Sunday, June 29, 2014

On the very touchy subject of abortion

What Does The Bible Tell Us About Abortion?
by Rev. Paul J. Bern

Many people presume that a human being is created at the time of conception, but this belief is not supported medically or by the Bible. The fact that a living sperm penetrates a living ovum resulting in the formation of a living fetus does not mean that the fetus is a living human being, or at least not yet. According to the Bible, a fetus is not a living person with a soul until after drawing its first breath. Allow me to explain the results of my research on this very touchy subject.

First of all, God formed man according to Genesis 2:7, which says, “... the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being”. Although the man was fully formed by God in all respects, he was not a living being until after taking his first breath. In Job 33:4, it states: “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” We were all formed prior to our birth, but we weren't living beings until God breathed life unto us. Again, to quote Ezekiel 37 verses 5 and 6, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: 'I will make breath to enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you, and make flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin; and put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord'.”

In Exodus 21:22 it is written: “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise”. It should be quite clear from this that the aborted fetus is not considered a living human being since the resulting punishment for the abortion is nothing more than a fine; it is not classified by the Bible as a capital offense under these circumstances unless the baby, its mother, or both are intentionally harmed or killed. It is further stated in 1st Corinthians chapter three verse 16, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and God's Spirit lives in you?” We are alive in Christ when we die to ourselves. An unborn fetus lives within the womb, but is not yet a human being until it draws its first breath. Can God live within the unborn baby? Well, the Bible does say, “All things are possible with God”, that is true and I believe it wholeheartedly. But as I have already pointed out, the Bible is absolutely clear that a baby is not a human being until it draws its first breath, so that question is actually besides the point.

Destroying a living fetus does not equate to killing a living human being even though the fetus definitely has the potential of becoming a human being. One can not kill something that has not been born or taken a breath. This means that a stillborn would not be considered a human being either. Of course, every living sperm has the potential of becoming a human being although not one in a million will make it; the rest are aborted. It would appear that God does not have any more regard for the loss of a fetus than he does for the loss of a placenta, or of a foreskin during circumcision, despite the fact that these were living tissue as the result of conception.

Now let's take this to the next level, which has to do with being born again. When Jesus taught Nicodemus about being born again, he said “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of the water and of the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to Spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'you must be born again'. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John chapter three, verses 5-8, NIV) Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit to Spirit. Being born of the water is a reference to childbirth first and to water baptism secondly. Being born of the Spirit of Christ refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Plus, when we read our Bible, it says quite clearly in Galatians chapter two and verse 20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”. If the apostle Paul has been crucified and died for Jesus, then we are charged with the duty of being followers of Jesus right up to the very end as well. This is what being born again actually means.

In a number of versions of the Bible, one of the commandments in Exodus 20 that was spoken by God to Moses states: “You shall not kill”. According to the Mosaic text, this should read “You must not murder”, since the Bible has commandments stating that people shall be put to death for a number of different offenses. Exodus 21:17 states: “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death.” There are also other capital offenses listed in Exodus 21. The popular ten commandments (in the original text there are over 600 of them) that are enumerated in Exodus 20 were given by God to Moses on tablets of stone. Verse 13 simply says, “You shall not murder”. That sums it up very nicely, I think. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that a fetus is considered to be anything other than living tissue and, according to Scripture, it does not become a living being until after it has taken a breath.

Those who say, "If you're a Christian, you have to be against abortion, and therefore you must also vote conservative Republican," are simply reciting talking points from false teachers, and there is a disturbing number of these people who have infiltrated the Church who are doing this very thing. Many cite the scripture found in Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." God is omnipotent. He has known all of us since before creation. This scripture pinpoints to when a fetus becomes a living being. In Numbers 5 describes "the Lord" ordering an abortion. It's clearly stated in verse 22, "May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries." Many argue that this is a misinterpretation, but I'm not so sure about that. It is better to err on the side of caution with regard to the Lord than not. Before false teachers turned the issue of reproductive choice into a political football, views on this matter were far less extreme.

Does this mean I am pro-life or pro-choice? Sorry, but I will not allow anyone to label and compartmentalize me like that. In many cases, I think that if the mother does not want the baby (OK, then, but why do they let themselves get pregnant in the first place? Ever heard of birth control?) then she should put the child up for adoption. In cases where abortion is necessary, such as when the baby is already dead before birth, in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's life is in jeopardy (excluding cases of induced childbirth), in those events an abortion should be performed by qualified medical personnel or under a doctor's direct supervision. But those are the only exceptions. In the end, if abortion was such a grievous sin Jesus would have mentioned it. He never mentioned it. Enough said!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

When it comes right down to it, how Christian is America?

