Influences

This is a list of influences. I call them influences and not heroes because they all have issues. I don’t want to be any of these people. I do not completely agree with everything each of these people believe. But that’s okay. Because we don’t have to agree with everything and everyone in order to find the value in them. But for me each of these people, though some are very different from one another, speak a unique and prophetic truth that has influenced me and created a desire to spread these truths to others. I believe our world today desperately needs to hear the voices of these people.

Here is my list of the ten people (in no particular order) that have impacted me the most in my life, and a brief description as to why:

Brian Zahnd – Pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Has written several books and is a prophetic witness against empire, militarism, and a violent portrait of God. He offers a traditional take on Christianity while uniquely applying it to the world today. Listen to his sermons, check out his blogs, or read his books. They are transformative and offer a unique take on what it means to be a Christian in America.

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Seen in the light of the Easter dawn, the cross is revealed to be the lost Tree of Life. In the middle of a world dominated by death, the Tree of Life is rediscovered in the form of a Roman cross. The cross is the act of radical forgiveness that gives sin, violence, and retribution a place to die in the body of Jesus. The world that was born when Adam and Eve in their shame began to blame, the world where violent Cain killed innocent Abel, the world of pride and power that tramples the meek and weak—at the cross that world sinned its sins into Jesus Christ. And what happens? Jesus forgives. Why? Because God is like that. In the defining moment of the cross Jesus reveals what God is really like. God is love—co-suffering, all-forgiving, sin-absorbing, never-ending love. God is not like Caiaphas sacrificing a scapegoat. God is not like Pilate enacting justice by violence. God is like Jesus, absorbing and forgiving sin.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) – Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930’s. Founder of the Confessing Church, which was a powerful resistance against the Nazi regime. Was caught and executed by hanging in 1945, just before the collapse of Nazi Germany. His book Discipleship is a radical call to embody the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount and to live not with the Cheap Grace of lukewarm Christianity but with the Costly Grace of true transformative Christianity.

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In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts…


Dorothy Day (1897 – 1980) – Dorothy Day experienced a troubled young adulthood which led to several failed relationships. She also became involved in the socialist, anarchist, and feminist movements. After an abortion and two failed suicide attempts, Dorothy Day converted to Catholicism. With it she found a new perspective on what it means to be a Christian in the secular world. While she discovered a new lifestyle she didn’t lose her vigor. She started the Catholic Worker movement, and for the rest of her life, she lived in abject poverty, serving not only the poor, but what she called “the undeserving poor.” Day was arrested and beaten numerous times for protesting wars, nuclear weapons, poverty, and hunger, and was a fierce advocate of nonviolence. She believed the world would be saved by beauty. And if anyone in all of American history truly embodied the beautiful, it was Dorothy Day.

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It is easier to have faith that God will support each House of Hospitality and Farming Commune and supply our needs in the way of food and money to pay bills, than it is to keep a strong, hearty, living faith in each individual around us – to see Christ in him.


Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) – Russia in the mid-19th century was undergoing an incredibly rapid change from basically a medieval, Orthodox Christian society to a people of socialism and atheism. Fyodor Dostoevsky was no exception to this reality. That is, until his band of revolutionary intellectuals were caught, drug from their beds in the middle of the night and sentenced to execution by firing squad. Just seconds before the shots fired, Dostoevsky’s death sentence was commuted to four years of harsh labor in Siberia. Given nothing but the Gospel, Dostoevsky began to fall in love with the man of Christ. He would go on to write five of some of the greatest novels ever. He became a champion of Russian conservatives and perhaps the first and greatest existential philosopher in history. His literary works are truly transformative.

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Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If you love each thing you will perceive the mystery of God in all; and once you perceive this, you will then grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until you come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.


Jesus (c. 4 B.C. – c. 30/33 A.D.) – I pondered putting Jesus on here because, well, he is God. But I think we have a tendency to view Jesus chiefly as a divine figure. We confess the creeds and never would actually say that is all he was, but I don’t think we often realize what it means that Jesus was fully human. He was limited in knowledge. He didn’t understand the complex inner workings of the way the world functioned. Jesus would get sick, tired, hungry, and thirsty. Even in his last moments suffering on the cross he didn’t really understand why everything was happening the way it was. And he longed for it to end. He was a poor, peasant carpenter and Jewish rabbi that had a unique and keen understanding of scripture, particularly the prophets, and he used that to call everyone to denounce the wicked ways of the flesh and shift their vision towards the Kingdom of God. Jesus brought a gospel of hope to the suffering and a radical call of devotion to the poor and needy for those who are thriving. Jesus’ defining moment suffering on the cross represents the true beauty of Christianity: love expressed in forgiveness. He reveals to us that there will be a constant battle between humble peacemaking and love in opposition to the proud, violent empire. But on the third day, Christ defeats the death that was scorn upon him by the principalities and powers. The story reveals to us that only by embodying the true message of Christ can we defeat death.

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What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.


J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973) – I became fascinated with J.R.R. Tolkien first from his fantastic book Lord of the Rings and later became interested in how his beliefs and life experiences were reflected in his books. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and is the man that C.S. Lewis credited for his conversion to Christianity. Tolkien fought in World War I, and his experiences there gave him a strong hatred for war. Tolkien was a simple man who always rode a bike, refusing to drive a car, and had a strong distaste for industrialism, futurism, and technological advancement. He held to the idea that technological advancements are paradoxical in that they seem like they will solve all our problems, but they always end up becoming more destructive. He was very fond of nature and saw happiness in the simple things of this world. In The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard explains to the hobbits that no one cares for the woods anymore, as they have minds that are nothing but metal and wheels. Is that us?

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Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be so quick to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.


Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – Early on in his life Gandhi was a lawyer, but eventually he decided to give himself up in service of the Indian people, who had been under British rule since the 1700’s. He was tremendously influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” and believed that freedom would never be achieved through violence. When the Indian people resorted to violence in protests, Gandhi would begin to fast, refusing to stop until the violence was ended. He nearly died of starvation a couple times, but it always worked. While he was Hindu, he saw the beauties of other religions and envisioned an India of religious plurality. He was assassinated by a right-wing advocate of Hindu Nationalism in 1948.

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Jesus is ideal and wonderful – but you Christians, you are not like him.


Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) – We all know Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in the Civil Rights Campaign. And we all know his dream. But King was so much more than a Civil Rights leader and powerful speaker. Influenced heavily by Leo Tolstoy and even more so Mahatma Gandhi, King preached a message of change through nonviolence to the suffering African Americans. He opposed what he understood as the three evils of society: racism, poverty, and war. He was assassinated in Memphis after supporting workers on strike for better wages and better treatment for black employees of the sanitary public works. King frequently fought against the “pointless war” in Vietnam and desired a world where all the effort man put into military and technology would go towards social programs to help people who are struggling.

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The first question the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop for this man, what will happen to him?’


Richard Rohr – Richard Rohr is a Franciscan Friar who has written several books and is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He focuses heavily on the meaning of prayer as formation and the transformation of humans from the “false self” to the “true self,” or, from “who you think you are” to “who you are in God.” He also has done significant work on male spirituality.

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Truth is not always about pragmatic problem solving and making things “work,” but about reconciling contradictions. Just because something might have some dire effects does not mean it is not true or even good. Just because something pleases people does not make it true either.


St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) – Francis of Assisi was born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. Early in his life he was a rowdy troublemaker. After joining the military and succumbing to a terrible illness, Francis had somewhat of a conversion experience. He completely lost touch with all worldly desires and gave all he had away. From then on he lived with and served the poor. He lived in poverty, begged alongside the poor, protested against the crusades, and eventually collected a large amount of followers. He composed a simple rule for his followers known as the “Primitive Rule,” which meant to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps. By the end of his life he had a great following. He died when he was 45 from an illness.

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Grant me the blessing of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging.


Here are some that just missed the cut but are quickly creeping up:

David Bentley Hart – Orthodox Christian theologian who is considered one of the great theologians in America. Author of The Beauty of the Infinite, Atheist Delusions, The Experience of God, as well as many others.

All great religions achieve historical success by gradually moderating their most extreme demands. So it is not possible to extract a simple moral from the early church’s radicalism. But for those of us for whom the New Testament is not merely a record of the past but a challenge to the present, it is occasionally worth asking ourselves whether the distance separating the Christianity of the apostolic age from the far more comfortable Christianities of later centuries — and especially those of the developed world today — is more than one merely of time and circumstance.


John Muir (1838 – 1914) – Environmental philosopher and Father of the National Parks, who was known as “John of the Mountains.” Muir became enchanted with the Yosemite Valley after living in it for some time and fought successfully for it to be preserved. He loved trees. Perhaps too much. At times he would climb to the very top of a tree during a violent storm, hanging on for dear life, just to see what the trees felt like during such an storm.

The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning, it seemed to be favored above all other wild parks and gardens of the globe.


Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) – Russian novelist. Author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kingdom of God is Within You, and many more. Christian pacifist who lived a radical life. Gave away almost all his possessions and deeply believed that materialism corrupts people. Foundational influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as others.

If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.


Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) – Neil Postman was a professor, author, and cultural critic, best known for his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). This book and all of his work in general is a profound critique of the way Americans worship entertainment above all else, and this desire has crept into all aspects of our life, whether it be religion, politics, education, or anything else. Postman believed the desire to be entertained above all else will only lead to a sad state of a shallow, weak, ignorant, and unintelligent people.

