By David E. Roy
Author’s note: The “progressive religion” in this column is more implicit and belongs under the social justice expression of many of the world’s religions. In Christianity, unfortunately, social justice for a great many has been highly subordinated to personal salvation. And to anticipate a comment from the Community Alliance’s Humanist readers, I recognize clearly that many people who are not theists actively care for others in need. Nonetheless, the best of our religious traditions ask their followers to love and care for others as their God cares for them also. This is what makes for progressive religion.
The column this month is dedicated to my good friend, Dr. Marc Lasher, whom many of you know as the physician advocate for the Fresno County Needle Exchange and the doc-on-the-bus that is the Fresno Free Medical Clinic on Saturdays near Roeding Park.
There are a couple of reasons for this dedication. The first stems from the unfortunate fact that three of our Fresno County Board of Supervisors reneged on the Board’s previous vote to approve and offer official support for this necessary program. The no votes were by Judy Case, R.N., Phil Larson and Debbie Poochigian. Hence, Marc needs our renewed support.
Biohazards of the Year Awards*?
The Fresno community needs to pressure the Board to overturn its irrational, costly and medically unethical decision (violating “beneficence”). Needle exchanges do not create drug addicts nor do they make drug addiction possible. They simply protect users and the entire community from the spread of dangerous and expensive diseases that are spread by using dirty needles.
Personally, I would nominate these supervisors for three of the six annual Biohazards of the Year Awards. The winners each receive a stunning, brand new, empty biohazard container with their names and their contributions engraved on a tasteful plaque.
The other reason this column is dedicated to Marc is that it is going to contain several brief (but, hopefully, pithy) comments. Marc has explained to me kindly and patiently many times that he doesn’t read longish articles, period.
So, this month it is “Sound Bites.”
And Just What Are Sound Bites?
Traditionally, sound bites are short clips out of a long speech that are supposed to summarize the whole talk. Nearly always today, however, sound bites only need to be jarringly dramatic and as simplistic as possible. Their only job is to grab the audience’s attention, not to inform or educate.
How else might one understand sound bites? In my work, I let the words I hear wander down different trails of meaning. Adopting that approach, I find that the term sound bites has other interesting meanings. It might refer to sounds (words) that bite, and the word sound could shift from meaning something one can hear to something that is solid, true, unshakeable, as in, “You have a sound idea here.” Or even to the idea of a solid bite. Bites, too, can be for nourishment or to inflict pain angrily.
So, listen to what you hear as you read on.
The Prophetic Voice
In the days of yore, many, many yores ago, the citizens of the Christian Old Testament, aka the Jewish Bible, called some people “prophets.” The modern understanding of this referring to a fortune teller did not apply. Those prophets were the ones who were calling their tribe, their kin and their nation to face some unpleasant facts. They were the “in-your-face” mouthy ones who typically annoy the heck out of current leaders.
Why? Because they tried to hold these leaders and their followers accountable for pending disasters that the group was creating by its present actions. The message: “If you continue the way you are going, you will fall off the cliff and on to the rocks below, all of which you try to pretend cannot be there.” No one likes a smart mouth, and some of them definitely were.
Today, there are a large number of prophetic voices in many places: human rights (subdivided into numerous areas), environment, finance, education, intolerance (religious and otherwise) and so on.
Yet, little seems to change. Why? Some of the resistance is human inertia to making any changes, particularly changes that promise to involve considerable sacrifice and effort without clarity or certainty of outcome.
Unfortunately, this natural form of resistance is being manipulated and intensified by the deliberate and highly successful lobbying and PR efforts funded by enormous amounts of personal and corporate funds—all for short-term gains.
As Jared Diamond made abundantly clear in Collapse, the end of civilizations happen unexpectedly and with great speed. The results are nightmarish.
- The sky really is falling!
- After the collapse: No people, no money no how
- Where’s the rapture, where’s the rapture?!
“Money, Money, Money…”
In the movie Cabaret, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey perform a song-and-dance number about the virtues of money. After all, “Money, money, money makes the world go around!” Yet even in this snazzy number, there is a grim reminder of poverty: having to endure a cold winter without coal or shoes, only a thin coat, and no food.
