Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rich or Poor, Life's Still a Chore in NYC

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

New York City is full of contradictions.

Take, for example, the city's sizable public housing demographic.  A demographic that lives in remarkable proximity to some of the world's most exclusive neighborhoods.  Stereotypes abound regarding each lifestyle, and some are truer than others.  Especially in the Big Apple, where the more things change, the more other things stay - unfortunately - the same.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on two local stories which make handy bookends representing the polar opposite ends of New York's - and America's - sociopolitical spectrum.  A spectrum that, at least in Gotham, leaves plenty of room for conflict and irony.

Good Fences Don't Make Good Neighbors

On the bottom end of the spectrum, for example, comes the story of some chain-link fencing being installed along a pedestrian bridge between two sections of an otherwise nondescript public housing project.

For years, juvenile delinquents from the Ingersoll projects in Brooklyn's Fort Greene section have delighted in tossing items from this pedestrian bridge onto the street below.  Last summer, however, a brick they threw at an unsuspecting bicyclist passing underneath actually hit him, causing him to crash and injure himself.

By this coming Friday, the city will have finished installing chain-link fencing along the railings of both sides of this pedestrian bridge to discourage the discharge of items from the bridge onto items below the bridge.  The chain-link fencing is angled towards the top, but the sides don't meet or enclose the walkway.  It's not even guaranteed that they'll provide any retention of objects skillfully tossed at an angle up and over the bridge.

But the howling has already started by some residents in the projects, who have decided that the fencing's very presence sends a punitive message about them and their neighborhood.

“That’s caging us,” resident Sharvelle Vinson, speaking on behalf of residents opposed to the safety measures, told the Times.  “It’s going too far.”


A representative of a local neighborhood group characterized the walkway's fence as oppressive.  “On one side of the cage are the people it is protecting, and the other side are the villains,” she complained to the Times.

Why can't she see that the fencing actually protects people on both sides of it?

Of course, the answer is simple:  because of generational poverty, many people in subsidized housing - which in New York City, is still mostly public housing projects - have lived there all of their lives.  They've grown up to view the outside world as their oppressor, instead of full of all sorts of opportunities.

That's not what public housing was supposed to do.  Originally, public housing was designed to provide temporary accommodations to families in transition, mostly from job to job.  Public housing was not supposed to be where people were born, lived their entire lives, and died.  Yet at least one of the people quoted by the Times in this article has apparently lived in these same projects her entire life.

And she things the chain-link fencing on their bridge is offensive?

The consternation residents of Ingersoll Houses feel justified in expressing towards the fencing - and the upper-middle-class white guy from a nearby gentrifying neighborhood whose injury served as the impetus for the fencing - reeks of the self-indulgent "entitlement" mindset about which conservatives have been complaining for years.  It's not as if the city is going broke erecting a massive edifice to wall off the projects.  It's not even likely that the fence won't be without many gaping holes after Ingersoll's teenagers get done modifying it with their wirecutters.

Oops - is that an overgeneralization?  I'm sorry - it must be the hyperbole from Ingersoll's indignant residents rubbing off on me.

What really takes the cake in the Times' article is the quip from another Ingersoll parent who says that instead of putting up chain-link fences to keep their kids from pelting passers-by with bricks, the city should be providing more activities and after-school programs for their kids to keep them better occupied.

As if babysitting duties is a normal obligation of city government.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Meanwhile, in what would seem an entire galaxy away, if it weren't just across the East River, there's the case of excessive success in Manhattan's wildly popular SoHo neighborhood.  Apparently, in the land of seven-figure studio apartments and parking spaces whose monthly rents run higher than most car payments, the throngs of tourists and shoppers which regularly descend on the uber-trendy enclave have turned it from chic and urbane to filthy and congested.

Not only do trashcans fill up quickly and overflow profusely, but with impunity, unlicensed street vendors selling everything under the sun - most of it counterfeit - manage to set up their bulky carts wherever they can claim a patch of open concrete.

Some local businesses have gotten together and petitioned the city to begin a business improvement district, or BID, to help keep the neighborhood cleaner and the unlicensed street vendors out.  In a BID, property taxpayers within a specific boundary are taxed an additional surcharge to help pay for extra amenities such as enhanced sanitation, special landscaping, and even mass transit facilities.

BIDs have worked relatively successfully not only in other parts of New York City, but in other cities in the United States.  It's a relatively benign concept, since BIDs are pursued by the entities who will be paying the additional tax.

In SoHo, however, what was supposed to be just another benign BID application process has exploded into an unexpected war between affluent residents who don't see why they should have to pay extra for something local businesses need, and already-thriving businesses which want to generate even more pedestrian traffic in the area.

And you have to admit:  the logic just doesn't seem to be there if all we're talking about is more trash cans, more frequent emptying of those trash cans, and enforcement of the city's rigorous street vendor regulations.

You need a BID to do that?  Isn't that all... well, compulsory for most municipalities?

Not, obviously, in New York.

Why can't some of the larger storefronts simply get permission from the city to put out extra trashcans on busy business days, and pay a trash collection service to maintain them?  Plenty of office towers maintain their own trashcans, and if SoHo is as profitable a place as businesses claim it is, why not consider the extra expense of extra trash pick-up simply part of the cost of doing business in a high-density urban environment?

It's not like this section of Broadway is home to fledgling mom-and-pop stores any more.  Verizon, Forever 21, Armani Exchange, Converse, Hugo Boss, Banana Republic, Guess, Old Navy, and even a Bloomingdale's boutique are just a few of the big-name corporate retail tenants between Houston and Canal streets, which comprises the extent of the proposed BID's boundaries (remember, New Yorkers pronounce it "how-ston").

I'd make a crass comment about why tourists want to flock to this area of Broadway anyway, where almost all the stores are the same ones they'd find in suburbia, but I once made the mistake of asking two ladies why they were planning a shopping trip to New York and the very same department stores we have here in Dallas, and they looked at me like I was the crazy person.

Anyway... for a city with a bad reputation of being tax-happy, doesn't it seem as though thriving businesses should be more eager to pay out of their own pocket for keeping streets in front of their establishments clean from the detritus their customers leave behind?  Would they really save that much more money by writing-off the extra tax they'd pay to fund the BID than by simply buying an extra trashcan and some garbage bags?

Whenever you hear of otherwise tax-and-spend New Yorkers complaining about an extra tax - complaining, mind you! - people should listen up.  Especially when most of that tax would be going for something that already-profitable national retailers should be logically doing themselves.

And as for the street vendors and pushcarts which are operating illegally, it sounds more like the city is already not fulfilling its obligation to the vendors and retailers who have the proper permits.  What guarantees are there that extra tax money will go to hiring more code enforcement officers?  And will that really solve the problem?

At least in these two cases, the incongruity expressed between the Ingersoll residents and the Soho retailers is equally baffling - a rare thing indeed! 

Not that it's rare for baffling things to take place in the Big Apple.  It's simply rare that both poor and rich are equally capable of perpetrating them.

Maybe they're more alike than they think?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Whose Scandal in Tax Bluster?


According to Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson of The Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College, the way Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's personal taxes have been berated by the media is scandalous.

Writing in an article which appeared on Crosswalk.com last Thursday, Hendrickson breathlessly exudes:

"It is scandalous that so many journalists and commentators have gotten their basic facts wrong [by claiming Romney's tax rate is too low]. They have conflated average “effective” tax rates with statutory rates. Under our complex and convoluted tax code, no American pays an effective rate that is as high as his top marginal rate (the statutory rate on the last dollar of income). As it turns out, Romney’s effective tax rate of 14 percent is higher than the effective tax rate of approximately 97 percent of taxpayers."

So, who's complaining?  Even the New York Times pretty much agrees with you, Dr. Hendrickson.

Nevertheless, he goes on to commiserate, "an even greater scandal is that Romney’s tax rate is as high as it is."

Oh, the ignominy!

Hendrickson then jumps into an economic quagmire of class warfare soundbites and dubious assertions about money and workers that he backs with about as much research and data as the liberal media does with their own soundbites and dubious assertions.

In other words, Hendrickson writes a crassly political blurb for an evangelical website with the hopes of stoking right-wing resentment against liberals and creating the illusion that taxation - particularly at what they consider to be high rates - is unBiblical.  Ironically, the conservative business site Bloomberg.com ran a story admiring how low Romney's tax rate is.

Might Hendrickson be misunderstanding why Americans are marveling at Romney's tax rate?  From what I can tell in the legitimate business media, the surprise doesn't come from comparing his rate with average taxpayers, but by comparing it to the 24% generally paid by people in his income bracket. 

Unfortunately, even if he's precisely on-target with his assessment, Hendrickson's nonetheless bitter attack represents what's become a tired trick by politically-savvy right-wing evangelicals.  Banking on the knowledge that many modern-day people of faith understand about as much of the US Constitution and our country's tax code as they understand the Bible, agitators like Hendrickson take the practice of taxation and paint it with as heinous a brush as any bona-fide sin.

Problem is, the only thing sinful about taxation is if believers don't pay theirs.

That's all the Bible has to say about taxes.  "'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,'" remember?

