We take the Bible seriously, not literally
Questions matter more than answers
Our way to God is good, and so are other ways
Park your car in our lot, but not your brain
God is bigger than our religion
God evolves and so does our faith
(This is a longer version of what I shared on Monday 11-14 with my students in the Public Policy course I teach at the USC graduate School of Social Work. Most of them are very disturbed with the results of the election. About half of them have undocumented relatives, and are deeply concerned with their fate.)
I had been transformed from a upstanding professional gentleman into a member of the underclass, in one second.
But when I got off the train, my wife, who is lovely in every way, scooped me up in our Prius and drove me to our nice house in the Hollywood hills, where a shower and clean clothes awaited me. In an hour I was an upstanding professional gentleman once again: bruised and scratched a bit, but otherwise presentable.
"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." I cannot think of a more perfect summation of my face-plant incident than this one from the legendary Jane Addams, the mother of the social work profession and of the public child welfare system of America. This sentence was the product of her Christian faith put into daily practice. I "secured good for myself" by choosing and marrying a remarkably wonderful woman, working hard to get through school, and getting and keeping a great job that pays well and affords my family excellent health insurance. But as I sat on the train, stanching blood from my lip with my hankie, I looked around myself at the regular riders on the Blue Line. It's the train that runs through South Central LA. A lot of those folks had nobody to pick them up at the end of the line, nobody to comfort them and whisk them away to get cleaned up and better-dressed. Had they worked any less to get what little they had? Did I deserve my advantages any more than they deserved their disadvantages? In my condition, it was harder than ever to answer in the affirmative.
My face-to-face encounter with the pavement was one of those "values clarification moments". It reminded me why I vote for political candidates who are committed to social justice. striving to create a society that ensures real help in fall-down-flat situations: those disasters that are not "respecters of persons" (Acts 10:34, KJV).
The philosopher John Rawls undergirded Jane Addams' values when he posited a hypothetical gathering of the unborn. What kind of social arrangements would we make if we collectively designed them before knowing what sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, and social-economic status we would enter as babies? It is hard to imagine that we'd choose the current American system of wildly unequal access to good medical care and schools, inadequate social insurance, and extreme differences in exposures to crime and pollution. It is hard to imagine that in a constitutional convention of the unborn, they would fail to choose what prevails in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway: relatively low income inequality, generous social insurance, universal health care, excellent free education for all, lively democracy, freedom of speech, religion, conscience, and enterprise.
I'm voting for the candidates with policy positions that align most closely with this vision. Life is precarious for us all. We're vertical one second, horizontal the next. We're all on the Blue Line train together, hurtling into an uncertain future. We owe it to each other, and to the Divine Love that binds us all together, to set things up so that there will be comfort and care for everybody at the end of the line - no matter the circumstances into which they were born.
(Here's how I'm voting: VOTIVATOR: My Voting Choices, Nov 8 )
Putting Ritual Into Voting
by Jim Burklo
“Voting is a ceremony,” writes the philosopher, Paul Woodruff: “... it is an expression of reverence – not for our government or our laws, not for anything man-made, but for the very idea that ordinary people are more important than the juggernauts that seem to rule them.” The likelihood that any one person’s vote would decide an election is miniscule. People don’t vote because they think their ballot will decide the outcome. They do so because it is a ritual that is meaningful for them.
So let's put ritual back into voting, so that our hearts will move our hands to mark our ballots for the common good.
As you put your absentee ballot in the mail, or turn in your ballot at the polling place, salute it and say: "I salute all those Americans who risked their lives for my right to vote!"
Ask your friends and family members, or in a ritual in worship, asking parishioners: "With which hand will you be voting on November 8?" Take that hand and hold it with yours, and say: "May love (or God) guide your hand to vote for the common good!"