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.


Terrence Malick – Filmmaker best known for Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The Tree of Life (2011). Malick has perhaps the most recognizable filmmaking style in all of Hollywood and refuses to conform to regular forms of storytelling. His films are artistic, philosophical, beautifully shot, and often open-ended, which can frustrate people. To me, they are unique and deep and offer so much more depth than the action-packed films that regularly blowup the box offices today. His films aren’t the most popular and don’t make the most money, but Malick doesn’t care. And I think that is pretty cool. I wish more people had the desire to watch a movie like The Tree of Life and be transformed by its depth rather than watch a bunch of dudes blow stuff up in the ever-popular and seemingly never-ending super hero films and action packed thrillers of today. Neil Postman and J.R.R. Tolkien would probably agree with me. And my guess is so would the next guy on the list.

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.


Wendell Berry – A farmer, writer, poet, and activist who advocates for environmentalism, the small farmer, traditional values, appropriate technology, and community, Wendell Berry has devoted his life in an effort to restore the ideals of the small farmer and traditional Christianity. His book (one among many) Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ Teachings about Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness is a call to Christian pacifism with regards to violence against others and violence against nature. Rod Deher, a writer with The American Conservative, writes about Berry: “his unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”

But even in the much-publicized rebellion of the young against the materialism of the affluent society, the consumer mentality is too often still intact: the standards of behavior are still those of kind and quantity, the security sought is still the security of numbers, and the chief motive is still the consumer’s anxiety that he is missing out on what is “in.” In this state of total consumerism – which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.


This concludes my list of influences. Of course the most important influences in my life have come from real relationships that I have had (my wife, family, friends), but in all likelihood, you have no idea who those people are and do not have access to their thoughts. So for that reason, I kept them off this list.

I hope you check out some of the writings, films, speeches/sermons, etc. of the people on this list. This is by no means a comprehensive list. I am young, and I am sure that I will have many more influences in my life. But as for now, these people have been very important to me in my growth as a man, and I really feel strongly that they have important messages for our society.

Please feel free to comment with people that have influenced you!

The 9.9 Percent

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to pretty much be like everybody else. We often are given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.

-Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the 12 Steps

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We all have heard Bernie Sanders rant about the top 0.1% and how they own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%, or that they are fully capable of buying politicians and policy in America. But most of us likely haven’t heard of the 9.9 percent. That is, unless you have read The Atlantic’s famous new article, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy”. It is an eye-opening article and I encourage you to check it out if you have some time on your hands (it will take you at least an hour to read – it’s loooong).

Because the article is so long and covers so much I’m going to try to address different aspects of the article and comment on them, because I think they are certainly worth addressing. So this blog will be broken down into several different categories, following quotes and diagrams from the original article.

(Keep in mind, because one cannot make a valid case on individual statistics, a broad topic such as this must be addressed based on the larger statistical reality. I know we all have seen or have our own personal examples that might refute broad evidence, but those claims are only valid for you, not for everyone else in the world.)

1. Who is the 9.9 percent?

So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”

As of 2016, it took $1.2 million in net worth to make it into the 9.9 percent; $2.4 million to reach the group’s median; and $10 million to get into the top 0.9 percent…

We are also mostly, but not entirely, white. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, African Americans represent 1.9 percent of the top 10th of households in wealth; Hispanics, 2.4 percent; and all other minorities, including Asian and multiracial individuals, 8.8 percent—even though those groups together account for 35 percent of the total population.

So these people are the 9.9 percent. In the town I grew up in, many were a part of this group. In other words, I know this group quite well. Family structures of these groups are strong and more often than not remain well-intact. Individuals of this group rarely violate the law beyond basic speeding tickets and parking violations, and if they do, they are much less likely to be caught engaging in white-collar crime than their other criminal counterparts.

This group has a mentality of hard work, respect, and friendliness and is often easy to get along with. Statistically speaking their health is far better than those of lower classes. They are much better equipped to handle money, they know how to spend and how to save, and they are usually more familiar with the tricks of the trade.

This group is also overwhelmingly white. The assumption that white privilege is a hoax brought upon our youth by academia is simply ignorant of the facts and of history. (Yes, Jordan Peterson, I know white privilege is not universal, but in America it exists, so we need to address it.) But I will address more of this later.

And of course, as the quote above from the original article mentions, they have a lot of money. What is quite interesting about this however is that most of them consider themselves as part of the middle class – which they are very much above and beyond.

You are a part of this class if you have a net worth of anywhere from $1.2 million to $10 million. But money is not the only indication of wealth. So what exactly does wealth consist of?

2. Wealth

Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.

We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs…

We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care… We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients…

These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. Our class walks around in the jeans and T‑shirts inherited from our supposedly humble beginnings. We prefer to signal our status by talking about our organically nourished bodies, the awe-inspiring feats of our offspring, and the ecological correctness of our neighborhoods.

If there is a continuous theme that runs throughout this idea of the 9.9 percent, it is that they (or maybe I should say “we”) are smart. We know how to handle situations and most of all we know how to present ourselves as good people. And, as I can vouch, many are good people. But we often ignore the fact that we have benefits that extend far beyond the arrogant belief that everything we have we have because we worked hard, made great choices, and surrounded ourselves with great people. Much of it actually has to do with a decision that none of us can arrange. But more on that later.

The reality is, when you are a kid who grows up in a 9.9 percent home in a 9.9 percent town, you take with you a variety of advantages compared to the kid that grows up on the streets of Chicago in a split family with parents and siblings spending their time in and out of jail.

Often the advantages can come in a variety of ways: It means better health and almost certainly means better quality of health care. It likely means a better education and the opportunity for more education. Steady family structures, role models, and religious environments that exemplify what it means to be responsible, hardworking and of high character will also have a significantly positive impact on you. And friends. But not just any friends. Good friends. Good friends that will hook you up with other good friends. Good friends that will hook your kids up with other good friends.

The kid on the streets of Chicago does not have monetary wealth. But maybe more importantly, he or she does not have any other source of wealth. Sources that are crucial. And thus, while the 9.9 continue the cycle of good health, good education, good friends, and good values, the bottom continues their own cycle. A cycle which has a devastating affect that can only be truly understood by those who are a part of it.

3. Mobility

None of this matters, you will often hear, because in the United States everyone has an opportunity to make the leap: Mobility justifies inequality. As a matter of principle, this isn’t true. In the United States, it also turns out not to be true as a factual matter. Contrary to popular myth, economic mobility in the land of opportunity is not high, and it’s going down…

Imagine yourself on the socioeconomic ladder with one end of a rubber band around your ankle and the other around your parents’ rung. The strength of the rubber determines how hard it is for you to escape the rung on which you were born. If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. Economists represent this concept with a number they call “intergenerational earnings elasticity,” or IGE, which measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income. An IGE of zero means that there’s no relationship at all between parents’ income and that of their offspring. An IGE of one says that the destiny of a child is to end up right where she came into the world.

The difference is in what happens at the extremes. In the United States, it’s the children of the bottom decile and, above all, the top decile—the 9.9 percent—who settle down nearest to their starting point. Here in the land of opportunity, the taller the tree, the closer the apple falls.

In my hometown, there is an overwhelming principle of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” with the belief that anyone who works hard will eventually pull themselves through the ranks and come out on the other side prevailing.

The town I grew up in is also overwhelmingly conservative. Conservatives can be mistaken for not caring about the poor. In a world history class I taught, we discussed the rise of capitalism and socialism in Europe in the 19th Century. This was a time in which there was little to no regulation on business, and merchants were making tons of money while they were able to replace their workers with machines, use child labor, and have their workers in terrible conditions working for up to 16 hours a day, six days a week.

As we talked about this, my students didn’t understand why capitalists didn’t care about the workers and the poor people. I had to explain to them that for the most part capitalists do care about poverty and those of the lower class, but they have a different understanding of economics. To a capitalist, they believe that what is good for the rich will in turn be good for the poor. So, a world where there is little regulation will actually have a positive effect on everyone else.

There are examples of this being true. But more often than not, what is good for the rich is usually just good for the rich. This is evidenced by the statistics pointed out in the article. As the article states, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, especially for really tall trees.

But for those of us with a mindset of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” this can be a troubling thought. We like to think of America as being the land in which those who have nothing can, with hard work and integrity, rocket themselves up into a success story. The “American Dream” personified.

But the statistics tell us that most likely what you are born into, is what you will become. Sure we all have our stories that are the outliers, but that is why they are outliers. When you are born poor, it is really, really hard to move past that. And even more so, if you are born rich, you are probably going to be rich.

That is the way America goes.

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Here is a diagram from the article in which several different countries are highlighted for economic mobility and economic inequality. America has a significant draw on the most economically unequal state, while it remains ahead of just the U.K. and Italy as far as mobility.

Interestingly, the most economically unequal states for the most part have the highest immobility. Which helps those of us on the highest and lowest ends understand our place.

But just stopping at the fact that the poor tend to stay poor and the rich tend to stay rich would be to disregard some of the major underlying problems that are hidden from these broad statistics. The first is health.

4. Health

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver disease are all two to three times more common in individuals who have a family income of less than $35,000 than in those who have a family income greater than $100,000. Among low-educated, middle-aged whites, the death rate in the United States—alone in the developed world—increased in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Driving the trend is the rapid growth in what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair”—suicides and alcohol- and drug-related deaths..

