Grass roots urban renewal

Grass roots urban renewal

I did not win the big lottery prize this month. I have been able to fantasize, though, about the things I might do with that much money. Among the several dreams I would fund would be an effort towards grass roots urban renewal. Progress in this area would be good for the United States and its citizens, and its success would also help the Republican Party and its supporters.

The problem with grass roots movements is that they frequently wilt and dry up before they become established. Often such movements are linked to a single popular personality, and for that reason their success lasts only as long as the fame and good reputation of that person last. Our two major political parties focus most of their attention on the next election. They write party platforms that see far into the future (and, perhaps, are well-anchored in the past), but most of the energy and most of the money raised and used by political parties has short-term achievements in mind.

I would like to see a movement with long-term goals and plans. This movement should not be closely tied to the Republican Party, but its goals are more like Republican goals than like Democratic goals. This movement is based in capitalist economics. It trusts a free-market economy and distrusts government regulations. It seeks freedom for people rather than coercion. It gathers and unites people in a spirit of confident hope, community pride, and genuine love of the United States of America.

This movement would begin in a small way, in just one city. I would choose a location already evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans—perhaps the state of Wisconsin. The first meeting of the movement might meet in Milwaukee, and it would form a presence in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee before expanding to operations in Madison and Green Bay. Perhaps it would also have small chapters in Kenosha, Racine, Appleton, and Waukesha before it crossed out of Wisconsin, beginning to work in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, and Detroit. Eventually this grassroots group would be found across the country, but that stage would be many years away.

Initial spending would place a person or two in Milwaukee (or whichever city might be chosen) to become familiar with the urban neighborhoods of the city, the needs of those neighborhoods, and the strengths of those neighborhoods. Small neighborhood meetings could then be held, asking people about the needs of their neighborhoods, and inviting solutions for those needs. The organizational directors could also propose actions that might help meet those needs. Money could be raised through monthly and yearly membership fees, kept small to encourage greater participation. Money would be spent on communication of various kinds—web sites and emails, mass mailings, possibly involvement in community radio. The overall goal would be improving the quality of life in urban neighborhoods, but doing so in a way consistent with capitalism, with American tradition, and with respect for all citizens. Efforts would be made to overcome barriers of race and other divisions, to encourage people to work together for the common good. In the beginning, political involvement would be minimal; over time, political movements could be generated and candidates found for positions ranging from school board membership to state and federal offices.

The group would try to meet in locations already open to the community. This would include churches, libraries, local organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW, and possibly schools, city parks, and community centers. Careful financial records and reports would be maintained to ensure that no director or volunteer in the movement was misusing its resources. Donors would underwrite expenses of the organization from the beginning—living expenses for the initial workers, printing costs, rent for meeting places and office work—but over time the branches would seek to become self-supporting through membership fees and local donors.

Here are some of the issues this grass roots movement would address in urban areas:

  • CRIME: Efforts would be made to support neighborhood watch groups, and cooperation between residents and police officers would be strongly encouraged. Residents would meet the police officers serving in their neighborhoods, share their concerns, and develop friendly connections with the police. Over time, neighborhood problems such as criminal street gangs could be reduced through the combined forces of neighbors and police.
  • EDUCATION: Neighborhood schools and school grounds would be watched and maintained by the people living in the neighborhood. Parents unwilling to meet with teachers on school property would be given a chance to encounter them in less formal settings. Children would be encouraged to continue their education and to take it seriously. High schools and two-year colleges would develop and improve vocational training with the cooperation and support of local businesses, with apprenticeships made available where appropriate. Each neighborhood and community would develop a team of professional carpenters, electricians, plumbers, auto repair specialists, and other useful workers. Meanwhile, children with special talents in the arts—musicians, poets, dancers, and the like—would be encouraged to develop and use their talents. Those with aptitudes for more specialized jobs, such as attorneys and ministers and medical professionals, would also be encouraged, and scholarship opportunities would be found for such students.
  • JOBS: While developing trades through the education system, the movement would also encourage local ownership of small businesses, would work with neighborhood watches and the police to protect these businesses, and would come to know and trust the owners and managers in neighborhood stores and shops. Small businesses in each community would try to hire workers from within that community whenever possible. Larger employers in the cities would also be linked to their nearest neighborhoods with opportunities for them to meet the people of the community and to interact with them in job fairs and other community events.
  • HOUSING: Residents of substandard housing would report their complaints to the leaders of the movement and would be advised how to direct those complaints or would be given support of people able to address their problems. Abandoned buildings would be identified, assessed for the potential of purchase and renovation or the need for demolition. Groups of neighbors would help each other maintain and improve the property in the neighborhood. Where new housing is needed and would be beneficial, investors would be found who would build housing with the needs and desires of the community in mind.
  • ENVIRONMENT: Residents of each neighborhood and community would help each other clear away litter and keep their homes and streets clean. Movement leaders would help residents call attention to large-scale polluters in the area and would direct complaints to appropriate authorities. Over time, residents could be educated in ways to improve the environment of their neighborhoods through microgardening and other appropriate opportunities. At the same time, residents would establish local control of parks and street boundaries. Movement organizers would work with city officials to maintain communication between those officials and residents, creating a cooperative relationship and avoiding city-funded improvements that fail to please the residents affected by those changes.
  • PRESERVATION: Whenever possible and practical, historic properties would be preserved rather than demolished or remade. Movement organizers would work with local and state preservationist groups, facilitating communication with neighborhood residents and building a common interest between the two groups. Preservationists would help neighborhood residents obtain funding, expert advice, and even labor for the continuing management and use of historic properties. Some would continue to be private residences or businesses; others might become community property as museums, galleries, or meeting places.

