Sunday, January 29, 2012

How the Right Gets Jesus Wrong

It’s not easy to understand how members of the religious right connect Jesus Christ to unfettered capitalism and small government. Perhaps their ideology is the result of close to a century of cooperation between the clergy of certain denominations and conservatives in government and big business. It could also be a product of the GOP’s hardline stances on a handful of divisive and contentious issues, or a misguided comparison of the struggle against socialism to the trials of Jesus and his followers. In any case, Jesus’s own words describe economic policy that is entirely contrary to that of the religious right.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.” If this teaching guided the Republican Party’s economic policy, would they want to shrink welfare programs and Medicaid?

“Woe unto ye that are rich! For ye have received your consolation.” If this command influenced Republican tax policy, would they consider shouldering the burden of responsible budgeting on the middle class while cutting taxes on the rich?

“Give to him that asketh thee; and from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away.” Would this compel lawmakers to expand unemployment benefits and social programs for those in times of need?

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Would Christian conservatives advocate cutting down food stamps if this passage influenced their decision?

“It is easer for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Would their talking points praise the rich as “job creators” if this was their inspiration?

“Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” Would the Tea Party have charged that the President lied about his birth, or was a socialist, all for the sake of advancing their agenda, had they read this passage first?

The answer, resoundingly, is No. And yet, these texts are scripture, and according to many in the religious right, the true and literal word of God. In this sense, their politics are at war with their religion; only somehow they don’t see it that way.

I believe, as did Thomas Jefferson, that Jesus’s morals and teachings are exceptionally virtuous. But the religious right cheapens his words and actions to fit a modern, exclusive and aggressive vision of Christianity’s potential. So grab a bible (or a Jefferson bible) and see what the man himself had to say. You might find Jesus was a little more progressive than many would like him to have been.


This is the text of a speech I gave at the Church in Ocean Park in 2011.

Last summer, in July, 2010, I visited Honduras with the Methodist group Sierra Service Project. We financed and helped build two homes in a slum on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa called Fuerzas Unidas, Spanish for United Forces. A year earlier, President Manuel Zelaya was exiled by the Military wing before a referendum on a constitutional convention could take place. When the people of Tegucigalpa rose up in protest, they were intimidated, beaten, imprisoned, or killed by government forces. Their state had been taken over by generals and businessmen who sought to further exploit the people of Honduras. And this is nothing new to the Honduran people.

Like so many other Latin American countries, Honduras’s history is scarred by U.S. intervention in their politics, government, and economy.

In the 1980’s, the Reagan Administration funded and trained a notorious Honduran death squad known as Battalion 316. They were headquartered at the U.S. military base located near the capital, where they tortured countless civilians before burying them in mass graves. All this was done to preserve the economic relationship between the United States and Honduras, one that benefits wealthy corporations at the cost of human rights and economic justice.

The Honduran people are exploited economically through the Central American Free Trade Agreement and strings attached to aid packages and government loans. The government can neither subsidize its own people’s crops nor collect tariffs on American goods. The unemployment rate hovers around 30%. The poverty rate stands at 69%. They have the highest murder rate in Central America and the second-lowest GDP per person.

The farmers feel the pain worst of all. Most of them work for American food or coffee corporations, picking fruit sixteen hours a day for less than three cents.
With all of this standing in their way, with all of this staring them down, they still have a deep faith in God. The churches stand as pillars of hope and community in these cities and slums and villages. The Methodist Church in Fuerzas Unidas was the safest place within miles, its high walls and tall, brick chapel, secure and sound amid the gangs and drugs and poverty, and it welcomed those who sought help and reached out to those most in need.

I couldn’t take from this experience a heightened faith in God, but I did take from it a heightened faith in the role religion can play in bettering the world. More so, I learned how connecting with people personally can change the way we identify with those in the third world.

When we were building one of these homes on the hillside, I talked with the family’s father, Juan. He had had a heart attack two years earlier, and arrived at the hospital an hour later without a pulse before he was resuscitated. I thought of my father, who had died from a heart attack years ago.

When I learned a few weeks ago that Juan had died on Christmas Eve from another heart attack, it reinforced in me the feeling that while we are worlds away from these people, we are incredibly similar. It’s who we are as human beings, we feel the same emotions and we have the same hopes and fears and wants. We want justice, peace, democracy, dignity.

And the first step in bringing all of this to Honduras and to the world is to be in solidarity with them. When enough people identify themselves as supporters of the poor, it is suddenly easier to lift them from poverty. We must use the political and spiritual power we have to motivate our leaders for change, for Honduras and for ourselves, and implore them to spread hope instead of fear, justice instead of exploitation, and faith instead of poverty.  

On the Bright Side...