How Christian Is The USA – Really?
By Rev. Paul J. Bern

The United States has always had a time-honored tradition of being a Christian nation. This tradition has only recently come into question by none other than president Obama, who earlier this year said that “America is not a Christian nation”. Contrary to what our President thinks, our great country was in actuality founded on religious freedom by the early Pilgrims, who were protestants escaping religious persecution by the church of England. Ever since then, the tradition of Christianity (regardless of whether you belong to a church denomination or not) has been passed down through the generations until modern times. Within the last generation or so, particularly within the last 10 or 20 years, there has been a noticeable drop in church attendance throughout North America and Europe. People have been wandering away from their faith in droves. Churches are losing members at about the same rate in which they are gaining new ones, the end result being what amounts to a revolving door of membership and participation. I have been aware of this for some time and it really bothers me, and so I have been contemplating the reasons for this diminishing of faith and commitment within the church in order to try to change it.

A journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. He answered: "It's a good idea. They ought to try it". Similarly, we might urge followers of world religions: "Some nice moral principles. You ought to live them." Reliable polls tell us that America is the most religious nation in the industrialized world. More that 90 percent of our population say they believe in God, and that they pray regularly. In his New Testament Epistle, James expressed the Christian view that "faith without works is dead." Similarly, Judaism calls for "mitzvahs" -- good deeds. And Islam requires acts of charity. How do these sentiments translate into action? Let's look at our national religious behavior report card.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: America is the world's richest nation. Yet the Census Bureau reports that 54 million Americans live in poverty. That includes one in four children. Why aren't we doing more to help out the weak, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, and the weary?

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The U.S. poverty rate is the third worst among developed nations according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Demographers say that the poverty rate will rise this year from 21 percent to 27 percent, which will be the highest percentage since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. Forty nine million Americans are on food stamps (the highest ever) and the number is expected to rise above fifty million by the end of 2014.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: According to the Census Bureau, 19 million people lived in working-poor families in 2008. The 2010 census showed a much higher figure approaching 24%. The Feeding America network reports that only 36 percent of their client households have one or more adults working. These are people who can't feed their kids or themselves. For this to happen in the richest country in the world is inexcusable!

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless on any given night. Here in Atlanta where I reside, estimates of the homeless population on any given night range from 10,000-30,000 people. Also, a new class has emerged in America: the working homeless. The current minimum wage of $7.25 hourly is insufficient income to rent an apartment, let alone buy a house.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The elderly, the poor and others on fixed incomes are often forced to choose between food and medicine. Speaking as a retired technology professional and an Internet pastor, this is a social outrage and an economic injustice that I have personally experienced. If you are not out in the streets protesting about this, you should be because you could be next. I used to think that something like that would never happen to me, either. I found out the hard way that I was wrong. Don't make the same mistake I did.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: 54 million Americans, including 19.2 million children, experienced hunger or the risk of hunger in 2012. That's nearly 24 percent of all households. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hunger in American households has nearly doubled in the last five years. As I write this in mid-2014, this number has swelled to at least 56 million, and the number of underfed kids is approaching 24%. In the richest country in the world, this is inexcusable! We have to do something, and by writing this I'm trying to help accomplish exactly that. I'm just one person, and I'm disabled as well, so I need everyone who reads this to find a way to make a contribution, however great or small.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: American restaurants throw away more than 6000 tons of food every day and grocery stores discard an estimated thirty million pounds of food daily. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Loss Project estimates that Americans throw out 25.9 million tons of food each year. More disturbing: a University of Arizona study reports that 40 to 50 percent of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten. America's wastefulness is downright sinful, there is no better word to describe it.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide very low cost health care for all its citizens. So-called “Obamacare” promised to correct much of that, but it is nowhere nearly enough. All the president and Congress had to do was to put the whole country on Medicare. Doing so would eliminate the need for Medicaid, saving over $450 billion annually just by doing that one thing. According to the 2010 US Census, there were 46.5 million Americans, including 12 million children, with no health insurance as of then, and the amount has grown substantially since then.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: We have the best medical technology and treatment capability in the world. Yet the United States ranks 37th for health system performance by the World Health Organization.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The latest report on life expectancy shows a slight drop in the United States that will place us even lower than the current ranking of 49th among nations of the world – a lower life expectancy than many less developed countries. A Columbia University study attributes our decline from 11th place in 1950 to the much lower present ranking to our inadequate profit-driven health care system.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The current minimum wage of $7.25 hourly, which was raised from $5.15 four years ago, still keeps families stuck at or below the poverty line. France, Ireland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, England, the Isle of Man, and many other nations – particularly Australia – have a higher minimum wage than we do.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The latest census figures show the gap between rich and poor widening to the largest margin ever. The top 20 percent of workers earning more than $100,000 a year received 49.4.percent of all income compared with the 3.4 percent earned by the bottom 20 percent.. The richest 1 percent pockets more than 20 percent of total income which is greater than the total amount earned by the bottom 50 percent combined. Economic inequality – not just in the US but globally – is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, and when it does, the greed-based capitalist economic system we are currently stuck with will have to submit to a complete make-over or face extinction.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: The wealthiest segment of the population is fighting tooth and nail for lower tax rates and other tax breaks while joblessness, poverty, crime, homelessness and hunger are rampant in America.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: In 1994 a million innocents were slaughtered in Rwanda. We watched and did nothing. Similarly, we did little to stop the genocide in Darfur. Further slaughter is now ongoing in Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Greece while the world watches and does nothing. Will the U.S. intervene on humanitarian grounds? History does not suggest a positive answer.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: There are at least 59 holocaust museums in the United States dedicated to raising awareness of the Nazi genocide and to help prevent similar horrors from happening again. Add to that the numerous holocaust museums and memorials around the world. Yet genocides, mass murders, and other atrocities such as the sex slave trade persist. Who is listening, who is learning? Who is acting?