All these things can be done. People familiar with American political history know that things like this have been done. Imagine them being done with support from people in the Republican Party. Imagine this sort of grass roots urban renewal taking place with the values of traditional Republicans at work in the movement. Imagine voter registration drives in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia sponsored and supported by Republicans. Imagine dedicated Republicans working in these cities to encourage voters, to run the polls, and to supervise counting the ballots in each election. Imagine black Republicans and Spanish-speaking Republicans and other urban Republicans taking their seats in the school boards, the city governments, and the county governments of our nation’s largest cities. We cannot turn that corner in two years or in four years. It might take ten or twenty years to make this change happen. But investment in a journey like this could provide a profound and meaningful benefit to our grandchildren as they take their place in the life of these United States of America. J.


Defund the Library: a short story

This story is a work of fiction. As such, it does not necessarily represent the opinion or views of the author or of anyone else involved in its transmission.

Jasper Stevens gazed across the Westfield Free Library. He smiled a small, private smile. At times he had doubted that his dream could ever change to reality. Some of his friends had told him, time after time, that it couldn’t be done. Some had even added that it shouldn’t be done. But Jasper’s stubbornness carried him to success. He had found support, enough to counter the opposition. He had scrambled to find the resources he needed, sometimes at the very last minute. He had prayed. Most of all, though, he had believed that he was right. Now, the evidence before him assured him that he had indeed been right, that his dream had been worthy, and that his efforts had been aimed at a good and proper goal.

The problem began five years earlier, when Jasper walked into the Public Library with his friend, Gus Michaels. Jasper and Gus had been dismayed to see a large, rainbow-themed display filling the Children’s Wing of the library. In his younger days, Jasper had loved the rainbow, the beauty it held, the hope it promised. He read in the Bible about the rainbow revealed to Noah after the Great Flood, the Lord’s promise that He would not destroy the Earth again with a flood. Jasper’s own childhood bedroom had been decorated with a rainbow theme. But, while he was in college, Jasper learned that a small segment of the population had taken the rainbow to represent their own views and behavior. They had changed the rainbow, as they had earlier changed the word “gay,” so that it now belonged to the homosexual students on campus. Jasper and his friends in Campus Crusade had founded a movement which they called Reclaim the Rainbow, but the college administration had banned his group. College officials told Jasper and his friends that they were being intolerant, unloving, and unChristian. From that experience, Jasper learned not to be outspoken about his beliefs, not to object out loud when people demonstrated in favor of behavior and opinions that Jasper understood to be sinful, unBiblical, and wrong.

As a parent, Jasper had remained quiet while other parents confronted the Westfield School District about teaching materials in the schools that violated community standards. He had silently agreed with the parents who objected, but he had kept quiet. When elections were scheduled, Jasper voted for school board candidates who advocated traditional standards in the schools. Sometimes they won; other times they lost. Jasper shuddered when some people attended school board meetings and rose to say outrageous and inappropriate statements in defense of the time-honored standards. He had rolled his eyes when some of those statements were reported in the big city newspapers and in the national news. He hated to see Westfield labeled as a home to bigotry and ignorance. He especially hated to see that happen when offensive things were said in support of what Jasper believed, making the proponents of new and changing ways seem reasonable and acceptable. But Jasper stayed on the sidelines. He didn’t want to get involved.

It seemed at first that the Public Library was also staying out of the fight. To Jasper, the library had always been a safe place. He could find books he wanted to read and could bring them home; he could ignore books with which he disagreed. He was even quietly proud that all ideas were available in the library, since he believed that bad ideas inevitably lose when they are placed next to good ideas. Jasper was pleased that the Public Library was available to everyone in Westfield: children and adults, wealthy and middle-class and poor, able-bodied and limited in sight or hearing or mobility, white and black, English-speaking at home or speaking some other language, active in a church or synagogue or mosque or not active in any religious community. The Westfield Public Library belonged to everyone. They all paid for it with their taxes. They all owned it. They all treasured it as part of their community.

But somehow the library had changed. The books that caused controversy at the school invariably found their way into the library’s collection. Not only were those books present: they were proudly displayed alongside other “banned books” from the past, including Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To Jasper, and to many other people in Westfield, the objections were not the same. Those earlier books had contained controversial material, things that might require some discussion in the classroom or around the family table. Objections to the current crop of books were far stronger. Those books were, in some cases, pornographic in their content. They described and encouraged behavior that ought not even be mentioned in a classroom or a family setting. They were being given to children of an age that, Jasper felt, were not ready to be exposed to such discussions. Under the guise of “tolerance” and “acceptance,” children were being exposed to adult topics, and even to topics that adults found best kept quiet and unmentioned.