This piece originally appeared on the Frying Pan <> in a slightly altered form.

As dismal as things may seem, we Californians actually have a few things to look forward to. The fruits of last year’s reform efforts are ripening, with three common sense laws making their influential debuts.

2012 will see a much-needed shake-up of the State Assembly and Senate. For decades legislators drew their own districts, ones that favored incumbents and decreased voters’ power.  Thanks to the California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission created in 2008, our state finally has fair and honest State Assembly, State Senate, and U.S. Congressional districts. Many current representatives find themselves in districts they are unlikely to win next year, and are making decisions to move to “safer” districts. This will pit many voters against Sacramento’s staunch culture of incumbency when party leaders run candidates in areas they haven’t represented in the past.

Voters will see another change at the ballots in the coming year. Instead of Democratic and Republican primaries for state and local office, open primaries will be held and a runoff will take place between the top two vote getters. Elections will be more about the candidate and less about their party, dealing a blow to the polarizing two-party system that too often brings California’s state government to a halt.

The third law will due much to reform a deep-rooted fault in the national political system. In August, Governor Jerry Brown signed the National Popular Vote bill, making California the eighth state to agree to give all of its Electoral College votes to whichever presidential candidate wins a majority of the popular vote. The national popular vote issue strikes a major chord in young people. For many of us, our first experience in American politics was the 2000 presidential election and the catastrophes that ensued. The basic injustice of the loser winning solidified our sense that the political system did not care about citizens or fairness. In fact, we were partly right; the Constitution’s framers set up the Electoral College specifically to distance voters from legitimate and influential power.

In California, these reforms mark the end of an era of gerrymandering and deep partisanship. Candidates will be elected because they’re qualified, not because they’re the only one with an (R) or (D) beside their name. Representatives will better reflect the communities that elect them. And above all, everyday people will matter more.

UC Sticker Shock

This piece originally appeared on the Frying Pan <> in slightly altered form.

Budget cuts are suffocating the University of California. Tuition and fees are skyrocketing. Admission rates of California residents declined this year at all but one of the University’s ten campuses. All this seems a far cry from the University’s trajectory set over fifty years ago, and it is turning students away from the schools that once seemed so appealing.

Now in the heat of college applications season, many high school seniors are wondering if the UCs are worth attending. When tuition hikes are regular news and student sit-ins and protests are commonplace, it’s hard to see the upside. However, most high school students remain optimistic about their chances and the UCs in general. “Im not too worried,” said Tim Rusch, a senior at Santa Monica High, “I’ll do my best on the application and I know they accept a diverse group of kids.”

The modern University of California system was set up by the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the 1960 act that reorganized the state’s colleges into a more inclusive, efficient and intelligent system. The point was to reduce costs, increase graduates, and better prepare California’s students for an economy in which they would soon participate.

Reduced funding from the state government has slowly but surely eaten away at those fundamental principles. Originally incurring $0 tuition for in-state admits in 1961 ($500 for out-of-state), living on campus at a UC, including tuition, room and board, and fees for books, etc. is estimated at $31,200 this year alone (  The Universities court students from outside California because they pay an extra $22,878 and the Universities need all the cash they can get. Over the past two years, Berkeley alone has admitted 1,881 fewer California residents and 1,894 more out-of-state students, virtually a one-for-one swap.

This tendency to accommodate out-of-staters for their increased tuition hurts California’s  education and economy. Because fewer Californians attend these prestigious universities, more are forced either to attend a school out of the state (racking up significantly more debt) or settle for a school that isn’t right for them. The result is a generation of young, Californian workers chained by financial obligations and lacking the proper educations or opportunities for success.

Fixing this problem will be relatively simple if state government allows. Taxes must be raised in order to sustain the universities and relieve students of their ever-growing burden. A state tax on oil extraction would be a good place to start, as we are the only oil-producing state that lacks one. With additional state funding, the schools will rely less on out-of-state tuition and philanthropic contribution, and accept more and more students from California’s high schools.

These are our universities, they are the pride of our education system. We pay for them in taxes and we benefit from their research and ingenuity. It’s time for Jerry Brown to take a page from his father’s playbook and team up with legislators to reform the University. If not, many Californians won’t have the opportunities, educational and economic, that could save individuals and state government from financial ruin. 

The First Union Carwasheros

This piece was originally posted on the Frying Pan <> in a slightly altered form.

On Tuesday, October 25, two blocks from my house in Santa Monica, history was made. Bonus Hand Wash and Auto Spa on Lincoln Blvd. became the very first car wash in the United States whose workers are part of a union. The employees and their families, community leaders, regular people, union organizers and the CLEAN Car Wash Campaign have worked tirelessly over the past three years to break ground in the car wash industry, and held a press conference Tuesday celebrating the landmark achievement.