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: Americans make up 5 percent of the world population and produces 25 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, which are raising the earth's temperature ("greenhouse effect") to dangerous levels.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: Fossil fuel consumption is destroying the planet, but we refuse to develop a "Manhattan Project" for alternative energy.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: Scientists warn that the environmental doomsday clock is ticking. The icebergs are breaking away and melting before our eyes, revealing islands we never saw before. We watch and debate but do too little to preserve the environment for ourselves and future generations. In our hubris we forget that we are guests on a tiny rock floating – in an infinite universe of rocks – that uniquely supports life in a delicate balance of natural and mysterious forces.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: Smoking continues to compromise the health of more than 20 percent of our population who still smoke. The Surgeon General tells us that smoking, in addition to contributing to a number of cancers, increases the risk of almost every known disease. The American Lung Association reports that each day nearly 6,000 children under 18 years of age start smoking. But we refuse to put an end to smoking. At the same time, cannabis is still illegal while having been proved to be not only harmless, but with significant medical uses and benefits.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: Leaders of some of our biggest corporations, as well as prominent investment advisers (men and women of "faith"), have cheated, deceived and destroyed their companies and clients, ruining the lives and futures of untold numbers of individuals and families.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: We have the largest prison population in the world. Currently more than 3 million people are incarcerated; and 1 in every 18 adults is in prison, on parole or probation adding up to a total of over 10 million. The U.S has a greater prison population (in percentage of population) than a number of countries that we consider in violation of human rights.

  • We are a religious nation, and yet: According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military spending for 2012 reached $1.531 trillion, a six percent increase over 2008 and a forty-nine percent increase over the year 2000. The United States accounted for forty-six percent of the total world military expenditure ($661 billion). China was a distant second accounting for 6.6. percent followed by France's 4.2 percent, the UK's 3.8 percent and Russia's 3.5 percent. The proposed U.S. military budget for 2014 is $750 billion. Nice job, Washington!

What is religion? Organized religion is a multi-billion-dollar business disguised as a honeycomb of non-profits (actually, more like a hornet's nest). On the other hand, followers of Jesus – who Himself was crucified mainly because he preached against organized government and organized religion – exercise the very essence of true Spirituality by showing love, caring, serving, giving, sharing, oneness, brother and sisterhood, compassion, empathy and selflessness. Summed up: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." I'm so glad that we are a religious nation.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The lack of money is not the problem. Money is the problem.

What If We Didn't Need Money?
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
(excerpt from his 2012 book, "Occupying America: We Shall Overcome")

What is law enforcement in much of the world, and more noticeably so in the US as of late, being paid to protect? To keep and preserve the peace to be sure, but that's just on the surface. What are the government and its junkyard dogs otherwise known as police officers watching out for? The assets, infrastructure and personal privacy and security of the top 1%, that's what! The problem with that is the top 1% regard everything in sight as theirs, as if all the people in the lower income brackets – the other 99% – didn't deserve one stinking thing. In short, its all a game of acquiring the most stuff, the biggest collection of material goods of one kind or another, the fastest or most luxurious car, the most powerful truck and the biggest house. It's steak for them and beans for the rest of us. And for what? If any one of us should die tomorrow (God forbid), he or she can take absolutely none of it with them. As Rev. Billy Graham used to preach, “nobody ever saw a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer behind it”. It's all temporary, left behind when we are dead and gone, as all of us eventually will be, including me. It's what we leave behind that counts, not what we have accumulated.

Come to think of it, maybe we should ask ourselves – if you haven't done so already – what kind of legacy do we want to leave? Not only someone who did great things or performed great accomplishments in the sight of others or who made a great fortune, but someone who took care of the needs of the people first while considering themselves last. Not someone who is lauded with praise by men and women for giving away millions when they have many millions more hoarded away, but one who seeks the praise and approval of Almighty God as I and others like me do. I love giving some homeless guy a sandwich and some fries (yes, I have actually done this – has anyone else?), and if I could afford it I would jump at the chance to pay an elderly widow's electric bill or donate a used computer to an inner city school kid who needs one, and never mind their skin color either. Performing volunteer work, giving generously to your church (contrary to what some are teaching, it doesn't have to be financial aid, there are many ways to help at church), sponsoring a hungry kid overseas, or adopting one here at home are the things people remember about us after we have passed, and so will God. We are to be leaving behind the things that people remember about us long after we are gone, and they must be positive things that build people up, not negative things that tear us down. We are to be contributors, being sure to give wherever possible and not living just to see how much we can earn, or even take. Takers are losers who leave holes in time.