Now, don't get me wrong:  I don't like paying taxes any more than people like Hendrickson do.  Living in America, we citizens have the right to petition for the lowest possible taxes upon which our nation can possibly function.  But whatever Romney's tax rate may be, whether it's too high or too low, or less than the average taxpayer, it is not scandalous in the faith-based sense, as Hendrickson would have us believe.

What is scandalous - and it's perplexing that a professor at a Christian college misses this one - is the fact that Newt Gingrich's charitable contributions totaled a miserly 3% of his income last year.  Romney's was 13% - almost equal to his tax rate.

Actually, that's not really scandalous, either, even though Gingrich's ingratitude for the wealth he has seems more left-wing than right.  After all, people with a healthy attitude about money aren't threatened by charitable deductions.

No, the scandal is that Hendrickson thinks people of faith need to spend our time getting all worked up over how much taxes everybody pays.

Instead of rendering to God the things that are God's.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Might Waiting be Better than Winning?


It's the big question some conservatives have started contemplating.

Contemplating in ponderous blog posts and whispers in private conversations.

Do we have to vote Republican this year?  Would an Obama victory be as disastrous as we've been led to fear?  Can America survive another four years of the Obama presidency until Republicans get their act together and run a slate of candidates who can beat Obama on the merits?

After all, the Republican Party has pretty much cratered this year, offering its faithful one of the worst slates of candidates from which to choose.  Everybody knows it, although few prominent conservatives will admit it.  Now that the primary race appears to be coalescing around Mitt and Newt - blatant clues to each of their characters - the bitter reality is beginning to sink in:  can either of these guys win against the guy who captured Osama bin Laden?

Can either of these guys win against the guy with better morals than Newt, and the guy who is less elitist than Mitt?

We certainly don't want eight years of either of these two GOP guys, since if one of them lands the White House this year, we'll be forced to support him again in 2016.


Would 4 More Years of Obama Be Worse than 8 Years of Newt or Mitt?

So maybe four more years of Obama won't be as bad as a possible eight years of Mitt or Newt.  After all, we've weathered these past four years; not well, mind you, but America has survived.  Since none of the primary candidates wanted to remind voters of their GOP predecessor (George W. Bush, remember?) and the disappointment his eight years turned out to be, maybe we've pretty much admitted that at least some of the problems Obama has been dealing with during his first term were inherited.  Think bank bailouts, auto industry bailouts, soaring unemployment, and two unwinable wars.

Bush inflated the government's payroll wildly, fumbled immigration reform, and foisted federal "no child left behind" standards onto local school districts - which has created the oppressive test-taking culture now crippling public school education.  All Obama has done is simply fail to lead in much of anything, which is what Republicans generally hoped would happen.  Sure, his inability to forge alliances, and fear of political compromise, sparked plenty of vitriol.  He continued Bush's spending frenzy so our national debt continues to spiral out of control.  And he pandered to his liberal constituency with some blatant left-wing ideology.  But don't forget - he stunned leaders in his own party by ruling that teenaged girls should not have unfettered access to morning-after pills.  If evangelical Christians didn't disdain him so much, they'd have thanked him effusively for that unexpected show of paternal bravado.

Not that Obama has been a good president.  It's just that maybe he's not as bad as what we'd have to endure from our own so-called conservative kind.  If they beat Obama this fall, neither Newt nor Mitt will win with significant political capital, as Bush himself found out even after he claimed he had in 2004.  Those two guys have spilled so much political blood already in these early days of primary campaigning that their credibility as national leaders has likely been severely tarnished.  We know Mitt has as much of a socialist bent as Obama when it comes to healthcare, and we know Newt has no loyalties when it comes to women or even politics, since he has as long a record of flip-flopping on major issues as Mitt does.

Believers Voting Democratic, and Why Blacks Who Are, Do

I'd seen a couple of online articles and blog posts about conservatives skipping this fall's presidential election, but hadn't really taken the question too seriously until a dear, long-time friend of mine posted a FaceBook link to a watch party for Obama's State of the Union speech this past Tuesday.  My friend is a devout, born-again Christian, a devoted wife and mother of two, and black.  And she's not my only black, born-again friend who supports Obama.  What do such people whose only difference from me is their skin color see in somebody for whom I wouldn't otherwise be able to bring myself to vote?

Indeed, plenty of white evangelicals look at each other, dumbfounded, and ask, "how can anybody be a Christian and support a Democrat, let alone one who is pro-choice?"

Now obviously, I can't speak for an entire race, but I've been told in the past by two other die-hard Democrats - who are born-again Christians who happen to be black - that although abortion is the big deal-changer for most evangelical voters, it's not with them.

After all, what is it about abortion that makes it a deal-changer? 

Life, right?

Well, what do Republican conservatives do to support life outside of the womb?  They're crazy about protecting life inside the womb, but for socially-liberal believers who are members of a race which has received some pretty nasty treatment from whites for generations, life on either side of birth has equal challenges.  Perhaps blacks aren't necessarily eager to become one-issue voters when that would mean they'd be supporting a political party that doesn't have the best track record when it comes to social supports.  Generally speaking, some evangelical blacks who linger in the Democratic Party take issue with white evangelicals who refuses to acknowledge that some entitlement programs - the safety net disproportionately relied upon by minorities - have a greater validity than is popularly acknowledged.

Personally, I believe that entitlements like welfare, public housing, and other government programs need significant overhauling to make them serve their clients better, and encourage their clients to be more responsible for their own lives.  But many Republicans talk as though welfare and public housing need to be completely abolished, even though such a mindset betrays more an ignorance about the value of social safety nets than the tough-love compassion - or even a fiscal prudence - that right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh like to parrot.

After all, the Bible has volumes more to say about looking after the poor, being lavish towards others with the money God gives us, being fair, and refuting racism than it does about abortion, a word that's actually never mentioned in the scriptures.  Abortion has become a political machination to cover for moral turpitude, more a symptom of societal decay than the cause of it.  Perhaps that sounds like rationalizing away the pro-choice platform of the Democratic party believers who vote Democratic tacitly endorse.  But if abortion is hatred for life, hating people on this side of the womb is equally heinous to God, since He equates such sin to murder.  

And maybe white folk like me just don't understand how proud blacks are to have Obama in the White House.  I'll be honest with you - even though I didn't vote for him, on his inauguration day, I was proud that the United States had finally - at least symbolically - broken the race barrier in the Oval Office.  It was just too bad the person was a liberal, instead of a conservative.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Has to Vote

However, with all due respect to my believing friends who are as saved as I am, and with whom all of us Elect will be spending eternity, I would far prefer having a proven fiscal and social conservative on the Republican ticket this fall.  Although things are bad in the GOP field, I consider it highly unlikely that the situation would ever become dire enough for me to vote for President Obama directly, even though a vote for either Mitt or Newt might have the same effect.

I simply think it's a testament to the deep dissatisfaction - and even, raw disappointment - that is growing among Republicans that talk of waiting out yet another term of somebody who's supposed to be the opposition is even seeing the light of day.

Right now, let's just not even think about having to endure eight years of Mitt or Newt.  Might waiting to see if a better selection of candidates can be found for 2016 actually be in the best long-term interests of the GOP, even if there's some short-term pain?

Can you actually win by losing an election?  The fact that other people - not me! - have already started asking that question means the answer is not as clear as it should be.

Update:  Click here to read my follow-up on this subject.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Right-Wing Duplicity Fouls the Air

Environmental regulations.

They're onerous, big-government, job-killing, left-wing farcical drivel.

Unless, apparently, they're not.

Many right-wing conservatives talk a big talk against environmental regulations.  Indeed, protecting the environment is code-language for stealth commie-pinko anti-disestablishmentarianism.

Environmental regulations are killing American productivity.  Or so these right-wingers claim.  They fight to protect industrial polluters in places like Midlothian, Texas, for example, home to several smog-belching concrete plants.  Concrete plants about which people have been complaining for years, since they contribute significantly to the air pollution with which north Texas increasingly suffers.

Yet for as long as people have been trying to force them to move to a far less populated corner of the state, these concrete plants have enjoyed fierce protection from their local Republican congressman, the ultra-conservative Joe Barton.

Midlothian is south of Dallas, a smallish blue-collar town of middle-class tract homes, fast-food restaurants, and truck stops.   Relatively conservative, mostly white, but hardly affluent, it's a far cry from the suburbs north of Dallas, and cities like Frisco, which hardly even existed ten years ago.

Ahh, yes:  Frisco, Texas.  

Today, Frisco lies on the outer bands of north Dallas' exurban halo, boasting an upscale white-collar lifestyle with high-priced restaurants, exclusive shopping, sleek corporate campuses, and sprawling gated communities choked with luxurious McMansions and foreign luxury cars.

All very white, very affluent, and very Republican.  All built around a little battery recycling plant which used to be on the outskirts of town.  Back when Frisco was just another hick village stuck out in the dusty Texas prairie.

But for all of the so-called egregious environmental rules that conservatives have managed to skirt for the concrete plants south of Dallas, conservative voters in Frisco have suddenly found value in them, hurling those same rules against the little battery plant in Frisco.  They want that battery plant gone.  It's contaminating the environment.  And destroying their quality of life.

Battles like this illustrate why conservatives have a hard time mustering credibility when it comes to the environment in general, and pollution in particular.

