Have You and Your Neighbor Read the U.S. Founding Documents?

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New Year’s greetings to you.

Over the past few days, some television news and written articles have captured my interest and motivated more research and reflection upon power and its uses and abuses with a special emphasis on U.S. Founding Documents

Over the Holiday weekend, I overheard a television newscaster mention that the entire U.S. Constitution would be read at the opening of the 112th United States Congress on January 5, 2011. I did not find this particularly unusual given the power vested in the Congress by the document; however, since this moral document holds such power and has been so frequently used and misused in political rhetoric, the news prompted me to get out my copy of the U.S. Constitution (including Bill of Rights), Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, and to re-read them in their entirety: something that every American Citizen should do with regularity: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html.

What most strikes me as I re-read the U.S. Founding Documents is that current political rhetoric excerpts sections of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights to support unilateral power (“power over”), while other counterbalancing sections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (“shared power”) often remain silent in political discourse. I’m not surprised. A similar thing happens when certain sections of the Bible are proof-texted to support a perspective of particular favor while counterbalancing sections are ignored. Here is one for- instance.

In the opening lines of the U.S. Constitution, the moral and beneficent role of government to “promote the general Welfare” – providing for the poor/poverty-stricken, homeless, foreclosed, uninsured, unemployed – was clearly an intention of the U.S. Founders and is asserted in our Founding Documents. The same morally sound perspective may be found in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and other areas of Scripture.

However, often heard, particularly in conservative political rhetoric, is the dominate goal to downsize government and increase business revenues at a cost that “appears” to yield economic benefits (though history and public policy dictates that the benefits will be unequally distributed); while the same goals simultaneously bankrupt the moral and social fabric of our nation: counter to the letter and spirit of our Founding Documents and Scripture. If less government and more “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” public policies are the goals to which conservative government aspires; does this not mean abdication of the benevolent role of government?

Will less government, less regulation, more unregulated capitalism and individualistic consumerism, less access to health care, and more laws truly help and empower people and communities that have little or no power: no boots to pull up, no roof over their heads, no living wage jobs, no political representative that will seriously (sans rhetoric) take up the causes of the poor and downtrodden? Is unequal distribution of power that is achieved unilaterally the intended design of our Founders and Founding Documents? I think not!

Let’s all join with the U.S. Congress to re-read the U.S. Constitution (and Bill of Rights); and, while we are at it, let’s re-read the Declaration of Independence, and Articles of Confederation. Let’s also re-read the Sacred Texts that guide our spiritual and moral sensibilities. Finally, let’s re-consider morally sound, equal distribution of power, and re-calculate costs not just in economic terms but also in the social, political, physical and spiritual costs of both our actions and inactions.

I conclude today’s entry by pointing to a recently published article that further explores and exposes the issues about which I have written:

Consortium News article by Robert Parry, entitled We’re Headed for a Major Battle with the Tea Party Crowd over the Constitution Itself, published December 31, 2010 and re-distributed by Alternet.

Stories of Shalom

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In my journeys this past year (2010), I have heard and told many, many stories. Some narratives have been shared through tear-streaked grimaces, revealing paths through valleys of pain, suffering, and unimaginable loss. Other accounts are told with smiles that exude great joy and thanksgiving: perspectives from mountaintop vistas, some having been attained after traversing deep valleys.

You know the stories. I know the stories. We tell them; and, we listen to them. Our stories chronicle, they shape, and they guide our destinies in and through the communities in which we live, work, learn, and play.  For all those who shared their lives, their resources, their stories with me and who listened to mine; thank you for enlarging the circle of community.

My grandmother, born in 1886 and died in 1968, often told me a story of her journey through the Great Depression (circa 1929-1935). Her story described loss, scarcity and suffering. She told of meager amounts of government-issued flour, salt, sugar and salt-pork that when added to their garden-grown produce, canned goods, and hand-me-down clothing (patches upon patches), provided just enough to endure. Yes, just as we hear in 2010, she also told of the wealthy that lived in luxury and opulence while the masses clamored and clung to life. My grandmother was a poet and short-story writer that has captured, often in great detail, much of her life for future generations to read and hear. As I now remember and re-read some of her stories, there is a powerful and moving element in my grandmother’s Great Depression account that most captured my ear and interest. She spoke first of her faith in God, and she described a community that graciously and collaboratively shared their meager resources in order to survive (shalom-making): “neighbors shared what they had and gathered round evening fires to tell stories of hope, imagination and determination”.

