Thursday, July 16, 2015

'WHEN THE SHIP COMES IN'






I’ve been in a funk since yesterday. Paying attention to the news of this world tends to do that to me.

It all started when I read a news release about Dinesh D’Souza. For those of you who don’t know much about how he ran afoul of the federal government, I’ll give you a brief thumbnail. D’Souza has been a forceful, often persuasive critic of the Obama administration. He’s produced films like “2016: Obama’s America” and “America: Imagine the World without Her,” that have been widely praised by Conservatives and panned by Progressives. His work has been so effective that some have dubbed him the “anti-Michael Moore.”  Moore, of course, is the documentarian who has become the darling of America’s Progressive movement.

To say D’Souza’s has been a political lightning rod or a target would be an understatement.

Well, sooner or later the shoe was bound to drop. In 2014, he was charged with violating federal campaign finance law. His crime? He’d used straw donors during a political campaign, something many donors do without much notice on the part of federal authorities. But, D’Souza had the dreaded target on his back.  He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years’ probation, another eight months in a halfway house, a $30,000 fine, and what I think of as “therapeutic psychiatric counseling.” It was the judge’s way to coerce D’Souza into to thinking more kindly about the Obama administration in particular, and Progressives in general.

Was the sentence justified? Most Progressives seemed to think so, but there was one notable exception. After the sentence was handed down, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz commented on the whole affair – “The idea of charging him with a felony for this doesn’t sound like a proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.... I can’t help but think that [D'Souza's] politics have something to do with it.... It smacks of selective prosecution.”

If there was a bright side to the spectacle, it was in discovering that there’s at least one honest Progressive out there.

A year has passed since D’Souza was sentenced. At the most recent judicial hearing, his lawyer presented evidence from D’Souza’s psychiatric counselor, who testified that he “found no indication of depression or reason for medication.” Another counselor provided the court with a written statement that concluded “there was no need to continue the consultation, because D’Souza was psychologically normal and well adjusted.”
 
That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Judge Richard Brennan ruled that D’Souza’s violation of campaign finance law was evidence of a “psychological problem” and ordered another four years of “therapeutic counseling.”

God knows what might happen to D’Souza in four years if he doesn’t straighten out his thinking. Massive doses of Thorazine perhaps? A lobotomy?

A while later I read about Hillary Clinton’s novel approach to dealing with malcontents who just won’t get with the program. Clinton, who is an ardent supporter of abortion, made the following statement in a recent address to the Women in the World summit: “Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don't count for much if they're not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice—not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs (emphasis added) and structural biases have to be changed.”
 
Clinton, as she often does, tried to be vague, but I don’t think she succeeded. What she was saying was that if people have cultural codes, structural biases, or religious beliefs that aren’t in keeping with her agenda, she will use “resources and political will” (the law and the federal bureaucracy) to straighten them out.

I doubt that she was aware of it, but she was doing a brilliant job of channeling revolutionary French politicians who gave us their 19th century “Reign of Terror.” The following, for example, comes from Billaud Varennes, a prominent member of the “committee for public safety,” who oversaw the mayhem that came with all the talk of liberty, equality, and fraternity:  “A people who are to be restored to liberty must be formed anew. Ancient prejudices must be destroyed, antiquated customs changed, depraved affections corrected, inveterate vices eradicated.”

Who knows? If Hillary Clinton gets elected we just might get to see a latter day Madame Defarge sitting at the foot of the political guillotine, stoically knitting schemes to deal with dissenters. “Knit one, pearl two…Chop…Chop!”

What might this mean for people like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are locked in a battle of faith and conscience with the federal government? Just this morning, a three judge federal appeals panel in Denver ruled they had to get with the program and provide¸ through a slippery third-party arrangement, free contraceptives for their employees. The Little Sisters believe that the government’s “accommodation” still makes them complicit in an immoral act they cannot in good conscience support.

What have the Little Sisters done that’s so ruffled the feathers of Progressives. I’d like to know and so would the Little Sisters. This is how they put it when the three judges ruling came down: “we should not have to make that choice, because it violates our nation’s commitment to ensuring that people from diverse faiths can freely follow God’s calling in their lives. For over 175 years, we have served the neediest in society with love and dignity. All we ask is to be able to continue our religious vocation free from government intrusion.”

The next step will be the Supreme Court, with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her Progressive cohorts waiting in the wings. By the time the ruling comes, Hillary Clinton might be our President. Then what? “Knit one, pearl two…Chop…Chop?”

As you can see, my frustration level is pretty high. It’s a good thing, though, that I didn’t write this essay last night. I was in a fury. Nancy and I watched PBS’s “Frontline.” It was an investigative piece about the barbarism going on in ISIS controlled territory in Syria. There were interviews with Yazidi women and children as young as nine years old who were being repeatedly raped by ISIS thugs and being bought and sold as slaves. There were videos of young ISIS recruits laughing and joking about being able to rape children with no fear of retribution for their evil. There were other videos of Yazidi men being executed in masse. There was photographic evidence of ISIS executioners throwing young men suspected of being gay off the tops of buildings. There was a graphic video of a young woman being stoned to death for supposedly committing adultery, although the man she was supposed to have committed the sinful act with was nowhere to be found.