Exide Technologies built their battery recycling plant back in 1965 on a plot of land several blocks south of Frisco's placid Main Street.  Since then, thousands of people have moved to Frisco, and they've decided Exide isn't a good enough neighbor in a community now boasting seven-figure homes.  A neighborhood group calling itself "Get the Lead Out of Frisco" has begun agitating for Exide to shut down its operations in town.

Frankly, Exide's Frisco plant has been listed as one of the 16 top lead polluters in the nation, but its existence was no secret when developers started plowing under Frisco's old farms for new subdivisions.  It's a classic case of poor research by homebuyers, many of whom seem to have been caught off-guard by learning they've moved near a four-decades-old industrial polluter.

This past January 17th, Frisco's city council voted unanimously to begin the process of revoking the permits Exide needs to operate the plant.  For their part, Exide is expected to mount a vigorous lawsuit to keep its plant operational in Frisco.  If the plant is forced to shut down, about 135 jobs would be lost.

Either way, it will likely be years before Exide's fate is decided.  Although their Frisco facility isn't very large, it's part of a large enterprise with operations in 80 countries.  Frisco may have its state senator in its corner, the powerful Republican Florence Shapiro, but Exide has plenty of political influence itself - plus some pretty deep pockets.  It's not acting like it's going anywhere, even stating that it will continue to modernize the Frisco plant and introduce new environmental safeguards as if everything is business as normal.

That's not what Frisco wants to hear.  But it's similar to what Midlothian residents have been hearing for years.  In October of last year, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to further delay new regulations for cement kilns based principally on Republican Representative Barton's unwavering loyalty to the cement manufacturers in his district south of Dallas County.  Although some perfunctory improvements to reduce industrial emissions have been made at Midlothian's three mammoth concrete plants over the years, they've failed to significantly maximize the available technology that can minimize pollution.

Air quality studies in Midlothian consistently affirm that pollution is at safe levels, although environmentalists and some experts say the tests are flawed.  Republicans like pointing to such bickering as proof that the fuss over cement kiln pollution is exaggerated, but up in Frisco, the lead pollution is only significantly detectable within a one-mile radius of the plant, above land mostly owned by Exide.  So why the fuss in Frisco?

This is where the double-standard in conservative politics rears its ugly head.  Why is it that the poorer, blue-collar environs of Midlothian get snubbed when it comes to questioning the pollution belched out by three enormous cement manufacturers, while the far richer, white-collar exurb of Frisco feels entitled to run out of town one of the area's long-term employers?

Surely capitalism should be allowed unfettered reign wherever it's planted in the Lone Star State.  Wasn't that one of Governor Rick Perry's presidential campaign themes?

Or, might environmental regulations simply be onerous... until they become a convenient tool for one's political base?  If it wasn't for government-mandated environmental regulations, Frisco wouldn't have a case.  And without those regulations, Midlothian still doesn't have one.

Either way, Republicans lose credibility on an issue that should be important to us all:

Clean air.

Update:  Frisco's new residents got their way:  the Exide plant officially closed on Friday, November 30, 2012.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Works Show God's Work

Do your deeds prove your faith?

If you'd asked me that question before I'd had my devotions this morning, I'd have likely retorted, "I'm saved by grace, not works."

But that's not what the apostle Paul is saying when he explains to King Agrippa in Acts 26:20 that Jews and Gentiles "should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds."

If you don't like how the NIV translates that verse, here are a couple of other takes on it:

From the American Standard Version:  "...they should repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance."

From the English Standard Version:  "they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance."

And from the New Century Version:  "they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God and do things to show they really had changed."

Hmm... what do I do that shows I've really been born-again?  What do you do?

From Darkness to Light

Remember, Paul isn't saying that people are saved by the things they do - or don't do.  We've got to take this verse in context, like we should do with every verse in the Bible, and not just hang it up on a clothesline like a damp shirt and treat it as some singular directive.

Paul is in Caesarea, explaining to King Agrippa why the Jews want him dead.  The apostle recounts his bizarre conversion experience on the Road to Damascus, and summarizes how, since then, he's been preaching the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles.  In verse 18, Paul explains that God would work through him, in His own words, "'to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'"

Wow - so it gets even heavier. Not only are we to perform deeds in keeping with repentance, but those deeds should reflect how we've been turned from darkness to light.

How do I make that leap?  By following simple grammatical correlations between the work that God does within all whom He saves (opening their eyes and turning them from darkness to light) in verse 18, and then how that work is manifested in the daily lives of believers (doing works worthy of repentance) in verse 20.  The works we're to do follow, not precede, the salvific work God does in us.  So, relax:  Paul's teaching is completely in accordance with orthodox Christianity:  we are not saved through works.

How Works Work

But works help show that we're saved.

It's a concept a lot of modern believers don't appear comfortable embracing.  I don't know - maybe we've never wholeheartedly liked the idea that our daily actions should mirror the change from darkness to light that we say we celebrate in church on Sundays.  A lot of us actually like the dark side.  It's fun, so we think, or have been led to believe.  Besides, we don't need to prove we're saved; otherwise, we risk being legalistic.

But is Paul saying we prove we're saved by doing good works, or that good works are a natural outflow of a life changed from darkness to light?  The organic goodness that emanates from our actions, and indeed our motives, should tell other people that we don't walk in darkness.

I'm reminded of that famous passage in Ephesians 2:10, where Paul explains that we're "created in Christ Jesus to do good works."  Unfortunately, it's at this point where legalists come in, and start structuring a matrix of do's and don't's to which we people of faith must adhere.  The more we grow in our faith, however, I think the less concerned we become about lists and do's and don't's, and more on why's and why not's.

Why?  Because we love God and want to honor Him. 

I suspect the more we live with that perspective, the things we do will show we really have been changed.  Changed not through our actions.  But that because of what Christ has done for us, we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in behaviors characteristic of light, rather than darkness.

Perhaps the more we resist that concept, people living in darkness around us will be less able to determine why our faith matters to us.

If, in fact, we truly possess the faith we claim to.

Without Fault in a Depraved Generation

Remember where, in Philippians 2, the apostle Paul exhorts us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling?"  Here's his exact quote, starting in verse 12:

"...Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. 14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe..."

Here again, Paul isn't saying that salvation rests on what we can do for God.  Rather, he's describing the process of sanctification as people of faith allowing the Holy Spirit to continually mold themselves into the saints He wants them to be.  Still, we're to be God's children, "without fault in a crooked and depraved generation."

And then Paul revisits the imagery of light he used with King Agrippa, calling for us to "shine like stars in the universe."  Stars whose light, which is the reflection of the Son, pops out into our sight against the blackness of space's void.

May God help us to shine for Him in all we do.

So even our works testify of God's work in our lives.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oh, What You Hear in Church!

Isn't it amazing the things you hear in church?

At least in my church, Dallas' Park Cities Presbyterian, the things I hear can run the gamut.

Obviously, being in a church, you expect to hear good things.  Even amazing things.  About God, His love for us, His grace... right? And you expect to hear bad things, like how evil our sinful selves are.

Sometimes you hear new things, even if you've attended church for so long that you've heard countless sermons preached on the same favorite passages of scripture.

This past Sunday was one of those Sundays for me.  The Reverend Dr. Michael Oh spoke for my church's missions Sunday, and he made two bold claims that I'm pretty certain I've never heard anybody else make in church before.

One was that "suffering exists because God ordained that Christ would suffer for our sins."

Wow!  Have you ever heard it put that way before?

The second was that money in church should be like blood - flowing freely throughout the body, serving all the members.  Dr. Oh questioned whether the common assumption that Christians love money too much is really a fallacy - that, in fact, we don't love it enough.

Have you ever heard that before?

I hadn't.

Why Human Suffering Exists

Does suffering exist because God ordained that Christ would suffer for our sins?

That's what Dr. Oh claimed as he preached on Psalm 22.  It may not a classic Bible passage for missions, but then, Dr. Oh isn't your ordinary missionary.  Born in Philadelphia of Korean parents, he earned three Masters degrees, including an MDiv, plus a PhD, before moving to Japan and opening Christ Bible Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America.  All that, and he's still younger than me.

As he worked his way through the familiar exhortations for engaging in cross-cultural evangelism - which, of course, is what "missions" is - Dr. Oh sought to peg everything we do - whether as people who go overseas or people who stay behind and support them - on the supremacy of Christ and the omnipotence of God.

Reconciling the pain and suffering described by the psalmist in the early portion of Psalm 22 with the global in-gathering of the saints starting in verse 27, Dr. Oh pointed out that almost all of us incorrectly view suffering from the eyes of humanity.  We're myopic on the subject.  Rather than resting in God's sovereignty, we figure some supreme power doesn't like us or care about us, or that we ourselves simply can't do enough good to compensate for our badness.

Either way, suffering is the result.

And then he tucked in his claim that the reason we have suffering in the world is primarily because God needed it to secure our own salvation through Christ.  Christ needed to assume the sins of the world onto Himself, and how else would that be possible without being exposed to extreme suffering?  After all, that's how heinous our sin is.  That's how despicable we are in God's sight without Christ's blood cleansing us.  It wasn't so much the beatings, the insults, or even the crucifixion that Christ suffered, as it was His subsumption of all our sins.

