his daily prayer.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.


Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Our World Belongs to God

We have longed for the day when an evangelical Protestant denomination would issue a robust case for creation care as a key element of faith and mission.  Perhaps that would silence to those who proclaim that evangelical faith equals environmental abuse and neglect.
Well, as it happens, the Christian Reformed Church, with more than 1,000 congregations in North America, has taken a strong stand on creation care.  Their 2008 declaration, “Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony” sets forth a clear call to kingdom discipleship, addressing justice, mercy and gospel proclamation in virtually every arena of life.  And while affirming God’s ownership and dominion over the creation, the CRC declaration accepts human responsibility as “earthkeepers and caretakers” bearing God’s image.  Further, they confess our abuse of God’s creation, and lament the “lasting damage to the world we have been given: polluting streams and soil, poisoning the air, altering the climate, and damaging the earth.”
Despite this lament, the CRC finds room for optimism, for they stand on the certainty that God’s rule will ultimately prevail, and that he will redeem all things that have been marred by human sin.
Evangelical and Reformed Christians would do well to take notice, since the CRC has taken the lead in articulating a basis for hope – and a blueprint for just living – in a world where environmental abuse and degradation threaten countless species and millions of humans.
 
What follows is an abbreviated version of the CRC declaration.
Our World Belongs to God
1. As followers of Jesus Christ, living in this world—
which some seek to control, and others view with despair—
we declare with joy and trust: Our world belongs to God![i]
4. … Our world, fallen into sin, has lost its first goodness,
but God has not abandoned the work of his hands:
our Maker preserves this world, sending seasons, sun, and rain,
upholding all creatures, renewing the earth,
promising a Savior, guiding all things to their purpose.[ii]
10. … Made in God’s image to live in loving communion with our Maker,
we are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it,
and love our neighbors. God uses our skills for the unfolding and well-being of his world so that creation and all who live in it may flourish.[iii]
12. … Even now, as history unfolds in ways we know only in part,
we are assured that God is with us in our world,
holding all things in tender embrace and bending them to his purpose.
The confidence that the Lord is faithful gives meaning to our days
and hope to our years. The future is secure, for our world belongs to God.[iv]
15. … When humans deface God’s image, the whole world suffers:
we abuse the creation or idolize it; we are estranged from our Creator,
from our neighbor, from our true selves, and from all that God has made.[v]
23. … Remembering the promise to reconcile the world to himself,
God joined our humanity in Jesus Christ—the eternal Word made flesh.
He is the long-awaited Messiah, one with us and one with God,
fully human and fully divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.[vi]
39. … The church is a gathering of forgiven sinners called to be holy.
Saved by the patient grace of God, we deal patiently with others
and together confess our need for grace and forgiveness.
Restored in Christ’s presence, shaped by his life,
this new community lives out the ongoing story of God’s reconciling love,
announces the new creation, and works for a world of justice and peace.[vii]
43. … Jesus Christ rules over all. To follow this Lord is to serve him wherever we are
without fitting in, light in darkness, salt in a spoiling world.[viii]
51. … We lament that our abuse of creation has brought lasting damage
to the world we have been given: polluting streams and soil,
poisoning the air, altering the climate, and damaging the earth.
We commit ourselves to honor all God’s creatures
and to protect them from abuse and extinction,
for our world belongs to God.[ix]
55. … Our hope for a new creation is not tied to what humans can do,
for we believe that one day every challenge to God’s rule will be crushed.
His kingdom will fully come, and the Lord will rule.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.[x]
57. … On that day we will see our Savior face to face,
sacrificed Lamb and triumphant King, just and gracious.
He will set all things right, judge evil, and condemn the wicked.
We face that day without fear, for the Judge is our Savior,
whose shed blood declares us righteous.
We live confidently, anticipating his coming, offering him our daily lives—
our acts of kindness, our loyalty, and our love—knowing that he will weave
even our sins and sorrows into his sovereign purpose.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.[xi]
58. With the whole creation we join the song:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
He has made us a kingdom of priests to serve our God,
and we will reign on earth. God will be all in all, righteousness and peace will flourish,
everything will be made new, and every eye will see at last that our world belongs to God.
Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus![xii]
© 2008, Christian Reformed Church in North America, Grand Rapids MI. www.crcna.org. Reprinted with permission.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood
 
Endnotes:

[i] For God’s ownership of all things, see Psalm 24:1 (quoted in 1 Cor. 10:26), Job 41:11, and Deuteronomy 10:14. That this is also “our world”—given to the human race to keep and care for—is one of the themes of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2.
[ii] See Genesis 3; 9:8-16; Psalm 104, especially verse 30; Matthew 5:45; and Acts 14:17. For the promises of a Savior, see Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 7:14; 11:1-5; 42:1-7, 53; and Micah 5:2.
[iii] For the image of God, see Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10; and James 3:9.
[iv] For the providential care of God, see Isaiah 45:6-7, Matthew 6:25-34, and Luke 12:4-7.
[v] On the defacing of God’s image, see Romans 1:21-23; for the restoration of the image in Christ, see Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:22-24, and Colossians 3:10.
[vi] For Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, see Luke 1:31-35, John 1:1-14, and Hebrews 1:2-3.
[vii] On the church as a forgiven community called to be holy, see Ephesians 1:3-7; on dealing with one another patiently, Galatians 6:1-5 and Colossians 3:12-14; on the need for confession and restoration, 1 John 1:8-2:6; and on living out God’s reconciling love as part of a new creation, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 and 1 John 3:16-17.
[viii] On the rule of Christ over the whole world, see Philippians 2:9-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and Revelation 11:15; on being light, salt, and not fitting in, see Matthew 5:13-16 and Romans 12:1-2.
[ix] Genesis 1:28-29; 7:1-5; Psalm 8; and Romans 8:18-25 teach that we are entrusted with caring for the earth.
[x] On this hope, see 1 Peter 1:3-12, 2 Peter 3:3-13, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, and Revelation 11:15.
[xi] Revelation 5 describes the Lion and the Lamb. For the just judgments of the Lord, see Revelation 19:1-10. A picture of the multitude of those declared righteous in Christ is found in Revelation 7:9-17. The concept of God weaving all things together is found, among other places, in Romans 8:28-39.
[xii] For the imagery of this paragraph, see Exodus 19:5-6, Isaiah 40, 1 Peter 2:9-10, and Revelation 4-5.