Tuesday, August 23, 2016

We're all gaming the system

I found myself in a conversation recently with a couple of people on the Appalachian Trail. The AT is one of those places where I can go and nobody has to know I'm a priest. We all look the same in cargo shorts, t-shirts, and hiking boots. My conversation partners were a man and woman - she was the ridge runner for that section of the trail and a fellow Episcopalian and he turned out to be a stockbroker and devout Roman Catholic. The conversation turned to economic and social issues and especially the plight of the poor in our country.

Our stockbroker went on about how poor people "game the system." I asked him to unpack what he meant by that. He told us he had a friend who owned a McDonald's franchise which pays minimum wage to its employees. His friend told him that a number of these employees will work up until early December and then quit their jobs so that they will not lose their eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid. This clearly angered our companion and he went on about how they were "gaming the system" at the expense of hard working guys like him.

So I asked him a question: "Have you ever sold securities at the end of the year at a loss to offset your capital gains and lower the amount of taxes you pay?" He replied, "That's different." I told him I didn't ask if it was different, I asked him if he ever did. He said, "Well, of course. That's just good business. Besides, that's perfectly legal." I agreed with him that it was good business and perfectly legal, but it was also gaming the system - albeit a different part of the system.

I continued, "So what makes your legal maneuver to lower your tax liability to your financial advantage any different from a poor person quitting their job in order to protect their own financial interests? Especially in light of the fact that quitting your job is perfectly legal too ... Lincoln freed the slaves you know." He conceded that I had a point.

Accusing the poor of "gaming the system" to gain financial advantage while simultaneously denying the ways wealthier people game the system through tax breaks, loopholes, and business losses is hypocrisy. It's a demonization of the most vulnerable among us while rationalizing our own self-righteousness ... the very behavior Jesus condemned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

You cannot serve two masters - the NRA, gun owners and corporate interests

Jesus said: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." - Luke 16:13, Matthew 6:24

This teaching of Jesus is about divided loyalties, especially when those loyalties lie at cross-purposes with each other. Serving "wealth" is to serve the self to the exclusion of others. Serving God is about serving others. You can't have it both ways.

But in the wake of yet another mass shooting, this one at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando targeting the LGBTQ community, it seems long past time to unmask the divided loyalties at cross-purposes with each other going on within the National Rifle Association.

First a disclaimer

I am not a gun owner. I can think of a few limited circumstances under which I would be, but they don't apply to my context. I'm not a sport shooter. I have engaged in this activity in my past, but frankly, I never really found it that appealing. It's just not my thing.

My sister is a gun owner and a member of the National Rifle Association. She and her husband own several guns, including an AR-15. She is a registered nurse with a Masters degree in Nursing (my Masters is in Divinity). She and her husband are truly responsible gun owners who know their weapons, secure them properly and are all in favor of reasonable gun legislation which would close the loopholes of current laws. We've had some heated but reasonable discussions about requiring licensing of gun owners, passing physical and mental health screenings, requiring periodic training, and liability insurance - we're in agreement on all of those things.

Finally, while my sister and I are on differing sides of owning guns, our father is a survivor of an accidental shooting when he was a teenager. His friend took down his father's supposedly unloaded service revolver to show it to my dad and it fired hitting our dad in the leg. This was an accident caused by a gun owner's irresponsibility in storing his weapon.

Now an observation

The National Rifle Association claims to be the voice of responsible gun owners and to be promoting the safe use of firearms. This is partially true. They have sponsored educational programs on proper use and security of firearms. As Business Inside pointed out in 2013:
"In its early days, the National Rifle Association was a grassroots social club that prided itself on independence from corporate influence" ("How the Gun Industry Funnels Tens of Millions of Dollars to the NRA", Walter Hickey, Business Insider, January 16, 2013) 
But no more. The NRA has made millions of dollars through their corporate sponsorship programs. In addition, millions of dollars are funneled in by the likes of Crimson Trace (which makes laser sights) who donates 10% of their sales to the NRA, Sturm & Ruger who donates $1 to the NRA for every gun they sell, and Taurus who buys a membership for anyone who buys their guns. The NRA makes an approximate 7-10% of their revenues from advertising for gun manufacturers. According to A-Mark Foundation, 50.5% of the revenue funding the NRA comes directly from their memberships - which means 49.5% comes from the corporate interests of gun and gun related manufacturers.

