Keeping busy

There’s a great piece from the weekend by Tim Kreider, entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” which speaks into the cultural inclination toward busyness–something that’s particularly prevalent in cities, with Washington, DC being no exception. It gives an insightful look into one of the ways by which we try to give ourselves meaning:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

This is framed in non-faith terms but the truth remains (I’m in agreement with Aquinas and Augustine here that all truth is God’s truth, but this opens another discussion for another day), and it raises a whole lot of other questions about worth and value and purpose and meaning. And for Christians especially, it should give us pause; we shouldn’t simply be thinking about the external symptom of busyness–though many of us need to think about this, for starters!–but also about the deeper questions of what we’re about and who we are.

Now, I disagree with Kreider on one point; he says, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But Scripture tells us that God created us for work as well as rest and relationship–when humanity was made in the image of God, each of us was commissioned to have dominion and to bring order to the world he had created (Genesis 1:28). The outcome of the disobedience in the garden of Eden was that the work would be accompanied by toil and struggle, that the relationship between humanity and creation had been corrupted (Genesis 3:17-19).

Work is a good thing, but we have a way of making good things into idols (sex, power, relationships)–and I’d say that work has become, for many of us, an idol.

One of the things I’ve done recently is reach out to friends who’ve been or served in pastoral ministry for many years to ask what practices or habits they would recommend for a young pastor. Without exception, one of the things that everyone has said is, “Take a sabbath.” I talked about this six months ago–“In the beginning … rest.” Establish a rhythm of work and rest–of working from your rest. Remind yourself that it’s not you who’s in charge but God, and that even if you don’t do anything for a day, the world will still turn and things will still get done. Don’t be defined by your work. Don’t let work become an idol. Live out the gospel story, which says that, because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are no longer defined by what we do, how much we do, or even how we do it, but first and foremost by the God who calls us his own, who invites us into his family, and who asks us to join him in telling the tremendous story of grace with our lives.

So … take a break.

MLK, health care reform and wealth inequality

Martin Luther King, Jr. (National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights; Chicago, IL; March 25, 1966):

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.

In light of that, and in conjunction with more recent studies on how it is those with the most equality that are the happiest and healthiest, it is encouraging to read an article like this: “In Health Bill, Obama Attacks Wealth Inequality.”

The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago.

The bill will also reduce a different kind of inequality. In the broadest sense, insurance is meant to spread the costs of an individual’s misfortune — illness, death, fire, flood — across society. Since the late 1970s, though, the share of Americans with health insurance has shrunk. As a result, the gap between the economic well-being of the sick and the healthy has been growing, at virtually every level of the income distribution.

The health reform bill will reverse that trend. By 2019, 95 percent of people are projected to be covered, up from 85 percent today (and about 90 percent in the late 1970s).

I made mistakes as a kid too …

Cross-posted on Faith & Immigration.

Last week, the New York Times shone a light on the story of Qing Hong Wu, former juvenile delinquent, and Michael A. Corriero, retired federal judge. The gist of it is that almost fifteen years ago, Wu pled guilty to a string of muggings committed at age 15. At his hearing, Judge Corriero urged him to turn his life around.

Well, Wu took heed: he was released early on good behavior, worked his way up to become the vice-president at a national technology company by age 29. But in applying for citizenship, he ran into the merciless mess of our current immigration system, which offers no room for rehabilitation. He was locked up as a “criminal alien” in November, awaiting mandatory deportation to China, a country he left at age 5 when his family immigrated to America.

This episode—symptomatic of our broken immigration system—is not a reflection of the highest values we have as a country, where our magnanimity and generosity are matched by welcome and grace. The American dream says that if we work hard and pay our dues, we can and will ultimately make a better life for our families and ourselves. Qing Hong Wu worked hard, paid his dues, and turned his life around.

And now he awaits deportation for actions taken when he was a teenager. I made a lot of mistakes as a kid too—to a certain extent, isn’t that part of our prerogative as kids, and part of the learning and maturing process known as growing up?

But more personal—and more importantly—for me, this episode does not jive well with my faith and my beliefs as a Christian. The God I believe in—the God in whose image I am made, who calls me to be like him—forgave even before we recognized and acknowledged our need for forgiveness. Jesus, whom I call my Savior and Lord, forgave his killers even as he hung dying on the cross.