Not all the concerns related to sexual matters. Controversies arose over history classes and their teaching materials. Some of the teachers wanted to use only classroom material that was critical of the United States and its history. They wanted to talk about everything wrong in America without ever mentioning anything right in America. They found fault with all the heroes Jasper had been taught to admire: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, even George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. They insisted that the history of the United States consisted largely of racism and oppression. Jasper had learned, in his school days, about slavery and the Civil War. He had been taught to respect people of all races and cultures. His history classes had spoken of the Civil Rights movement, of its successes and of its goals still unmet. But Jasper had also learned to love America. He had learned to celebrate its freedom and its goal of “liberty and justice for all.“ He knew that the United States is imperfect, but he also believed that the best way to make the country better was to start with what it was doing right and to continue improving from that set of achievements rather than tearing the entire system to the ground and expecting to build something new and better.

Once again, the battle had been fought through the school board. Jasper had remained on the sideline. The Westfield Public Library at first seemed equally uninvolved, but Jasper came to see that it was very much involved. Its new materials and its displays paid far more attention to the Black Lives Matter movement than it ever acknowledged the Tea Party movement. It said far more about “critical race theory” than about positive achievements in American history. It marked the 500th anniversary of black slaves arriving in Virginia but ignored the 500th anniversary of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Its programs for children and for adults were increasingly focused on national problems and on the concerns of minority groups; very little attention was given to events and facts that inspired pride in the United States or thankfulness for the benefits and blessings that come with being an American citizen.

Jasper mentioned these concerns to his good friend Gus Michaels. Gus responded, “I’ve noticed exactly what you’re saying. The library used to be a sanctuary, a storehouse of human wisdom, a second home where everyone in town was welcome. But it’s not like that anymore. They are calling ‘science’ things that aren’t scientific at all. They’re cooperating with the liberals in government and mass media to keep fear and hysteria boiling all the time. They’ve become part of the conspiracy to keep us under control, to entertain us and distract us while they steal our country away from us.” Gus and Jasper spoke with other friends, with Leigh James and with Jane Thomas. Leigh and James agreed with Gus and Jasper. Even though the four of them supported the library by paying their property taxes, they no longer felt that Westfield Public Library belonged to them at all.

Leigh and Jane and Gus said that they would gladly start a campaign to defund the library. “The liberals want to defund the police,” Jane said, “but if we want to make America—and Westfield—great, we need to start with the library.” But Jasper disagreed. “Defunding the library cannot be our first step,” he told his friends. “They’ll get the votes to keep their money, and they’ll make us look foolish in the process. Even if we did manage to reduce their funding, they’d fight back by cutting the services that everyone wants while holding on to the things we’re trying to discard. That’s how government agencies always play the political game.”

Jasper took a deep breath and continued, “First, we need to provide an option to the Public Library. We need a place in Westfield that does everything the library used to do, but without all the things that the library shouldn’t be doing. Once we’ve established a Free Library, once we’ve developed a viable option to the Public Library, then we can run a campaign to defund the Public Library. But we need to take one step at a time.” Jasper stopped there. He didn’t add the third step he had in mind. First, they needed to create a Free Library. Second, they needed to defund the Public Library. Third, they owed it to the rest of the country to share their success, to transplant their idea of a Free Library into other communities. Westfield could be the beginning of something great. It could be the incubator of a movement that would restore authentic library services in towns and neighborhoods across the United States of America, “from sea to shining sea.”

Conditions were favorable in Westfield. The Baptist Church had just built a new worship center for their growing congregation; they had no plans for the old church building. The pastor was pleased to sponsor Jasper’s suggestion to the congregation that the building become home to a Free Library, one which would serve the Baptists (and their literary and cultural interests) far more faithfully than Westfield Public Library.

But having a building was just a start. Jasper and his friends needed to organize. He and Gus and Jane and Leigh created a Free Library board, with Jasper as President and Gus as Treasurer. Then they began seeking donations. They needed books and other reading material, especially children’s books. They needed bookshelves and other library furniture. They needed volunteers—librarians to check out the books and reshelve the books and maintain the books, but also workers to maintain the building and grounds, to keep the Free Library clean and welcoming, and to provide security for the new establishment. Jasper and his friends knew there would be problems. Unruly people would arrive, merely because every town has a few troublemakers among its residents. At some point, supporters of the Public Library might also create a scene, anticipating the challenge from this new institution and understanding that might threaten their own standing and financial support in Westfield.

The Free Library was not going to ask for any money from the town government or from any other level of government. They would need contributions. They would need to pay for utilities, for Internet access, and for other supplies to keep them in business. They would not need all the bells and whistles of the public library. They did not need scanners to check books in and out, nor did they need a fancy theft-prevention system. They could keep paper records the old-fashioned way; they could give numbered library cards to every patron and so keep track of who had which book at which time. One volunteer could create a digital book catalog for the Free Library and attach it to the library’s web site. This way people at home, even from out of town, could see what the library had and decide if they wanted to drop by and check out a book or two.