Why do America’s doctors make twice as much as those of other wealthy countries? Given that the United States has placed dead last five times running in the Commonwealth Fund’s ranking of health-care systems in high-income countries, it’s hard to argue that they are twice as gifted at saving lives. Dean Baker, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has a more plausible suggestion: “When economists like me look at medicine in America—whether we lean left or right politically—we see something that looks an awful lot like a cartel.” Through their influence on the number of slots at medical schools, the availability of residencies, the licensing of foreign-trained doctors, and the role of nurse practitioners, physicians’ organizations can effectively limit the competition their own members face—and that is exactly what they do.

The health industry in America is one of the most profitable areas of business imaginable. It is so common for anyone asking the questions, “why do people in the medical field make so much money?” or “why are businesses able to profit so much on health care?” to hear a response somewhere along the lines of, “well they are saving people’s lives and are helping individuals get over illness every day.”

The response is so American. It assumes that the only incentive for us doing something good for someone else is a lot of money. Pick any field you wish, the underlying principle behind it is money. As Americans it is the only answer we really can come up with.

How do we help people get over sickness? Pay people lots of money.

How do we stop terrorism? Put trillions of dollars into a massive military.

How do we help the poor? (The Left – take money from rich people and give them the money) (The Right – deregulate business so they can make more money and provide more jobs)

How do we make decisions on policy? Give a bunch of money to a politician.

We have never thought about the fact that maybe people will do a good job or do the right thing, not because they will get paid a lot of money for it, but because they love their job. Or perhaps, they sincerely want to help the person that has an illness or injury.

I am not saying that the American health system is so poor compared to other developed countries because those who are a part of it do not love or care about there job. But might it have something to do with the fact that in America we always make money the incentive or the measure of success?

The Health Care System Performance Rankings from 2017 by the Commonwealth Fund measures the five categories (care process, access, administrative efficiency, equity, health care outcomes) for 11 countries (Australia, Canada, U.K., U.S., France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland). The U.S. ranked 5th in the care process, 11th in access, 10th in administrative efficiency, 11th in equity, and 11th in health care outcomes.

While most of us 9.9 percenters have likely had great experiences with our health care, this is not true for a lot of other people. And as we have addressed before, quality health is a major factor in keeping the top on top, while a lack of quality health care is just another aspect that leaves the bottom scraping by. Though it is far from the only problem.

5. Race

If you are starting at the median for people of color, you’ll want to practice your financial pole-vaulting. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that, setting aside money invested in “durable goods” such as furniture and a family car, the median black family had net wealth of $1,700 in 2013, and the median Latino family had $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family. A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8. That is not a typo. That’s two grande cappuccinos…

Racism in particular is not just a legacy of the past, as many Americans would like to believe; it also must be constantly reinvented for the present. Mass incarceration, fearmongering, and segregation are not just the results of prejudice, but also the means of reproducing it…

In the first half of the 19th century, the largest single industry in the United States, measured in terms of both market capital and employment, was the enslavement (and the breeding for enslavement) of human beings. Over the course of the period, the industry became concentrated to the point where fewer than 4,000 families (roughly 0.1 percent of the households in the nation) owned about a quarter of this “human capital,” and another 390,000 (call it the 9.9 percent, give or take a few points) owned all of the rest.

The slaveholding elite were vastly more educated, healthier, and had much better table manners than the overwhelming majority of their fellow white people, never mind the people they enslaved. They dominated not only the government of the nation, but also its media, culture, and religion. Their votaries in the pulpits and the news networks were so successful in demonstrating the sanctity and beneficence of the slave system that millions of impoverished white people with no enslaved people to call their own conceived of it as an honor to lay down their life in the system’s defense.

Just as we are born into wealth, or high quality health systems, we are also born into a particular race. In America, as in many other places, the separation of races creates a large amount tension between the community. Which, technically speaking is ridiculous, as Jared Diamond (a pulitzer prize winning American ecologist, biologist, anthropologist, and geographer) exposed in his article “Race Without Color”, that basing race off of someone’s appearance makes about the same sense as claiming a banana and a lemon are the same because they are the same color. Diamond realized through thorough investigation that one black individual in Africa might actually have a more similar genetic makeup with a white European than another black African.

Unfortunately, America remains divided even today with regards to race. What is so troubling though is how much an individual’s race plays a part in how they might succeed. The same way health, and education do. As the article shows, the median net wealth of a black family was $1,700, while the median net wealth for a white family was $116,800. Latinos didn’t fair much better than blacks, coming in around $2,000.

Why does this exist? Part of it can be traced back to our historical roots. I will never forget a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. in which he talked about how so many white people were claiming that blacks must “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but King responds, “I’m all for Negroes doing everything they can to pull themselves up out of their mess, but it is a cruel thing to ask a bootless man to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Here is the full interview.

In America we have a problem. It is as much a racial problem as it is anything else. We have not worked ourselves past racism. In a country that is past racism you wouldn’t see only 1.9 percent of the 9.9 percent be black. In a country that is past racism you wouldn’t see black individuals tased and arrested for parking violations. You wouldn’t see black people struggle to get jobs at an alarming rate compared to white counterparts. You wouldn’t see them incarcerated at a level that is unprecedented for any race, both in America and the rest of the world.

We have a problem. And before we can do anything about it, we have to acknowledge that it exists.

6. Education

In 1985, 54 percent of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from families in the bottom three quartiles of the income distribution. A similar review of the class of 2010 put that figure at just 33 percent. According to a 2017 study, 38 elite colleges—among them five of the Ivies—had more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. In his 2014 book, Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, summed up the situation nicely: “Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.”

As comical as that quote from William Deresiewicz is, it is astonishing how one percent of the richest people in the U.S. can have more members attend 38 different colleges than an entire section of 60 percent. That is absurd. But when you hold the place amongst the richest and continue to maintain that place for your children and your children’s children, then it starts to make sense. Education is important. But right now in America the richest of the rich hold a monopoly on it.

For any individuals that grow up in poor families, they really have to choose whether they should attend college and take on a tremendous amount of debt (if in fact they haven’t yet made any mistakes that would lead them to not being accepted) or not attend college at all. For most kids in the 9.9 percent, they receive help from their families, and even if they don’t, they know most of them will have support systems to fall back on if things don’t work out.

But education isn’t just a problem for those attending college. Schools in poorer communities have a difficult time acquiring quality resources to give a proper education to their students. Not to mention the struggle that educators have dealing with the students themselves, and their parents or guardians.

Giving proper education to students that haven’t grown up in stable families, with strong role models, quality resources, or the desired level of attention are going to be far more prone to having poor attitudes in the classroom, not showing up for school, and not participating in extra-curriculars. While these students do not have the proper monetary wealth, they also do not have the wealth of a quality education. And so the cycle continues…

7. What to do?

We’re leaving the 90 percent and their offspring far behind in a cloud of debts and bad life choices that they somehow can’t stop themselves from making. We tend to overlook the fact that parenting is more expensive and motherhood more hazardous in the United States than in any other developed country, that campaigns against family planning and reproductive rights are an assault on the families of the bottom 90 percent, and that law-and-order politics serves to keep even more of them down. We prefer to interpret their relative poverty as vice: Why can’t they get their act together?

We (the 9.9 percent) may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils. We’ve looked on with smug disdain as our labors have brought forth a population prone to resentment and ripe for manipulation.

It is a fair question to ask. What do we do about this? Is there anything to do?

I don’t propose to have an answer to this question by any means. Especially for a problem that is so systemic. But I do believe there are a few things we can start with.

First, those of us who are part of a privileged group need to realize that we are part of a privileged group. Denying this is not helping the problem and it is not backed up by any sort of facts. So if you are white, or in the 9.9 percent, or have great education, or have great health, or have all of these things… remember that you started on third base. So the next time you try to make assumptions that Black Lives Matter is stupid or that drug addicts need to be given the harshest punishments, or that poor people need to get their act together and work hard… maybe you should ask yourself how you would feel and where you would be if you were born an African American in Boston. Or if you were born into a family with parents in jail. It’s not as easy as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

There is a cycle that exists in America. For us 9.9 percenters, it is a really great cycle. But for those below us it’s not as cool. As 9.9 percenters, we must acknowledge this cycle.

We also need to accept the fact that we are a divided people and we must move past that in order for anything significant to happen.

We need to recognize that people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, and think differently than us, have truths that we need to hear:

To white people: we need to apologize to the African American, Latino, American Indian, Asian, and other racial communities that we have neglected and oppressed throughout our history into today. To racial minorities: Be honest. Be respectful. Don’t let the racism card be an excuse when you get behind. Be the outlier. Know that there are a lot of people in the white community that acknowledge and understand they, and their ancestors, have made mistakes and they have a deep desire for that to change.

To conservatives: accept the fact that we have made mistakes as a country. Accept that racism and implicit bias still plays a devastating role for many minorities. Accept that in America it isn’t as easy as it sounds when you are born in poverty to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Not everyone grows up with good role models, good resources, good education, good wealth, and money.  And it is really hard to work out of that when you are without those crucial aspects of wealth. To liberals: understand that conservatives have a truth that needs to be heard as well. They aren’t just ignorant, patriotic hicks who love guns. People will never progress if they don’t understand the ever-important idea of individual responsibility. We can give people all the money in the world, but if they don’t learn how to work and make good choices, it will never actually benefit them.