Here is someone who paid the penalty for his mistakes, did his time and worked to turn his life around—and is now being deported. As Judge Corriero said, “[This situation] really cries out for some kind of justice.” For me as a Christian, as an American and as an immigrant, this is just one story—one of many—that illustrates the desperate need for comprehensive immigration reform now.

UPDATE (3/7/10): Governor Paterson announced that he would pardon Wu, stopping deportation proceedings and allowing Wu to continue applying for U.S. citizenship. Governor Paterson said the case offered “the opportunity to make a forceful statement about the harsh inequity and rigidity of the immigration laws.” Thanks to everyone who participated in appealing on behalf of Qing Hong Wu!

[Qing Hong Wu with his fiancée. Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times]

The Obama Budget 2011

Jim Wallis says that budgets are moral documents, and that how we spend our money shows what our values are. Introduced today, President Obama’s $3.83 trillion budget treads a delicate balance between trying to get the economy going again and trying to bring down the massive inherited budget deficit.*

Anyway, the budget for FY 2011 is fairly pessimistic one in that it presumes a gloomier economic outlook for the near future and budgets more for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, it actually expands the deficit in the short-term in order to bring it down in the long-term. As David Rogers at POLITICO writes,

In fact, it’s not until 2014 and 2015— when Obama hopes to be in his second term— that he has any hope of deficits approaching a sustainable level. Even then he is banking heavily on a new bipartisan fiscal commission to really finish the job.

It shouldn’t need to be said (but it clearly does) that comprehensive reform of the health care system–not just piecemeal and insubstantial legislative change–would help curb exploding costs. Tom Friedman reports from Davos that we’re making the rest of world a little nervous, due to the state of our economy, the political logjam in which we find ourselves, and notably the fact that we still can’t push through something as remedial as curative as health care reform.

And while we’re at it, reforming the financial system would help create a more stable and sound economy, less blown by the winds of bubbles and busts. Paul Volcker, chairman of the President’s Economic Advisory Board, says:

I’ve been there — as regulator, as central banker, as commercial bank official and director — for almost 60 years. I have observed how memories dim. Individuals change. Institutional and political pressures to “lay off” tough regulation will remain — most notably in the fair weather that inevitably precedes the storm.

The implication is clear. We need to face up to needed structural changes, and place them into law. To do less will simply mean ultimate failure — failure to accept responsibility for learning from the lessons of the past and anticipating the needs of the future.

* The NY Times evaluates the history of our country’s red ink, concluding that “President Obama’s agenda, ambitious as it may be, is responsible for only a sliver of the deficits, despite what many of his Republican critics are saying.”

Whoever has the most money gets to choose our next President

Yesterday, the Supreme Court–the highest judicial body in the land–came to a monumental decision, by a margin of 5-4, to overturn decades of restrictions on corporate and union money in elections.

Somehow, Justices Kennedy, Alito, Roberts, Thomas and Scalia came to the conclusion that corporations and unions have the same First Amendment rights as individuals, which means that corporations and unions are free to spend unlimited amounts of money independently in elections. How corporations and unions can be individuals is sort of bemusing since, as Justice Stevens noted, and I paraphrase: “Uh … you know that corporations can’t vote or run for office, right?”

Neither the President nor Members of Congress held back in their responses:

President Obama: “With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington–while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That’s why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less.”

John McCain (R-Ariz.): “I am disappointed by the decision of the Supreme Court and the lifting of the limits on corporate and union contributions. However, it appears that key aspects of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), including the ban on soft money contributions, remain intact.”

Russ Feingold (D-Wis.): “The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections. In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”

As one of my friends noted, this is one of the most vigorous displays of bipartisanship we’ve seen in a while! Already, Democrats are planning to push a bill to limit the fallout from what is, in my opinion, one of the most counterintuitive Supreme Court decisions in recent history (and the NY Times doesn’t disagree)–I’m hoping this’ll be a bipartisan effort too.

And by the way, way to go, Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Breyer!

If you’re interested, you can read the entire court opinion here.

And, perhaps more importantly, you can take action on this. Organizing for America has a site where you can let your Member of Congress know that you care about fair elections. And the Campaign to Legalize Democracy has issued a petition in response to the ruling. Signatories so far include Brian McLaren, Bill Moyer, Bill McKibben, Howard Zinn, Jim Hightower, Tom Hayden and Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, and move to amend our Constitution to:

  • Firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.
  • Guarantee the right to vote and to participate, and to have our votes and participation count.
  • Protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate “preemption” actions by global, national, and state governments.