OK, so now let's take this to the next level. What if we didn't need money at all? What if we had an alternative way to buy and sell things without using traditional cash, checks or plastic? What if we didn't have to work at all, or maybe not nearly as much? Using profit as a mechanism for the control of liquid assets by and for the top 1% when the overwhelming majority of Americans have no access to those assets is obviously an economic barrier that keeps the remaining 99% of us in a bare subsistence mode that is clearly discriminatory and therefore illegal based on existing civil rights laws. Eliminating the need for money instantly wipes out poverty while putting the 99% in a favorable position to have all our basic needs met (never mind all the fancy BS stuff and frivolous luxuries, just the basics of life). The replacement of money, and of the work that is necessary in order to earn it, are already being accomplished by computers and robots. And their speed and raw processing power doubles every 18 months.

Technology has eliminated jobs across the board on an alarming scale – from secretarial positions to auto workers. The resulting crisis is compounded by our culture's deep denial of the basic problem. I'm old enough to remember the '60s and '70s when so many pundits described the coming glories of the "cybernetic age." Computers would at last liberate us, we were promised, from the drudgery of 9-5 jobs. Back then the worry was, what would we do with all that leisure time? But in fact quite the reverse is true. Leisure time has proven frustratingly elusive. Instead of some personal R & R, most of us are working harder than ever as our employers continue to "downsize." Alternatively, it is we the long-term unemployed who are out pounding the pavement looking for non-existent jobs to replace those that have been "outsourced" to Asia. Additionally, so many of the "jobs" available to the more recently laid off labor force are extremely low-paying to a humiliating degree (such as the current, pathetic minimum wage of $7.25 hourly, which amounts to enforced poverty). In the end, the jobs of the “new economy” are nothing more than useless $8.50 per hour jobs that keeps the workers impoverished while offering no chance for advancement can be positively destructive to the middle class. Things like big box stores, grocery chains, many telemarketing firms, the fast food industry, and convenience store jobs are connected with wages that are actually below the poverty line.

Still other industries and the jobs they used to bring can easily be eliminated by technology, possibly in as little as ten years. Think of what happened to Encyclopedia Britannica because they didn't see Wikipedia coming right at them. Think of the music industry, which has been recently involuntarily "downsized" by file sharing, a process that continues as I write this. And what about MSM newspapers and magazines, currently in crisis because of alternative media websites like Alternet, Op-ed News, Infowars, Truthdig and Information Clearing House, among others? The Internet has similarly made direct salespeople a vanishing breed and some storefront businesses – such as Blockbuster Video and most recently Radio Shack – obsolete. Web-based education is having its own impact on higher education as brick-and-mortar campuses find themselves headed for financial oblivion. Even the oil industry will soon be entering a period of decline. Imagine what that means for an entire economy and lifestyle absolutely dependent on oil. I'm not just referring to so-called "Peak Oil". New technology will soon turn every building and highway into an energy power plant. Surplus energy will be stored in hydrogen cells. And the energy produced will be shared person-to-person across a "smart grid". Think of the jobs that will be eliminated as a result – including those required by what would otherwise be energy wars. We are kept from discussing it only because our "drill, baby, drill" politicians have their heads so firmly stuck in the tar sands up in Canada like so many oil-soaked ostriches. Consequently, the U.S. economy is being left in the dust relative to the rest of the developed world.

Still another possibility which is already being developed and marketed are the new 3-D printers (there are also 4-D printers currently in the development stage, but I'll save that one for another time). Many, but not all, things can be made with these 3-D printers, ranging from plastic parts to human body parts. But you can't, for example, make a new car with a 3-D printer, or at least not yet. But it's only a matter of time until the day arrives when we can make a car or anything else we need right there at home with our handy 3-D printers. If that were the case, people wouldn't need nearly as much money to live on as they do now. Instead of going to the store and buying an item, why not just make it yourself and save? It would be indicative of a mammoth paradigm shift in America's economic landscape, we can all be sure about that.

There is also an enormous amount of productive infrastructure work crying out to be done across our country. The U.S. infrastructure is crumbling at an alarming rate. Green technologies in general, particularly the “smart grid”, high speed rail and public transportation are the most obvious needs. The number of potential jobs connected with them is in the millions. But there are not nearly enough green jobs to replace the ones that have been eliminated by technology and those that should be discarded because they are unsustainable, environmentally destructive and morally deficient. So what should be done about all of this? Share the work! None of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to new technologies we could work four-hour days or three-day weeks, or for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage. We could retire at 40. And this is possible world-wide. And how to pay for all of this? For starters, cut back the military budget 60%. That alone would make available more than a billion dollars every day just in the U.S. alone. Tax the rich and the corporations – those who make up the "1%" that has ripped off the U.S. working class on an unprecedented scale over the last 30 years or more. (Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place following World War II? Look it up in the history books and on the Web, it's all right there. We could reinstate that!) Share the wealth. Boldly restructure the economy. Embrace new technology's promise along with the life of leisure that it offers. It is all now within our grasp. Since the government is unwilling or incapable of the restructuring I am calling for, it is up to us, “we the people”, to get the job done ourselves. Worker-owned co-ops and factories, little 1 or 2 person micro-businesses that are Web based, and a proliferation of non-profits will make up the greater part of the progressive business world of tomorrow.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Shouldn't social and economic injustice be Christian issues too?

