Friday, September 27, 2013

Sleeping with the rich and famous

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores. Luke 16:19-20.

I hesitate to admit, especially after reading this passage from Luke, that my greatest heroes have been filthy rich.

Perhaps the greatest U.S. president of the 20th century was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the wealthy scion of Hudson River Valley gentry.

My grandparents, who operated hard scrabble farms less than an hour’s drive from Hyde Park, hated FDR. They abhorred his politics but most of all they hated his aristocratic accent, his aquiline nose, and the supercilious way he sat looking up at people through his pince-nez eyeglasses.

My grandparents didn’t know FDR had to sit down because his legs were as useless as a ventriloquist’s dummy’s.

But mostly they hated FDR because he looked so rich.

In a 1936 photograph taken at the 300th anniversary celebration of Harvard University, Roosevelt looks like the archetypal capitalist. Dressed in a top hat and pinstriped pants, he oozes smug noblesse oblige. The smile on his face belies the fact that he has been sitting for so long in a steady rain that his boxers have started to mildew. One observer whispered to his neighbor, “This is Harvard’s way of soaking the rich.”

Most fortunes grow from invidious roots and Roosevelt’s riches paled in comparison to the copious wealth amassed by his contemporary Joseph P. Kennedy. It is unclear how Joe Kennedy got so colossally rich, though he seems to have accomplished it through shrewd stock trading, mob abetting, Hollywood deal making, and clandestine bootlegging.

The sheer weight of Kennedy’s fortune borders on the incomprehensible. A couple years ago a friend drove me past an immense mansion in Bronxville. The multi-tiered, elegantly cavernous house was surrounded by marble steps, classical fountains, and Italian landscaping. “No body knows for sure,” my friend whispered (as if there were Kennedy agents lurking within earshot), “but they say Joe Kennedy built this house for his mistress, Gloria Swanson.”

It is also claimed that in New Jersey, the Gloria Crest Estate, a 24,000 square foot mansion on five landscaped acres containing eight bedrooms, 14 baths, four complete kitchens, an elevator, a seven-car garage, a pool, pool house, and aviary, was also a gift from Kennedy to Swanson. The estate has been listed for $40 million. 

No one could accuse Joe Kennedy of trivializing his pursuit of mistresses with flowers and Godiva chocolates. What Swanson must have given in return for this munificence staggers the imagination.

Joe Kennedy was not one of my personal heroes, but his son was. President John F. Kennedy was the richest president in U.S. history, leaving a personal fortune (measured at 2010 rates) of a thousand million – that is, one billion dollars.

FDR ranks ninth among the richest presidents, worth a mere $60 million. (The poorest president, according to web sources, was Harry Truman.)

But FDR and JFK and many White House residents – all but nine were millionaires measured in 2010 dollars – would make the rich man in Jesus’ story seem pitifully deprived. What is disturbing is that this particular rich man makes rich people look bad.

I’m sure Jesus didn’t care that the man was rich enough to live in a gated community, dress in purple, and eat sumptuously. There is no sin in being rich, just as there is no sin in being poor.

It’s what you do or do not do with your resources that imperils your soul, Jesus warned.

Jesus didn’t tell us how the rich man amassed his fortune, so we might assume he was a virtuous man except for one major omission.

He was indifferent to the greatest commandments: to love God, and love your neighbor.

The rich man was so absorbed by his opulence that he failed to notice the starving man outside the gate.

It was a sin of omission that cost the rich man his soul. The imagery in Luke 16:19-31 is uncomfortably vivid, beginning with the disquieting description of dogs licking the poor man's sores and continuing with the rich man's agony in hell.

The notion of Father Abraham as the arbiter of souls never made it into the creeds, so perhaps Jesus’ spine-chilling description of hell is poetic. It’s interesting, though, that this Father Abraham is an obdurate hard ass when he dismisses the rich man’s entreaties for mercy. Jesus offers no alternative to heaven or hell, so later theologians ignored this story when they posited Purgatory.

But ancient metaphysics aside, the more compelling point of Jesus’ story seems to be this: the responsibility of every person, regardless of net worth, is to love your neighbor.

The responsibility to love net-worthless neighbors rises in proportion to the size of one’s net worth. The richer you are the greater is your responsibility to relieve your suffering neighbor, to feed your hungry neighbor, to clothe and shelter your destitute neighbor, to assure justice for your reviled neighbor.

Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were far too rich to fully understand the suffering of their neighbors. Historians have noted both men had a profound sense of privileged entitlement.

But both presidents managed to transcend their plush limitations in ways the rich man in Jesus’ story did not.

FDR’s devastating encounter with polio crippled him for life and forced him to experience what it was like to suffer and depend on others. He invested nearly two-thirds of his net worth to establish Warm Springs as a therapy center for thousands who suffered as he did. When he became president, many of his New Deal programs aimed at sustaining the millions of Americans who lived outside the gates.