Here's a song for worship on November 6, celebrating our commitment to work, and vote, for the common good:
DEEPER LOVE: a hymn
Use freely, with attribution
(words: Jim Burklo, tune: O Waly Waly - The Water is Wide)
For deeper love we share the bread
I won’t be full till all are fed
Till every soul has home and bed
The rest of us can’t move ahead
For deeper love we share the wine
I cannot taste the love divine
Till every soul has walked the line
And you’ve had yours like I’ve had mine
Now Mary sings her birthing song
Till every voice can sing along
And voices weak will rise up strong
Her choir is one where all belong
No one’s saved till all are healed
As Jesus on the Mount revealed
Your life and mine forever sealed
Just like the lilies of the field
We follow where the Christ has led
To table that for all is spread
And no one’s sitting at the head
But deeper love in wine and bread
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See a video interview about my new novel, SOULJOURN
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
(Rituals for voting: as you put your absentee ballot in the mail, salute it and say: "I salute all those Americans who risked their lives for my right to vote!" --- Ask your friends and family members, or in a ritual in worship, asking parishioners: "With which hand will you be voting on November 8?" Take that hand and hold it with yours, and say: "May love (or God) guide your hand to vote for the common good!" Song for worship on Sunday Nov 6: Deeper Love... Resource for preaching for Nov 6, and for activists and campaigners: DEEPER LOVE: Faithful Rhetoric for Progressive Social Change )
On occasion, Hillary Clinton has lied, or at least obfuscated the truth. She's certainly swept embarrassing facts under the rug, as evidenced by the WikiLeaks revelations. She's made mistakes and shown true contrition for them. But the volume and nature of Trump's lies is unprecedented. (See the mind-boggling statistics of his lies here.) He doesn't sweep anything under the rug: he blatantly lies, then lies about his lies, then doubles and triples down with further denials. His rare apologies lack any sense of contrition. His initial support for the Iraq war is well-documented, but he barks denial when confronted with this fact. His promotion of the outrageous and manifestly racist "birther" idea that our President wasn't born in the US continued well into his campaign. His political platform has little factual basis. Lies issue forth from him so thick and fast that neither his supporters nor his detractors can keep track of them, and this dampens the public outrage that ought to result. He lies spectacularly, and then turns around to call Clinton "lyin' Hillary", mesmerizing the public into believing that he's no worse a liar than she.
But he's a worse liar, and a worse sinner, by far. For him, lying and cheating is standard business practice. It's fundamental to the way he would govern the country. Clinton's lies matter, and she's been called out for them, appropriately. But lies are not the foundation of her political platform nor will they be the basis of her administration. She argues her platform positions with verifiable details. She's a wonk, a fact-junkie, almost to a fault.
All have fallen short of the glory of God. But some have fallen a lot shorter than others, and that makes a real difference when we are choosing our leaders. When it comes to the exercise of humility, that difference does not matter: every sinner ought to be as contrite as the next. But when it comes to deciding who is going to lead the most powerful nation on earth, it's a huge mistake to presume an immoral equivalence between the candidates. Especially this time.
I am a VOTIVATOR - a way to share our voting choices with each other - and here's how I'm voting on Nov 8. (For a great source of info re: CA ballot propositions, look at the videos explaining them at SeePolitical.com. I'll be at its one-day convention on CA ballot props in LA, Oct 29 Sat: the first-ever BallotCon... see you there!)
I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary with enthusiasm. I am now voting for Hillary Clinton with enthusiasm. Obviously her opponent is utterly unworthy of consideration for the office. But quite apart from that, in her own right she is an outstanding public servant who will deliver progressive changes that are critical for the future of our country. Let’s give her our full support!
She is steadier by temperament and more committed to progressive positions than her opponent, fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez.
I am very impressed with our member of Congress… smart, capable, good on progressive positions. I only wish he was firmer about a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, but that’s not a matter of highest priority for the House of Representatives.
Her opponent is also a Democrat. I feel that her record of public service and her approach to government are somewhat better than his.
Los Angeles County Superior Court:
I chose these judge candidates primarily on the basis of their qualifications listed by the LA County Bar Assn: http://www.lacba.org/docs/default-source/jeec-reports/jeec-report-2016.pdf . All but Nguyen were recommended also by the LA Times: I felt her higher level of qualifications mattered more than the LA Times reasoning for endorsement.
51, School Bonds: No. I’m following the LA Times’ recommendation, based on its editorial analysis, and on Gov. Brown’s distaste for it as a badly-crafted policy. We need more physical improvements in schools but it must be done in a way that is equitable between higher and lower income neighborhoods, and this bond issue does not address that problem.
52, Medi-Cal fees: Yes. Good for Medi-Cal recipients and good for public hospitals.
53, Bond voter approval process, No. This would make it a lot harder for the state to fund infrastructure projects.