They would not be able to stock copies of the latest best-sellers or promise as comprehensive a collection as the Public Library boasted. But, relying on contributions, they could fill their space with interesting titles with very little effort. Books were always being discarded, being given away, being offered in bulk at estate sales. Children outgrew their books; adults lost interest in one hobby and moved on to another. The Free Library would not spend money on access to digital books and magazines—people who could afford devices that read those materials could also afford to receive those materials. But the Free Library would have a few computer terminals with public access, Internet service, and perhaps occasional guidance for computer users. Over time, their volunteer librarians would gain the ability to help those who came into the library needing special help: writing a resume and applying for jobs, or seeking online information for various reasons, or researching their family history and genealogy.

Of course, the Free Library would need rules. They would block inappropriate websites from access on computer libraries. They would refuse donation of materials that violated community standards. When donors or patrons objected to restrictions upon certain materials, the library board and staff could meet with the offended individuals and could even open such meetings to community participation. While insisting upon courtesy and respect in their gatherings, they could make room for members of the community to explain why they felt certain materials should be available in the library. And, if needed, the Free Library could maintain a section of restricted materials, available to some citizens upon request but not put out in the open for all visitors to see and peruse.

Like the Public Library, the Free Library would host (and, in many cases, develop) programs for children and for adults. Children’s programs would, in many cases, involve little more than the public reading of a book, perhaps with associated craft projects for the younger children. Discussion of the story might take place with some older children. The Free Library would aim to attract children particularly during the summer and holiday periods when school was not in session. Adult programs might involve anything from Reading Clubs to public lectures, bringing local and outside speakers to speak on their area of expertise. Some adult programs might also involve activities including crafts (such as quilting or fly tying), exercise, or training in computer skills. As with books, any program that generated controversy would be discussed with the library board; such discussion could lead to an open meeting for the community to address the controversy.

With a Free Library open and operating successfully, Jasper and his friends were ready to challenge the Public Library. They were ready to tell the voters of Westfield why they felt that the Public Library was not serving the community properly, why the Public Library was not acting as a good steward of the town’s tax money and public property. They would not move to defund the Public Library all at once; they would suggest a decrease in millage on the grounds that the public interest and the needs of the citizens were neglected. For a while—perhaps for many years—the two libraries would compete. Maybe the Public Library would always exist, in some form, to serve those citizens who approved what it was doing. Maybe the Public Library would collapse, or maybe it would find a way to merge with the Free Library, meshing their property and their budgets but continuing to respect the community values upheld by the Free Library. Jasper could not see the future, nor did he need to see it. He was confident that the Free Library was doing the right thing. Its current success was all the reward he needed at this time.

But one change in one town was not the limit of Jasper’s vision. He saw Free Libraries springing up in communities across the country. Some would be county-wide entities; some would serve a single town or village; some would serve single neighborhoods located in the larger cities of the country. Jasper, in his mind, set an arbitrary benchmark of ten thousand people. Where ten thousand people lived in the same general area—a county, a city, a neighborhood—they could find some available space to assemble a Free Library. As in Westfield, they would need donations: books, workers, and financial support. They would need to obey zoning ordinances and handicap-accessible requirements. They would face opposition, even rage, from some people who understood exactly what they were doing. They might be sued. Their property might be vandalized. The reputations of Free Library board members and staff workers might be dragged through the mud. But, given the opportunity to explain what they were doing and why, Jasper felt that Free Libraries would succeed and prosper in many areas. He hoped to network these Free Libraries, to encourage those getting started with success stories from those already operating, to offer advice about how to overcome various challenges, and to assure people across the nation that they were not alone, that they were part of a movement that was gathering steam, that was growing in power, that was respected because it built on the energy and inspiration that had already made America great.

In some locations, the Public Library might already be operating under the standards followed by the Free Libraries. In those cases, Jasper saw no reason those libraries could not be added to the Free Library Network. Free Libraries in other parts of the country might have things they could learn from such Public Libraries, and those Public Libraries might also pick up valuable tips from people involved in the Free Library movement.

Defund the Library? In a way, that is exactly what Jasper and his friends had set out to do. But instead of destroying the public library and leaving nothing to fill the empty space, Jasper Stevens and the Free Library movement, beginning in Westfield, were united in a patriotic endeavor that is part of the genuine American experience.

