Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Prayer for the 21st Century Church

by Jim Rapp

It has never been easy to “be the Church”;
to be “His witnesses” in Jerusalem,
Judea, Samaria, and the whole world.

Those earliest followers, caught in the lurch,
preferring to obey God rather than men,
became the first believers to be laurelled.

But not the last; two millennia of blood
has sprinkled the altars of our Most High God;
precious in His sight is ev’ry shining drop.

Oh God, grant that we, like they, should not wince but
stand firm before the threat of the tyrant’s rod
knowing, from a martyr’s blood, you raise a crop.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Forgive him Father

(A Haiku Duet for Charleston, SC)

So many have said
the AME massacre
left them without words.

AME victims
found the needed words to say,
“We will forgive you.”

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hate Crimes and Death Penalties

Governor Niki Haley, of South Carolina has called for Dylann Storm Roof, the 21 year old who shot and killed nine people in the AME church in Charleston, SC to face the death penalty. Whether he is tried under South Carolina law or under Federal law the death penalty is a possibility.

This tragic situation presents us with an opportunity to consider two questions: 1) what is the source of this “evil” that causes a man to kill in cold blood and 2) what is accomplished by formally executing the perpetrator of such a crime?

Several of those who have commented on this and other recent incidents of similar character have identified at least the actions taken by the killers, if not the killers themselves, as “evil.”

Evil is defined rather blandly in the dictionary as “morally objectionable behavior.” Most of us feel it more viscerally than that, as something dark, sinister, threatening and unsettling; something that must be stamped out even at risk of our own well being, like a venomous snake. Shakespeare’s words – put in the mouth of Anthony as he eulogized Caesar, the dead emperor – “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” comes close to expressing both our fear of evil’s lasting power, and our helplessness in the face of it.

But the question we wrestle with is whether men are evil or if they merely become – through mental illness, environmental influences, or demon possession – capable of committing deeds we call evil. Or does Evil exist as a living entity, independent of, but capable of influencing sentient creatures like ourselves? Is it a Devil in our midst or is it merely a description of behavior that goes beyond the pale of human acceptance? Can human beings become “evil” any more than a volcano or a hurricane can become evil?

Regardless of where we come down on the issues discussed above there is still the question of what to do about evil – or Evil, if you please. Insisting on the death penalty for those who commit our idea of the most heinous varieties of evil – murder being the most prevalent example – seems to say “the evil that men do” can indeed be “interred with their bones.” Something in us knows, though, that such is not the case. Executing a twenty-one year-old mass killer neither, erases the pain inflicted by his deeds, ends mass killings, brings back to life those he slaughtered, nor repays him “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” – he does not have enough eyes and teeth. All it seems to do is to wreak some degree of vengeance on the “evil person.” It has not proven to be a deterrent to future evil deeds by other “evil” persons.

I suppose, since I have started this conversation, it is incumbent upon me to take a position. So I will attempt to do that as succinctly as I can. To begin, I do believe in Evil, and not just because it is a “tenant” of my Christian faith – although it is notably not explicit in the Apostle’s Creed. I believe in evil because I see it at work in all living things around me; anomalies exist that are inimical to life itself, and I must conclude that just as there must be an Author of Life and Goodness, so there must be an author of Evil – of death itself. Further, I conclude that, just as humans have no innate goodness in themselves but rather are made right-eous (good) by the inspiration (inbreathing) of God their creator, so the evil that possesses all of us to some degree – some tragically to a degree that drives them beyond the pale of human acceptance – is the result of inspiration (inbreathing) of the Evil One. It is these twin beliefs – that humans can be inspired (breathed into) by both God and Satan – that makes me hesitant to call any man (or creature) evil. If a criminal, hanging on a cross next to our dying Savior could, in an instant, receive forgiveness from Jesus Christ, and the promise of everlasting life, who am I to conclude that any modern murderer might not also be that close to the kingdom of God? And who am I to demand that his life be snuffed out?

So, is the death penalty demanded in cases like the one we are considering here? I believe not. Can the Evil that caused this tragedy be snuffed out by killing the killer? Never. That is beyond human power to accomplish. Are there things we can do to rescue humans from the cycles of poverty, deprivation, ignorance, hatred, violence, etc., that cause them to become tools of Satan? Certainly. We can help to alleviate the social conditions that breed evil AND we can promote the Gospel of Christ which brings men and women into a relationship with God that, rightly understood, forbids such inhumanity of man to man.

There are several reasons I oppose the death penalty: 1) it does not seem to deter evil deeds, 2) it makes killers of us all even as we profess to abhor killing, 3) it assumes in most cases more knowledge of guilt than can ever be proven, 4) it impacts the poor far more negatively than the affluent who can afford the legal assistance that the poor cannot, 5) our legal system is not devised to administer “justice” but rather to award “convictions” and “acquittals” to those who can make the cleverest arguments, 6) it satisfies a base (evil) desire in the human heart for revenge, 7) it takes the one who is executed beyond the hearing of the saving grace of God.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has pointed out recently, we have not yet devised an acceptable human system of incarceration for those whose crimes require long-term sentences. We need to address that problem so that those who must serve indefinite – or life-time – sentences are neither provided with posh conditions nor deprived of their humanity. It seems too often we make prison life a living death. Many inmates, under those conditions become their own executioners, taking their own lives.