54, Legislative proceedings: Yes. Makes for more transparency in the process of passing legislation in the State legislature.
55, Tax extension: Yes. I part ways with the LA Times on this one. This extends the existing Prop 30 tax increase that saved the state from ruin after the recent recession. There are very many critical underfunded priorities still facing our state. But we must remain vigilant to make sure that Sacramento uses the money wisely, and doesn’t just pay off the public employee unions when this proposition passes. I trust Jerry Brown to put the brakes on such excesses.
56, Cigarette tax: Yes. As I read the evidence, this will help fund healthcare and reduce tobacco consumption.
57, Criminal sentences: Yes. Another sensible step toward shrinking the prison-industrial complex and reducing mass incarceration in California.
58, Bilingual education: Yes. A science-based corrective to Prop 227 that banned bilingual programs 20 years ago.
59, Political spending: Yes. This has no legal effect in ending Citizens United, a disastrous Supreme Court decision, but it expresses our outrage at the ongoing poisoning of our democracy by untrammeled special-interest campaign funding.
60, Condoms in adult films, No. Even AIDS activists recognize that this is a bad way to solve a real problem of STD transmission in the porn industry.
61, Prescription pricing: No. Another faulty solution to a real problem. This is not an effectual or sensible way to tamp down the cost of prescription drugs. We need a federal-level solution.
62, Death penalty repeal. Yes!!! About time, don’t you think, that we ended this barbaric practice? How many more innocent people have to die before we give it up?
63, Ammo sales: Yes. A further refinement of sensible gun laws.
64, Marijuana legalization: Yes. It’s time! This is a sensible way to do it – reflecting what’s been learned from other states. We will see an increase in marijuana use, and that’s bad. But we’ll see a reduction in the crime and grime that goes with the marijuana industry – particularly the terrible environmental problems resulting from “grows” on N. Calif. National Forest land. On balance, from a public health “harm reduction” perspective, regulated legalization is a net benefit. But we will need a vigorous public health campaign akin to what’s worked in reducing tobacco use, to minimize the impact of legal weed.
65, Plastic bags: No. Put on the ballot by the plastic bag industry to confuse the public.
66, Death penalty procedures: No. Don’t fix what cannot be fixed! The death penalty is disgusting and inherently unjust.
67, Ban on plastic bags: Yes. Ratifies and protects at a state level the many local plastic bag bans.
Measure A, Parks: Yes. I use the county parks a lot, so I have skin in this one! - needed improvements….
Measure M, Traffic/transit: Yes. I have skin in this one, too, as a Metro rider! This one covers many transit needs, from streets and bridges to public transit.
Measure CC, Community college infrastructure: Yes. While the LA Community College District has had some past problems in managing facility improvements, it still needs the money to make repairs and improvements.
Measure HHH, Homeless housing bond: Yes. I’m involved actively in this campaign to raise $1.2 billion to build permanent supportive housing for homeless people. It will not, by itself, end homelessness in Los Angeles. But over time it will make life much better for many people now living on the streets.
Measure JJJ, City planning, etc: No. A messy proposal that in the end will make it harder to build the affordable housing it purports to support.
Measure RRR, DPW charter amendment: Yes. Makes our Department of Water and Power more responsive to public opinion and City oversight.
Measure SSS, Fire and police pensions: No. I’m going with the LA Times on this one. A costly and unnecessary change to local public pension systems.
there is a kind of person
who sprawls on the steps
that lead down to the subway platform
during rush hour
and pretends to be oblivious
to the annoyance and inconvenience
he or she is causing
for people rushing down the stairs
to get to work.
there is another kind of person
who does the same thing
and actually is oblivious.
there is yet another kind of person
who, upon observing those who slouch on the steps
like they're watching an outdoor concert in the summer
without a care in the world,
seethes in disgust at such cluelessness
but does and says nothing about it.
yet another sort of human,
descending the steps in haste,
angrily says to the recumbent obstacle:
"get up and get out of the way."
yet another category consists of those
who don't give the step-sitter's behavior any more consideration
than flowing water gives a rock in the middle of a stream.
here i count five categories of human beings,
and the mere act of this enumeration
clarifies for me the one to which i aspire to belong.
"When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective."