As we journey through the Great Recession, through our valley and mountaintop experiences, the importance of our being present to and for one another in our communities – sharing our resources and life’s stories – is vitally important to our collective future. It is the elemental stuff of building and sustaining community. Like my grandmother, who lived through the days of horse and buggy, and the advent of motorized cars, flight, and a person stepping onto the moon, we must share our resources, our hope, imagination, determination, and I add creativity in all the places where we live, work, learn and play.

In this season of light, joy, family, friends and hope, I conclude with two pieces of writing. The first is both ancient and contemporary: a beautiful account of a steadfastly loving and care-giving God. The second has been written in the past few days and mostly tells the story of both charity and shalom-making justice. The second is also personally pertinent in several ways; especially as I am enjoying the sweet, innocent, wholly dependent presence of my 16 month old granddaughter. I offer these stories, along with the many that you and I have shared in our journeys through this past year (2010): in the Spirit of hope, imagination, determination and creativity.�

First is a passage from Hosea 11:4: “I led them with kindness and with love, not with ropes. I held them close to me; I bent down to feed them”. 

The second comes from the writing of Rebecca Solnit: Vision: How a Better Future Is Being Made Right Now. Following is an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s December 22, 2010 article.

As 2010 ends, what really interests me aren’t the corrosions and failures of this system [Adam Smith’s Free Market], but the way another system, another invisible hand, is always at work in what you could think of as the great, ongoing, Manichean arm-wrestling match that keeps our planet spinning. The invisible claw of the market may fail to comprehend how powerful the other hand — the one that gives rather than takes — is, but neither does that open hand know itself or its own power. It should. We all should.

As 2010 concludes and 2011 arrives, may we in our communities find and share hope and apply the Power that is “now” working within and among each and all of us to accomplish abundantly more than we could ask for or even imagine.

In the Spirit of shalom,

Dave Cooper

Shalom in the journey

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November 2010 and early December have been filled to overflowing with wonderful opportunities to learn from and share with an exceptionally talented array of world-class, globally connected, creative, practitioners of Asset Based Community Development on two continents.

In my journey from the East to the West coast of the United States and back again; and, into and around Melbourne, Australia, I have enjoyed and been enriched by new and renewed connections with friends and colleagues that are deeply devoted to shalom-making: though they may not use the word “shalom” to describe it. From sociologists, psychologists, theologians, artists, and entrepreneurs of many types; to corporate executives, social workers, farmers, social activists, chefs and baristas, and spanning at least three languages, the relationships and mutual learning have been in two words: marvelously rich!

Reflecting upon particularly the past couple of months, I have learned at least three key things (actually much more than three) from my relationships, consulting, facilitating, and collaborating through the Uniting Church of Australia and Tasmania Commission for Mission and the Drew University Shalom Initiative.

First, I have a newfound sense of journeys as sacred spaces in which God’s creative and creating spirit beckons us into paths of deeper presence and communion with God, with one’s self, and with the community by which to energize and resource common good (shalom-making). Much like Otto Scharmer posits in his Theory U, and as Adrian Pyle applies to spiritual journeys, being fully present with an open mind, heart and will (“presencing”) in the places and times that our journeys take us will open opportunities for profoundly powerful and transformative interactions with other journeyers. As I learned and re-learn in new ways in the second half of my life, it is more about the journey and the relationships along the way than it is the destination. Sacred space is in the journey, not just the destination.

Second, journeys are catalyzed by Power that transcends place, time, and one’s current sense of purpose. For example, as I shared with friends and colleagues in Australia, my great grandparents purposed to migrate from England to Australia in the 1840’s; however, their plans were not to be realized at that time in history. On the other hand, I am the first of my family to visit Australia, carrying with me a sense of sacred purpose that is likely different (though who knows) from my great grandparents. As my life’s journey continues, perhaps I will have a better understanding of the meaning of the relationships and purposes along the way. Finally, in my understanding of systems theories, the impacts of purposed “presencing” in the sacred spaces of intersecting journeys will yield ripple effects across time that transcend our human capacity to understand or measure.