The only saving grace to the piece was a Syrian lawyer who is trying to save as many of those trapped in the hell of ISIS controlled Syria as he possibly can. Using a network of trusted agents, he’s been able to find a way to help a couple of hundred Yazidis escape the terror. He’s engaged in a noble effort, but it’s wearing on him. You can see it in the video. He’s tired. You can see that he feels the enormous weight of the task he’s taken on.  There are hundreds of thousands trapped, but he can only rescue a few.

As the program rolled on, I found myself muttering at the grainy images of the young ISIS thugs, “You filthy swine…..you filthy swine.” In the recesses of my soul I began to think, like David of old, “I hate them with a perfect hatred.” (Psalm 139) I even caught up in thinking that if I could only get a hold of some of those evil bastards, I would “dash them to pieces like pottery.” (Psalm 2)

After the show, Nancy and I talked about how powerless watching all these events made us feel. We pray about these things every day, but there’s very little that we can do beyond that. Will changes in our politics change things in America? Can we Christians change that? I don’t think so. We’re the minority report these days. We’re in the gunsights now. Just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor. Can we convince ISIS to stop pillaging and raping? No! Their theology dictates that they annihilate anyone who gets in the way of the establishment of their caliphate.

My frustration comes close to boiling over. Like the great cloud of witnesses in heaven, I keep asking, “How long, oh Lord? When will the cup of iniquity be filled to the point where you will intervene on humanity’s behalf?”

All I can do is pray. Arrayed against the principalities and powers of this age, my prayers seem feeble. But, I have to be satisfied that in praying, I’m doing my part. So, I’ll watch and pray, and look to the eastern sky for that glorious day we’ve been promised, when the crooked places will be made straight and the valleys will be exalted. All of these things are in God’s hands. They haven’t escaped his notice. We have our plans and methods. He has his!

As I was thinking about these things this morning¸ I turned my Pandora app on and the first song that came up was Bob Dylan’s 1963 classic “When the Ship Comes In.” I’ve always seen it as a theological piece. The eschatology is raw and powerful. As I listened I found myself longing for the time when I would see the fish laughing, the seagulls smiling, and the rocks standing, as the ship of salvation descends upon the earth one last time. I could almost feel my tired toes resting on the sands that will become a carpet of gold and the wise men will proclaim that the whole world is watching.

There’s a YouTube video at the introduction to this essay. If you haven’t listened to it already, I highly recommend it. I’ll also close with the complete lyrics to the song, which follow. Read them and be edified.

Maranatha!

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind
’Fore the hurricane begins
The hour when the ship comes in


Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking


Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be smiling
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand
The hour that the ship comes in


And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean


A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck
The hour that the ship comes in


Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’


Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in


Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharoah’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

THE FELLOWSHIP OF POVERTY



When it comes to poverty, there’s no shortage of euphemisms and clichés people use to describe the poor in their communities. Sometimes those expressions are harmless, even a bit cute. Most of us know someone who’s “as poor as a church mouse.” All too often, though, the expressions inadvertently demean the poor. Every time I hear someone talk about “those less fortunate” I cringe. I try to understand that they mean well, but I have to admit that I struggle with what I’m hearing. I feel the same way when I hear someone describe the poor as “those in need.” But, I get downright apoplectic when I see someone surveying a poor person and muttering “There but for the grace of God go I” or listen to academia’s outhouse sociologists discuss the “shame or the curse of poverty.”

As I said in my previous essay, I have an intimate knowledge of what poverty is like. I know what it’s like to live at the mercy of institutions where people are trained to do the things for “those less fortunate” that they are supposedly unable to do for themselves. I know the sting of early life lived as one of the “needy,” as opposed to being considered someone with all the physical and intellectual equipment necessary to be a contributing member of a community. I know all too well about what it’s like to be labelled by those I had to assume were “more fortunate” (a euphemism for better, perhaps?) than me.

I’m not really sure that those who use the euphemisms, clichés, and labels know why they’ve become so comfortable with them. Maybe it soothes their consciences. “I’ve said the magic words; therefore I’m a bundle of empathy and compassion.”

What is it that makes these euphemisms and clichés to toxic? In his Christmas address to the public in 2014, Brad Montgomery, Director of the Torres Shelter in Chico, California, put it this way: “They are clichés because they are completely inadequate at summing up the human being involved. We are all more than a diagnosis or a label that can be used to describe us.”

That’s it! That’s what many of those who spout the meaningless platitudes fail to grasp. At the receiving end of every euphemism there stands a living, breathing human being.

That’s why I still recoil when I hear the euphemisms. I hear them and I want to scream, “The poor are human beings, dammit, not abstractions. They’re not less fortunate than you. In fact, you’re no better than them. The poor aren’t cursed. They don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

The truth is, the overwhelming majority of the poor have more than enough to make them successful in life. They have hearts and souls, something their so-called benefactors can’t seem to bring themselves to accept. As I think about it, I want to scream even louder, but it’s probably better to let “Jane Eyre” do my screaming for me:  “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart!”