Collected thoughts about current events

  • King Charles has some mighty big shoes to fill. Elizabeth walked a delicate path of calm and firm leadership in a rapidly changing world, and she did so with grace and dignity. Of course, Charles has spent his entire life training for this job, and he has watched her example that entire time. I’m sure he will do fine.
  • Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump remains under fire in the United States. He was the first person since General Eisenhower to be nominated for the Presidency by either party who did not have incumbent President, Vice=President, Senator, or Governor on his resume. He now supports candidates for the House and Senate who likewise have not “paid their dues” by working for years under the supervision of a political party and rising through the system. This may be a major reason Democratic and Republican leaders fear Trump and work so hard against him. The issue of Top Secret documents taken from the White House by Trump and his administration reveals much about how the system functions. No one in President Biden’s staff complained that they could not do their jobs because important documents were missing. The Archivist of the United States reported missing documents and asked the Department of Justice to locate and retrieve them. Presidential papers always belong to the nation, not to the retired chief executive. For this reason, we have Presidential Libraries and Museums. But, aside from Nixon and his tapes, no former President has ever been searched for possession of secret documents from his White House years. I have not heard any comments from Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama about Trump’s papers. On the other hand, the Archivist (whose job is supposed to be nonpartisan) has not only created a fuss over Trump’s documents; he has also retired from his post, saying that he wants to be sure that President Biden appoints his successor.
  • Ukrainian forces have enjoyed moderate success this month turning back the Russian invasion and reclaiming some parts of their country. The war is far from over. Russia maintains a huge advantage in resources and manpower. Other governments are willing to provide Ukraine with weapons, but no one will be replacing the soldiers lost on the battlefield. Putin will not back down; he stepped into this mess, and he is determined to keep his foot planted where it has landed. Some small gestures in Russia call for his resignation or removal, but Putin spent years building a power structure to protect him. His welcome fall from power remains a distant possibility, not yet a near hope. When it finally happens, world leaders must be ready to help Russia reestablish itself as a democracy, a free nation, and a defender of human rights and freedoms. The term limits flouted by Putin need to be restored; the Russian people will have to learn how to function without a tyrant controlling their country.
  • Mainstream media is doing all it can to minimize the Democratic Party’s loss of power in the coming mid-term election. As always in American elections, voter turn-out will be key. Generally, the party which lost the most recent presidential election has greater success drawing its supporters to the ballot box. Enormous efforts are underway to inspire liberal Americans to vote this November. The majority of Americans—those who are pro-life, who prefer limited government, and who favor a recovered economy over gifts from the government—must remember to cast their ballots and to encourage their families and friends (and all those who agree with them) to do the same. J.

The grim prophecy of Edmund Burke

It can be both thrilling and disconcerting when a thinker from an earlier time speaks to current issues in his (or her) day, and we find his (or her) words equally relevant for the problems we face today.

Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament in the second half of the eighteenth century (the 1700s). During his political career, he addressed many of the international situations that affected the British Empire, most of which involved the Empire directly. Burke did not want to see the thirteen colonies in North America leave the Empire, but he also did not want to go to war against those colonies; he wanted to negotiate a settlement that would address their complaints and preserve their place in the Empire. Burke opposed slavery, but he suggested a gradual reduction of slavery in place of sudden and potentially divisive and violent abolition. He sought greater rights for Irish citizens of the British Empire, and he sought to improve conditions in southern Asia (which is to say, India) and punishment for British officials who violated the human rights of Asians in the Empire.

Burke feared the excesses he saw in the French Revolution. A few British leaders were delighted to see France struggle, figuring that anything bad for France was good for Britain. Others favored the slogans of liberty and equality expressed in the French Revolution and hoped to see similar changes pursued in Britain. Burke despised the attack upon authority and tradition that he witnessed in France. He spoke against the Jacobins, the political group in France most responsible for the violent phase of the Revolution which has become known as the Reign of Terror. In 1795, Burke spoke about the Jacobins, their goals and their strategy, in a way that seems eerily relevant to political strife in the United States today. Burke wrote:

 “What is Jacobinism? It is an attempt (hitherto but too successful) to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of the persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose, they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich. This I take to be a fair description of the principles and leading maxims of the enlightened of our day who are commonly called Jacobins.”

At first glance, eradicating prejudice out of the minds of men (and women and children) seems a good thing. We hold that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We quickly renounce prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, culture, and other human differences. But what happens when the battle against prejudice is expanded to include tolerance of all human differences, even those differences that strike at the core of being human? What happens when the government is given power to censure and punish any statement or belief that the government defines as intolerant, as “hate speech”? Does this battle against prejudice provide greater freedom and liberty, or does it make all people slaves of the government and its managers?

Are we truly ready to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world—to strike down religious liberty in the name of tolerance, and to label as “science” any faddish procedure that the government favors today? Do we want a small group of elite educators, entertainers, and opinion-generators to be the guardians of truth, the authorities that undermine and displace traditional leadership in the family, the community, and the religious gatherings of the people?

And what do we say in response to those who “engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich”? Are we truly inclined to punish the wealthy for their success, to reward the lazy for their indolence, and to invite the government to gather all national wealth and redistribute that wealth as the government chooses? Granted, the world is not fair. Some people gather wealth without deserving it; many people are poor who deserve more than they have received. Must we abandon our hope that generosity and kindness will reduce the injustice, that hard work will be rewarded, and that compassion and respect for all people can be taught as common virtues? Must we trust a few self-proclaimed experts to take into their hands our wealth, our freedom, and our self-respect, allowing them to distribute these goods as they deem appropriate and right?

By asking these questions, I may well be risking my present job and potential future employment. At the moment, I do not care. Each generation, it seems, must struggle to preserve liberty and justice, and our time has come. If we remain silent, if we allow tyranny and oppression to go unchallenged because the tyrants claim to be tolerant and beneficent, then we cast away all that our forefathers struggled to establish in this land. We remain the land of the free only so long as we also are the home of the brave. J.