We must realize that people are more than the ideological boxes that we choose to wrap ourselves up in. When we see people through lenses of black and white, liberal and conservative, catholic and protestant, the tension that is so great today in America will only continue to build.

Everyone has something important to say, and everyone has something important to contribute. Before we can address the issue in which there is so great of economic inequality and so little economic mobility, we must be able to work together. See the truth that the other side might have to say. Don’t just label them and brush them off.

Individually, redefine what it means to be successful. Being successful is not starting a great business. It is not working your way to the top in a job. It is not making the most money or having a great marriage. It is not having kids that are wonderful. Nor is it having great economic security. If it was, then what does that make the guy who is a janitor his whole life? Is he a failure? Or what about someone who gets divorced, or has troubled kids? Are they failures? Being successful needs to be redefined in America in a much deeper and more beautiful way.

When endorsing a politician or voting, don’t ask yourself, “will this be good for me?”, or even “does this person stands for the principles that have worked for me?” Ask yourself if this will be good for everybody. Support programs that will not continue to lead to the stagnancy of the rich and the poor but those that will create opportunities for others.

As a nation, maybe we could cut some of our massive military budget or our extreme system of mass incarceration in which the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners with only 5% of the population. Maybe we could start treating people with drug addictions as a health problem instead of a criminal issue (like every other major country). The violence of our prison and military systems have not helped solve the problems like we have hoped, they just have caused more issues.

With that money maybe we can create more programs that can provide opportunities for people at the bottom to break the chains of poverty. Programs for education and increased health. Start a non-profit organization that helps the disadvantaged, rather than dive into mainstream corporate America like everyone else.

Above all, try to embody love. It might sound cheesy, but it is real. It’s in moments like these, when answers seem difficult, we must turn to love. Now we have to figure out what exactly that means for each of us.

Sometimes I think it might mean being radical and impractical.

Be radical. Be impractical.

But mostly be love.

The 9.9 Percent

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to pretty much be like everybody else. We often are given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.

-Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the 12 Steps

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We all have heard Bernie Sanders rant about the top 0.1% and how they own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%, or that they are fully capable of buying politicians and policy in America. But most of us likely haven’t heard of the 9.9 percent. That is, unless you have read The Atlantic’s famous new article, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy”. It is an eye-opening article and I encourage you to check it out if you have some time on your hands (it will take you at least an hour to read – it’s loooong).

Because the article is so long and covers so much I’m going to try to address different aspects of the article and comment on them, because I think they are certainly worth addressing. So this blog will be broken down into several different categories, following quotes and diagrams from the original article.

(Keep in mind, because one cannot make a valid case on individual statistics, a broad topic such as this must be addressed based on the larger statistical reality. I know we all have seen or have our own personal examples that might refute broad evidence, but those claims are only valid for you, not for everyone else in the world.)

1. Who is the 9.9 percent?

So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”

As of 2016, it took $1.2 million in net worth to make it into the 9.9 percent; $2.4 million to reach the group’s median; and $10 million to get into the top 0.9 percent…

We are also mostly, but not entirely, white. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, African Americans represent 1.9 percent of the top 10th of households in wealth; Hispanics, 2.4 percent; and all other minorities, including Asian and multiracial individuals, 8.8 percent—even though those groups together account for 35 percent of the total population.

So these people are the 9.9 percent. In the town I grew up in, many were a part of this group. In other words, I know this group quite well. Family structures of these groups are strong and more often than not remain well-intact. Individuals of this group rarely violate the law beyond basic speeding tickets and parking violations, and if they do, they are much less likely to be caught engaging in white-collar crime than their other criminal counterparts.

This group has a mentality of hard work, respect, and friendliness and is often easy to get along with. Statistically speaking their health is far better than those of lower classes. They are much better equipped to handle money, they know how to spend and how to save, and they are usually more familiar with the tricks of the trade.

This group is also overwhelmingly white. The assumption that white privilege is a hoax brought upon our youth by academia is simply ignorant of the facts and of history. (Yes, Jordan Peterson, I know white privilege is not universal, but in America it exists, so we need to address it.) But I will address more of this later.

And of course, as the quote above from the original article mentions, they have a lot of money. What is quite interesting about this however is that most of them consider themselves as part of the middle class – which they are very much above and beyond.

You are a part of this class if you have a net worth of anywhere from $1.2 million to $10 million. But money is not the only indication of wealth. So what exactly does wealth consist of?

2. Wealth

Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.

We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs…

We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care… We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients…

These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. Our class walks around in the jeans and T‑shirts inherited from our supposedly humble beginnings. We prefer to signal our status by talking about our organically nourished bodies, the awe-inspiring feats of our offspring, and the ecological correctness of our neighborhoods.

If there is a continuous theme that runs throughout this idea of the 9.9 percent, it is that they (or maybe I should say “we”) are smart. We know how to handle situations and most of all we know how to present ourselves as good people. And, as I can vouch, many are good people. But we often ignore the fact that we have benefits that extend far beyond the arrogant belief that everything we have we have because we worked hard, made great choices, and surrounded ourselves with great people. Much of it actually has to do with a decision that none of us can arrange. But more on that later.

The reality is, when you are a kid who grows up in a 9.9 percent home in a 9.9 percent town, you take with you a variety of advantages compared to the kid that grows up on the streets of Chicago in a split family with parents and siblings spending their time in and out of jail.

Often the advantages can come in a variety of ways: It means better health and almost certainly means better quality of health care. It likely means a better education and the opportunity for more education. Steady family structures, role models, and religious environments that exemplify what it means to be responsible, hardworking and of high character will also have a significantly positive impact on you. And friends. But not just any friends. Good friends. Good friends that will hook you up with other good friends. Good friends that will hook your kids up with other good friends.

The kid on the streets of Chicago does not have monetary wealth. But maybe more importantly, he or she does not have any other source of wealth. Sources that are crucial. And thus, while the 9.9 continue the cycle of good health, good education, good friends, and good values, the bottom continues their own cycle. A cycle which has a devastating affect that can only be truly understood by those who are a part of it.

3. Mobility

None of this matters, you will often hear, because in the United States everyone has an opportunity to make the leap: Mobility justifies inequality. As a matter of principle, this isn’t true. In the United States, it also turns out not to be true as a factual matter. Contrary to popular myth, economic mobility in the land of opportunity is not high, and it’s going down…

Imagine yourself on the socioeconomic ladder with one end of a rubber band around your ankle and the other around your parents’ rung. The strength of the rubber determines how hard it is for you to escape the rung on which you were born. If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. Economists represent this concept with a number they call “intergenerational earnings elasticity,” or IGE, which measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income. An IGE of zero means that there’s no relationship at all between parents’ income and that of their offspring. An IGE of one says that the destiny of a child is to end up right where she came into the world.

The difference is in what happens at the extremes. In the United States, it’s the children of the bottom decile and, above all, the top decile—the 9.9 percent—who settle down nearest to their starting point. Here in the land of opportunity, the taller the tree, the closer the apple falls.

In my hometown, there is an overwhelming principle of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” with the belief that anyone who works hard will eventually pull themselves through the ranks and come out on the other side prevailing.

The town I grew up in is also overwhelmingly conservative. Conservatives can be mistaken for not caring about the poor. In a world history class I taught, we discussed the rise of capitalism and socialism in Europe in the 19th Century. This was a time in which there was little to no regulation on business, and merchants were making tons of money while they were able to replace their workers with machines, use child labor, and have their workers in terrible conditions working for up to 16 hours a day, six days a week.

As we talked about this, my students didn’t understand why capitalists didn’t care about the workers and the poor people. I had to explain to them that for the most part capitalists do care about poverty and those of the lower class, but they have a different understanding of economics. To a capitalist, they believe that what is good for the rich will in turn be good for the poor. So, a world where there is little regulation will actually have a positive effect on everyone else.

There are examples of this being true. But more often than not, what is good for the rich is usually just good for the rich. This is evidenced by the statistics pointed out in the article. As the article states, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, especially for really tall trees.

But for those of us with a mindset of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” this can be a troubling thought. We like to think of America as being the land in which those who have nothing can, with hard work and integrity, rocket themselves up into a success story. The “American Dream” personified.

But the statistics tell us that most likely what you are born into, is what you will become. Sure we all have our stories that are the outliers, but that is why they are outliers. When you are born poor, it is really, really hard to move past that. And even more so, if you are born rich, you are probably going to be rich.

That is the way America goes.

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Here is a diagram from the article in which several different countries are highlighted for economic mobility and economic inequality. America has a significant draw on the most economically unequal state, while it remains ahead of just the U.K. and Italy as far as mobility.

Interestingly, the most economically unequal states for the most part have the highest immobility. Which helps those of us on the highest and lowest ends understand our place.

But just stopping at the fact that the poor tend to stay poor and the rich tend to stay rich would be to disregard some of the major underlying problems that are hidden from these broad statistics. The first is health.

4. Health

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver disease are all two to three times more common in individuals who have a family income of less than $35,000 than in those who have a family income greater than $100,000. Among low-educated, middle-aged whites, the death rate in the United States—alone in the developed world—increased in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Driving the trend is the rapid growth in what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair”—suicides and alcohol- and drug-related deaths..