Third, as Desmond Tutu taught in my class with him at Emory University Candler School of Theology, “ubuntu” (becoming human through other humans) requires seeking, affirming, and celebrating the “imago dei” (imprint or image of God) that every human possesses; and, to seek, affirm and celebrate diversity and common values in culturally relevant, community-building, spiritually-renewing, life-giving, liberating ways. Among the diversity of peoples, cultures, and geographies with whom I have had the pleasure to recently work, I rejoice in, am thankful for, and celebrate the nascent presence of the Spirit which yields faith, hope and love.

I have witnessed the presence, activity and flourishing of shalom among the peoples and places along my journey: clearly, God is up to something new and refreshing. The wind of the Spirit blows where it wills; therefore, my mission, your mission, our mission is to be authentically present and open to the transformative power of God that is able to accomplish (among and through us) far more than we could ask for or even imagine.

More on Australia in my next blog entry…

DC (12/08/2010)

Unity: What a Concept!

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In an increasingly divided America, where might unity be found? It certainly is not to be found in politics. Neither is unity found in the immigration battle. Then, of course, there are legion other de-unifying issues: economic, racial, and gender equity; reform of the judicial and corrections systems; abortion rights; death penalty; gender identify;…  With so many factions clamoring for power and control in order to have their way, and spending obscene amounts of money to win control, the appearance is much like the ultra-competitive American sports scene: win at all costs.

Perhaps, if the slung mud were to be washed off, we could all see real humanity and moral sensibilities of those on both sides of issues. But then, that would not be much of a sport; would it?

It seems to me that unless America unifies around our common future that our house (country), now so deeply divided against itself, will surely fall.

In unity, seek the common-good (shalom) among and for all people.  How might one go about this? Follow the link for more information: Communities of Shalom.

Executions, life in prison, punishment, restoration: where’s the shalom?

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Teresa Lewis was recently executed in Virginia: the first woman in nearly 100 years to be executed in this state. Both the Virginia Governor and the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to stay her execution – even though she was found to be borderline “retarded”. She was subsequently killed for her role in killing: death for death. Ms. Lewis hired the triggermen that murdered her then husband and stepson. The pain, suffering, and immorality wrought by one act was duplicated via another act of immorality. Neither added to the shalom of the families and communities.

In less than a month after the execution of Teresa Lewis, Sam McCroskey was sentenced to life in prison for bludgeoning to death four people. Why was Ms. Lewis executed when Mr. McCroskey was given life in prison? In fact, why were the triggermen hired by Ms. Lewis given life in prison rather than execution? Hmmm… Take a look at the Richmond Times Dispatch article, Many Factors Figure in Death Penalty Cases, then read on. 

Killing is killing and immoral acts are immoral acts – regardless of whether the acts are done with or without legal sanction and precedence. And, as the article states, justice and morality are not measured equitably. Rather, justice is often imposed with great unilateral and punitive force upon the far less than powerful by the extraordinarily powerful.

 It is troubling to see that, in America, justice is increasingly perceived of and acted out as “punishing” immoral acts: doing something to others that one would not want done to one’s self. Justice is manifested in American society as “an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth” justice. Yet, even those who are empowered (i.e. legislators, judges, juries, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and executioners) to assert dominating, unilateral power over others are themselves often laden with, unrepentant for, and suffer with their own unjust and immoral acts: not to mention the suffering of their victims. For a good discussion of punitive and restorative justice, Sylvia Clute writes about the differences between punitive and “unitive” justice in her blog Genuine Justice.

 It is likely that the intense pain and suffering inflicted on a victim’s family members is just as poignant and debilitating as the pain and suffering inflicted on family members of the victimizer. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. Imagine the suffering and immorality wrought by our having a hand in killing by execution (even swiftly) an innocent person and doing so legally in the name of “punishment” and “vengeful” justice against a “perceived” criminal: DNA testing has already confirmed that we are guilty of convicting and killing innocent victims.

 Perhaps, as we seek the shalom of our cities and communities, our best energies, resources, and morality would most benefit individuals, families, and communities if they (we) directed ourselves toward healing our great divides and not doing to others that which we would not want done to ourselves. Seek the shalom of the city to which I have sent you; for in its shalom you will find your shalom (Jeremiah 29:7).

Light bearer or light switch?