We need to abolish the death penalty. We need to reform our prison systems. We need to convert our penal system into a correctional system. The first is easy, requiring only a change in our laws. The rest requires all the ingenuity available to us. Meanwhile we need to do everything in our power to deprive evil of a place to put down its roots.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wisconsin May Be Near the Bottom – But We Ain’t Broke!

Well, the news is out and it is official now: Wisconsin ranks 35th among the 50 states in the U.S. in job growth for the four years 2011 – 2014 and “dead last,” as some like to say, among its neighboring states of Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. While the nation as a whole added jobs over that four-year period at a rate greater than 9% Wisconsin could not muster even 6%.

What does this tell us? One thing it does not tell us is the whole story. In critiquing the performance of the economy one must be careful not to demand more than a particular region can be expected to deliver. Many factors play into the dynamics of job creation that are beyond the short term power of a government to control or change.

But we were very specifically promised that policies put into effect beginning in 2011 would create the number of jobs, 250,000 to be specific, that would have put Wisconsin at the top of the charts by this time. In reality only a little over half that number have materialized. And while the nation had rebounded above the number employed before the dramatic economic crash of 2007-08, Wisconsin was still struggling at the end of 2014 to get back to the pre-recession level.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the policies enacted in the last four years. As our legislators struggle to devise a balanced budget, they face a 2 to 3.5 million dollar deficit. Obviously lowering taxes on the wealthy and cutting benefits for the poor have not paved the way to a balanced budget. Still our legislators – at least the majority of them – seem convinced that banging our heads against the wall will eventually achieve the kind of economic breakthrough they have been hoping for.

Sadly, it isn’t the heads of our legislators, our governor, nor the heads of their wealthy political benefactors, that is being used to smash the way to success. It is the heads of state employees whose wages, benefits, and bargaining rights have been stripped from them. It is the heads of welfare recipients whose benefits have been cut back and who, in the next years, will be harassed by the requirement to take a drug test in order to receive those benefits. It is heads of poor Wisconsin residents who are denied Medicaid benefits because of our government’s refusal to participate in “Obamacare.” It is the heads of our low-wage service sector workers who are working at below-poverty-level wages with short hours and no benefits.

There is a simple solution to our budgetary problems in Wisconsin. We need to tax ourselves at whatever level is required to provide the services we want our state to provide. That includes well built and well maintained roads, bridges, ports, etc. It includes a K-12 through college system of education that is fully funded and staffed with qualified, well compensated, college-prepared teachers and professors. It includes affordable healthcare for all our citizens. It includes welfare benefits for those who are unable to earn a living. It includes the establishment of a living wage for all workers, part-time as well as full-time.

Wisconsin is not broke, as we were told when we began this race to the bottom. Much of our choice, scenic land is being gobbled up for use as recreational playgrounds for the wealthy or development of premier residential districts. Our lakes are filled with boats and other recreational apparatuses costing $20,000 up to $100,000 and more. Our highways teem with new vehicles many costing more than a three bedroom home – some of them are three bedroom homes on wheels. Our sports venues are full every time they are open with fans spending hundreds of dollars per visit for admission and food. Our bars and restaurants are crowded from early morning until late at night with young and old enjoying food and drink that they could have for half the price by eating at home.

No, we are not broke. Even the poorest among us are not broke. We can afford the small increase in taxes – it should be proportional to income or wealth – that it would take to put the state on a sound footing. And as those taxes go to work they will generate the kind of growth our leaders have been promising; jobs in numbers that could exceed the national average.

Let’s give it a try! I’m willing to do my part.

Monday, June 15, 2015

So What’s This Animus Against Public Education?

For those of us who grew up poor in the 1940s and 1950s the route to some sort of prosperity and success lay in small brick structures scattered around our communities and in larger complexes of brick structures in a few communities around our state. Of course I’m speaking of our public schools; K-12 schools housed in publicly financed buildings, taught by publicly paid teachers, and larger – and ever-growing – Teacher’s Colleges and Universities supported by a combination of tuition and public financing.

The movement toward public education began almost as soon as our forefathers completed construction of their first homes in the colonies that spread up and down the east coast of what is now the United States of America. In community after community, especially in the more populous northeast, schools were established for a variety of different reasons, some religious, some secular.

As the young nation shook off its colonial status and established itself under the Articles of Confederation it took possession of the Northwest Territory. Two important steps were taken immediately to assure an educated population. As surveyors plotted the land into six-mile-square townships they also subdivided it into mile-wide “squares”. The sixteenth “square”, roughly in the middle of each township was designated as property on which a public school would be built. Provision and encouragement for the establishment of a public university in each territory (soon to be a state) was also a part of the vision of our founders. Embedded in the Northwest Ordinance were the words, "Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. And it was at a school, not a lot different than those constructed on the sixteenth square of most townships throughout the budding Northwest Territory, that my sister, my brothers, my neighbors and I got our start toward a better life than that of our parents and grandparents. Further, it was with great pride that we watched the oldest son go off to a publicly financed university where he would be the first of our family to receive a college diploma from the University of Illinois no less.