Money does make the world go around—but only if you have enough for food, decent and safe shelter, healthcare, suitable clothing, transportation and education. Today, in the United States, at least 15.1%, or 46.2 million people, are seriously lacking in these areas. In Fresno, this figure rises to 21.5%, or 200,000 people.
This is poverty as defined by official U.S. poverty standards; these standards are far lower than most would consider being a living wage. There is little doubt that there are many millions more who are far from what would be judged as sufficient to simply survive, nowhere near enough to thrive.
Michael Moore in March said that the 400 richest Americans have more wealth today than the bottom 50% of the population. This figure was validated by Politifact.com.
The amount of money in each group is roughly $1.25 trillion. So, in one group, each person has $3.125 billion. In the other group (156,000,000 people), each one gets $8,013.00, or roughly $32,056.00 for a family of four. Even assuming that each of the 400 represents a family of four, each person still would get $781,250,000.00.
Now, if the 400 top families were to give 50% of their wealth (what I’d call a Supersized Tithe) to the bottom 50%, they still would have $1,562,508,000 per family. The bottom half would now average 50% more per family or $48,000 per family ($12,000 per individual).
- Super radical calls for the super rich to make a Super Tithe! (Hold the fries.)
- “Hey, buddy, cud ya spare a billion or two?” “Get off the median, you bum! Oh, sorry, Mr. Banker, didn’t recognize you for a moment.”
The Idea of a Living Wage
To function minimally in our society, a family of four needs a good deal more than the official U.S. poverty level amount of $22,350. In researching this, I discovered an amazing Web site called Living Wage (http://livingwage.mit.edu/) that is the creation of an MIT professor, Dr. Amy Glasmeier. She is the head of the school’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The Web site provides reasonable figures for every state, as well as all of the counties and most of the cities for each state. There are also two related Web sites: http://povertyinamerica.mit.edu/ and http://economictoolbox.mit.edu/.
In Fresno County, the annual living wage (gross) for a family of four is $64,142. That breaks down to monthly take-home pay of $4,769 and an hourly wage (for one person working) of $30.84. The median income projected for our county for this year is $57,400, about $7,000 less than the living wage figure.
And it looks like things are continuing to get worse: As mentioned above, the news from CNN the week I write this is that the national poverty rate of 15.1% is the highest since 1993 and includes at least 46.2 million people. Fresno County is much higher, still, with 21.5% below the U,S. poverty guidelines.
This much disparity sets the stage today for many instances and places where extreme poverty bumps right into extreme affluence. Unlike even a few decades ago, it is impossible now to hide the images of wealth from the impoverished (though clearly not the other way around).
This visible, continuous reminder of the extremes of wealth and destitution is, inevitably and inherently, destabilizing. As things continue to deteriorate, each new jolt hits the places of pain of more and more people.
- Give me liberty and take my debt!
- “Mommy, why does that family get all the ice cream and we only have raisins?” “Raisins are good for you, little one.”
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
I want to close with a few lines from the Tao Te Ching (Tao meaning “way,” Te meaning “strength of character” and Ching meaning “classic”). The version I am quoting is by one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin.
In her notes for this version, she shares that she has lived with these ideas at the center of her soul for many decades and continues to draw meaning from them. She is not alone in this. Think of the world in which we live in contrast with this wisdom:
Telling It True (81)
True words aren’t charming,
charming words aren’t true.
Good people aren’t contentious,
contentious people aren’t good.
People who know aren’t learned,
learned people don’t know.
Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without undoing
is the Way of the wise.
(Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (An English Version by Ursula K. Le Guin), Shambhala Press, Boston & London, 2009)
Note on the accompanying images: All but one of the images were selected through a Google advanced image search with the following filters: images available to be used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, with permission to copy, distribute and transmit the work, to remix (adapt) the work and to use it commercially. The picture of Marc Lasher is used with permission by David Roy.
*Okay, honesty: There is no such award, let alone six of them. Doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be, but no one has done it … as far as I know!
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.