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In biblical terms, it is God who watches out for and rescues the “people of the land” (Hebrew: “Am ha-aretz”) bringing light to the darkness. Conversely, government and countless religious rulers, through most of history, have been less than benevolent care-takers of the “people of the land” (the poor/poverty-stricken). Yet, the Scriptures are filled with moral mandates for people to care for one another; and, it is especially those who posess and control substantial resources that are mandated by God to provide for the downtrodden, the poor, the oppressed. The moral, biblical mandate for mutual love, mutual care and equitable distribution of resources so that there are no poor/poverty-stricken remains a serious moral issue today as it has for thousands of years. Why? In the name of fiscal prudence, the resources that bring life (and light) to the Am ha-aretz (people of the land) are being shut off, leaving many in darkness. In a New York Times article, Paul Krugman writes that America Goes Dark. What shall people of faith, in fact what shall we all do in response to the countless millions that are crying out in anguish, hoping for rescue, as their lights flicker and threaten to be extinguished?

While it may be argued that social safety nets are in place for the “least of these” (poor/poverty-stricken, oppressed), the nets are torn, filled with holes and controlled by powerful and exclusive set of rules, regulations and power-holders. One does not have to look far to see that the support system (safety net) is badly in need of repair – rescue is on everyone’s mind. There is scarcely a private, public, or congregation budget and the safety nets they support, that has not been cut in the name of keeping the lights on (see Krugman’s article). Perhaps the time has come for the governing forces (those with power) to serve not as a strict parent that controls scarce resources; rather, to serve as a nurturing, morally prudent, beneficient care-giver (and care-receiver) – a light bearer rather than a light switch.

In biblical history, the Am ha-aretz are referred to as the common people left behind when the Babylonians removed the elite leaders and artisans to exile in Babylon in the late 6th century BCE. There was a sense of darkness that came with the removal of resources from the land by powerful rulers: rescue was on the minds of the Am ha-aretz as it was on the minds of the people that went into exile.
The concept of God’s providential rescue in early societies as well as the current day is problematic. Is “rescue” an eschatalogical concept that is relegated to another place and time (end times), a present reality of humankind’s collective role in shalom-making, or both? Is God the only one responsible for rescue? Who keeps the lights on when things go dark?

Throughout recorded history, people have prayed for rescue and release. Some have found eyes of faith to see and experience God’s rescue; whereas, countless millions of others suffer in horror as their babies were cut from their bellies (Assyrians known for this), they were ravaged by horse-mounted, fear-instilling warriors (i.e. Babylonians), were thrown mercilessly into prisons and put to death (all cultures up to the present), and torn asunder by lions and other wild animals (Roman Empire). Other destructive oppressors present in early Christianity were the wealthy, religious elite (Sanhedrin), the middle class, live and die by the letter of the law (Pharisees), the politico-religious elite (i.e. Herod Antipas), and of course the political rulers (Roman Empire). Much as in earlier history, today, we do not have to look far to see and hear the cries of the Am ha-aretz (poor/poverty-stricken) as they yearn and plead for rescue from social, political, religious, and economic storms that threaten to snuff out their lights.

Only after having critically read the Bible, studied theology, sociology, anthropology and psychology, and having lived and worked among the powerful and the less than powerful have I come to realize that the eschatological and practical concepts of rescue are very problematic. For instance, if God manifests perfect love and has no favorites, why are some rescued from horrific circumstances while countless millions suffer and die?  If God is omnipotent (all powerful), why does God not rescue all who are suffering (see Rabbi Harold Cushner and others)? Is God schizophrenic, pouring out vengeance on some while showing mercy to others? If the major and minor prophets spoke God’s judgment upon all who would oppress/harm anyone, especially people of the land, why do we still have so many poor and oppressed among us? What then shall individuals and communities do? Importantly, what are the roles of people, congregations, organizations, associations, and institutions as the current day powerful Sanhedrin, Pharisees,  politico-religious elite, and economic forces exert unilateral (dominate) power over others with threats of turning off the lights?

The U.S. is not there yet; however, it seems we are quickly approaching a “tipping point” at which the U.S. as a whole will either equitably unify and move forward (live), or inequitably divide and fall (die). Corporate and political profits must yield to the biblical prophets admonitions so that there is shalom (holistic well-being) in this land and across the earth. In Deuteronomy 15 and Acts 2 there are found the requirement and model for people to live and share equitably – together – so that there will be no more poor: the shalom community becomes manifest both now and in an eschatological future.