JFK admitted his only knowledge of the Great Depression was through reading about it in college. Even Kennedy’s admirers acknowledge he suffered from large character defects, most notably sexual addiction. But chronic illnesses and physical suffering deepened his character and empathy for others. Many measures aimed at helping persons living outside the gates – Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the war on poverty – were initiated in his presidency.

There is little doubt these two rich men could have done more for the poor persons outside the gates than they did.

But, unlike the rich man in Jesus’ story, they did not turn their backs on the poor. They set reasonable examples for what persons of means can do to alleviate the suffering of others.

They also set reasonable examples for the moral test of government, which Hubert Humphrey said was measured by “how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

This is a sound biblical exegesis of how the rich should relate to the poor. It makes one wish more of our current political leaders, including the so-called Tea Party wing in Congress, would read Luke’s gospel before they vote to close the government next week. Although most pundits doubt it will happen, the aim of the Tea Party is to defund the Affordable Health Care Act, which would deprive millions of Americans of health insurance.

Other budget proposals as they stand now, according to the New York Times, mean more than 57,000 students will not get their Head Start seats back, and 140,000 low-income families who lost their federal housing assistance will be stuck in unaffordable or substandard homes.

These are just the most recent examples of what happens when politics gets in the way of helping persons outside the gates.

Last week a group of evangelical and main line Christians urged the House of Representatives to vote “No” on a proposed bill that will further cut SNAP (the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) by $40 billion over the next 10 years.

The proposed bill is expected to be brought to the full House for a vote this week. If passed, the bill would leave up to 4 million poor, childless adults hungry and 210,000 children without free school meals. These cuts would be on top of substantial across-the-board cuts coming on November 1 due to the expiration of the 2009 Recovery Act. Tea Party efforts to reduce the food stamp program border on cruelty, said one columnist.

Even more than that, these efforts miss the point of Jesus’ story about the rich man who was callously indifferent to the suffering outside his gates. Tea Party efforts to slash government programs that help the poor cannot be dismissed as trickle-down politics. These efforts fail the moral test of government, and they violate the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor.

I wish it were possible to send messengers to warn the politicians who are turning their backs on persons behind the gates, but I doubt it will do much good. If they are not listening to Moses and the prophets, they are not likely to listen one risen from the dead.

But Christians who hear Jesus’ story of the indifferent rich man will feel the heat of judgment on their backs.

And they will pray that all who have ears to hear will listen.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Greatest Generation

My summer reading has included several biographies of the Roosevelts, most recently No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

These books show another side of the Greatest Generation: widespread racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, and other social blights that hindered recovery from the Depression and jeopardized national defense during the Second World War.

More often than not, FDR remained expediently silent, declining to support anti-lynching legislation, ignoring opportunities to save millions of Jews from the Holocaust, and succumbing to the paranoia of his advisors to order millions of Japanese Americans into detention camps.

Through it all, Eleanor Roosevelt rises far above her generation, a courageous champion for human and civil rights and a lonely advocate for making the post-war U.S. a true land of equality and freedom. Her birthday October 11 should be celebrated as a national holiday.

Not fully appreciating her greatness, I wrote to her several times when I was a kid. She always wrote back, and her thoughtful responses to a 15-year-old testify to her magnanimity.

Pictured above is her response to my inquiries about how to go into politics, and whether she thought 18 year olds should be allowed to vote.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Counting the cost of war

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. Luke 14:31-32.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary cites a biblical passage in which Jesus calls on his followers to focus all their attention on discipleship.

In words often misunderstood, Jesus says:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26-27.

Jesus is using a slight hyperbole. He doesn’t mean you have to hate your family. Rather, he is calling upon his followers to put discipleship first in their lives, and to put everything and everyone else second.

But he’s warning you: don’t commit yourself to discipleship without counting the cost.

It’s a bit of a surprise when he cites military planning as an example of cost counting. No king, he says, is going to try to defeat an enemy army twice as big as his.

Some people point to the fact that Jesus does not judge the king for evaluating his prospects in a potential war. The same people conclude that Jesus accepted and perhaps approved the notion that you need a lot of might to make right. Some people think it means Jesus was no pacifist. 

But I think what Jesus wants us to grasp is that following him may lead to all sorts of upheavals in our lives – loss of friends, loss of jobs, loss of respect, loss of income, loss of property – and you need to prepare for that. You need to calculate, like the king, whether you have enough gumption to do it.

Christians experience this every day. Your office colleagues ridicule you when you confess Jesus as savior. Missionaries leave lucrative jobs, comfortable homes, and beloved parents to teach and preach in foreign lands. Relatives avoid you because they think you are too religious. Young men and women give up everything they know and own to enter a life of service in a religious order.

And there are Christians living as beleaguered minorities in countries where their faith has endangered them. 

This Sunday, as we follow Jesus’ lead to count the cost of discipleship, we think particularly of Christian sisters and brothers living in Syria.