Why do America’s doctors make twice as much as those of other wealthy countries? Given that the United States has placed dead last five times running in the Commonwealth Fund’s ranking of health-care systems in high-income countries, it’s hard to argue that they are twice as gifted at saving lives. Dean Baker, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has a more plausible suggestion: “When economists like me look at medicine in America—whether we lean left or right politically—we see something that looks an awful lot like a cartel.” Through their influence on the number of slots at medical schools, the availability of residencies, the licensing of foreign-trained doctors, and the role of nurse practitioners, physicians’ organizations can effectively limit the competition their own members face—and that is exactly what they do.

The health industry in America is one of the most profitable areas of business imaginable. It is so common for anyone asking the questions, “why do people in the medical field make so much money?” or “why are businesses able to profit so much on health care?” to hear a response somewhere along the lines of, “well they are saving people’s lives and are helping individuals get over illness every day.”

The response is so American. It assumes that the only incentive for us doing something good for someone else is a lot of money. Pick any field you wish, the underlying principle behind it is money. As Americans it is the only answer we really can come up with.

How do we help people get over sickness? Pay people lots of money.

How do we stop terrorism? Put trillions of dollars into a massive military.

How do we help the poor? (The Left – take money from rich people and give them the money) (The Right – deregulate business so they can make more money and provide more jobs)

How do we make decisions on policy? Give a bunch of money to a politician.

We have never thought about the fact that maybe people will do a good job or do the right thing, not because they will get paid a lot of money for it, but because they love their job. Or perhaps, they sincerely want to help the person that has an illness or injury.

I am not saying that the American health system is so poor compared to other developed countries because those who are a part of it do not love or care about there job. But might it have something to do with the fact that in America we always make money the incentive or the measure of success?

The Health Care System Performance Rankings from 2017 by the Commonwealth Fund measures the five categories (care process, access, administrative efficiency, equity, health care outcomes) for 11 countries (Australia, Canada, U.K., U.S., France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland). The U.S. ranked 5th in the care process, 11th in access, 10th in administrative efficiency, 11th in equity, and 11th in health care outcomes.

While most of us 9.9 percenters have likely had great experiences with our health care, this is not true for a lot of other people. And as we have addressed before, quality health is a major factor in keeping the top on top, while a lack of quality health care is just another aspect that leaves the bottom scraping by. Though it is far from the only problem.

5. Race

If you are starting at the median for people of color, you’ll want to practice your financial pole-vaulting. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that, setting aside money invested in “durable goods” such as furniture and a family car, the median black family had net wealth of $1,700 in 2013, and the median Latino family had $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family. A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8. That is not a typo. That’s two grande cappuccinos…

Racism in particular is not just a legacy of the past, as many Americans would like to believe; it also must be constantly reinvented for the present. Mass incarceration, fearmongering, and segregation are not just the results of prejudice, but also the means of reproducing it…

In the first half of the 19th century, the largest single industry in the United States, measured in terms of both market capital and employment, was the enslavement (and the breeding for enslavement) of human beings. Over the course of the period, the industry became concentrated to the point where fewer than 4,000 families (roughly 0.1 percent of the households in the nation) owned about a quarter of this “human capital,” and another 390,000 (call it the 9.9 percent, give or take a few points) owned all of the rest.

The slaveholding elite were vastly more educated, healthier, and had much better table manners than the overwhelming majority of their fellow white people, never mind the people they enslaved. They dominated not only the government of the nation, but also its media, culture, and religion. Their votaries in the pulpits and the news networks were so successful in demonstrating the sanctity and beneficence of the slave system that millions of impoverished white people with no enslaved people to call their own conceived of it as an honor to lay down their life in the system’s defense.

Just as we are born into wealth, or high quality health systems, we are also born into a particular race. In America, as in many other places, the separation of races creates a large amount tension between the community. Which, technically speaking is ridiculous, as Jared Diamond (a pulitzer prize winning American ecologist, biologist, anthropologist, and geographer) exposed in his article “Race Without Color”, that basing race off of someone’s appearance makes about the same sense as claiming a banana and a lemon are the same because they are the same color. Diamond realized through thorough investigation that one black individual in Africa might actually have a more similar genetic makeup with a white European than another black African.

Unfortunately, America remains divided even today with regards to race. What is so troubling though is how much an individual’s race plays a part in how they might succeed. The same way health, and education do. As the article shows, the median net wealth of a black family was $1,700, while the median net wealth for a white family was $116,800. Latinos didn’t fair much better than blacks, coming in around $2,000.

Why does this exist? Part of it can be traced back to our historical roots. I will never forget a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. in which he talked about how so many white people were claiming that blacks must “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but King responds, “I’m all for Negroes doing everything they can to pull themselves up out of their mess, but it is a cruel thing to ask a bootless man to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Here is the full interview.

In America we have a problem. It is as much a racial problem as it is anything else. We have not worked ourselves past racism. In a country that is past racism you wouldn’t see only 1.9 percent of the 9.9 percent be black. In a country that is past racism you wouldn’t see black individuals tased and arrested for parking violations. You wouldn’t see black people struggle to get jobs at an alarming rate compared to white counterparts. You wouldn’t see them incarcerated at a level that is unprecedented for any race, both in America and the rest of the world.

We have a problem. And before we can do anything about it, we have to acknowledge that it exists.

6. Education

In 1985, 54 percent of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from families in the bottom three quartiles of the income distribution. A similar review of the class of 2010 put that figure at just 33 percent. According to a 2017 study, 38 elite colleges—among them five of the Ivies—had more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. In his 2014 book, Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, summed up the situation nicely: “Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.”

As comical as that quote from William Deresiewicz is, it is astonishing how one percent of the richest people in the U.S. can have more members attend 38 different colleges than an entire section of 60 percent. That is absurd. But when you hold the place amongst the richest and continue to maintain that place for your children and your children’s children, then it starts to make sense. Education is important. But right now in America the richest of the rich hold a monopoly on it.

For any individuals that grow up in poor families, they really have to choose whether they should attend college and take on a tremendous amount of debt (if in fact they haven’t yet made any mistakes that would lead them to not being accepted) or not attend college at all. For most kids in the 9.9 percent, they receive help from their families, and even if they don’t, they know most of them will have support systems to fall back on if things don’t work out.

But education isn’t just a problem for those attending college. Schools in poorer communities have a difficult time acquiring quality resources to give a proper education to their students. Not to mention the struggle that educators have dealing with the students themselves, and their parents or guardians.

Giving proper education to students that haven’t grown up in stable families, with strong role models, quality resources, or the desired level of attention are going to be far more prone to having poor attitudes in the classroom, not showing up for school, and not participating in extra-curriculars. While these students do not have the proper monetary wealth, they also do not have the wealth of a quality education. And so the cycle continues…

7. What to do?

We’re leaving the 90 percent and their offspring far behind in a cloud of debts and bad life choices that they somehow can’t stop themselves from making. We tend to overlook the fact that parenting is more expensive and motherhood more hazardous in the United States than in any other developed country, that campaigns against family planning and reproductive rights are an assault on the families of the bottom 90 percent, and that law-and-order politics serves to keep even more of them down. We prefer to interpret their relative poverty as vice: Why can’t they get their act together?

We (the 9.9 percent) may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils. We’ve looked on with smug disdain as our labors have brought forth a population prone to resentment and ripe for manipulation.

It is a fair question to ask. What do we do about this? Is there anything to do?

I don’t propose to have an answer to this question by any means. Especially for a problem that is so systemic. But I do believe there are a few things we can start with.

First, those of us who are part of a privileged group need to realize that we are part of a privileged group. Denying this is not helping the problem and it is not backed up by any sort of facts. So if you are white, or in the 9.9 percent, or have great education, or have great health, or have all of these things… remember that you started on third base. So the next time you try to make assumptions that Black Lives Matter is stupid or that drug addicts need to be given the harshest punishments, or that poor people need to get their act together and work hard… maybe you should ask yourself how you would feel and where you would be if you were born an African American in Boston. Or if you were born into a family with parents in jail. It’s not as easy as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

There is a cycle that exists in America. For us 9.9 percenters, it is a really great cycle. But for those below us it’s not as cool. As 9.9 percenters, we must acknowledge this cycle.

We also need to accept the fact that we are a divided people and we must move past that in order for anything significant to happen.

We need to recognize that people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, and think differently than us, have truths that we need to hear:

To white people: we need to apologize to the African American, Latino, American Indian, Asian, and other racial communities that we have neglected and oppressed throughout our history into today. To racial minorities: Be honest. Be respectful. Don’t let the racism card be an excuse when you get behind. Be the outlier. Know that there are a lot of people in the white community that acknowledge and understand they, and their ancestors, have made mistakes and they have a deep desire for that to change.

To conservatives: accept the fact that we have made mistakes as a country. Accept that racism and implicit bias still plays a devastating role for many minorities. Accept that in America it isn’t as easy as it sounds when you are born in poverty to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Not everyone grows up with good role models, good resources, good education, good wealth, and money.  And it is really hard to work out of that when you are without those crucial aspects of wealth. To liberals: understand that conservatives have a truth that needs to be heard as well. They aren’t just ignorant, patriotic hicks who love guns. People will never progress if they don’t understand the ever-important idea of individual responsibility. We can give people all the money in the world, but if they don’t learn how to work and make good choices, it will never actually benefit them.

We must realize that people are more than the ideological boxes that we choose to wrap ourselves up in. When we see people through lenses of black and white, liberal and conservative, catholic and protestant, the tension that is so great today in America will only continue to build.