"Amazing love!  How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?"

Blood Like Money in the Body

As if that wasn't enough, blood came back later in Dr. Oh's sermon, as he was talking about different reasons why funding mechanisms for cross-cultural missions seem to always be playing catch-up.  You've probably heard many pastors lament the human preoccupation with money, saying that we love it too much.  And yes, "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."

Yet Dr. Oh suggested that in a way, many believers don't love money enough.  Although he used the term "love," I think that the term he should have substituted is "cherish."  Because what he means is that many evangelicals don't understand that to God, money is like blood.  Money should flow through His body, the church, like blood does within our human temples.  Money is a tool, not an objective.  In his teaching on social justice, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City basically says the same thing, although I've not heard him compare money with blood.

Still, the analogy is powerful, isn't it?  Instead of hoarding vast sums of money, like virtually all of us do - or aspire to do - our money should be flushing throughout our communities of faith, carrying with it the nutrients of mortal existence so that everything we need can be paid for and furnished regardless of one's individual importance or location.  Pardon the pun, but it's a rich description of what a healthy church should look like, just like healthy human bodies rely on richly healthy blood for survival.

Blood Flowed - in Righteous Anger - Because Money Got Stagnant

But just as many human bodies are not healthy because the blood coursing through their veins is laced with cancers, fatty acids, and other destructive elements, so many of our churches are unhealthy because financial wealth has stagnated at one end, being prevented from flushing through the congregation.  Ultimately, this hoarding gives some people within the church body a greater sense of importance than the money they're letting calcify was supposed to provide.

Take, for example, the abominable comment I heard after the wonderful sermon by Dr. Oh this past Sunday at church.  I mourned for the rest of the day.

By way of background, I attend a 5,000-member church boasting an $11 million budget, which means that even though its congregation is large, it's made up of people rich enough to support an extraordinarily large budget.  We have at least one billionaire as a member, plus CEOs of major corporations.  We have many members of a fabled Texas oil family, plus a slew of lawyers and doctors.  As you might imagine, our demographics skew hard to the white, right-wing side of Dallas society.

Not that I'm bigoted against the rich.  Some of my best friends are rich!

I did not witness this incident personally, but after the service on Sunday, during the postlude, a friend of mine told me about a white family that had recently left our church.  They had adopted a black girl, who once ran down the center hallway of the children's ministry downstairs.  A white woman, another member of our church, who didn't know who this black girl was, stopped her and scolded her saying, "little girl, on this side of the tracks, you're going to have to learn some manners."

Like many of our own rich white kids aren't spoiled brats.

Needless to say, the little girl's family was devastated.  Even I myself, as imperfectly colorblind as I am, reeled in dismay as my friend told me the story.  It truly was disgusting, but - and this made it even more disgusting - I wasn't surprised.  I've heard people in church making derogatory comments about their Hispanic household help.  Actually, I've heard white Republicans cracking rude jokes about Barak Obama in front of people I secretly know are Democrats.  Indeed, GOP fever runs so strong through my church, members who are Democrats live like Christians in China as they worship amongst the rest of us.

The dichotomy between sitting in a congregation of mostly white folk, listening to a Korean-American missionary to Japan teach us about suffering and money in the context of missions, and then learning that people in this same congregation can be so despicably hateful to a little black girl on our property made my brain blow a fuse.  It was surreal, almost.

From what she knew - and my friend is in a position to know much more about the incident than most folks - nothing was done to pursue reconciliation between the family who'd adopted the little black girl, and the white woman who - even if she's dirt poor - has more money than sense.  Or love.

And that's the crux of everything, isn't it?  We can talk about missions all day long.  We can sit in awe of powerful statements on suffering and money being like blood, and we can be smug about the desire of somebody with Dr. Oh's pedigree wanting to preach at a church like ours.

We can also be complacent from knowing that twenty percent of our church's budget goes to missions.  And that we've planted dozens of churches around the world.  Indeed, one of the reasons I've attended Park Cities Presbyterian these past 13 years is because I know there are many people there who truly desire to worship God through cross-cultural missions.  And many of them are quite financially blessed.

But doesn't cross-cultural missions begin at home?  Even here in Dallas?

If you automatically think a little black girl running down a corridor at church is a token welfare case the church is helping out through our urban ministries department, then who's the one living in poverty?

All that money is choking off the blood supply to not only your brain, but your heart.

In a round-about way, that's also why suffering exists.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What Paterno Avoided Became His Epitaph

"Man, that was quick."

As America responded to the passing yesterday of legendary college football coach Joe Paterno, this seemed to sum up the general theme.

He'd only been diagnosed with lung cancer this past November.  He'd only been fired from his historic position at Penn State literally days before that.

Back then, the country was still reeling from news about his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.  Accusations of child molestation, a 50-count indictment, and lurid testimony from a fellow coach about a horrific shower scene he stumbled upon involving Sandusky and a young boy.

All in a football program whose motto, zealously crafted and guarded by Paterno himself, was "victory with honor."

After a 46-season career, building all of Penn State - not just its football program - into a national powerhouse, everything for the 85-year-old icon seemed to implode within a matter of days.  And now, merely three months later, Paterno is dead.  Yet another victim of lung cancer.  And probably a broken heart.

When Good Men Do Almost Nothing...

Officially, Paterno was never charged with any crime.  He had no clue about Sandusky's alleged pattern of child abuse until Mike McQueary, who witnessed the despicable shower episode, went to him with the news.  Paterno acted within the the requirements of Pennsylvania law - if not the spirit of ethical accountability - by simply reporting McQueary's testimony to his own superiors at Penn State.  He did nothing more about the matter, even though he could have.

Couldn't he?  Paterno wielded significant influence and authority at Penn State.  One would think that a man as devoted to his family, personal morality, community pride, and the school's honor as Paterno was would be as eager to make sure justice was secured regarding one of his former coaches as he was promoting the school's athletic and scholastic integrity.  Why didn't he, then, either confront Sandusky himself, or repeatedly pressure the school's senior administrators to do so?  Even if he didn't want to get personally entangled in the process, he would be excused for allowing the chain of command at such a large organization to deal with such accusations, if for no other reason than to legally protect both one's own self and the organization as a whole.  Indeed, the administrators who should have pursued the allegations against Sandusky didn't, and they've been rightfully charged with crimes.  But by all accounts - including Paterno's - he made a perfunctory, obligatory report, and never revisited anything related to McCreary's account ever again.

What may to him have seemed a satisfactory response at the time proved to be his own undoing.  Because even though it wasn't illegal for Paterno to shrug off McCreary's report, one would hope that a person as responsible for the welfare of young people as a college football coach is supposed to be would have had the same zero-tolerance for disreputableness among his coaching staff as among his players.  When Paterno was fired, it wasn't because he had broken any laws, it was because people were so incredulous that he could literally pretend the accusations against Sandusky in no way affected him.

Just over a week ago, on January 14, the Washington Post published an exclusive interview Paterno gave to Post reporter Sally Jenkins, in which the cancer-stricken, wheelchair-bound former coach provided some insight as to how he could assume such a thing.  Both he and McQueary have admitted that the account McQueary shared with him wasn't as graphic as what McQueary would later tell a grand jury convened to bring charges against Sandusky.

"You know, [McQueary] didn't want to get specific," a contrite Paterno recalled about the conversation they had regarding the Sandusky shower. "And to be frank with you, I don't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

By all accounts, Paterno is an old-fashioned Italian when it comes to matters of personal intimacy.  And, sure, there's nothing wrong with living a life in which you try to remain distanced from sordid tales of social dysfunction.  But Paterno was a college football coach at a major institution, and it was part of his responsibility to know about factors that could impact the kids he coached.  And that includes what his coaches were doing to other kids.

It Takes the Diligence of a Village

Undoubtedly, Penn State provided seminars to staff members on recognizing, reporting, and preventing child abuse.  Every large school conducts these programs not only at the behest of their insurance companies and human resource departments, but out of sheer desire to protect those who may not be able to protect themselves.  There's no way Paterno was not aware of the existence of child predators in society, and the abuse of power over kids by authority figures, even if such topics sent shivers up his spine whenever mentioned within earshot.  Such topics should rightly send shivers up anybody's spine, but that doesn't mean you pretend they don't exist.

Yet how many of us do the same thing in our own spheres of influence?  For example, how many of us scoff at church rules down in the childrens ministry areas designed to prevent unauthorized people from interacting with kids?  When I worked at a large church in the 1990's, at the dawn of modern child protection systems in large churches, it wasn't uncommon to have an unauthorized adult pitch a fit when they were refused access to a specific area, or told they couldn't sign-out a child because the parent who checked-in the child hadn't approved it.

If you're really interested in protecting your child, you'll follow the rules.  And if the rules don't make sense, then work with whomever's in charge to fix them.  More than likely, however, it's not the rules that are as onerous in these cases as are the parents.

One time, a parent involved in a heated custody battle after a protracted divorce fight tried to claim their child against the wishes of the other parent.  Thankfully, the person manning the discharge desk enforced the church's policy, and likely prevented the child from being abducted by the unauthorized parent.