But the story of our family is not unique. In the years from the end of World War II until today the vast majority of Americans have received their education in publicly financed institutions. In those schools the nation has brought together the varied ethnicities, economic classes, and culturally diverse populations that make us the rich nation that we are. Without that intermingling – imperfect to say the least, and not without serious problems – it is sobering, even frightening, to imagine the kind of society we might be. One needs only look at other areas of the world where a similar variety of ethnic, religious, regional, racial, and cultural diversity exists in volatile and deadly combination to understand what we could have become; what we yet could become if we allow our varied elements to drift apart into warring camps each raising its flag of religious, racial, ethnic or cultural privilege.

But there is a movement afoot to dismantle our system of public schools. Not just our K-12 public schools but our university system as well. The attack on public education comes in the form of weakening the structures that have built it into the educational model that much of the world turns to for inspiration.

At the K-12 level the primary focus is privatization accomplished through the establishment of for-profit charter schools and publicly funded private, often parochial, schools. If such schools were funded in addition to the adequate funding of fully public schools there might be some basis for justifying the expenditure of public money to “provide competition” for the public schools. But the opposite is happening; every dollar spent to support a private school diminishes the support for public education by the same amount. And instead of providing “academic competition” for public schools these publicly supported private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools; they are not made to “compete” but allowed, in many cases, to operate largely with no accountability for the funds invested in them.

And now, in the current budget being discussed in Madison, the University System is being asked to operate with 250 million fewer dollars than in the previous budget even though the previous budget also had significant reductions in funding. Additionally the Governor and the Legislature has, over the last several years, frozen tuition at state universities, forced university faculty to take unpaid days off, frozen their pay rates and forced then to pay more for their health insurance. And in the latest proposed injury to the system, tenure for university faculty is being eliminated from state law. (For the time being it is still retained by the University Board of Regents but it may only be a matter of time before that is wiped out too. Sixteen of the eighteen-member Board of Regents are appointed by the Governor.)

All of this is in addition to the outrage committed against all state worker’s unions (State Patrol and firemen’s unions excepted) by Act 10 which essentially stripped them of any meaningful bargaining rights. With the public employees unions eviscerated there was no significant force left to oppose the attack on public education outlined above. By gerrymandering legislative districts the Governor’s party has assured itself the dominance needed in the legislature to act with impunity as it dismantles a century of progress in public education. 

"Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

 Could our Governor whose budget writing committee submitted, according to the Washington Post, “a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system . . . by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs,” agree with the founders idea of the importance of our publicly supported educational system? He and his legislative comrades would choke on our founding fathers’ words. The governor and his legislative partners are determined to limit, not encourage, the kind of education our founders envisioned; an education that supports the essentials of “religion, morality, and knowledge” and replace it with welding classes to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” How sterile. How shortsighted. How destructive.

Welding classes we will always have with us but religion and morality must be cultivated or they will die out or morph into the deadly forces we see operating today in so many parts of the world. Welding classes will be demanded by our economy but universities exploring knowledge of our world can only survive if we value them enough to invest in them without knowing the economic benefits that will flow from them

We can only hope that future elections will bring to office men and women with clearer vision who understand that our publicly supported schools and universities form the basis of our democratic society. We can only hope that, here in Wisconsin, and around our nation, the people whose children are at risk of losing the right of a good education in a well-funded – publicly funded – school or university will wake up and vote out those who are attacking the very institutions that provide the hope of a better life for the poor and middle class youth of our day. It is such schools that help to assure that we will remain “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice (opportunity) for all.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fronting Lies and Loving Truth

(A Haiku Duet)
by Jim Rapp

A champion lie-
fighter, until he found one
in himself – oh my!

Passionate about
truth until he faced it; now –
now he’s not so sure.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pursued by a Blind Sleuth

(A Haiku Quintette)
by Jim Rapp

I’m being chased by
algorithms; please help me
escape their clutches.

They read my mind and
tell the marketers what they
can do to catch me.

Don’t imagine that
any human eyes are fixed
on me; no never.

I am chased, sun up
to sundown, by all-knowing
sightless sleuths, sent to

convey my heart and soul to
the highest bidder.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fool’s Tools

by Jim Rapp

What if I am
            being taken advantage of,
            being used,
            being made a fool,
            being made a tool?

What if I am
            enabling sinners,
            enabling sloth?

What if I am
            betrayed by those I trust?

What if I am
            betraying those who trust in me?

What if I am
            the only one standing?

What if
            the whole world thinks me wrong?

What if
            they are wrong and I am right;
            they are right and I am wrong?

What if
            there is no “right” or “wrong”?

What if “what ifs” are fool’s tools?