Progressive Christianity, Worker's Rights and Social Justice
(excerpt from, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto”, by Rev. Paul J. Bern)

The lack of employment and economic opportunities, the lack of access to health care and higher education, plus extreme economic inequality due to a very high concentration of American wealth being in the hands of far too few people has turned the majority of the American populace into a powder-keg. Like the Middle East and parts of Europe, America too has become a ticking time bomb of inequality and lack of opportunity. The rights of US workers have been trampled underfoot by the rich multinational corporations and the top 1% elite who are outsourcing all our jobs overseas as they leave us high and dry in minimum wage jobs with no future. The least common denominator of middle class loss of income due to mass layoffs, the loss of housing due to foreclosure and eviction and the excess of economic inequality due to a disproportional concentration of wealth, is that all three of these comprise the human rights of workers throughout the world, beginning here in America since our country is supposed to be the standard-bearer of the world for freedom and opportunity. If the American worker does not get what he or she is legally and rightfully entitled to, there will be strikes, protests, sit-ins, “occupying” and other peaceful forms of civil disobedience until we get what we want, up to and including the complete shutdown of the entire US economy for at least one day. And we will do all of this without firing a single shot, just as the protesters and public demonstrations overseas did before us, and just as the Rev. MLK, Jr. did during the civil rights movement. And then we do it again – and again.

There are also a growing number of employed people who, despite having a job, are still living in poverty. There are at least 15 million US workers who now fall into this rapidly growing category. The median US income of $33,000.00 a year is not going to get you far in today's economy, and half of the country is making less than that. The reason we struggle with these things is because the Economic Elite have robbed us all through the systematic confiscation of middle class wealth, security and prosperity. This has caused tremendous suffering among workers throughout the world, it is no less than a criminal act, and it is the result of the largest single transfer of wealth in all of human history from the world's middle class to the rich. And so I came up with what I call in my book “The 8 Fundamental Rights of Mankind”. But for now I will only focus on the first one because there is so much to be said on just the first one.

The first and foremost right is that of all workers and independent contractors. The basic rights of all workers can be broken down into six parts; the right to a livelihood and a living wage, rights of unemployed persons, right to free vocational re-training for life, right to organize, right to a flexible work week and right to health-related, family and maternity leave. The first thing on the list of worker's rights is also the highest priority, that of a fair and realistic minimum wage, and more fundamentally, the basic human right to a livelihood. Unemployment as we have previously known it must now come to an end forever. This does not mean unemployment will be eliminated, but periods of unemployment can and should be converted to times of retraining to acquire new skills or even completely change careers. What gives any wealthy corporate 1%'er CEO the right to tell any given man or woman, “Sorry, you are not needed around here anymore. Your skills, experience, and your work ethic no longer matter here. Our company's bottom line and the interests of our shareholders are far more important than that of our workers.” Who do these jerks think they are? They outsourced many of our jobs overseas so that corporate America could enrich themselves at the expense of their former employees, leaving middle and working class Americans with no way to earn a respectable living and be self-sufficient. The jobs that could not be outsourced were downsized out of existence. Then this same bunch of corporate “leaders” turned around and, with the cooperation of American academia, raised costs for higher education so high that many who wished to go back to school and train for a new career were unable to afford the expenses. In the end, numerous persons who urgently wish to improve themselves through education or vocational retraining have been and are continuing to be held back from doing so, and that is a social injustice and a civil rights violation worthy of the loudest protests in numerous public places throughout our country.

There is entirely too much imbalance and inequity in the distribution of wealth in the US today. Over 90% of all available liquid cash and assets are in the hands of less than 10% of the US population. And so every day it's steak for them and beans for the rest of us. How much longer are we, the middle and working classes, going to allow this to go on? You know, it looks to me like our country is in dire need of some peaceful and orderly wealth redistribution, and I don't mean collectivized economies such as Socialism or Communism either. One very good way to accomplish this would be to send everybody back to school who wants to go free of charge. Who would pick up the tab for the tuition for all those millions of people? Would it be the government? Absolutely not! The bill should instead be presented to corporate America, since it is corporate America who outsourced or downsized all of our jobs in the first place. Congress did just that at the end of World War 2 when they passed the G.I. Bill. If it could be done in the 1940's, then it can be done today. Simply make the GI Bill available for everybody! Besides, if we can't work for these companies anymore then they owe it to us to train us to work somewhere else instead of discarding us like so much trash. Any solution amounting to anything less is a social injustice and a civil rights issue worthy of a national chorus of protests, demonstrations and “occupations”.