And this is where Jesus' teaching comes in. No one can serve two masters. The interests of public safety with respect to responsible gun use are at cross-purposes with the corporate profit motives of those who sell guns and gun-related equipment. Corporations will always seek to sell their products with a minimum amount of regulatory interference so they can make the most money - that's the profit motive. Gun regulations, even reasonable ones, threaten to reduce the sale of guns and are a direct threat to corporate profits. The NRA is trying to serve two masters and corporate interests are winning its soul!

It is long past time for the responsible gun owning members of the National Rifle Association to take back their organization from the corporate interests who have hijacked it in service to money. The American people, whether gun owning or not, have had enough! Our people are dying because we are putting selfishness and greed ahead of reason and civility.

Come on responsible gun owners! We are on your side here - let's work together to save lives and protect rights. These are not mutually exclusive goals.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Another day, another shooting ...

How long, O LORD? will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?

How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day? *
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?

Look upon me and answer me, O LORD my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;

Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.

(Psalm 13:1-4)

How long indeed? I write again today in the aftermath of another senseless shooting - 9 college students dead plus the shooter. Roseburg, Oregon this time - a small town not unlike where I live. There have been 74 mass shootings at schools since December 14, 2012 when Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT killing 20 children and 6 adults. Mass shootings have become so routine, I am beginning to forget all the places - Aurora CO, Isla Vista CA, Santee CA, Blacksburg VA, Fort Hood TX, Carson City NV, Seal Beach CA, Charleston SC ... and the list goes on.

We have turned into a country which is worshiping a new Baal - guns, the NRA and the 2nd Amendment. And not the 2nd Amendment as originally intended by our Founding Fathers, but a radical distortion of the original intent which has made it easy for guns to get into the hands of violent and/or mentally fragile people. This is idolatry and part of what Presiding Bishop elect Michael Curry calls the "Unholy Trinity" - poverty, racism and guns.

Our Bible study group at Grace Church is working through the Book of Revelation. Why? Because the regulars in our Bible study group said they found Revelation to be the most frightening book in the Bible. We are reading this together and learning that far from frightening, Revelation is a book of great promise and hope. It is also an indictment against the empires of this world. In John of Patmos' case, this was Rome (which he disguises by calling it Babylon). Revelation says that the powers of this world which corrupt and destroy God's people and creation are doomed and the reign of the Lamb of God has the last word. Our allegiance as Christians, therefore, is not to any power of this world, but to Christ alone.

I am a Christian first. My allegiance to country falls behind that. At times, my faith supports what the government by the people does. At other times, I stand in opposition to the United States of America. I believe my faith calls me to respect the dignity of every human being - part of that is respecting the right of others to live in peace without fear of gun violence destroying their lives. The unfettered and poorly regulated access to guns must stop.

I know I will offend the NRA apologists and those who support the more recent distortions of the 2nd Amendment with my words. If my words offend you, I ask why you are not offended by dead bodies bleeding on a church floor, a theater floor, or a classroom floor? How many children are you willing to stand by and see slaughtered to protect unfettered access to firearms? How many police officers do you want to see shot because they are outgunned on our own streets by inconsistent gun regulations?

Christians cannot bow down to worship this Baal anymore and silence is complicity. As a priest, I deal with the aftermath of violence - I and my fellow clergy are tired of picking up the fragments of what's left when the bullets stop flying. If our prayers do not lead us to action, they are empty and vain. Reasonable, consistent gun regulations including background checks and the ability to remove firearms from those who have proven by their actions to be mentally unstable or violent is no threat to responsible gun ownership. We don't need more prayers and sympathy - we need legislation and we need it now.