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/01/14/3660331/paterno-didnt-know-which-way-to.html#storylink=cpy

I didn't work in the childrens ministry, so I didn't witness any of these situations first-hand.  I worked in the accounting office, and the only reason I heard about these problems was because parents complained to the church administration when they couldn't fudge the rules to benefit themselves... more often than not, to the detriment of child safety.

Now, obviously, rules imposed by churches and other organizations entrusted with the care of children are only as good as their logic and enforceability.  Stupid rules don't necessarily keep anybody safe, because of the irresistible temptation to ignore them.  And unenforced rules might just as well not exist at all.

But these are conversations that organizations need to have, regardless of the comfort level among affected parties.  The aloof Paterno-esque disposition that likes to pretend such crimes never happen cannot coexist with reality.  And even people of such mythic or idolized status as Joe Paterno cannot be held in such demagogic esteem that raw testimony such as McCreary's cannot be shared, however uncomfortably, with them.  Paterno could have even asked McCreary to follow-up on the incident if he was too baffled by it himself. 

As we all now know, McCreary did Paterno no favors by not being completely descriptive with what he saw.   And neither one of them did the victims in this situation any favors, either.  Whether the victims are the boys who've made allegations against Sandusky, or even Sandusky himself, who may yet be innocent of these allegations, no matter how unlikely that may currently appear.

Don't Walk Through Life Wearing Blinders

If Paterno's fall from grace teaches us anything, it is that if a person was ever able to march through their chosen career or life walk, doing whatever they wanted to do without allowing themselves to get bogged-down in the nitty-gritty dirty ancillary work involved with responsibility and accountability, you can't live that way any longer.  These days, all of us need to be aware of things happening around us.  If something is brought to our attention, even an unsubstantiated allegation involving possible harm to somebody else, we need to at least stop and make sure we do what we can to remediate the situation.

Apparently, Paterno wanted to coach, and that's all.  Unfortunately, he neglected to realize that coaching is much more than teaching kids how to excel in the mechanics of football.  It's nice - albeit quaint - that he was held in such high regard by his assistant coaches that McCreary apparently thought it would disrespectfully embarrass Paterno if he told him everything he saw.  But nice and quaint don't cut it anymore when we're talking about child abuse.  Nice and quaint isn't the world in which we live.

Yes, the response, "well, that was quick" may have been the first thing people thought of upon hearing of Paterno's passing yesterday.

But then, "it's just so sad" pretty much sums up the rest of everyone's reaction.

So sad, because for Paterno's legacy at least, it's an epitaph that didn't have to be.

So sad.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Letter to a Mississippi Jail Inmate

I've been having a good old-fashioned snail-mail conversation about faith with a friend of mine recently incarcerated in a federal penitentiary located in Mississippi.

In order to earn himself some protection, my agnostic friend has joined the "church" which meets in this prison every Sunday.  Apparently, inmates don't pick on you as much if you go to the services.  Or at least, going to church implies you have some moral scruples to keep you from doing all the rest of the ugly stuff other prisoners do to bide their time behind bars.

My friend grew up Catholic, but hasn't been to mass in years.  I believe the only evangelical Protestant church he's ever been in is mine, Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, when he attended a Christmas concert several years ago with his boyfriend.

I'm not going to tell you what he did that got him incarcerated, because that's not significant right now (no, he didn't kill or rape anybody).  And the only reason I'm telling you his sexual orientation is because in prison, he's learning that even previously-die hard heterosexuals, um, aren't.

Suffice it to say that he's suddenly got lots of questions about things that we rarely talked about when he was living foot-loose and fancy-free here in north Texas.  And I've decided to be as blunt with him about my faith as I am with anybody else who reads this blog.

But since I'm no evangelist, why don't you read this letter over my shoulder and see how accurate I am?  Please at least pray that the Holy Spirit would work in my friend's heart to receive these truths. 

Especially if you discover something I could have worded better!

Preachers, Sermons, and Pain

So, you say you’re not learning much about God in the prison's church?  You say the preachers they bring in speak down to the congregation of inmates?  Well, unfortunately, that’s not entirely uncommon, whether you’re inside prison or outside it!

Yes, personal Bible study can be a better way to learn about God, but the way “normal” evangelical church is done, the sermon should be designed for you to learn something. It may not provide a completely new learning experience every week; sometimes, finding a new insight on a passage of scripture or a new application for your personal life is what takes place instead.  But I would expect some sort of discovery or affirmation of faith each week.

A number people in the church I’ve attended for 13 years make the same complaints about our current preacher as you do the ones in prison.  Not that our pastor harps on “prison, prison, faith, faith” all the time!  But they expect more in-depth teaching than what our pastor does.  I know it might sound funny to you, but I’m learning to be patient and see if I can learn something in sermons that even I agree can be more “milk of the word” than “meat of the word.”

I suppose some of the preachers you get in prison assume they need to be aggressive and raw in their speech to get your attention.  Yet I’d agree with you – it’s best to preach and teach from one's strengths, and if someone's never been incarcerated, don’t pretend to know what it’s like.  When talking about your faith, you don't need to try to empathize with your congregation as much as you need to simply speak the truth in love.

No, the preachers you get likely have no idea what it's like to live in a confined environment where you can't escape the rapes, extortion, and stabbings.  But try to ignore their ignorance.  God never promises His believers that we won’t have problems in life.  However, it’s not the sufferings themselves, but how we respond to them that is more significant. It’s a life-long process to learn how God allows trials for our ultimate good, and for developing our faith and trust in His ability to work all things – both positive and negative – for our good and His glory.  God knows everything that happens to all of us before it happens – He’s known since before He created time.  That may not provide much comfort in the moment of pain, but the more we trust in His ability to work things for our betterment, the less fearful we should become.

Purity, Homosexuality, and Grace

As far as Christ and purity are concerned, did I really say,“Christ is the bridge to purity, and purity is the way to God?"  Or are you trying to paraphrase?  If I did, I probably meant that since God is pure, we cannot simply approach Him in our unworthiness and depravity.  We need a substitute, and Christ is that substitute.  Christ is our purity, so that we can approach God as if He’s our father.  “Nobody comes to the Father, except through Christ” (John 14:6).

Why did God make you gay?  Well, I’m not an expert on human sexuality, but I find logic in the progressive evangelical line of thought that says that people born with certain emotional traits actually are more likely to adopt homoerotic dispositions if their father figure (for boys) or mother figure (for girls) is either absent or particularly aloof.  This is not a definitive blame-the-parent scenario; sometimes, parents and kids just don’t connect in the most beneficial of ways.  And I also think that the age-old condemnation of homosexuality (an excessive sanctimony, considering that same-gender sex, while listed as a sin in the Bible, is no worse than gluttony, gossip, and greed) can actually exacerbate homoerotic proclivities in some people.  It’s an issue that I think the evangelical church is only now beginning to examine and flesh-out according to literal interpretations of previously-ignored texts.

So while I would not say that God “made” you gay, I would say – and hey, you asked – that over time, you’ve developed a sin pattern involving homoeroticism that was based in some measure (as yet not understood) on your genetically-based personality and some combination of parental/nurturing habits.  Maybe that sounds like a cop-out to mix both “nature and nurture,” or just another way to re-frame Christian gay-bashing.  But you’re a close friend, so you know I’m not bashing you.  Frankly, on the sin scale, I’d say your gayness is no worse than my gluttony.  The only unpardonable sin is denial of Christ’s deity.  I struggle with all sorts of immoral sexual thoughts and desires, as do virtually 99.99% of Christians.  I think the ones who bash gays the most are the ones who haven’t been able to reconcile the imperfections of how they were raised.  But none of us have perfect parents.  Just because we can’t get into Heaven based on our parents’ faith, we’re not denied Heaven just because our parents weren’t perfect.

I don’t look at you as a homosexual.  I look at you as a creative, witty, skinny guy with a Roman nose who is obsessed with Apple products and is gay.  More importantly, right now, God looks at you as a sinner, but not a gay sinner.  He looks at you as a person who has yet to believe that His Son, Christ, died for your sins so that you could have fellowship with Him.  God looks at me as a sinner saved by grace – His grace, in leading me to the knowledge and belief in His Son – and an adopted child of His.  Adopted from the ways of this world to His family of believers.

Trinitarian Theology

The “road to salvation” can be lonely, because as I said earlier, it’s not based on anything else except you and your faith – or lack of it – in God and Who He is.  It’s particularly lonely when we don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of us.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, comprised of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit.  I’m sure you’ve heard of “Three in One,” describing the Trinity.  The Chinese government even calls Christianity the “Three Selves” church.

Perhaps I should explain the role of each Person of the Trinity:  God the Father is the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of all things.  God the Son is the perfect Sacrifice for our sins.  God the Holy Spirit is the “deposit” of our eternal reward who reveals God’s truth to us.

Nobody is led to saving faith in God through Christ without, first, the Holy Spirit revealing the truth of Who Christ is to them.  Plenty of people claim to know Who Christ is, but they don’t truly believe that He is the Son of God.  And that’s because the Holy Spirit is not living in them.