President Obama asked the Congress for authorization to launch a “limited, no boots on the ground” air attack on Syria to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for using sarin gas against a civilian population.

Much of the debate in Congress, because of security demands, took place behind closed doors. 

Outside Congress, the debate is less restrained. Fewer than 20 percent of the U.S. public supports an attack on Syria, according to a Reuters poll released on Friday. A meme that stated, “Pearl Harbour, Not Actually an Act of War, Just a Limited Air Strike With No Boots on the Ground,” went viral.

Faith groups are fully engaged in the debate. Some church leaders oppose a missile strike on Syria. Others point out that Bashar al-Assad, for all his flaws, has protected minority Christians in Syria, and they worry radicals warring against his regime may try to exterminate Christians.

And many church leaders call on the president to refrain from attacking Syria because war is ungodly and unchristian.

Mr. Obama would have us believe that a surgical U.S. military strike would keep collateral damage to a minimum, but of course that cannot be controlled. 

The National Council of Churches warned this week that any action “may have consequences beyond U.S. planning and control, including more death and widespread destruction.”

War “is always contrary to the will of God,” the NCC said. Even so, while decrying Syria’s use of sarin gas, the Council stopped short of opposing a strike, and urged President Obama to “use restraint” in deciding upon a military solution.

“We condemn the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria that has killed and maimed thousands of innocent children, women, and men,” an NCC statement said Monday. “This senseless, evil act is horrifying, even against the background of the unspeakable carnage each side has already wrought against the other. All who have been responsible for this chemical attack must search their consciences and ask God for forgiveness and for the courage to refuse to participate in future attacks.”

“We welcome the resolve of President Obama and other leaders to stop future chemical attacks against an innocent populace,” the Council said. “However, we are deeply skeptical that U.S. military action against Syria will prevent future attacks.”  

Whatever President Obama decides to do, any U.S. action will lead to more death and destruction. 

How should the churches advise the president?

I think my generation of Boomers was profoundly influenced by the disaster of the War in Vietnam. We didn’t take polls in the Air Force, but when I was discharged in 1968, I knew very few GIs who thought the war had been a good idea. When I started college that fall, virtually all the veterans in class became leaders in the student peace movement.

As I matriculated at Eastern Baptist College, I was deeply influenced by the examples of many who counted the cost of discipleship and made courageous decisions to oppose war: Martin Luther King, Jr., an early opponent of the war in Vietnam; Edwin T. Dahlberg, an American Baptist pastor, who was accused of being a Communist because he was a pacifist during the Second World War; and Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist social reformer who opposed the First World War. I took classes from John L. Ruth, the Mennonite writer and historian, whose biblical exegesis of pacifism has affected me all my life. 

The basic idea these theologians have in common is that Jesus opposed war.

Well, of course he did. Jesus’ messages of love, acceptance, and forgiveness flow from his mouth like a waterfall. “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

I think if Mr. Obama sought his advice, Jesus would be very clear: “Don’t do it, Barack. These people have suffered enough.”

Increasingly, the same message is coming from Christian leaders around the world. 

Pope Francis urged Mr. Obama to abandon the “futile pursuit” of a military solution in Syria and laid out a case for a negotiated settlement that guarantees rights for all Syrians, including minority Christians. Francis set Saturday, September 7, as a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, and most Protestant denominations have announced they will follow suit.

In the meantime, President Obama announced Friday he would address the nation Tuesday to make a case for attacking Syria.

In that case, my prayer would be that the president – like the cautious king in Jesus’ sermon – would count the cost of his decision.

Presidents of the United States rarely sue for peace because there are no armies in the world bigger than the U.S. military. But there are other costs that should be considered.

No matter how surgically precise cruise missiles may be, or how carefully chosen the targets, the attack will spill more blood in a country drowning in blood.

The attack may not prevent continued use of Sarin gas as a weapon.

The attack will certainly lead to unplanned and unpredictable consequences that may have a disastrous effect on Middle East stability.

Worst of all, the attack will not diminish and may increase the fighting between government and rebel forces in Syria. Innocent civilians – children, women, men, the elderly – will continue to be trapped in the cross fire on the ground and, perhaps, inadvertent targets of cruise missiles from above.

One does not have to be a military strategist or geopolitical pundit to suspect a cruise missile attack in Syria is will make matters worse than they are now.

And one does not have to be a theologian to suspect that the pope’s call for a negotiated settlement in Syria cannot make matters worse and may improve daily life for all Syrians, including the Christian minority.

Let this be our prayer: Mr. President, count the cost. Listen to the growing chorus of religious leaders begging you to seek an alternative to missiles and blood.

We are praying for you, Mr. President. 

Jesus’ blessing is warmly extended to peacemakers, and peacemaker is a mantle we hope you will embrace.

But don’t wait too long. No one wants you to go down in history as the worst Nobel Peace Prize winner since Yasser Arafat.