Oliverio Gomez, an employee at Bonus for nine years, said “What I hope is that future generations who come to work here aren't treated as badly as we were; that they're no longer humiliated, but respected,” stopping several times to gather himself throughout a touching speech. He and his fellow carwasheros at Bonus are now members of the United Steelworkers Local 675.

Bonus’s decision to allow its workers the right to unionize follows years of organizing, outreach, demonstrations and violations of the law. For a time, employee’s paychecks bounced so often that a lottery was started, the winner getting the prize of cashing his already-shrunken check. Workers were exposed to harsh and dangerous chemicals without even gloves, and many were forced to relinquish portions of their wages, their breaks, and their livelihoods in order to stay employed.

Mike Watson, General Manager at Bonus and other local carwashes, spoke convincingly of the business’s new direction and its commitment to the community, “We are looking forward to a partnership with the United Steelworkers that will make our business stronger and improve the opportunities and job satisfaction for all of our employees,” he said at the announcement Tuesday.

The community’s reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and organizers plan to distribute literature encouraging people to get their cars washed at Bonus. Marina Hand Wash, further south on Lincoln, was also a focal point of the organizing effort before the owners (same as Bonus) closed the business. Organizers are pushing to reopen the car wash in the near future and unionize there as well.

Los Angeles can prove that unions attract customers, improve business, and better the community. We have the remarkable opportunity to support the one and only union car wash in the nation. We have the privilege of proving that unions don’t bog business down, they empower it. The reason Bonus’s employees have a union and a fair contract is because the community supported them, and the way to spread economic justice in the car wash industry is to drive to Bonus Hand Wash and Auto Spa at 2800 Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica and get your car washed by a proud union member.

Football & Good Jobs

This piece was originally posted on the Frying Pan <>

At this very moment, Los Angeles has no professional football team and hasn’t since the Raiders and Rams both left in 1995. No team in the NFL has publicly acknowledged that they would consider moving here, although there are rumors. Yet, there are two ambitious projects competing to be the home of a future Los Angeles football team, and it turns out we may get a team sooner than we expected.
The two plans (neither are under construction) each put the stadium in fundamentally different places. Anschutz Entertainment Group is proposing Farmers Field, which would be located in downtown Los Angeles directly adjacent to Staples Center and L.A. Live. Meanwhile, Edward Roski, billionaire head of Majestic Realty and former business partner of AEG, commissioned plans for a professional football stadium named Grand Crossing in the city of Industry, twenty-two miles east of downtown. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, (, the median income in the downtown project’s site’s Census tract is $18,500 annually, as opposed to $46,827 in Industry. The County Federation of Labor endorsed both proposals, but the Independent Cities Association’s recent decision to switch endorsements from Roski’s project to Farmers Field seemed to tip the scales in favor of AEG. The Grand Crossing website still lists the ICA as an endorser.
AEG’s downtown project has demonstrated itself a more viable option for a Los Angeles stadium. Incorporating a revamped Convention Center in its design, the AEG plan takes the opportunity to better other, existing buildings that surround it. It is projected to hire between twenty- and thirty-thousand people (around half are rumored to be temporary) and AEG has agreed to make all of those jobs at least living wage or union. However, critics have pointed out that any football team could divert money from other local businesses.
The Grand Crossing project is innovative in that its design is to dig a hole into a large hill and build a stadium inside of it. This is supposed to reduce construction costs and the amount of steel necessary for support. The Grand Crossing website also says that one half of the buildings’ power will come from solar energy. To give some perspective, the newest stadium in the NFL, Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium, uses about the same amount of energy every year as the entire city of Santa Monica, according to Electronic Engineering Times ( Detailed drawings of the proposed Grand Crossing stadium show one thin ring of solar panels, surely not enough to provide that much energy. Roski says in a video on that the project will create more than 18,000 jobs, but again, no specifics are included or implied. Also, Roski’s demand that any team that agrees to move into his stadium must give him thirty percent ownership will likely incense a team warming up to L.A.
Beyond the stadiums, beyond the developers, the Los Angeles community ought to push for a say in their team. This city has had many bad experiences with eccentric and egomaniacal sports owners. We lost the Raiders due to Al Davis’s insane opportunism. We lost our love for the Dodgers due to Frank McCourt’s negligence and extravagant lifestyle. We lost all hope for the Clippers due to Donald Sterling’s acidic self-importance and lackluster management. Municipal ownership would guarantee fair labor practices and ensure the team’s dedication to our community. Unfortunately, this plan has gained little traction in the media and has been written off by just about everyone involved.
But it’s never too late. Now is the time to speak up to city government and AEG in favor of a municipally owned team, and start a long tradition of football and good jobs in Los Angeles.