This brings me to the point that I wish to make. In today's world, if the net take-home pay of any given individual does not meet, or just barely meets, that same individuals daily cost of living, then that is tantamount to economic slavery. Let me say that again because this point simply cannot be overemphasized. If your take-home pay won't even take you home, you are a slave. Oh, you are free to move around and to come and go as you choose and take care of business, that is true. But if after you go to the grocery store, pay the light bill (assuming you are fortunate enough to be able to do that), put gas in your tank (assuming you are lucky enough to still own a car) and set some money aside for next month's rent or mortgage (if you're not already on the street or living with relatives) – and then after all that you peek into your wallet and realize that you have $7.00 left to live on for the whole stinkin' week, that's when you know you are a slave. What happens to the people whose incomes are at or below minimum wage? They go hungry and are often homeless. Many of these newly homeless, formerly middle class people also have kids who have fallen into poverty along with their parents. And this is happening in the United States of America, supposedly the richest country in the world. This is a moral outrage, a social injustice, and it is economic discrimination of the worst kind. Since it is an issue of discrimination, by extension it also becomes a 21st century civil rights issue generating a demand for fundamental change in the way our economy works and the way our government works.

This too, then, is cause for protests, demonstrations, boycotts, occupations, general strikes and other forms of peaceful civil disobedience. On this point alone, there are enough issues on the collective dinner plate of the American people to foster open revolt throughout the land. Never mind everything else that I have written about. Think about it for a minute. How does it feel to be a slave? Makes you feel kind of angry, doesn't it? Maybe even violated on a certain level, like we've been robbed. The time to rise up and say, “No more!” has arrived. It's time for all of us to get out from in front of out TV's and our computers and to get our backsides out in the street and start protesting. And that's just for this issue alone. Now allow me to go over the rest of these rights.

The second basic issue under worker's rights is the right to better and more comprehensive unemployment insurance, and to also allow some independent contractors to draw unemployment provided certain conditions are met (subject to future legislation or referendum). Any worker who has lost his or her job through no fault of their own will be entitled to up to 50 weeks of unemployment compensation instead of the current maximum of 26 weeks due to a continued over saturation in the job markets of most developed countries, starting with the US. Besides their job search, at any time during the worker's period of unemployment he or she will have two other options available to them to assist in the development of their careers. The first will be the ability to sign up for a public works project to obtain immediate employment. (The worker's second option will be reeducation, and I will touch on that one next so please bear with me). Workers will be required to choose one of the above to qualify for benefits. We have been needing a massive public works project to repair America's crumbling infrastructure for decades. I would conservatively estimate that anywhere from 1-3 million people could be employed this way as contract laborers, salaried employees or subcontractors, depending on the need. The fact of the matter is that we need jobs, we need lots of them, and we need them right now! Since our government has failed to act in this regard in spite of an obvious critical need, we will have to do this ourselves. Let's get this on the ballot for the next general election, and let's also strike and protest for action on this matter until then. We might as well, because things are going to continue to get worse until we do.

The third human right listed is the right to free vocational retraining for life. Anybody can go back to school and get retrained at will, up to and including a 2 year degree (with a 4-year available for some additional cost). Large, wealthy corporations with robust cash flows, as well as millionaires and the super-rich, will supply the necessary funding through what I call in my book “the excess wealth tax” (you can buy the book on this site or on Amazon) to find out the details which include repealing the federal income tax). Since corporate America made the decision to send their factories and all the jobs those factories provided overseas to lower their labor costs, and since this action has caused the obliteration of millions of American careers, it will be corporate America who will shoulder the expense of retraining these people whose careers evaporated through no fault of their own. If they take your job away, or if they export or downsize your career out of existence like I experienced myself, then it is those same corporate henchmen who must pay for your reeducation. Higher education is a basic, fundamental human right. The day has come when higher education is no longer only for those who can “afford” the tuition. As of today, higher education, and the fundamental right to improve and enrich ourselves, is a fundamental human right that must be had by all without qualification.

Before I go on, let me add one more tasty ingredient into this mix. Students enrolled in reeducation or public works project workers who have children, will be given taxpayer-funded day care free of charge so they can get their education or go to work without having to worry about watching their kids. Now I know what at least some of you are thinking right now – “who's gonna pay for that?” Let me put all this into perspective for you. If your US government took all the money that was spent in a single day on the twin occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan plus the clandestine and illegal wars and “black ops” in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere and set it aside in an enormous savings account, there would be enough money to send every American school age kid from the first grade through high school and upwards to any college, public or private, or any state university or vocational or technical school to earn their degree of choice with the tuition fully paid for, plus the cost of all their books and supplies, their meals, Internet access, new computers, and with access to public transportation covered as well. So, for those who say we can't afford to send everyone to college with their expenses fully paid, or that the money to accomplish this just isn't there, either doesn't know what they are talking about, or they are elitists and bigots who can't stand to see middle and working class and minority students getting ahead. Access to higher education, and looking after the children of those who are retraining, is an American civil right that should be equally available to all without qualification, not just to those who can afford it. Would you like to see test scores improve in our nation's schools? Tell all those kids that they are all going to college, and watch their grades improve noticeably. Give them an incentive to do better and our kids will rise to the challenge every time.