Everyone has something important to say, and everyone has something important to contribute. Before we can address the issue in which there is so great of economic inequality and so little economic mobility, we must be able to work together. See the truth that the other side might have to say. Don’t just label them and brush them off.

Individually, redefine what it means to be successful. Being successful is not starting a great business. It is not working your way to the top in a job. It is not making the most money or having a great marriage. It is not having kids that are wonderful. Nor is it having great economic security. If it was, then what does that make the guy who is a janitor his whole life? Is he a failure? Or what about someone who gets divorced, or has troubled kids? Are they failures? Being successful needs to be redefined in America in a much deeper and more beautiful way.

When endorsing a politician or voting, don’t ask yourself, “will this be good for me?”, or even “does this person stands for the principles that have worked for me?” Ask yourself if this will be good for everybody. Support programs that will not continue to lead to the stagnancy of the rich and the poor but those that will create opportunities for others.

As a nation, maybe we could cut some of our massive military budget or our extreme system of mass incarceration in which the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners with only 5% of the population. Maybe we could start treating people with drug addictions as a health problem instead of a criminal issue (like every other major country). The violence of our prison and military systems have not helped solve the problems like we have hoped, they just have caused more issues.

With that money maybe we can create more programs that can provide opportunities for people at the bottom to break the chains of poverty. Programs for education and increased health. Start a non-profit organization that helps the disadvantaged, rather than dive into mainstream corporate America like everyone else.

Above all, try to embody love. It might sound cheesy, but it is real. It’s in moments like these, when answers seem difficult, we must turn to love. Now we have to figure out what exactly that means for each of us.

Sometimes I think it might mean being radical and impractical.

Be radical. Be impractical.

But mostly be love.

The Problem of My Generation

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

-Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Safe Space

We’ve all heard the story of the baker who refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple because he or she cannot in good conscious support something they do not believe is moral. Because of this decision, they are either brought into terrible scrutiny by the public and the media, or they are forced to shutdown their business.

In the town I live in, Orange City, IA, the public library is under fire by the conservative community for having multiple pro-LGBTQ books available for checkout. In fact, they are trying to require the public library to put these books in “safe areas” so that they will be out of the sight of children. This is particularly interesting to me considering the fact that these Christians who are creating the backlash have such a problem with the four pro-LGBTQ books but are completely fine with the books, movies, and T.V. shows available at the public library that contain graphic violence, sexual content, nudity, and language, such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

In other news, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid remain unsigned by NFL teams following their protests against racism and police brutality, despite the fact that they are far better players than many signed players at their positions.

Campuses all around America are creating “safe spaces” where students can go if they do not feel comfortable with a certain point of view, teaching lesson, or discussion category.

Now, I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with the decisions of the baker, the library, or Kaepernick and Reid, or that a business does not have the right to hire or fire whomever they choose. But that is not the point here.

The troubling aspect of all these stories is that they reveal an alarming problem in our world today, that I believe has infested our young generation: We are so afraid of offending others, or of other people offending us, that we sacrifice a fundamental need to separate right from wrong. Unfortunately today, many of these lines are becoming more and more blurred.

Children are no longer tough because we shield them from anything we might think is wrong. When you grow up sheltered, you cannot formulate your own ideas about the world. You just jump into the boxes the world has created.

Also, when you grow up sheltered and you hear something that goes against what you believe you can’t take it because you haven’t been exposed to the diverse range of thought that exists in this world. This is why students at colleges now need “safe spaces.”

The thing is, this isn’t just an issue for conservatives. It’s not just an issue for liberals. It is a societal problem. We cannot speak our mind about what we believe is right or wrong because we are afraid of offending someone else. Because people get offended by virtually anything they disagree with.

And for those that are my age (22) and younger, I am afraid that that fear has created in us an inability to think thoughtfully and logically, and to have patience as we come to realize what truth is. And thus, the millennial generation, without this ability to thoughtfully process right and wrong, and the overall concern of saying something others might not like has rendered us completely void of thought, nuance, and patience. This leads us to be a people absorbed in consumerism, technology, virtual reality, and social media where we can take away all the depth of what it means to be human and replace it with a pretentious, shallow, “fun” version of ourselves.

The reality is, we have lost in ourselves a certain depth. A depth that we were made for. Unfortunately, this has largely projected itself onto my generation.

I believe we must regain this depth. This contemplative spirit. As Richard Rohr (an American Franciscan Friar) says, when you are embodying the contemplative self, you are not offended. Because the contemplative self does not get offended. The deep self, the true self, the contemplative self is patient with those who see differently. It is unafraid because what matters is not the ego, it is the truth. It is resilient. It has a keen sense of where the problems are and it is unafraid of addressing the systems of injustice that exist.

The reality is, there are a lot of bad things in this world that need to be called out for what they are. War is terrible. Racism, poverty, greed, pornography, consumerism, militarism, are all so destructive to so many people in our world.

These are all systems that I believe are corruptive. They all move us to become a fast-paced technological perversion when there is so much beauty in our natural selves. I want us to regain the beauty of what it really means to be human. Not what it means to be products of technology, media, and “success.”

All of these things are that which I believe are detrimental to becoming our true selves. I know many people will not like me saying that it is an egregious sin to spend almost 1 trillion dollars of the U.S. budget on a violent military force. But I will. Because it needs to be said. We essentially are saying the only way to stop violence is with violence. I think Jesus gave us some pretty good advice with regards to war. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the early Christian church, Dorothy Day, Eugene Debs, Wendell Berry, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Erasmus… they had really good ideas about how to address violence and war. But our egotistical selves cannot think of any solution to the problem beyond flexing our biceps of mass destruction and technological terror and stamping it with the name of “freedom.” Bob Dylan said we are “Masters of War”… He couldn’t have been more right. I believe this needs to be resisted. Whether we offend someone or not.

The same goes with many other things I mentioned. And many more which I forgot. And certainly others which I have yet to open my eyes to.

Let us rediscover our deep humanness. Let us think outside of boxes. Let there be logic. Let there be mystery. Let us not get offended by someone’s opinion. Let us explore it and have patience as we discover the truths of ourselves and the truths of others. Let us be resilient. Let us be courageous. Let us be willing to fight the systems of injustice with a complete lack of fear.

Into the Wild

ReThinking Thinking

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality, nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit.”

-Christopher McCandless

Chris McCandless

“Into the Wild” is a film that follows the story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate whose plans on attending Harvard Law School are abruptly halted when he decides to donate all of his savings to charity, burn his social security card and all other forms of identification, and head west.

The film is an adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book by the same name. Heavily influenced by famous radicals Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack London, McCandless becomes a radical in his own right.

His ultimate goal is to get to Alaska. To…

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Into the Wild

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality, nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit.”

-Christopher McCandless

Chris McCandless

“Into the Wild” is a film that follows the story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate whose plans on attending Harvard Law School are abruptly halted when he decides to donate all of his savings to charity, burn his social security card and all other forms of identification, and head west.

The film is an adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book by the same name. Heavily influenced by famous radicals Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack London, McCandless becomes a radical in his own right.

His ultimate goal is to get to Alaska. To escape the bonds of society in the vast, uncharted northwestern wilderness. As he heads west, driving some of the way, hitchhiking and walking most of it, he realizes he needs to take some time to gain some extra cash and study up on how exactly to survive when he gets there.

He works at an elevator in South Dakota for awhile, kayaks the Colorado River into Mexico, and lives with a variety of different people in various places. The characters he meets are unique, as all people are, but always radiate something upon Chris.

Chris, who at this point has actually changed his name to Alexander Supertramp, eventually arrives in the Alaskan wilderness. He survives on berries, roots, and squirrels.

Living alone in the wilderness is difficult however. Nature is not always forgiving for McCandless. At one point he mixes up two very similar roots, one being extremely poisonous, causing starvation. He dies a slow death, yet in his final moments, he has a realization:

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

He changes his name back to Christopher McCandless. Yet, he does not regret the life he has chosen.

“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”

With this, McCandless passes away. Before we dismiss McCandless’s story as ridiculous, naive, or immature, I request that we try to make something of this fascinating man.

The story of Christopher McCandless does not resonate with me simply because it shows how a man tried to break the chains society had on him and escape into the wilderness, only to find that he desperately needed that very society in which he left. Nor does it resonate with me just because it is an inspiring story of a man that realized people are machines that society has guilefully formulated to fit the proper, the standard, the consistent.

I resonate with McCandless’s story because I feel like it is an exaggerated take on every man’s life. Society frustrates me. I want to be me. Not society’s projection of me. I don’t want the rules, the walls, the little boxes we all put ourselves in. I want the experience of life in its fullest. I want the spiritual. This was the desire of McCandless, and I believe it is deep down the desire of every person. Some of us have been or will be hardened over time by the mistakes we’ve made, the times we’ve been screwed over, or the times we haven’t lived up to expectations. But I truly believe this desire that so overwhelmed McCandless is in us all. I do not believe it is random. This desire is truth. Yet, as in all things, truth can go different ways.

While man needs the wild, the unstructured, he also needs community. He was made for community. Throughout his journey, McCandless meets people of a vast range of backgrounds and finds a certain beauty and truth in each one.

Each person at one time or another teaches McCandless a thing or two, and McCandless often returns the favor. He helps them, they help him back.

