Thursday, May 28, 2015

The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives

As I mentioned in my previous post, we've been living in a poorer are of Kansas City while also trying to restart our careers/finances after moving back home from our 18 months in Europe.  It's been a bit of a challenge, but with Erin accepting a full-time teaching position at Dawson's school, things are starting to stabilize.

Due to both living in the Northeast and struggling to make much money, I've gained some serious insight into what it's like to be poor.  I'm not ready to go into all the details yet, but I will eventually share my first hand experiences with "poor shaming" and heartless and immovable bureaucracy from the past few months.  In the meantime, though I will share some hightlights from a book I recently finsihed, "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives."  I found myself agreeing often with the books author, either because I've observed what he's describing first hand or have actually experienced it myself.  Here are some quotes from the book.

pg. 5
[There is a] sheer loneliness of poverty, the fact that profound economic hardship pushes people to the psychological and physical margins of society – isolated from friends and relatives; shunted into dilapidated trailer parks, shanties, or ghettoized public housing; and removed from banks and stores, transit systems and cultural institutions.  The poor live on society’s scraps –a few dollars in government assistance or charity, donated food, thrift-store clothes.  They can afford neither transport to venture out of their communities nor simple luxuries such as movies or a cup of coffee with friends in a cafĂ©.  They cannot afford to vary the routines of their daily lives.  Embarrassed by their poverty, worried about being judged failures in life, and humiliated by that judgment, many told me that they have essentially withdrawn from all but the most necessary, unavoidable social interaction.

The second that that one realizes in telling this story is the diversity, the complexity, of poverty.  Its causes, and therefore its potential solutions, cannot meaningfully be reduced to a pat list of features.  There are people with no high school education who are poor, but there are also university graduates on food bank lines.  There are people who are poor because they have made bad choices, gotten addicted to drugs, burned bridges with friends and family – and then there are people who have never taken a drug in their lives, who have huge social networks, and who still can’t make ends meet.  There are people who have never held down a job, and others who hold down multiple, but always low-paying, jobs, frequently for some of the most powerful corporations on earth.  There are people who have never had a bank account and use payday loans and other predatory lending sources whenever they need access to extra cash, and there are others who, during more flush times, owned huge suburban houses and expensive cars.  There are children whose only hot meals are what they are given at school, and young adults who have nothing now and never really had anything earlier in life either.  There are military veterans who have struggled to find a place in civilian life, middle-aged and once-middle-class people falling down the economic ladder as the recession fails to fully lift, and elderly people cascading into destitution as savings evaporate and expected equity in their homes fails to materialize.

Poverty is, in other words, as diverse as the United States itself.  What the poor have in common, however, is an increasingly precarious existence in a country seemingly unable – or at least unwilling – to come to grips with their collective despair. 

Pg. 7
Were we as a society able to implement [a plan to deal with poverty] in affordable and equitable ways, the result would be a fundamental reimagining of the American economic landscape.  We can use four major revenue sources: 1) a public works fund to protect against mass unemployment; 2) a new educational opportunity fund to dramatically expand access to, and affordability of, higher education; 3) a poverty mitigation fund built up from the introduction of a financial transaction tax and energy profit taxes; and 4) money to stabilize Social Security and start reducing the national deficit, made available from higher taxes on capital gains, high-end inheritances, and the income of the most affluent wage earners…. If we used these revenue sources, we could change both our expectations of society and our long-term financial calculus in a way beneficial to tens of millions of people. 

Pg. 34
We will get far further in understanding twenty-first century American poverty if we consider how entrenched the new plutocracy, and its economic agenda, has become than if we look solely for explanations regarding the purported intellectual, economic, and cultural inadequacies of the poor.  It is, after all, surely no coincidence that the United States, the country with the wealthiest elite in the Western world, and an economy that has averaged 2.2 percent productivity gains each year since 1947, also has vastly higher poverty rates than its peer nations.