Do-gooders like myself would do well to reflect on this wisdom from a young philosopher, William Macaskill, in his recent book, "Doing Good Better".
He's the co-founder of the "effective altruism" movement. He is much influenced by another philosopher, Peter Singer at Princeton, who donates a huge percentage of his income to efforts to relieve extreme poverty around the world. Both of these philosophers are vegetarians, applying their analysis of human charity to animals as well. I was haunted by this book this very day, as I stood in line for lunch at our medical school cafeteria: I turned away from the carnitas taco line and ordered spinach paneer instead!
Speaking of food reminds me of an absurd question that Macaskill poses: "How much would you like to spend at this grocery store today?" We would never go to a grocery store and give the shopkeeper some money and let her/him hand over to us his/her choices of groceries. Yet very often, this is exactly what we do when we give money to charities. In most cases, we have little way of knowing where the money is spent, how efficiently, nor how effectively.
Macaskill asks five questions in analyzing altruism:
1) How many people benefit, and by how much?
2) Is this the most effective thing you can do?
3) Is this area neglected?
4) What would have happened otherwise?
5) What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
He then uses economic measures to apply these questions to individuals' choices of career and contributions of time or money, to the activities of private charity organizations, and to public policy. He uses the QALY metric - the quality-adjusted life year - to assess impacts of altruistic interventions. It combines the ways an intervention lengthens as well as improves the quality of a life. This can be a powerful way to compare the disparate impacts of different charitable efforts. He uses the economic measure of marginal utility to assess the impact of interventions: what's the value of the last additional gallon delivered by an effort to improve access to clean water? How much money is going into particular good works, and how much marginal utility would an extra dollar donation have on the project? What would happen if you did nothing: will the problem be solved in some other way, inevitably? Will someone else do a better job of an altruistic task than I could do? Does my involvement add to the solution, or am I just filling in a spot that somebody else would step into if I didn't? Is the cause better served by my time and effort, or by my ability to earn lots of money so I can donate to it? Might I do more good as a well-paid accountant who can donate lots of money to the cause, or by going into a low-paid altruistic profession?
Macaskill's analysis reveals that there can be an astounding difference between a a merely good and an extremely effective charity. And the only way to know is for the non-profits to subject themselves to rigorous testing. GiveDirectly is one of his top picks: it gives money directly to families in rural villages in Kenya, with well-documented, remarkable results. GiveDirectly has researched its efforts carefully from the beginning, comparing villages it has provided with funds with similar ones that did not receive it, refining its approach into a highly effective model. Macaskill compares nonprofits that aim to improve the academic outcomes of children in developing-world schools. Making cash transfers to schoolgirls resulted in .2 greater years of school attendance per $1,000 spent; free school uniforms raised it 7.1 more years per $1,000, but giving medication to school children to rid them of intestinal parasites resulted in a staggering 139 extra years of schooling per $1,000 spent. Generally, Macaskill sees efficient, effective agencies addressing health risks as giving the best bang-for-the-buck.
He includes a thoughtful application of his analysis to voting. "We can't just say that the chance of affecting the outcome by voting is so small as to be negligible. We need to work out how large the benefit would be if we indeed did affect the outcome." And it can be huge indeed. In the current American election, the stakes for 11,000,000 undocumented people facing deportation, the stakes for nearly the same number of Americans who would lose their health care coverage if Obamacare was abolished, and the stakes for preventing human-caused climate change, are hard to overstate. To put it in terms of his rubric, the chances of success as a result of an individual vote are small, but success would be so enormously good that it is very much worth voting.
Completely missing from Macaskill's analysis is any mention of a critical altruistic intervention, expressed in the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians: "The greatest of these is love." Perhaps he leaves this intimate, powerful form of charity out of his book because he despairs of being able to measure the extra QALYs resulting from one person loving another.
But in fact we are able to measure its impact, because love is mindfulness. Scientists have found ways to measure the positive mental and physical effects of mindfulness meditation practice, not only for those who engage in it, but for those whose lives are touched by practitioners. A recent study reveals the heightened compassion toward patients given by medical students who do mindful meditation.