This combination of community, society, and structure with the wildness of life is not merely random desires that we have. It is what it means to be human. We are held in bondage to the structures of society. We are at the mercy of mother nature. But through each we can also experience the most breathtaking beauty that life has to offer. We can experience ourselves.

Society can be daunting and relentless. But we need it.

The wilderness can be frightening. But we need it.

McCandless’s story reveals this to us.

In all the suffering we experience in life, don’t lose sight of the beautiful. Because its here. Sometimes you just have to look for it.

Be wild. Break free from the bondage, the rules, the expectations, the norms of society. Explore. Experience the world in its most primitive form. Send yourself on a journey into the wild. Into mankind’s ancient past. See your relation to all things. To the trees towering up out of the ground. To the four-leggeds who walk on land. To the wings of the air. To the flowing streams teaming with fish. To the wind that rustles the leaves. Don’t lose sight of the wildness inside of you.

Be community. Do not let the suffering you experience, the pain that others may cause you, the expectations that others place on you hinder your desire to be brother and sister to all. Hear someone’s story instead of giving your own. Take some advice rather than give it. Share a laugh. Give a hug. Drop a task and be a friend. Work less, play harder. See the beauty in someone, rather than the ugly. Don’t complain about someone who annoys you, learn from them.

Be grace. Be love. Be beauty. It is the community of all people, and the wildness we each possess that allows us to dive fully into the depths of these three things, and ultimately explore our humanness.

 

 

The Struggle of American Christianity

A huge religious marketplace has been set up in North America to meet the needs and fantasies of people just like us. There are conferences and gatherings custom-designed to give us what we need. Books and videos and seminars promise to let us in on the Christian “secret” of whatever we feel is lacking in our life: financial security, well-behaved children, weight-loss, exotic sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers. The people who promote these goods and services all smile a lot and are good-looking… We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities. This is idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective “Christian.” But idolatry nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative.

-Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places

59726

I recently started reading a book by Brian Zahnd called “Water to Wine.” The book tells of his personal journey from a “watered down” preacher of religious fundamentalism, pop Christianity, right-winged evangelicalism, and program/seminar driven religion which seeks to tell us how to be successful, the best parent, the best leader, the most biblical man or woman, all in the name of Christianity.

As Zahnd highlights, for him this was never a faith that had any depth to it. It was always very much well-intentioned, and he never claims that he had been worshipping a different God. But he makes the analogy of his former faith being water and how he needed a major change in his life to transition that watered down faith into wine. He speaks of his former faith:

In the days of my certitude there was no room for me. I learned how to parrot the party line. To say what was expected. What was expected was a mixture of fundamentalist biblicism, word of faith success, and religious right triumphalism. None of that was me. The real me had always been more complex than that. But in the world of religious certitude there is no room to think, no room for nuance and complexity, no room to nurture the soul of a mystic.

I have been fascinated reading this because it seems eerily similar to my personal experience. I say that as humbly as possible. Brian Zahnd is someone I deeply respect and my faith is so weak in so many ways. But I did experience a transition from when my faith seemed to lack any real substance. And I searched and searched, and doubted and questioned, and believe I have slowly been transitioning out of a watered down faith and into something much more substantive.

Zahnd was the pastor of a church that was named one of the fastest growing churches in America. But when he reached his mid-forties, he felt that his faith lacked substance. So he started on a journey of discovering a more authentic faith. A journey that began with 22 days of pure fasting and prayer and an extended hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. As he made this transition, he speaks of the great struggle that it was. He had many members leave the church, while others approached him in criticism and tried to get him back to the “real Brian.”

What Zahnd realized about his former faith, and the faith that he believes is rampant throughout the United States, is that it so often leads down a path of either ignorance or certitude. As Zahnd says, “Ignorance is bliss, but so is certitude.”

I know that often I fall under the temptation of pretending to know for sure what is “truth” when I’m not really sure. It’s easier to look at the Bible or a difficult question and assume you have a key to the secret knowledge.

Even if we might say doubting our faith can be good, no one likes going through the process. We like certitude. We like people who are going to give us word for word the “truth.” We like a pastor who tells us exactly how to believe and how to live. We like a Bible that does the same. And we follow that blindly. There is no nuance.

I believe this is one of the reasons why biblical fundamentalism has become so prominent in American Christianity. It very blatantly explains the strict rules for understanding the faith.

I also believe this is why conservatism has become so popular among American Christians. It is about right and wrong. It is about law and order. It is about keeping people within certain parameters deemed acceptable based on some “indisputable” knowledge.

I am well aware liberals do the same thing. But we cannot deny that the right is the side of law and order, militarism, protection and security from foreign “enemies,” or aliens. They are very much proud of that. They are the side that says this is how to live and this is how not to live. And Christians make up a very large portion of the right.

As Christians, we need to stop assuming we have the answers. Our faith needs more nuance. It needs more questions, more doubt, and less security. We do after all, worship the man who, in his last moments apparently doubted by saying, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We need more searching and more reliance on God. Following Christ’s doubt he proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Christ shows us the very essence of faith. Sometimes that involves doubting. But it always ends in giving ourselves up to the Lord.

We must be aware of the temptation in us all to box ourselves up. To make ourselves a part of a side that assumes to have all the answers. Or to make ourselves part of any side at all for that matter.

It’s funny, most people who hear someone questioning conservative religion or conservative politics will immediately label them as “liberal” (as if that is an evil name for someone). But it seems in America we have no other way of understanding the world besides in little boxes.

To say that as Christians we need more nuance, less certitude, more questioning, does not mean that there aren’t any universal truths. It does not mean we can’t believe anything at all. We must! But as broken humans to assume that we ever hold the key to the almighty truth and that that truth can’t be found anywhere but in the Bible is ridiculous.

Truths often come from those we might find little common ground with. Or from places we might least expect. For me, nature often speaks truth. But it isn’t so obvious like the verses we like to pull out from scripture. It is more nuanced than that. It requires a deep searching.

Sometimes it can be found in someone of a different faith. I’ve also been very influenced by the life of Mahatma Gandhi. But he was a Hindu (though he did say he would be a Christian if it weren’t for Christians).

The point is, truth can be found in a lot of places. The Bible… the wilderness… a book… a drug addict… a conservative… a liberal… a Muslim…

We just need to open our faith to complexity.

I will end by sharing a poem that Zahnd wrote.

Turbulance

I was once so sure
So sure of myself
So sure that what I wanted
Was one in the same with what God wanted
How could it be otherwise?
Child of God that I am

I was once so sure
I was taught to assert my will
In the name of the Lord, to be sure
For the name of the Lord is a talisman
To endorse and empower my will to be done
For what else could my god have to do
But to make all my  wishes and dreams come true

I was once so sure
That I knew what was good for me
And what was good for me
Was good things for me
Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
Oh, I knew better than to say it just so
I knew how to dress it up in altruistic robes
And how to crown it with chapter and verse
Nothing like a plucked verse to make you so sure
(Yet it and I weren’t all bad, oh no, far from it)

But the point of this confession is
I was once so sure
That I knew good and evil, right and wrong
In me, in thee, in theology, in policy
But there’s a snake that lives in that tree
Is original sin a sin of epistemology?
To be sure
Certitude in doctrine and politics
And just where the dividing line runs
Safe in the certain knowledge
That I’m on the right side
Of the right-and-wrong line
I was once so sure
And it’s fun being so sure
People like it when you’re so sure
(If they share your certainty)
And isn’t that what faith is?
Being so sure?
Well…
I’m not so sure
Cock-sure, can’t-miss certainty
Is not the faith that I see
When I look at the patriarchs, prophets, and poets
And Jesus
(“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”)
At the cross faith and hope find their finest hour
But arrogant certitude is proved to be an imposter
(Did I hear the cock crow?)

Instead of brashness and bravado
The poet of hope said
“In quietness and trust”
So now when I’m not so sure
I try to be quiet and trust
Not myself, my mind, my kind
But in the mercy of God
In his severe salvation
A salvation that is sweet as honey
And severe as the cross
Though he slay me
Yet will I trust him
Surely
Goodness and Mercy

 

What the Doctrine of Discovery Teaches Us About Ourselves

ReThinking Thinking

To state the facts… and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgements; it should affect very little what we do in the world. (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 8).

Doctrine of Discovery

We weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and…

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What the Doctrine of Discovery Teaches Us About Ourselves

To state the facts… and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgements; it should affect very little what we do in the world. (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 8).

Doctrine of Discovery

We weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit — by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.

Pope Nicholas V, Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, 8 January 1454

In fourteen centuries the Church of Christ had undergone the most dramatic evolution ever imaginable by a group of people. For Christ, it was “blessed are you who are poor,” and “woe to you who are rich.” (Luke 6)

It was “do not judge, do not condemn, forgive.” (Luke 6)

“Love your enemies… bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6)

“Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor…” (Luke 18)

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25)

“For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26)

How is it that a people who claim to worship the man that preached over and over again a profoundly radical message of peace, servitude, compassion, and care for the poor, imprisoned, marginalized, and stranger, could wish to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit”?

As the great Russian authors Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy point out, it is not because the Church has lost the name of Christ, but that it has lost the radical and often uncomfortable message that comes with Christ.

In 1454 the Doctrine of Discovery was in its developmental stages. Christopher Columbus had not yet “sailed the ocean blue” as we so patriotically like to say it. But the Church nonetheless had already become the perfect candidate for such successful “discoveries.”