Shortly after the financial crisis hit, the OECD published a table on income distribution: Even after government benefits were factored in, more than 11 percent of the American population had incomes of only 40 percent of the median income in the country. In Great Britain, that number was only a little above 6 percent; Germany’s number was a little more than 4 percent.  In Sweden it was 3.8 percent; and in the Netherlands, 2.7 percent.  Even Greece and Ireland, two countries tottering toward bankruptcy, had a far lower percentage of their population living significantly below the poverty line than did the United States.

“What’s most striking in the past few years is the absolute absence of discussions of poverty on the public agenda,” noted University of California at Santa Barbara historian Alice O’Connor, who has built her career studying Americans’ shifting attitudes toward poverty over the centuries.  “It’s just not there.  The great shift is that we’ve come to accept very high levels of poverty as either inevitable or the way things should be.”  For O’Connor, the callous approach to poverty wasn’t unprecedented in American history, but it was something that found equivalents only distantly back in time.  “You’d have to cycle back to the Gilded Age,” in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, “to find a similarly untroubled acceptance of mass poverty,” she believed.  These days, says O’Connor, politics has become increasingly reliant on the big-dollar contributions, and in so becoming has lost touch with the expectations of the vast majority of Americans who cannot afford to buy access to the political process.  “The narrow politics of winning elections, “she averred, “has less and less to do with connecting with what people really care about, and more to do with raising money and buying media and these kinds of things.”

Pg. 51
In the same way that our political culture lacks the language to adequately confront poverty, so too in recent years it has lacked a vocabulary to explain why rampant inequality is a problem.  As that inequality grows, and as the political rhetoric is skewed toward meeting the requirements of the country’s new elites, so public infrastructure becomes ever more fragile.  An anti-tax, anti-government movement, using the language of populism, and turbocharged in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which allowed outside interest groups to spend freely on attack ads and “independent expenditure” campaigns, claims to represent the little man against Big Brother.  In reality, however it has created a public sector defined by squalor and an insecure citizenry unable to define itself by commonly accessed, and accessible, institutions.

The method is simple: defund public services, ensure that the government only delivers second-rate goods, convince the electorate that long-term societal investments such as Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes unlikely to survive down the generation, and it becomes ever easier to convince ordinary people that taxes are a mugging rather than an investment.  There is, after all, a reason that Swedes – who receive quality education, healthcare, childcare, vacation times, and pensions courtesy of their government – tolerate far higher taxes than do Americans.  It’s no because they have some strange Scandinavian-only pro-tax genes in their DNA.  Nor is it because of some bizarre streak of masochism in their culture.  Rather, it’s because they actually get their money’s worth from their taxes.  They pay good money and get good quality services.  In America, by contrast, increasingly the public receives duds.

Sell enough lemons, conservatives have realized, and you can trigger demands that the whole enterprise be shut down.  It is, quite simply, a classic bait-and-switch maneuver.

Able to spend virtually unlimited sums to influence political and judicial races, groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce and   Crossroads GPS; and individuals such as the Koch brothers; Newt Gingrich’s 2012 primary season backer, Sheldon Adelson; and Rick Santorum’s funder, Foster Friess – have seeded a conservative push to undermine what remains of the progressive tax structure and to denude government of its role in providing basic serves to the populace. 

More and more, as a result of squeezing government services, those with resources opt out of the public sphere, sending their children to private schools and colleges, protecting their homes and other property with private security systems, abandoning public transit systems, forgoing as many interactions with the public sector and with government agencies as they can.  Similar processes have happened in recent years in countries such as South Africa and Mexico.  It no instance has such a retrenchment led to a fairer, more equal or more tranquil society. 