How can you tell, then, who is saved, and who isn’t?  Well, that’s not supposed to be a terribly important thing for people to be able to do.  But there are ways we can determine the people within whom God is working.  There are things called the “Fruit of the Spirit” that the Holy Spirit enables every believer to demonstrate in their life.  These are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

Since none of us are perfect, no believer will ever have all of these “fruits” perfectly demonstrated in their life here on Earth.  But if we don’t even desire them, or pray to improve in them, or value them, or seek to emulate them in some convincing way, then we’re allowed to discern that the Holy Spirit is not working in and through this person, which means they’re not saved.

Not that we’re supposed to walk through life pigeonholing people by whether they’re exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit in profound ways.  But since in the Bible, God calls us to be careful to prevent unsaved people from corrupting the church, we’re supposed to be on guard for people who don’t possess this fruit.  This is important, because even though plenty of “good” unsaved people can mimic most of these, it can be hard to tell whether it’s just their personality (for example, some people are doormats, and wimpiness can look like meekness) or whether the Holy Spirit is truly guiding them in these attributes.

But maybe that’s a bit too much information to dump on you all at once!  I’m including a bulletin from this past week’s church service to hopefully help put some of these concepts into a context of what they look like in my church.

And if you'd like me to get you a Bible, please let me know.

You can fact-check everything I've said against it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bow Wow, Kodak

A sampling of reader comments from the New York Times story of Kodak's bankruptcy announcement:
  • "First Twinkies, now Brownies. My childhood is going bankrupt!" - Wasting Time, DC
  • "How could Kodak be so over-exposed?" - Technic Ally, Toronto
  • "Kodak's recipe for decline parallels that of all too many companies too many MBAs and too many corporate lawyers running things, and not enough visionaries and technical people - this, no less, from the company that pioneered digital imaging." - mancuroc, Rochester NY
  • "Excellent, part of Kodak's corporate turnaround strategy is to become a patent troll suing other companies." - omalley69, Toronto
  • "A note to Perez - it's too late to sell patents to buggy whips." - Shining Light, North Coas

Was it management incompetence?

Take a look at the selection of opinions above.  I've never said right-wing capitalists are wrong when it comes to the moderate business mindset of the New York Times and its readers!

Whereas capitalists esteem Capitalism as a power that can do no evil, the Times and its readership aren't always so sure.  Classic proof of this can be seen in such responses to Kodak's bankruptcy filing, in which management gets skewered for completely bungled the switch from film to digital photography over the past couple of decades.

According to information reported in the Times, part of Kodak's proposed restructuring under bankruptcy protection will be to aggressively sue other companies allegedly violating Kodak's copyrights on a vast assortment of technologies.  Not exactly a textbook gameplan for long-term fiscal sustainability, is it?  They've already been trying to sell some of their patents, even though it's unclear how patents they couldn't profit from themselves could be so valuable to anybody else.  Kodak also intends to complete what many consider to be a misguided transformation from photographic film inventor into a desktop printer manufacturer, much like Apple's transformation, shifting from laptops to iPods.

Trouble is, according to skeptics, Kodak's current CEO is no Steve Jobs.

No Longer on a Roll

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, reader comments to the same news from Kodak has been decidedly different on the Wall Street Journal's website, where a pronounced defense of the MBA culture - plus some hostility at Kodak's rank-and-file employees and professional engineers - runs through many posted opinions.

It's a popular ax for pro-management pundits to grind, even as they're likely trying to protect the value of their own MBAs:  Kodak is yet another big business that has suffered at the hands of its workers.

Considering how many tens of thousands of its employees Kodak has laid off over the past decade, isn't that argument a bit dubious?  But then again, Kodak's besieged CEO, Antonio Perez, has replaced most of his executive suite's old guard since taking over in 2005, and that hasn't helped the company yet, either.  So deciphering which employee group is to blame for the storied corporation's fall from grace may be left for history to confirm.  Indeed, while it's certainly obvious that the film producer completely screwed up its response to society's digital transformation of photography, how it could and should have anticipated and engaged with digital imaging will likely be the topic of debate for some time.

Actually, the debate has already started!  Across the Internet, highly-educated engineers who have either retired from Kodak, or were fired from it during incessant waves of layoffs, have written articles for business websites and blogs about the intransigent corporate culture at Kodak's storied headquarters in Rochester, New York.

Although the company could attract engineering and executive talent from around the globe to that smallish urban outpost near Lake Ontario, once executives became ensconced in the city Kodak's founder built, they tended to congeal into a boardroom groupthink.  While engineers down in the labs kept on churning out inventions - including, to Kodak's everlasting shame, the digital camera itself - company management scoffed at the notion that its core film business would ever go bust.

The Tail Wagging the Dog?

Yet herein may lie yet another culprit for Kodak's inability to re-invent itself.

The legendary George Eastman didn't invent photography, but he invented roll film, which brought photography to the masses.  He founded Kodak and developed it into an economic powerhouse by hiring gifted inventors who continuously improved his original product.  Kodak thrived on innovation, but it was innovation fueled by gifted engineers, more than the boardroom machinations by MBA's.  Eastman treated all of his employees well because he understood that innovation is best nurtured within contented employees, and executives don't mix photographic chemicals to create the products from which profits are derived.

However, as current CEO Perez has been thrashing about, trying to salvage Eastman's legendary brand, it doesn't appear that he's realized the secret to Eastman's success.  Did Eastman announce a goal, and then push his engineers to pull products to support it out of a hat?  Or did Eastman hire brilliant engineers, build state-of the-art laboratories, and let his people tinker, innovate, and bring their inventions to his executives to sell?

Granted, Eastman died decades before Kodak began to fall apart at the seams, but he created a culture of discovery and development that his predecessors ultimately turned on its head, where the tail started wagging the dog.

Witness Steven Sasson's digital camera, which he invented in 1975.  Kodak's executives obviously weren't looking to bring a digital camera to market.  They didn't know what to do with it, primarily because they had already succumbed to the corporate groupthink that would bring the company to this day of bankruptcy.

Ever since the rumor mill started churning through Kodak bankruptcy gossip last year, Perez has been under fire for what observers claim has been his inept leadership, but isn't it possible that his tenure at Kodak has simply been too little too late?  Didn't Perez inherit a corporate culture that no longer knew what to do with technology or how deep innovation should run?

If corporate management is supposed to know how to assess trends, evaluate new opportunities, and capitalize on product development - even products consumers might not yet know they need - then the legend of Steve Jobs, who never finished college, let alone got an MBA, provides a compelling parallel to the dysfunction in Kodak's corporate suite.

Can Innovation Burn in this Crucible?

Not that an MBA, in and of itself, is a bad thing.  It simply isn't the magic elixir corporate America thinks it is.

And maybe all of the things the Journal's readers criticize Eastman for - free dental care and other generous employee benefits, plus lavish civic philanthropy, for example - are unsustainable in today's corporate world.  At least for a purveyor of ultra-competitive consumer technology.

But might one of Eastman's strategies - letting his cracker-jack engineering department set the pace for his company's products - be something today's Kodak should consider re-implementing?

Perez has said he's pushing whomever's left in his engineering labs to develop new products to fit his new business model for Kodak, but not only does Kodak not have a good track record with change, it's never had to scramble to meet such top-down changes.  Does Perez not understand that inventors can't always react immediately to orders for making square pegs fit round holes?

To the extent that Perez may actually be making more of a valiant effort to keep Kodak afloat than many people are willing to credit him with, then hopefully, this bankruptcy will give him the time and, unfortunately, the finances salvaged from collateral damage to employment and pensions, to succeed.

But in how many ways is Kodak not at all like Apple?  It's older, with a more deeply-ingrained methodology, and what must be a severely disillusioned and threadbare workforce.

Engineers and inventions used to lead the company, and corporate followed along to find and stock markets for their innovations.

Now corporate is trying to engineer a re-invention of the company by commissioning innovations that have historically occurred through scientific experimentation, not bankruptcy timetables.

Can the tail wag this dog back to good health?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sopapillas Would be More Effective

As a citizen of the Internet - which is what you are, since you're reading this online - you've undoubtedly been inundated today with messages regarding SOPA-PIPA.

And if you're tired of it already, I'm sorry, because you're gonna get an earful from me about it as well.

Because SOPA-PIPA isn't simply an altruistic legislative scuffle, or fodder for jokes about fatty, starchy Mexican pastries (sopapillas, anybody?).  It could severely impact the way you use the Internet.

By way of full disclosure, there's also an international anti-piracy law in the works, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, but that doesn't fit in cleverly with acronyms which sound like wholly unhealthy - yet delicious! - sopapillas.

Anyway... as you may already know, the combined term SOPA-PIPA refers to two bills in Congress that propose pervasive restrictions on, and penalties for, certain types of Internet content.  Individually, the acronyms stand for the House of Representative's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA).  But however you slice them, they're both chock-full of restrictions, penalties, and outright censorship tactics that will virtually shut down innovation currently exploding all over the Internet.

Innovation which, by the way, is being indisputably led by entrepreneurs in the United States.  This is our baby.  We created it, thanks in no small measure to government scientists (take that, you anti-government Tea Partiers).  We have the most active users (so far, anyway).  And American companies already generate the most online profits of any other country.