The fourth worker's right I'm writing about is simply the right to organize anytime, anywhere. Any American worker who wants to join a union must be allowed to do so, and any group of workers who decide to organize themselves for the purposes of collective bargaining and solidarity must be allowed to do so without interference or fear of retribution. This should include a provision making it illegal for companies to squash labor unions and from preventing unionization. If our country's leadership is unwilling or unable to pass this and other basic rights of all workers that I have mentioned, then we as united American citizens must unite to get this issue on the next ballot by way of popular referendum, strikes and demonstrations, and other acts of civil disobedience. It's already an established fact that American workers will get worse working conditions and pay, not better, if they do not organize. In the meantime, the short-term solution is to take this matter and all others like it into the streets as the Occupy and 99% Movements have done. You know, if you haven't joined us yet you really should, it's for your own good and for the future of your country.

The fifth human right is the right to a fair and reasonable workweek. All workers who work more than 40 hours in a week, and all salaried employees who work more than 50 hours per week, will be entitled to compensation at time and a half. Unlike certain companies today, it must become illegal for any given company to skirt around America's labor laws. All companies with more than 1000 employees will be required to offer either a four day workweek with a ten hour workday, or a five day workweek with an eight hour workday to all its workers. This will save a lot of energy, lessen traffic volume at rush hour, and provide workers with more leisure time.

The right to family and sick leave, which must include maternity leave for women, is the final right I have listed for all workers and independent contractors. Every other country in the developed world from Europe to Canada to Japan has paid family and sick leave for its workers – all except for the US. It's way past time for Congress and the President to bring our country up to speed with the rest of the world in this regard. Furthermore, medical, family and maternity leave should be allowed for up to 3 months per calendar year, and it must be made illegal to fire someone from his or her job because that employee needed to take family leave. The right of all individuals to have medical, family or maternity leave must be had by all, without interference or fear of retribution, for the strengthening of our families and the nurturing of our children.

The fundamental rights of workers must be honored and acknowledged by rule of law, and by a culture change that puts people before profits. The days of funneling any given company's profits to its shareholders instead of its employees must come to an end forever as corporations gradually become replaced with employee-owned cooperatives, a proliferation of nonprofits, or sole proprietorship web-based “micro enterprises”. The workers who are the ones who keep things running for the rest of us, it is they who are the new business model for the 21st century. In the best of cases, it will be the workers, and not stockholders, who will be the new company owners and investors as the old ways of greed-based capitalism continue to die of old age. This is the new reality we must all embrace if we are to thrive in the 21st century.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What does the Bible have to say about illegal immigration?

The Progressive Christian Approach to Immigration Reform
by Rev. Paul J. Bern

My message for today revolves around what the media and our politicians are saying regarding the topic of immigration reform, as opposed to what the Bible says. We have all heard both sides of this issue from Republicans and Democrats, from conservative to progressive to liberal, as well as independent voters like myself. First let me say that I was formerly on the conservative side of this issue due to the fact that had once lost a good job in the computer/IT profession due to my being replaced by workers who had just arrived in America. So, I was understandably bitter because I had lost my job to a worker with a green card despite the fact that I was more qualified. Actually it wasn't just myself either. The company I was working for as an independent contractor had laid off everyone in the branch office where I worked and replaced us all with a batch of workers from the Philippines with green cards. At the time I felt like my career had been stolen right out from under me, and all attempts to replace this job of mine had yielded only temporary jobs that lasted from several months duration to as little as one day.

Then one day in the late spring of 2008, I took yet another temporary job out in west Texas, and so I put most of my things in storage with the intention of coming back to Atlanta where I live after my contract job expired. I had never been to Texas before, and I found a completely different culture than what I was accustomed to back east. There were three things I noticed immediately soon after my arrival. The first was the oppressive heat and humidity, the second was that people ate burritos in place of burgers, and the third was that approximately one third of the population was Hispanic (or Latino, take your pick). The first thing I remember thinking when I saw that one third of the population spoke only Spanish was that this must be ground zero for so-called illegal immigration, or so I thought at the time. But I spent four months out there in Texas, and as my days turned into weeks and then to months I began to notice little things that seemed insignificant in and of themselves. For example, I saw Latino men – and as few women as well – hanging around temp agencies, construction sites, and even at a U-haul truck rental company in the hopes of getting a job at least for that day. I remember being struck by the parallels between what those Latino folks were having to endure as they searched for work and a piece of the so-called American dream compared to my own job search experiences. Some of these workers lived at homeless shelters, others in campers or vans, and the more prosperous ones lived in rented mobile homes or apartments. I saw the same thing day after day, with hundreds of workers gathered around in groups of as few as eight or ten, and as many as several dozen folks. And so I found myself beginning to question my own intense dislike of these immigrant workers.