Pg. 88
In part, America’s poverty epidemic is a failure of imagination – we haven’t invested enough energy into understanding the causes and the manifestations of poverty in today’s United States, or into imagining alternatives.  In part, though, it’s a failure of empathy – we haven’t as a society worked out why we should care.  Too many people either believe they have no obligations the broader community or do not understand the consequences that follow when public infrastructure is allowed to crumble.  That is the point raised by then – Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, whose word led to the creation of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in her critique of businesspeople who didn’t want to pay their fair share of taxes and who didn’t believe that the state played any role in their success.  Even a self-made man, she explained to an audience in 2011 – at the start of her successful campaign for the US Senate – used publicly funded roads to truck his goods to market, hired workers educated in publicly funded schools, and relied on publicly funded police forces for security and firefighters for putting out fires.  “Part of the underlying social contract,” she continued, “is you take a hunk of that [profit] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Pg. 132
Throughout history, philosophers and political figures have sought to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor; or, to put it another way, between those whose poverty is caused by outside forces and thus merits society’s sympathy and those whose poverty is the result of poor life decisions, or communal dysfunction, and thus merits our scorn.

Such a distinction is pervasive today in the United States, where politicians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to distinguish between those simply down on their luck and those trying to con the system.  In doing so, we have set up a tremendous number of barriers to accessing anti-poverty programs.  These barriers have, in all likelihood, stopped some ne’er-do-wells from gaining assistance they ought not to get; but such gains have frequently come at the cost of scaring away many others who do qualify but are deterred from applying by the cumbersome, frequently humiliating, nature of the application process.

Pg. 136
In the modern American context, all-too-often this discussion about whether or not impoverished residents are deserving of sympathy and of government aid takes place against a backdrop of racial and class animus.  For while white conservatives use government assistance e copiously – whether it be Social Security or mortgage tax relief, low interest federal college loans or Medicare- in their political discussions they tend to define their benefits as not being “welfare,” in contrast to the somehow less noble assistance provided to their black and brown neighbors.  The Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler writes in her book, “The Submerged State” that a self-identified conservative is 50 percent more likely than a liberal to claim never to have used a government program, despite the fact that 96 percent  of Americans she surveyed had, in fact, utilized government assistance – from mortgage tax relief to federal farm subsidies, from Medicare to Social Security.  Certainly, no one has talked about drug-testing seniors before they can access Social Security, requiring people filing for mortgage relief piss into a cup or mandating that bankers seeking to access billions of dollars of bailout funds prove their cocaine-free bona fides before tapping TARP.

Pg. 177-179
That so many people were seeing huge drops in income, with the resulting and all-too-predictable, impacts on their ability to pay their mortgages, rents and other basic bills, wasn’t just to do with unemployment.  It was also to do with a political push to dismantle prevailing wage structures, and to keep the minimum wage extraordinarily low in many states.  In fact, in the years prior to the onset of the Great Recession, much of the worst poverty data came out of states with lower-than-average unemployment.  In places like Idaho and Texas, the jobs were there; they just were no longer paying enough to live on.  In 2011, researchers with the Economic Policy Institute estimated that if the government entirely absented itself from the business of tax subsidies and assistance to the poor, the poverty rate in America would immediately jump to 23.7 percent.  The reason?  As was the case in Victorian-era England, millions of twenty-first-century Americans, lving in aperiod during which trade unions were on the sane and the power of employers on the rise, were having to work jobs that didn’t even get them up to subsistence-level living.

As a result [of “right-to-work” laws making it harder for workers to organize into trade unions being pushed by conservatives and adopted by more and more states], even before the Great Recession hit, real incomes for working-class Americans were lower in the early 2000s than they had been a generation earlier.  To remind readers of the salient numbers here:  The median age peaked in 1973 at $33,000 in 2010 dollars.  By 2005, during the roaring decade that preceded the financial collapse, that median wage was down to $29,000; and in the years following, as the broader pillars of the economy tottered, it fell still further, toward the $26,000 mark.  Millions of poor people were working full time yet being inexorably swept backwards economically.

[This is] why Texas Governor Rick Perry could enter the presidential primary contest in 2011 claiming that he’d presided over a period of extraordinary job growth in the Lone Star State, while his opponents could decry the fact that 17.9 percent of Texans lived in poverty, and 7.4 percent in extreme poverty; that 6.3 million Texans had no health benefits, which mean that a larger percentage of the population in Texas has no access to medical coverage than in any other state in America; and that a higher percentage of the state’s residents were “food insecure” than in all but one other state.