Indeed, my sole source of revenue comes from what I write for the Internet.  So you'd think that it would be to my benefit to support SOPA-PIPA, since I have a vested interest in stopping online piracy, which is the ostensible objective of both of these bills.

And I do think online piracy should be fought.  I believe that anybody who creates intellectual property should automatically own it, or at least be able to control it.  The articles I write for Crosswalk are technically theirs for at least a year, but I agreed to that in the contract I signed with them.  I know where my content is supposed to be, and I trust Crosswalk to use it properly.  If I didn't want to abide by that arrangement, I was under no obligation to sign the contract.

But with Internet piracy, I lose control of my intellectual property... or, perhaps more accurately, the property I consider to have intellectual value.  Granted, with the stuff I write, few other people would ever want to claim it as their own.  And if anybody else can figure out how to make more money off of it than what Crosswalk pays me, then I'd be all ears!

Flaw Number One

Plenty of other Internet content, of course, is worth far more than mine.  Intellectual property like feature movies, TV shows, best-selling novels, photography, graphics, songs, and music videos have all been pirated online.  But is this really a new problem?  The illegal distribution of counterfeit products has been the bane of the intellectual capital world for generations.  And it's usually been up to the creators and distributors of that original content to devise ways of protecting their products at the point of distribution.

But the Internet is not actually their point of distribution.  And this is where the fallacy of SOPA-PIPA first appears.  The Internet is a distribution mechanism, but for any product, the last line of defense against product piracy is before it leaves the factory, not as it's being distributed.  In other words, the Internet is like the truck that delivers content to you, much like the truck that used to deliver movie reels to a theater in Des Moines, or modern DVD's to a Best Buy in Schenectady.

Does Hollywood sue all of the world's trucking firms because some of their products get pirated?  No, but they can sue an individual firm if they can prove that its employees were actively engaged in stealing freight and re-selling it on the black market.  Otherwise, if the Hollywood studios cannot prove the freight companies were culpable in hiring criminals to pirate intellectual (well, for Hollywood, we'd better just stick to "creative") property, then it's up to them to thwart the piracy by ensuring the product is protected both in-transit and even after delivery.

After all, stealing DVD's out of the back of a delivery truck likely isn't as common as a person buying a DVD retail, and then pirating the DVD's content for illicit re-sale in the black market.  That's hardly the freight company's fault, is it?

With SOPA-PIPA, in effect, Hollywood is saying it is.

Those of us against SOPA-PIPA believe that just as it's Hollywood's responsibility to protect its product before it's distributed in the bricks-and-mortar world, it's their responsibility to protect its product in the online world.

Does this mean that organizations which host content on the Internet - the web's "trucking companies," if you will - bear no responsibility for any pirated content their users may upload?  Perhaps currently in practice, but not in theory.  It's just that the "fix" for the lag between technology and law enforcement does not exist in SOPA-PIPA.

Flaw Number Two

Remember when people would sneak into movie theaters and videotape first-run movies from their seats?  Bootlegged videos would then show up a few days later.  But did Hollywood go chasing after the theater owners, forcing them to close because a bootlegger had been using a seat in one of their venues to ply his illicit trade?

Or take the pirating of music videos.  Has the recording industry gone after the electric utility companies which provided the electricity which enabled the music video pirates to play the videos in the first place?  Wouldn't that be completely stupid to blame the electric company, or the television manufacturer, for the crimes some people committed with the aid of ancillary equipment?

Penalizing the Internet would be just as incongruous.  The Internet is a public utility.  It has become almost as essential to modern American life as electricity, even if not everybody (like my Luddite mother) takes advantage of it.  The Internet is just the latest venue through which criminals have been able to develop their thievery of commodities that don't belong to them.  But the Internet isn't like a store that the Feds can raid and shut down.

Those of us opposed to SOPA-PIPA believe that since the Internet serves a vastly broader purpose than disseminating intellectual property, sweeping laws with draconian effects on all sorts of content would basically shut it down.  Just as you can't ration electricity to just households which promise not to pirate software or DVDs, you can't ration the Internet.  It is, or it isn't.  It's on, or it's off.  People either have rights to it, or they don't.

Does this mean that we just throw up our hands and say intellectual property rights don't exist on the Internet?  Of course not.  But neither does it mean that just because we haven't figured out a better way of protecting property rights, we need to turn the Internet into a police state.

Creators of any material that could end up on the Internet need to understand both the rewards and the risks of our online world.  Right now, for many creators of intellectual property, the risks appear to outweigh the rewards, and that has led to the unsustainable proposals inherent in SOPA-PIPA.

But just because we don't yet have a workable alternative to something as drastic as SOPA-PIPA, should we just run with what we've got?  Absolutely not, because just as intellectual property is valuable, so is intellectual freedom, and the ability to create and consume the very intellectual property we value.

Shutting down one of the world's greatest inventions because our laws can't keep up with parts of it does not make for logical public policy.

So... do you like honey with your sopapillas?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

You Really Can't Legislate Morality

Sometimes, when a phrase gets used a lot, it's easy to assume people actually know what it means.

But like a lot of things, popularity in use doesn't always denote comprehension.  Consider, if you will, this relatively common phrase: "You can't legislate morality."

I use the phrase frequently, because it's true.  In fact, I used it in my most recent article for Crosswalk, "Keeping Matrimony Holy Starts with Singles."  Although, I didn't use the phrase "you can't legislate morality."  I said, "virtue cannot be encoded into law."

Still, the point of the phrase is this:  just taking a moral principle and turning it into a civil law is not, in and of itself, going to actually change the ways people perceive, appreciate, honor, respect, and uphold that moral principle.

"You can't legislate morality" does NOT mean that you cannot simply take a moral principle and turn it into a law by which people need to abide.

Can you see the difference?  Sure, most laws are based on a moral principle, but they don't necessarily change a person's intrinsic attitude towards that principle.  And while forcing a change in behavior may be necessary, only an attitude change can validate the moral being imposed.

After all, buy-in for a moral principle only takes place when people embrace its value as a worthwhile behavioral mechanism.  Simply making people do something doesn't intrinsically validate the action you're wanting them to do.  And it's the value of that moral code that can benefit society, not the law itself.

Speed limits, for example, include a moral component, since we know that the faster we drive, the less control we have over our vehicle in an emergency situation, and that lessened control could compromise life and health.

But when you drive, how often are you caring about the health and welfare of drivers around you as your speedometer creeps - or surges - past the speed limit?  Sure, you might be a sweet angel of a driver and putter along consistently one MPH below the posted speed limit (incurring the wrath of every other driver unfortunate enough to get stuck behind you).  Quite frankly, however, the only reason I abide by the speed limit as much as I do is because I'm afraid of getting a speeding ticket if I don't.

For pragmatists, the end result is the same:  I abide by the law (usually).  Just so long as I'm not posing a danger to myself and others by exceeding what is considered to be the maximum speed for a particular stretch of roadway, then the law is being effective.

But the law isn't making me care any more for my fellow road warriors, is it?  So although its basic objective has been met - road safety - any moral pretense has been thrown out the window.  Like all those bits of litter blowing alongside our freeways.

Not that codifing morality is essentially a bad idea.  Speed limits are a necessary evil, just like laws against murder, theft, rape, extortion, and even wearing seatbelts.  All of these laws have a moral component to them.

But when it comes to more esoteric practices, maybe like wearing seatbelts, but more certainly like preserving the sanctity of marriage, the phrase "you can't legislate morality" really begins to speak volumes.  Because when it comes to things like the sanctity of marriage, outlawing divorce won't make husbands and wives love each other more.

That's what is meant by "you can't legislate morality."

Outlawing abortion, although I think that is something that should be done to protect innocent - albeit unborn - life, won't make biological parents love their pre-birth offspring more.

Outlawing guns won't make angry people less anxious to kill somebody.

Outlawing murder won't make people stop killing each other.

The reason this distinction is significant lies not only in how it impacts our socialization patterns as a civilization.  Indeed, what we think and how we feel about rules and expectations play crucial roles in how we behave and interact with others.

But also, this distinction is significant because God looks at our hearts.  Why we do what we do betrays our true selves more than our actions do.  Remember the purpose of the Old Testament laws?  They were to prove our sin, but they couldn't save us.  When we trust Christ in faith for His substitutionary sacrifice, the Holy Spirit helps us develop a moral perspective for why good things are good and bad things are bad.  Truths with which we may have complied before, but only because of the law's compunction.  Now, however, we see the ethical dimension, which isn't always discernible outside of the Holy Spirit's power.

Laws trick us into thinking we're good people, because laws tell us how to look good.

But morality doesn't lie.

Monday, January 16, 2012

No Wonder They're in Love

Traveling is not my thing.  Some people seem to live on jet airplanes, or in their automobiles.

Me?  I haven't been on a road trip since, um... about 2003, I think.  And the last time I flew was to Detroit for Christmas in 2009, the same year Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up his family jewels.

On those rare occasions when I do fly, it's almost always on American Airlines, out of their massive hub here at the sprawling Dallas - Fort Worth International Airport.  Ever since American Airlines relocated their corporate headquarters to Texas from New York, they've been its dominant carrier.  I flew Continental to Houston on a business trip once several years ago, and it was the oddest feeling, almost like I was betraying a long-time friend.