It had developed a mission. A mission in which any enemies of the church, pagans, muslims, or any form of non-believers should immediately be subdued, captured, and enslaved in the name of Christ and profit.

The mission proved to be quite successful. In 1492 when Columbus did in fact discover the West Indies and the people already living there, he realized how easy Pope Nicholas V’s mission for the Catholic Church might be to obtain. He wrote in his journal:

They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1).

The atrocities committed against American Indians in the early days of conquest can powerfully be summed up in the words of a Dominican priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas in his History of the Indies in 1528:

The Indians [of Hispaniola] were totally deprived of their freedom and were put in the harshest, fiercest, most horrible servitude and captivity which no one who has not seen it can understand. Even beasts enjoy more freedom when they are allowed to graze in the fields… I sometimes came upon dead bodies… and upon others who were gasping and moaning in their death agony, repeating “Hungry, hungry.” And this was the freedom, the good treatment and the Christianity the Indians received.

To me the last line of this excerpt from Las Casas is quite profound. “This was the freedom, the good treatment and the Christianity the Indians received.”

It is easy for us to look back into history and make claims about how sad it is that the Christian faith would have done something like this. And while the genocide of millions of Natives, done partly in the name of Nationalism, partly in the name of Christendom, but mostly in the name of a deadly concoction of the two, will never happen again, it should keep us ever on the alert.

This is in fact the past that has created the present. To claim that we have completely disowned the ever-tempting desires that so indulged the conquests of early America is to lose oneself in the ignorance that plagues our progression as a democratic society.

The reason we tell stories of these atrocities is not to condemn or judge those who engaged in them. It is to recognize, for the sake of the victims (that are, perhaps not surprisingly, struggling at such an alarming rate today), that they happened. But also, to ask ourselves how we, a people largely influenced by the same religious, nationalistic, and moral implications that early conquerers were, might be engaging in the same behavior in the world today.

When, in the name of Nationalism, do we support violent military excursions? When, in the name of Christendom, do we withhold basic rights from those we disagree with? When, in the name of morality, do we label the poor as “lazy individuals that got what they deserve?”

When we understand the sinful desires that are so deeply embedded within all of us, and are so numerously displayed throughout history, we can better re-examine ourselves and the way we think about the world.

As Christians, we have lost Christ in the name of Christendom. As Americans, we have lost the meaning of freedom in the name of Nationalism.

Let us get back to freedom. Not freedom for ourselves, but freedom for our sisters and brothers who have been neglected, forgotten, and buried underneath a wealthy, worshipping chorus of the “American Dream.”

Let us get back to Christ. Not the Christ that the Church has chosen to recognize over the last seventeen centuries. But the radical Middle Eastern peacemaker that so vigorously challenged the wealthy, the defenders, and the powerful.

(Image – From a stamp engraved on copper by Th. de Bry, 1590: “Discovery of America, 12 May, 1492, Christopher Columbus erects the cross and baptizes the Isle of Guanahani by the Christian Name of St. Salvador.”)

Why Bother with Politics?

In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he still suffers great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.

-Chris Hedges

Politics

There is a sector of the American population in which politics – at least in the current American system – have little impact on their lives. These people are usually well-off from a money standpoint, and likely live in a nice neighborhood with a good family– the iconic “American Dream” scenario. To these groups, politics just means unnecessary conflict and disagreement. Politics are disruptions to the otherwise stable and joy-filled lives they already inhabit.

Then there is another sector of the American population which cares very little about politics. This is the group that doesn’t realize the impact it has. Whether that be because of their economic situation – lacking the proper resources to stay engaged in the world – their lack of education, or perhaps just plain apathy, this group fails to understand the importance of their role in a (semi) democratic state.

On the other hand there are those that care deeply about politics. These groups can come from a variety of different bases. Some choose to wrap themselves up in the emotions of nationalistic pride. For these people, the love of military, defense, and security keeps politics of the utmost importance. These are the individuals that have to conceal-and-carry their gun to church or out to eat because they are so afraid of who might attack them. This group also thinks this way from the standpoint of the country as a whole. They believe that any cut to the military budget, even though America already spends more than the next eight countries combined on their military (that includes authoritarian/nationalist governments like China and Russia), will immediately render America susceptible to foreign crime. This is interesting to me considering the United States has military bases in 63 countries worldwide, as well as by far the most military spending of any country in the world. Yet that did not stop 9/11 from happening. It lends one to believe that perhaps maybe American global imperialism and militarism provoked 9/11 more than anything else. Beyond this, Americans own by far the most guns of any other country. Interestingly enough, we also experience an extraordinary amount of mass shootings in comparison to any other countries. For some reason, many Americans hold dear to this idea that more military power will mean less violence. Unfortunately, it has only led to large amounts of mass murders and millions and millions of innocent civilian deaths. Confusing as it may be, there is a large number of the population that defines America through the lens of the military.

Another group finds politics important because it can be a tool for maintaining and enforcing values that they might find important. This is the conservative evangelical wing. The group that showed unprecedented support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. While this group shares much overlap and can often even be combined with the nationalistic sector, they have other issues that are more important. Since Ronald Reagan, this group has fought relentlessly on three issues: Abortion, gay marriage, and crime. For some, being pro-life is all that a candidate really needs to be. Well, pro-life is somewhat misleading. Pro-life for unborn babies. Not pro-life for undocumented immigrants and children, drug addicts, poor folks, criminals, minorities, Muslims, the environment and its wildlife, or the innocent civilians that are killed in American military excursions. So, in other words, not really pro-life at all. Again, strange as it may sound, this group has found value in politics through its joining of the idealistic crusade of preserving their Christian ideals.

Another group that finds politics important is those of the free market. These are the millionaire and billionaire corporate powers and rich individuals throughout the country that can never have enough money or power. In reality, these are the people that run America. It is not the people or the legislatures or even the president. It is this group. The group that gives millions and millions of dollars to the politicians that create laws, allowing them to have less regulations, less taxes, and more wealth. This does not have an effect on the upper middle class and beyond, which is why nobody complains about it. What this means is that America is no longer all that democratic. People might help vote individuals into particular positions. But once they are in, they have don’t have any say on policy. The billionaire cooperations have the say. And it is quite consistent that in the American government, legislatures do what those billionaire cooperations tell them to do. Thus, this is quite an important base.

There is however a small base that believes politics are important for something other than greed and corporate power, military prowess, and religious conservatism. This viewpoint, I believe, is why every person should engage in the world that we live in and find value in politics, even if it might mean disagreeing with a friend or family member. Because, in truth, politics affects the lives of individuals throughout the world. By neglecting to act and engage in what is true and beneficial for others, just for the sake of maintaining your own satisfaction and comfort with those around you, seems to be a very selfish way of thinking. On top of that, not being able to engage happily with someone who shares a differing view also seems quite childish.

That being said, politics are important because they have an impact on other individuals. As I Christian, I celebrate the fact that I live in a country that, despite its limitations, enables me to speak out for the livelihood of others in a peaceful and loving way. For most of my life, the Christian message of “loving your neighbor” was just something that you do within your community. It meant being kind to others in the community, volunteering for certain community services, maybe adopting a child, donating money to charitable Christian organizations, or many other great things like these. These all are awesome and amazing things that each person should maintain as fundamentally important. I have a deep respect for anyone who has chosen to adopt a child, engage in community service, participate in work trips, donate large sums of money, etc. These are amazing acts of love.

But often, engaging in politics gets pushed to the side. This leads us to having little knowledge of politics and the world we live in, and eventually, either not really caring at all about politics or hopping on one of the two sides with little knowledge of the implications of the policies that the side may stand for.

This is when, for example, Christians might take the message of Christ and intermingle it with the message of military, wealth, or religious conservatism. The reality is Christ was a radical proponent of peace. He was radically critical of large, wealthy institutions. He was highly critical of nationalism. And most of all, he was immensely critical of those who continually engaged in persecution. All things that are phenomenally prominent in the conservative political atmosphere. But, because we make our Christian lives all about how we act in our community and our personal lives, we just hop on the political bandwagon that all other Christians are on. Yet when we sit down and examine the teachings of Christ, often they are completely contrary.

For me, politics are important because it impacts whether we are going to airstrike communities and kill innocent people. I don’t know the people that we might be killing, but I feel for those who lose their lives or those they love, no matter what flag they live under. Brotherhood and sisterhood goes beyond borders.

Politics are important to me because they decide whether or not a child from an undocumented family will have his/her mommy or daddy ripped away from his/her life. Politics are important because they determine if the 80-year-old widow in the house down the street will get the proper health coverage she needs. They are important because they decide whether we want to rehabilitate drug addicts and treat them for it (like seemingly every other country does), rather than send them to prison. Politics decide whether we are going to kill a criminal or allow them to have life, even amidst their mistakes. It decides whether all people will be told that they will be helped when they get injured or sick, not just those who are wealthy enough to pay for it. It decides whether we will say to those that we may disagree with,that they have a right to the same joys and freedoms that many others have. It decides whether or not we are going to knowingly continue to destroy wildlife and the environment. It decides whether we are going to help victims and those who have been wronged.

This is why politics are important. And this is why I encourage you to engage in the world around you, to contact your political representatives, to vote for people that will help others, not just yourself or the wealthy and powerful. You see, that is the great thing about being an American. We have the freedom to be active. And a world that is active and engaged will see the world beyond the self. It will see into the lives of the other.