Summer solstice

Many calendars and almanacs label today, the day of the summer solstice as the “first day of summer.” In the United States, the beginning of summer is observed Memorial Day weekend and the end of summer comes on Labor Day weekend. Even weather forecasters now assign the term “summer” to the dates June 1—August 31, making the seasons match the months on the calendar. Few of us really treat the solstice as summer’s beginning. For William Shakespeare, the solstice marked Midsummer-Night. But the summer solstice has never inspired the celebration and festivity given to the winter solstice at the end of December.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming book to be called “Murphy’s Gremlins.” In this chapter, which talks about time and seasons, I remark that our Creator is not obsessive or compulsive about time. The book of Genesis says that God created the sun and the moon to mark days and years and seasons. After the flood, God also promised a continuing cycle of planting and harvest, day and night, summer and winter. But an OCD Creator would have timed the earth’s journey around the sun for an exact number of days—probably 360 days. Such a Creator would have timed the moon’s journey around the earth and the completion of its cycle of phases for an exact number of days—probably thirty days. We would live with twelve months of thirty days in a year of 360 days and never have days left over. But God did not create that way.

Instead, the earth’s journey around the sun is roughly—not exactly, mind you, but only roughly—365 ¼ days. The moon’s journey around the earth takes between 28 and 29 days, and its passage through its phases requires a day or two more. Many cultures, including the Hebrew, the Chinese, the Arabic, and the Roman (during the Republic) began a new month with each new moon—as soon as the crescent of the moon can be seen in the sky, it is the first day of the month. At the end of the Republic, though, Julius Caesar mandated a calendar that contained twelve months but ignored the moon. Caesar also added a day to the calendar every fourth year to keep seasons from slipping away from solstices and equinoxes. It took centuries for the Julian calendar to slip; Julius Caesar may not have expected his calendar to be used for such a long time. Pope Gregory revised the Julian calendar to accommodate the reality that the earth’s journey around the sun is only roughly 365 ¼ days. It took a long time for other parts of the world to adjust to the new Gregorian calendar.

Some annual observances rely on a lunar calendar that predates the Julian Calendar. Passover, Israel’s memory of its escape from Egypt, is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month of spring—the fourteenth day being the night of the full moon. Christian observances of Easter and related holidays also are set according to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Muslim holidays and Chinese holidays are likewise set by the lunar calendar

But other observances follow the Julian-Gregorian calendar. Christians observe Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, on December 25, no matter what the moon is doing. Some people claim that Christians chose that date because of non-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. They wanted faithful Christians to have a reason to celebrate at the same time. The date may also have been chosen through a faulty reading of Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that Zechariah and his wife would have a son. Thinking that Zechariah was high priest and that his burning of incense was part of the Day of Atonement (which happens around the autumn equinox), they calculated that Zechariah’s son (John the Baptist) was born nine months later. Since the announcement of Christ’s coming birth came when Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) was in her sixth month of pregnancy, the same scholars marked the announcement by Gabriel to Mary around the spring equinox and the birth nine months later, just after the winter solstice.

On Christian calendars, the birthday of John the Baptist is observed on June 24, just after the summer solstice. But, unlike Christ’s birthday, John’s birthday is not such a big deal. Summer solstice observances have always paled in comparison to winter solstice festivities. Especially in the United States, the summer solstice has disappeared as a holiday. We begin summer at the end of May and conclude it at the start of September. In between, our biggest celebration is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a mere two weeks after the solstice. Our enthusiasm and energy is saved for that occasion.

Seasons change. Days and months and years run their course. Solstices and equinoxes take place on schedule, as do all our man-made holidays and observances. But for those who care (if there be any out there), a joyous summer solstice to you all. J.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend has become the unofficial beginning of summer on the American calendar. Solstices and equinoxes mean nothing to the vast majority of Americans. The hundred days from Memorial Day through Labor Day coincide with summer weather, with students free from school, and with a more relaxed schedule in many of our businesses and our personal lives. With attention focused on family and community gatherings, on picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach or the lake, we sometimes forget the purpose of Memorial Day on our calendars. But social media—including WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok—provides ample opportunities for us to remind one another what Memorial Day means and why we observe it every year.

When the Civil War began in 1861, people on both sides of the conflict expected it to end quickly. Both sides were convinced that they were right, and they believed that a few battles would make their point and that they would be able to return to their normal lives. They did not realize that the war would drag on for four years. They did not realize that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would die on the battlefield during those four years. Only when the war ended did the survivors begin to comprehend the cost of war—the senseless violence, killing, and destruction that happens in every war.

Most citizens of the United States are against war. In the twentieth century, the nation was dragged into two world wars, unwilling to get involved, but resolving to defend liberty and freedom, resolved to oppose tyranny and oppression. The same attitude kept the United States involved in the Cold War with its assorted battlegrounds; after the Cold War ended, a War on Terror also engaged the nations. Americans did not fight to capture new land or enlarge our borders. Americans did not fight to prove that our country is great. Americans fought to preserve our freedom and to defeat the enemies of freedom and justice in the world. It takes two sides to fight a war, but it only takes one side to start a war. Our leaders did not go looking for wars to fight: our leaders reluctantly accepted the duty of opposing enemies that were already threatening us and our way of life.

War is always wrong. War is a picture and a consequence of sin and evil in the world. Just wars are fought to resist sin and evil, but every war begins through sin and evil. Jesus told his followers that wars and rumors of wars would continue in human history until the Day of the Lord, the Day that he reveals his glory and completes the work that he accomplished on Good Friday and Easter. Every war reminds God’s people of the ongoing spiritual war between God and evil. A holy angel rebelled against God and brought evil into God’s perfect creation. Other angels joined in his rebellion, and all humanity took the devil’s side. When we do what we want instead of doing what God wants, we join the devil’s side in his war against God.

