Thursday, January 12, 2012

One Important Command

I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated by religion.  From the time I could read, I read the Bible, but also books from other religious traditions that were written for children, and later commentary and religious philosophy.  I was greatly encouraged in my interest as I grew up in a religious family.  My father was a Christian Scientist and my mother a Methodist.  We usually attended the Methodist Church.  Both my parents and my grandmother, who lived with us quite a bit of the year, believed that every religious tradition had something to offer. 

Even now, I read something from the Bible every morning.  I rarely speak of this as I am not at all interested in evangelizing, but sometimes I feel I must speak up when I read about people claiming to be Christians, such as Mike O'Neal, the Republican Speaker of the Kansas State House.  Mr. O’Neal wrote recently in a widely circulated e-mail:   “At last -- I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president,” and then quoted from Psalm 109:  “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow."  He went on to say, “Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN?”   (O’Neal is more famous for his racist insults to Mrs. Obama, for which he did apologize.)

To use Bible quotes to shore up positions on various social issues is not unusual. Certainly all gay and lesbian people are more than familiar with the dubious interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 condemning homosexuality but most may not be as aware of Leviticus 19:19 condemning wearing two different kinds of cloth together. (Death to polyester!)  However, to be so utterly mean is unusual and troubling. What is even more troubling is the lack of condemnation for his words from other right wing Christians.  Technically calling for the death of the President is a crime and others who have made even indirect threats against the life of a president have been arrested.   Certainly he should be immediately asked to resign.

I contrast his Bible verse with the one I read this morning in Deuteronomy 15: 1-3:  “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.  This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because God’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.” The chapter goes on to say, “There need be no poor people among you….”  Imagine if this verse were to be quoted widely, and policies created around it:  every seven years, no foreclosed homes, no bankruptcy caused by medical bills, no student debt…the list goes on.

The fact is that the Bible can be made to say what we want it to say in order to shore up our own positions.  To be religious means to be conscious of our bias as we read and to give that up as much as possible in order to receive the messages that God wants us to hear.  One message that all scriptures have in common is the overarching theme that we are to love each other.  This is not easy:  that’s why it has to be commanded.  I am commanded to love even Mr. O’Neal.  He is commanded to love President and Mrs. Obama.  To say out loud that you are religious means that you can be held accountable to this standard of love.  In this election year, I have set for myself a task, which is to speak out from a place of faith when I see a misuse of scripture.  In doing so, I must be willing to be held accountable myself and I know I will be found wanting.  But the price of not speaking out is allowing vitriol and racism to be promoted under the banner of religion and I cannot let that go by unchallenged.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


The highly regarded “Wellness Letter” published by the UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, generally publishes articles about blood pressure, smoking, what foods absorb most pesticides, and the like. It is only eight pages, but packed with useful and accessible information. In the most recent issue, the lead story was about PSA tests and the other main story about the nutritional value of garlic, which they call a “foodaceutical.”  I highly recommend subscribing, but that is not why I mention this newsletter. 

The last page of the newsletter has a column called “The Last Word.”  That most recent column looks at the causes of premature death and has this to say, “One overlooked cause is lack of money.  More precisely, being poor and/or having less than a high school education—what researchers call low socioeconomic status (SES)—is a health hazard, especially when it comes to heart health.”  Of course poor people have worse health because they have worse or no health care, they hold more dangerous jobs, and may live in neighborhoods with more pollution.  Lack of access to nutritious food and the cheapness of fast food put poor people at much higher risk for obesity, high blood pressure and cancer.  These and others are risk factors that come with or may be caused by being poor.  But the article goes on to say that even when poor people decrease their risk factors, they are “still at about 50 percent higher risk than comparable well off people.  This means that low SES increases the risk of heart disease independent other risk factors.” 

They recommend that health care providers who work with poor people take their SES into account as a separate and major risk factor.  And of course they mention that we will need to reduce income inequality to really address this concern.

The Wellness Letter is not the first or only place to mention the relationship between a shortened lifespan, heart health and poverty.  But since I read this newsletter to get tips on how to be healthier myself, I perhaps was struck by it more or differently than when I have read about the effects of poverty on health in the past. 

The Chronicle of Philanthropy asked a number of nonprofit leaders what resolutions the sector should have for 2012 and this is the one I contributed, in part because of reading this article.  
Rather than focus on protecting tax incentives that primarily benefit the well-to-do, and fighting limits to the charitable deduction, nonprofit leaders should concentrate on addressing income inequality and the social problems that creates. Let us resolve to remember who we are: the voice of the common good. Our job is to propose answers to the question of how a country can guarantee all its inhabitants a life of freedom, security, and peace. We are smart enough to figure this out and, at 10 percent of the work force and well over a trillion dollars passing through our coffers every year, we are powerful enough to make it happen. This year, let’s be brave enough to actually do it.
Because, literally, lives hang in the balance.