From as early as the eighth century BCE (nearly three thousand years and more), God’s mandate has been in place, re-emphasized by prophets, and yet the poor/poverty-stricken people of the land remain among us: we are they. How is God at work to keep the lights burning? What will we collectively do to keep the lights on?



Can we get enough of that good-time stuff?

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In our consumptive society, we are programmed to have a voracious (but conservative) appetite for “things”; however, the counter-voices that motivate us to be good stewards (wise-caretakers) of our environment from which all “things” come are far less prominent. Why? One reason is that wise care-taking does not satiate the gnawing hunger created by consumptive desire: we just can’t get enough of that good-time stuff.

With regard to Scripture and what its messages admonish us to “do” toward care-taking are these (and more): to love one another (John 13:34), to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18), and to be shalom-makers (Matthew 5:9).

Perhaps we consumers are the oppressed; yet, who will set us free so that we can truly love one another and fully participate in holistic care-taking as shalom-makers? What do you think? What will you do?

A strong thread of shalom-making is caring for the earth (creation) for which all humanity is responsible. For a well-researched and developed discussion of “shalom” and “shalom-making”, see Robert C. Linthicum’s The Shalom Community: The Thread That Ties the Bible Together: http://www.piut.org/papers.htm.

And, for a good article and additional resources on caring for the garden (earth) in which we live and for which we simply “must” care, see the winter 2009 issue of Divinity: http://www.divinity.duke.edu/publications/2009.01/features/feature5/index.htm.

Finally, this 2007 statement of support for environmental stewardship by an array of evangelical leaders and scientists is a testament to broad support of wise care-taking as a necessary component of responsible consumption: http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/343/letter.pdf.

Shalom-makers linking for mutual encouragement, education and improvement

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It began over two years ago with a small group of people who had the vision of linking practitioners of holistic justice (shalom-makers) to address three expressed needs: mutual encouragement, education, and improvement. These three common needs were those most often identified by a significant number of urban-dwelling shalom-makers, spanning across several denominations, faith traditions, and community-based organizations.

A thread that runs through these shalom-makers is their steadfast desire and work in transitioning away from — not to abandon — acts of charity (doing for others) and toward acts of justice (working with others to help community residents do for themselves with resources found mostly in their local communities). Shalom-makers apply community organizing and Asset Based Community Development principles, techniques, and strategies in relationships with community residents to insure that there is equity in the physical, social, economic, political, and spiritual systems within their communities.  

And now, in mid-2010, the vision that began formation in 2008 among a small group of shalom-makers in Southern California is emerging — enlarging the circle of community — as the Shalom-Makers Network offers mutual encouragement, education, and improvement for the shalom (well-being) of the places where we live, work, learn, play and worship.  

Are you a shalom-maker?

Drew University Communities of Shalom training @ Ocean Grove

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The training @ Communities of Shalom in Ocean Grove, NJ was rich and wonderful.

The session that I led on the analysis of power (physical, social, economic, individual, political, and symbolic) sparked great conversation. We applied power analysis in community organizing (5 types from another of my sessions) and power systems mapping in terms of Asset Based Community Development.

I drew from my own research and a variety of resources that include Robert C. Linthicum’s Building a People of Power,  Kristina Smock’s Democracy in Action, F. Ellen Netting and Mary K. O’Connor’s 4 paradigms in Organization Practice, and the Asset Based Community Development Institute.


Shalom: what is it?

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What is “shalom” to you?

In his book, Building a People of Power (2005),  Robert C. Linthicum, writes of shalom, “In order to capture the nuance of the Hebrew word [shalom] as it is used in specific contexts, translators have had to use the following English words: weal, welfare, completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, peace offering,  at rest, at ease, secure, safe, to finish well, to prosper, to be whole, to be perfect, to be victorious. In other words, in any given context, shalom can mean any of the above English words…Shalom is the theology of hope of Israel and of the early church, its vision of what the world would some day be”.

Communties of Shalom (www.communitiesofshalom.org) envision completeness and equity in the physical, social, economic, and spiritual spheres: http://www.communitiesofshalom.org/principles.html.

Finally, take a look at Isaiah 65:19-25 for a glimpse of a shalom community in which housing, jobs, health care, mutual support, environment, wealth and peace are inextricably woven ino a fabric of common destiny. Mutuality and shared power (power among) — not power over — are essential.

And so, what is shalom to you?


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