God could abandon the world to sin and evil. God could destroy the world and create a new world. Instead, God chooses to reclaim sinners and to rescue the victims of evil. For that reason, God entered the world to fight the enemy alongside his people. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God but is also fully human. He resisted the devil’s temptations to sin. He refused to break the commandments of his Father or to leave his Father’s plan. Jesus became a victim of evil. Betrayed and abandoned by his followers, Jesus was a victim of unjust government. The Roman authority said that Jesus was innocent, but still signed the order for his execution. Roman soldiers abused and tortured the Son of God. Finally, like many soldiers from many wars, Jesus died and was buried.

For most soldiers, death and burial is the end of the story. But Jesus rose again on the third day. The women who went to His tomb for a memorial day instead found an empty tomb. Angels told the women that Jesus had risen, as he had promised. For forty days, Jesus proved to his followers that he had risen from the dead. Christians do not have a Memorial Day to remember the death and burial of Jesus: Christians have Easter celebrations to remember his resurrection and his victory over sin, over evil, over death and the grave. One day of the year is called Easter Sunday, but every gathering of Christians is an Easter celebration, a joyful reminder that Jesus is risen and that his enemies are defeated.

Those defeated enemies include the devil who rebelled against God. They include the sinful world that joins the devil’s rebellion. They include my sins and your sins, all the times that we break the commands of God and enlist in the devil’s army. They include death itself, the final result of sin and rebellion. Jesus defeated all the enemies. He defeated them alone, without any help from us. But he includes us in his victory. We are “more than conquerors,” because we receive the results of Christ’s victory without having fought alongside Jesus, without having contributed in any way to his victory.

On Memorial Day, we remember the soldiers who died defending our freedom. We rejoice in the liberty and justice we have as citizens of the United States. We also remember the soldier who died and was buried, but who rose again to assure us of his victory. Ascended into heaven, he sits at the right hand of God the Father—not a location somewhere in the sky, but a position of authority. Jesus runs the universe. He is present everywhere. As he promised, he is with his people always, especially when his people gather in his name. He continues to forgive sins. He continues to rescue victims of evil. He continues to share his victory with all who trust his promises.

Jesus will appear in glory to make everything new. Christians wait patiently for that Day. But, as we wait, we already have hope and joy and peace, knowing that our enemies have been defeated. We are confident of our place in God’s new creation. We already are new creations, being transformed into the image of Jesus our Savior. This also we remember on Memorial Day weekend and every day of our lives. J.

Giving thanks

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for many things.

I am thankful to have food available—tasty food, healthy and nutritious food, food in great variety, for a family feast and later a light supper and the next day delicious leftovers. I am thankful for clothing and shelter—shelter with flush toilets, with hot and cold running water, with control over the temperature of the air in winter and summer and every day of the year, and with a wide variety of entertainment available at the push of a few buttons. These are not the greatest blessings I enjoy, but they are blessings all the same, and I am thankful.

I am thankful to live in a nation based upon liberty, a nation that protects its citizens from violence, a nation that shows compassion to those in need. I am thankful to live in a nation founded upon ideas and not upon military victories or the power of one ruler. I am thankful for freedom to think as I wish, to speak as I wish, to write as I wish, and to gather with like-minded people. I am thankful for freedom of religion. I am thankful that other people are free to disagree, even to insist that we have too much freedom, and that such opinions can be discussed and debated among ourselves.

With that freedom of religion, I am thankful to know the God who created all things and still upholds them by his power. I am thankful to know the God who tells us why he made us, yet who pays our debt when we fall short of his plans and rescues us from evil, even from the consequences of our own rebellion. I am thankful to know the God who calls us to repent and to believe, then gives us power to do those very things through his call. I am thankful to know the God who gathers his people around his promises, keeps us in the true faith, and promises eternal life in a perfect world to all those who hold to that faith. These blessings outshine all others.

I am thankful that my employer pays me not to come to work Thursday and Friday but allows me to observe the holiday of Thanksgiving with family and with the congregation. I am thankful for a four-day weekend in which I can sleep late some mornings, accomplish some tasks around the house, do some reading and some writing, and maybe even start unpacking decorations for Advent and Christmas. At the same time, I am grateful for those people (including two of my daughters) who will be working during this holiday, caring for those whose medical needs do not take a holiday. I am thankful that professionals will be available if needed should a problem arise. I am thankful for the man who came to our house Thanksgiving evening several years ago because our carbon monoxide detector was sounding an alarm. He checked for gas leaks and other dangers, and he correctly determined that the detector was at fault. I am thankful that we were not in danger that day, and that we did not have to wait for the holiday to end before we knew that we were safe.

I am thankful that family will gather and will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving together, even if some members will arrive late to the celebration. I am thankful that we will be able to enjoy each other’s company and that we will also be able to contact those who are living elsewhere and share the joy of the holiday with them. I also am thankful that, when the weekend is over, the children will return to their various homes and living spaces and I will once again have a quiet house for reading, writing, and other leisure activities.