Growing up in poverty taught me many valuable lessons. I learned a lot about courage and the value of hard work from my mother. I learned, despite what my “benefactors” told me, that poverty couldn’t prevent me from being happy. I might have been poor, but being the stickball champion of Chatham Street brought me great joy. I learned that poverty couldn’t close my mind off to great ideas or the classics of literature. As author Frank McCourt once observed, “I might have been poor, my shoes might have been broken, but my mind was a palace.” I learned that the stars in the sky and the warmth of the sun were as available to me as they were to the richest man on earth.

They were all wonderful lessons, but there are other lessons that will always be even closer to my heart. I learned them through experience. Most of those who are poor have great affinity for one another. They understand each other. They care for one another. They share dreams and aspirations with one another. They gladly share the few earthly possessions they have. Added together, these shared values constitute a powerful fellowship of poverty.   

To those in positions of power and privilege, these small gestures must seem meaningless. I suspect that’s because they can’t see that true wealth has much more to do with generosity of spirit than it does with economics. Holy Writ puts it this way - there are times when one can “have nothing, yet possess everything.”

As it is with many of the poor, my station in life has changed over time. But, whatever my lot in life, I’ll never abandon my roots. I’ll never consider them a curse or a badge of shame. Those roots, planted deeply in broken glass and tenements, will always fill my soul.

Friday, July 10, 2015

SATURDAYS WITH MR. SAHADY








There’s been a great deal of ink devoted in the Gazette recently to the issue of poverty and government’s role in alleviating or eliminating poverty altogether. While I’m sure that those writing have the best intentions, I find myself at odds with them. It’s not because I think alleviating and eliminating poverty is an unworthy goal. I believe that a free society, like ours, that abandons the poor is a society that’s bound by shackles of neglect and greed.

Why, then, do I object?

My objection has little to do with the motivation of those advocating for the welfare state. I object because our government, at all levels, has failed to even make a dent in the problem. In fact, government has made things worse.

Since the days of Lyndon Johnson, America has been at war with poverty. We’ve spent trillions upon trillions. All the money being poured into the welfare state is buttressed by a massive bureaucracy, with close to a hundred means tested programs created to ensure that the poor spend the money they’re getting “sensibly.”  Yet, the problem has only gotten worse over time. The money spent hasn’t solved the problem. Why, then, should I delude myself into thinking that spending more money will eventually fix things? It won’t.

We’re now in a headlong rush to do the very thing that makes things worse. In 2012, Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, testified before Congress that “Combined annual federal and state spending will reach $1.56 trillion in 2022. Overall, President Obama plans to spend $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade.” Rector further testified that “If converted to cash, means-tested welfare spending is more than sufficient to bring the income of every lower-income American to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, roughly $44,000 per year for a family of four.”

We conservatives and libertarians are often accused  by elites and progressives of being greedy, compassionless monsters. The accusation is unwarranted and unfair. Conservative and libertarian economists have championed a system with guaranteed income. F.A. Hayek advocated government just sending checks to the poor. So did Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. Most recently, sociologist Charles Murray proposed sending a $10,000 check annually to every American citizen.  That would almost amount to the $44,000 for the family of four that Robert Rector testified to Congress about.

The simplicity of the proposals was astounding. Send the money to the people who need it and dismantle the massive welfare bureaucracy. Some say it wouldn’t work, mainly because perpetuating the system is in their best interests, not the poor’s.

Beyond the data and statistics, though, I have a vested interest in the problem of poverty. I grew up within the welfare state. I know how dehumanizing it is.

My dad died when I was young and my mother was an immigrant with only a third grade education. Our situation seemed hopeless, or so the government believed.

The payments we got weren’t really enough to support us, but the welfare system didn’t know my mother. She found a way out. She was from hardy stock. Her father was a whaler. Her brothers were fishermen and lumberjacks. The value of hard work was hard wired into the family and passed down to us.

There was a man who delivered fresh fruits and vegetables on Saturdays in our neighborhood. His name was Mr. Sahady. He was a hard working Lebanese immigrant. Like us, he was poor.  He would drive around the neighborhood, his broken English booming over a loudspeaker, “Raspberries, strawberries…thirty-five cents a quart.”

Although child labor laws and the welfare bureaucracy would have stopped her, my mother spoke to Mr. Sahady and got him to agree to let me ride with him on the sly and deliver baskets to his customers for the tips I’d get.

I spent many a Saturday with Mr. Sahady. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. He seemed to know that our circumstances were mirrored in his. He always brought me a lunch that we’d share in his truck. At the end of the day, he’d put five or six more dollars in my hand and whisper to me, “Butch, you tell your muddah that everything gonna’ be okay someday. We’ll get you through this. You just keep working hard. Don’t ever forget that!”

Well, I escaped the system’s clutches, by admittedly illegal means. My mother and Mr. Sahady violated child labor laws and did an end run around the welfare bureaucracy. But, they did right by me. They taught me early on about the dignity of hard work and taking care of myself. I also learned that a poor man’s wages, earned by the sweat of his brow, are far better than living life at the mercy of the welfare state.

I learned those lessons well and I’m a better man for it. I’ll always be grateful to my mother and Mr. Sahady for that.