Mindfulness is a specific kind of love. It is deeply attentive, open, curious, engaged; inclined to enjoyment and delight, but willing to experience suffering as well as to commune with the suffering of others. It refrains from judgments or evaluations. It gently and appreciatively holds whom or what is observed without preconditions or assumptions or fixed definitions. It allows what is to be, as it is. It does not grasp or clutch. It affords freedom to whom and to what it attends. It is not focused on fixing or changing people or things. This love is the goal-state of mindfulness practice. It is just a matter of time before we can assign QALYs to love's impact on human lives.
I've spent most of my career serving through love, in my own service with individuals and by organizing and leading communities of love that reach out to those who need it. I've been a witness to its transformative power to create the conditions in which people are more able and willing to make positive changes for themselves. I don't have the numbers in front of me to prove it, but I wager that useful numbers one day will exist to support my intuition. And just as Macaskill's number-crunching is helpful for evaluating and refining altruistic efforts to make life better for everyone on planet Earth, the emerging ability to measure the impact of love will be useful in evaluating and refining the ministries of love to which I've devoted my life. I look forward to the application of science to a realm where it is largely absent. It can only make us better lovers!
Religion can do a body good.
And that's not just a promise of good-pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. There's science behind the assertion that religion can benefit your physical and emotional health on this side of the Pearly Gates.
I teach about this at the USC Keck School of Medicine. As one would expect, there's no point in teaching anything there that does not pass rigorous scientific testing. According to the "bible" on the subject, Harold Koenig's Handbook of Religion and Health, there is no compelling evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer on health outcomes. If I pray for you to get better, that is a good end in itself. But there's no science to support the conclusion that it will help you get better. However, Koenig reports strong evidence that actively belonging to a faith community affects human health for the better.
In the Little Chapel of Silence on our USC campus, we place a blank book where students and staff can write their prayers and reflections. We also have a box in the chapel where they can write prayers on slips of paper. I maintain the space and collect these writings and store them in my office. They range from laments about lost love to prayers to get better grades to suicide notes to expressions of thanksgiving, written in many languages and from the perspectives of many faiths or no faith at all. In the prayer book recently, I discovered a drawing (shown above) of a young woman with a beatific smile and closed eyes, with a thought bubble over her head: "I belong, therefore I am". She has science behind her in saying so!
Another way that religion can do a body good is through the mindfulness practices that are embedded in it. It's no news that it's part of Buddhism. But for most Christians, it may come as a surprise to find that it has always been integral to contemplative prayer. You can't confess the truth of your heart unless you know what's in it. That requires clearing the eye of the soul to be able to look unblinkingly at the truth of what we feel, think, and experience. Doing so calms the mind and the body. This practice is embedded in mystical Islam, in many Hindu disciplines, and in the Sikh faith as well. Having isolated mindfulness into a practice defined without reference to specific religious content, researchers have been able to document its very many general health and specific behavioral benefits. Dr. David Black, a preventive medicine professor and researcher at USC, heads up the American Mindfulness Research Association, which keeps track of these investigations. We may safely say that to the degree that a religion includes mindfulness practice, it is good for one's health.
Much of religion centers on story-telling, another demonstrably salubrious practice. Many of the stories are, to say the least, far-fetched. But whether mythical or factual, they have helped us in the struggle for survival of the fittest. In his book, ON THE ORIGIN OF STORIES: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009), Brian Boyd, an English professor in New Zealand, argues that the human propensity for storytelling is a cause and a consequence of our evolution. He invented a new field, "evocriticism", which analyses literature on the basis of its biological origins and functions. Creative story-telling trains us to anticipate many possible futures, making us good problem-solvers. "The appeal of the cognitive play in art makes art as compulsive for us as play, enticing us to to forgo mental rest for mental stimulation that helps us to learn and overlearn key cognitive skills, especially our capacity to produce and process information patterns." (p 381) Story-telling helped us survive the rigors of natural selection, as it trained us to imagine the consequences of different possible scenarios for our actions.
When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, after a somewhat traumatic period of unemployment, I made my way to Mt Hollywood Congregational Church for worship one Sunday morning. I took it in: the sweetness of the people, the diversity of ethnic identities and sexual orientations they displayed, the relaxed style of the worship and the community, the progressive message and mission, the love in the air. Ten minutes into worship, I found myself weeping with gratitude. I felt better, body and soul. I had found a home. Los Angeles no longer seemed so monstrous and strange. I belonged, therefore I was, and it did my body good!