Not that American Airlines is a friendly airline.  It consistently ranks last in consumer satisfaction surveys, and it's the last of the legacy airlines that got so big they could demand business by virtue of the sheer scale of their flight schedules.  To have them currently in bankruptcy protection has disappointed some people, but surprised far fewer.  I've even heard hopes that this bankruptcy will feed American a steady enough diet of humble pie that when they emerge from Chapter 11, they'll be hungry enough to want to woo their customers instead of ostracize them.

Where's the Love?

Against this backdrop of me hardly ever traveling by air, and when I do, almost always traveling on American out of what we call the "Big Airport" here in north Texas, I found myself experiencing a bit of culture shock last night.  A friend of mine who hasn't been in town for about seven months was due back last night, and while a mutual friend was officially scheduled to pick him up, I happened to be in Dallas, so I swung by the smaller airport, to the terminal of a smaller airline, and received an unexpected lesson in how customer service is done in another sector of today's airline industry.

Back before Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was constructed, the Dallas metropolitan area was serviced by a typical 1950's-vintage municipal airport, Love Field, located a little north of the city's downtown business district.  Fort Worth had an even smaller municipal airport, Meacham, on its north side as well.  But in those days, Cowtown was still, well, Cowtown, whereas Big D really was growing in population and prestige.

Growing so much, in fact, that Love Field couldn't keep up with it all.  Landlocked by residential neighborhoods and an aging industrial district, there was no room for it to expand.  Meanwhile, Fort Worth wanted part of the corporate relocation action Dallas had been enjoying, and regional planners in north Texas were working with state leaders to get funding for a new airport better designed for international travel.

In the early 1970's, what was then a state-of-the-art airport complex was opened on a wide patch of scrubland between the two cities, and whatever was left of passenger service Meacham Airport quickly dried up and blew away.  Today, it's a respectable commercial aircraft services facility, but little more.

Dallas' Love Field, on the other hand, managed to retain much of its passenger business.  You see, although the western flanks of the airport were quickly degenerating into strip clubs, liquor stores, and rusting warehouses, Love Field's eastern side was enticingly close to the city's two most prestigious enclaves, Highland Park and University Park, where scores of business owners and corporate executives lived.

Sure, the new international airport wasn't too far away, but if you were just needing to fly domestically, why bother schlepping practically to Fort Worth when Love Field is in your back yard?  Several years earlier, Southwest Airlines had been launched at Love Field, and its management was busy building it into what has become one of today's most popular no-frills airlines.  Why not keep Love Field going, Dallas leaders rationalized, as a domestic, convenient alternative to the Big Airport?

Dallas Loves its Airport

Fast forward to last night, when, after Bible study at a friend's home about ten minutes away from Love Field, I drove down the old airport's main entrance boulevard, well-paved, well-lit, and attractively landscaped.  Plenty of signs directed me to where I assumed I needed to go; Southwest having only one terminal, and one baggage claim pavilion.  After all, you don't need to know a passenger's arriving gate anymore, do you?  You just need to know where they're going to be picking up their luggage.  And fortunately, the only escalators from the arrival mezzanine at Love Field's Southwest terminal is right next to the hallway towards baggage claim.

Not that I've ever flow into or out of Love Field, but I remembered what the layout was like from the couple of times I've dropped-off friends there in the past.

The parking garage was well-lit, also.  I'm commenting on how illuminated everything was at 10:00pm because, remember, Love Field is owned and operated by the City of Dallas.  And Dallas isn't known for replacing streetlights - or low crime rates, for that matter.  Sure, about two blocks to the east, the McMansions of Dallas' Park Cities elite grace well-tended neighborhoods of ease and tranquility, but right across the airport's western fence lie abandoned buildings and auto lube shacks which were closed - at least for the night.

A well-tended walkway - again, well-lit - guided me from the clean, modern parking garage to Southwest Airline's main entrance (yes, the terminal is small enough to have multiple doorways but only one main entrance).  Being 10:00pm on a Sunday night, the terminal was almost empty, with only a Cinnabon shop still open for the late arrivals.

Several cleaning crews were making their rounds, as well as security guards, and a few airport personnel, apparently just going off shift.  I found the baggage claim area to be the only place humming with any considerable amount of activity, as passengers were quietly getting their luggage off of the old-style loopy-patterned conveyor belts.  Dallas-Fort Worth International has wide, oval-shaped luggage carousels slanted to look like Mayan temples, and they clatter and scrape something awful.  It was almost absurd to notice what appeared to be original equipment at the much older Love Field barely making a humming noise as luggage glided past.

Things I Saw at the Airport

My friend's flight was running early, according to the electronic flight messaging board, but still, I'd have to wait for about 40 minutes.  I knew I was early anyway, so I didn't really mind.  I soon discovered that I'm a dying breed:  of the several flights which arrived while I waited, only two other people came to meet arriving passengers.  Maybe more people were idling in their cars outside of the baggage claim doorways, but only three of us came inside.  I remember the days when waiting areas (up at the arrival gate, remember?!) would be terribly congested with loved ones anxiously awaiting sight of their deplaning family and friends.

After noticing how people don't greet planes anymore, I was tempted to mentally meander into the social reasons for that.  Maybe flying has become so ordinary?  Maybe the lack of sufficient seating for people who want to wait, since non-ticketed folks are now banned from the main part of airport terminals - has virtually erased the once-common sight of airport reunions.

Anyway, I soon realized that in addition to the changing habits of air travelers and their loved ones, I was witnessing what a lot of frequent Southwest Airlines passengers have been raving about for years:  no-hassle flying.  I've known Southwest customers love their airline, but I thought it was mostly because of their reasonable fares.

Like clockwork, a group of about forty or fifty people would glide down the escalators from the mezzanine, most of them obviously tired, but few of them agitated or stressed-out.  Some of them had their one bag with them (no, not their spouse!), so they headed straight for the exit doors, which were only a few feet away from the escalator.  The majority of passengers - obviously frequent travelers through Love Field - turned automatically to their right, down the hallway to baggage claim.  Hardly anybody talked - only a couple of people were chatting softly on their cell phones.  Many of them - both young and old, although the majority of passengers were young - were texting busily, hardly watching where they were going, taking that automatic right turn like they were programmed to do so.

No anxiety, no stress, no anger; just the periodic wave of humanity washing down the escalators and turning towards baggage claim.  Where they got their bags and left.

Wave, after wave, after wave.

After a while, I couldn't help but notice how orderly the baggage claim process was going.  Maybe last night was a fluke.  Maybe it was the first time in ages that things have run that smoothly at Love Field.  Maybe the fact that Southwest's workforce is non-union - nope, they've got all the traditional unions at Southwest, so that can't be it. 

Granted, Love Field is not a large airport with dozens of flights arriving at the same time, and this was a Sunday night, after 10 pm, on a day with good weather, and most of these travelers were Dallas-area residents.

Although I did here one guy complaining to a security guard that he couldn't get any of the cabbies lined up outside to drive him to Oak Cliff, a dicey Dallas neighborhood, especially at night.

Yet even as multiple flights were disembarking and having their luggage combined on two carousels, there was hardly any talking.  Hardly any grabbing for luggage, hardly any pushing, and hardly any nose at all.  At American Airlines, at our Big Airport, in Detroit, and especially at New York's LaGuardia - the three airports which I've most frequently experienced - there's usually any number of shovers, violent grabbers of unwieldy luggage, shouting and raised voices, noisy luggage carousels, and generally, a higher level of anxiety than one might expect from people simply picking up their baggage.

At Love Field's baggage-claim, however, throngs of passengers would traipse down the long hallway, stand silently near the carousels, and within minutes, watch as bags popped through the little openings in the wall.  Almost at some secret signal, every piece luggage would be claimed, and people would be on their way.

There were no stacks of unclaimed luggage.  And there were no groups of disgruntled passengers having to file claims over missing baggage.  Yes, Southwest Airlines had a luggage service counter open, but - and get this! - it was for people who had arrived early for their originating flight, and their luggage had managed to get to Dallas on an earlier plane!  How often does THAT happen these days?

Something Special in the Air

By the time my friend's flight arrived, aside from marveling at how calm things were running, I was seriously bored.  There had been no drama of any sort, except maybe for the guy who couldn't get a cabbie to take him to Oak Cliff.  I'd estimate that several hundred people had made their way through the terminal just while I had been there, and everything was running like it was supposed to.

My friend said that whenever he could, he avoided using the Big Airport, preferring the low-stress vibes at Love Field - even though, due to a bit of crafty legislation known as the Wright Amendment, which sought to curtail Love Field's popularity, many destinations further away from Texas cannot be non-stop.  Like many travelers, my friend is willing to endure the inconvenience of longer travel times to and from Love Field so he can avoid the agony of Dallas - Fort Worth International and the legacy airlines like American which dominate it.

On my drive home afterwards, I got to thinking:  maybe this was a taste of what the "golden age of flight" was like?  When planes arrived on-time or early, when you didn't need to hike across acres of marble flooring to get from your gate to baggage claim, and when baggage claim was effortless and everybody left happy.  No noise, no drama, no fuss.

No wonder most of these travelers appeared to be seasoned Southwest Airlines customers.

No wonder American is in bankruptcy.