I am thankful for my online friends in the WordPress community, those who read my blogs and comment on my posts, those who leave their likes, those whose blogs I read and enjoy, those who share a piece of their lives online and are willing also to let me share my thoughts and experiences with them. May each of us, however we observe and remember this holiday, find joy in giving thanks and have a pleasant and enriching holiday weekend. J.

Blessed are the poor…

  Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

What does this mean? Are poor Christians the only good Christians? Are wealthy people banned from the kingdom of heaven? Is money a sin and wealth a crime? Should all Christians give away their possessions and live in poverty until the Day Christ appears in glory?

Some Christians have taken the words of Jesus in that way. Others have read the rest of the Bible and have found more context for these sayings of Jesus. God has blessed the wealthy—he did not reject Abraham or David or Solomon or Lydia because they had worldly wealth. He allowed Job’s wealth to be stripped away from Job, but at the end of the test he gave Job twice as much wealth as he had at the beginning. If Jesus wanted all Christians mired in poverty, he could not expect us to give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, or shelter to the homeless. If Jesus wanted all Christians to be mired in poverty, he would not expect his people to set aside money to help the poor, to do the work of the Church, and to support workers who spend their careers working for the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

At times, Jesus seems sympathetic toward capitalism. He tells parables about investing money, expecting a profit (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). In fact, Jesus told more stories about money and investment and business than he told about planting seeds, tending crops, or taking care of sheep. Jesus knew that his followers would be involved in the world. He always intended to bless some of them with worldly wealth, making it possible for them to love their neighbors and to provide for the needs of the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is not with how much money people have; the problem is with how much money people want. A poor person can still be guilty of idolatry, dreaming about the wealth and riches he or she desires. The Ten Commandments close with warnings against coveting—wanting the property of another person. God blesses some people in poverty and some people in wealth. Being poor in spirit is not a matter of how much you own; being poor in spirit is a matter of how much your possessions own you.

The Bible endorses no economic system. Through history, most Christians have accepted whatever economic system surrounds them, doing their best to love God and serve their neighbors with any blessings God provides. When given a choice, though, the Christian does not only ask, “What is best for me?” The Christian asks, “What is best for my neighbor? Which system offers the greatest promise of helping the poor and oppressed, of making life better for all people?” In the rare instances where Christians may choose, their choice should reflect love for neighbors rather than greed and self-centered thinking.

Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When those who heard it asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus did not answer, “the poor, and those who give away all their possessions to become poor.” Instead, he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Salvation comes only from the work of Jesus Christ. It is not earned by being poor or by becoming poor. Jesus endorses neither capitalism nor socialism; Jesus condemns neither capitalism nor socialism. He rescues sinners whether they are rich or poor or middle class; he rescues sinners whether they live in a capitalist country, a socialist country, or any other kind of country. The work of Jesus is for all people; Christianity transcends politics and economics. J.

The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

The dream of landing a man on the moon

When Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon fifty-one years ago, it appeared that the world was beginning a new Space Age. Several more teams of American astronauts returned to the moon—one team, Apollo 13, suffered from technical difficulties and had to return without landing on the moon—but since that time, the space program has not advanced as expected. Space stations were formed, and shuttle missions were launched. Computerized machines were sent all over the solar system to record information and report back to Earth. But the science fiction stories that seemed ready to change from fiction to fact did not come true. Colonies were not living on the moon by 2001. No one has gone to Mars or to any other planet. Space stations remained tiny capsules orbiting the Earth—no vast city in space has been developed to launch travelers to the moon or Mars or any other destination out there in space.

Why has space exploration faltered since the grand successes of the Apollo missions to the moon? Noble talk of exploration being worth any cost and any risk has not led to glorious deeds. Explosive growth in computer technology has been devoted almost entirely to earth-bound endeavors, especially in the areas of communication and entertainment. Competitive juices of the Cold War no longer fuel programs to open new frontiers and to go where no one has gone before. Our dreams may be as big as ever, but our investment in those dreams has dwindled.

In the 1960s, Dick Tracy communicated to headquarters with his watch and Maxwell Smart kept in radio contact through his shoe. Now most of us carry or wear devices that facilitate communication, take pictures and videos, allow access to libraries of digitized information, and permit us to play games any time and any place. Our cars cannot fly, but we can start them from inside the house and have the heat or air conditioning running while we finish getting ready to leave. We know where we are and how to get where we want to go with exact precision—precision that everyone from government agencies to advertisers can use to keep track of us all the time and to know what topics we are researching and what questions we want answered. We can buy and sell at the click of a button, and our financial information is available to us (and to many other people) any time and any place.

Our hunger for space travel was fed, not by the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, but by the Star Wars franchise and its many companion stories. Faster-than-light travel is no more possible now than when Gene Roddenberry imagined warp engines for the Enterprise. Time travel is still limited to one day at a time into the future. Meanwhile, nature has not yet been conquered on this planet: it can still hit us with a storm or an earthquake or a plague, seemingly at will.

This is the future, or at least it was the future when Neil Armstrong recited, “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” What now remains in our future remains to be seen. We will face more challenges; we will encounter more adventures. New technology will surprise our children as new technology surprised our parents. The tools we use today will amuse museum visitors fifty years from now. No one can guess when the human spirit will rise again to look at the stars, to explore new frontiers, or to solve the problems that stymie us today. So long as there is a future, though, we still have a chance to dream. J.