Before I go any further with this message, I think I should point out that my basis for resenting many of these immigrant workers was economic rather than racial, and more cultural than social. Nevertheless, my beliefs and opinions were heavily slanted towards an American rather than a world view, and so I found myself beginning to question my motives for feeling the way I did. So I did some research on-line and at the local library regarding this issue, and here is what I found out. The average worker in Mexico earns the equivalent of about $50.00 per month USD, and this is so because of reasons that I was previously only generally aware of – namely, the differences in currency valuation between the two countries, and the fact that Mexico is by and large a third world country that happens to border the United States. When these same workers come to the US they make minimum wage, more or less, which is currently still stuck at only $7.25 per hour. Since a sizable chunk of these workers make less than minimum wage while being paid in cash under the table, I'm going to use a rounded out number of $7.00 hourly. A 40-hour work week at seven dollars an hour yields gross pretax earnings of $280.00 per week before taxes and Social Security. But since many of these workers don't work full time their take home pay is even less. At any rate, this works out to gross earnings of $1,120.00 per month. If each worker pays a regular tax rate as we Americans do, and many don't because their employers are cheating the tax man by paying in cash, they wind up with an average net take-home pay of approximately $740.00 per month.

I challenge anybody out there to try and live even for only a month on substandard pay such as this! The bottom line is that this is impossible while still paying our bills on time. In order to better understand this, instead of Mexico and the US being the two countries involved, let's use the US and Canada instead. If any given American working professional were offered a job in Canada, what would that be in relation to the US and Mexico? For any Mexican/Latino who emigrates to America, the jump from fifty bucks a month to 740 dollars equals a pay increase that is 11.4 times the going rate in Mexico or, for that matter, any central American country. Now, let's contrast that to an American jumping ship and leaving the US to go and work and live in Canada. With an average net earnings of $35,000.00 annually (before taxes) for American workers, if any of us were to be offered a job in Canada – or for that matter any other developed or emerging country worldwide – at 11.4 times the going rate here in the US, that would amount to an increase in take-home pay to $399,000.00 annually before taxes. OK, so let's ask ourselves a simple question: Would you or I be interested in a pay increase of 11.4 times the amount we have been earning previously? The obvious answer is that of course we would. So, now you know why the Latino folks are migrating – legally or not – to the US in search of work. It's not because they are foreign invaders on an economic and social offensive to overrun America. It's because they are economic refugees from the third world who are searching for a better life for themselves and their families! So, instead of resenting or even hating this influx of foreign workers, the Christian thing to do would be to reach out to the Hispanic communities in all fifty states and minister to them. I don't mean giving them a handout, either. Like so many long-term unemployed here in America, they don't want a handout, they simply want to go to work. But I felt convicted in the Holy Spirit for harboring such negative and bitter thoughts at all.

Showing compassion to foreigners and strangers is central to biblical teaching and morality, and there are quite a few Christians who have started joining the fight to pass immigration reform, including myself. Congress needs to pass this into law because it is the morally right thing to do. Those whose position on reform is based on political fear, unacknowledged racial prejudice or worries about losing primaries to far-right ideologues are too often the same people who trumpet their religious convictions as guiding their decisions in public life in violation of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Politicians who are professing Christians need to consider what their faith has to say about immigration. If they oppose reform and refuse to offer compassion to our immigrant brothers and sisters, they should justify their positions on moral grounds (if they can). We join with other faith communities in asking for a moral and religious conversation about immigration reform – not just a political one. God's passionate, abiding concern for immigrants and foreigners, strangers and travelers – and for our neighbors – is obvious to anyone reading through Scripture.

It is the biblical call to "welcome the stranger" and Jesus' concern for "the least of these" that inspires and motivates us. "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself … " (Leviticus 19:33-34). The biblical word "ger" for the foreigners in our midst occurs an astounding 92 times in the Hebrew scriptures, with the consistent instruction to protect them. In the New Testament, the stranger, and all who are vulnerable, are at the very heart of the Gospel (Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan is just one example of many). In the book of Matthew, Jesus offers a vision in which caring for them is the defining mark of God's kingdom: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:35-36).

That evangelical as well as mainstream Christians would finally act to reform the immigration system should surprise no one who has a conscience, and not just for theological reasons. Undocumented immigrants have joined our congregations; we understand the problem firsthand. They are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. And we know that by reforming our immigration laws, we can create a system that also reflects the best values of our nation and the highest ideals of our faith. We act because, as the book of James reminds us, "faith without works is dead."

For me, I think the biggest change hasn't been in the pulpit, it's been in the pews and out in the streets. It's one thing when 11 million people are a statistic. The other thing is when one of those 11 million is your friend, a human being who you now know as a father, as a husband, as a mother, as a worker, as a worshiper. Our faith has always been about compassion and it compels us to do something. If we take the principle of compassion out of the Bible, it wouldn't be the Bible any more. Compassion is indeed all over the Bible. I pray it will also be found in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It's time for Christians in Congress to stand up in support of immigration reform, or to explain why they won't — as Christians. If they follow their faith, we will see the miracle we need. And let's remember that there is no such thing as an illegal human being.