Both sets of claims were true: Texas was seeing more jobs being created – between January 2006 and January 2011 it added over half a millions positions, while other states were hemorrhaging employment.  But they were low-paying, non-benefited, and frequently dead-end in character.  The state wasn’t educating workers well enough to help them move up the economic ladder; it wasn’t investing adequately in job training programs; it wasn’t putting resources into monitoring workplace conditions.  For employers, Perry’s Texas was a low-wage, low-regulation paradise.  For employees, too often it was a place of crushing drudgery.

Pg. 181
So why the skyrocketing food insecurity in Texas?  In large part because more and more of the working poor, in a state with only the federal minimum wage, were earning rock-bottom wages.  In 2010, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that Texas and Mississippi were tied for having highest percentage of their workforces earing only at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  Fully 550,000 Texans were stuck at this wage level – about half of them were actually earning less than the legal minimum – with millions more earning not much more.

For companies such as Walmart, all of this was, quite simply , great for business.  Taking advantage of the anti-union, anti-labor environment, the world’s biggest retailer opened up dozens of stores in the 1990s and 2000s in the Lone Star state.  In the Dallas region alone, by 2012 it had more than twenty outlets.  Texas’ low-wage environment apparently meshed perfectly with Walmart’s employment philosophy.  According to the online wage-monitoring site Glassdoor, as of mid-2012 the average pay for a Walmart sales associate was $8.88 an hour; for a “guest service team member” it was $8.42; for a cashier $8.62.

When meat-cutters in its Jacksonville, Texas store tried to unionize in 2000 to better their working conditions, the company responded by eliminating the butcher’s section from its store, limiting itself to prepackaged meats instead so as to avoid having to negotiate with a labor union.  It’s a tactic the company has perfected all over the country – rousing the wrath of organizations such as Human Rights Watch but proving remarkably good for business.  In 2011, Walmart posted profits of more than $15 billion.  After all, keeping workers nonunion allows the company to pay wages so low that the children of many employees end up on Medicaid, the workers themselves on food stamps.

In October 2012 several Walmart workers in the Los Angeles area launched a strike against the company;  and a month later, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, Walmart workers in several stores around the country, including some in Dallas, walked off the job, in a rolling attempt to force the company to recognize the UFCW and other unions.  Walmart’s response?  A spokesperson denounced the action as a “union-funded publicity stunt.”

Pg. 185
Utterly wedded to a rigid market ideology – to a belief system that holds that whatever outcomes the market, left to its own devices, generates must be right – the Social Darwinists of modern politics simply cannot fathom why a society would need to intervene to break cycles of poverty that, again by definition, are caused by personal failings.  Once upon a time, the absolute social mobility that they believed produced fair economic outcomes might have been the case for certain groups in society.  Not for enslaved African Americans, clearly; not for Native Americans kicked off their land; not for women; almost certainly not for poor white sharecroppers… but possibly for other non-share-cropping white males.  Yet, even by the logic of that truncated definition of “society,” today clearly American is not a land that produces equal opportunities for all to excel.  In fact, a slew of recent studies have found that Americans born into poverty move up the income ladder less frequently than their peers do in areas of the world such as Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, France and many other advanced industrial democracies; and that the incomes of children born into poverty end up more closely resembling their parents’ income than is the case elsewhere.  The reports come not just from liberal academics and think tanks, but also from establishment institutions such as the Boston branch of the Federal Reserve, and government data-collecting agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  On measure after measure, social mobility in the United States has fallen off from where it was in previous eras; and, as worrying, a host of other countries that used to trail America in terms of the opportunities they afforded the impoverished amongst their citizenry now stand out as providing increased levels of opportunity.

For a country built on notions of self-improvement, home to millions of immigrants and their descendants – who come, and come, to a country they believe gives them opportunities to succeed that they would have nowhere else on earth – that curtailment of opportunity at the bottom of the economy is peculiarly devastating. 

Pg. 197
My purpose is not to suggest that we enforce absolute equality on a population of 300 million people.  Despite the fearmongering raised by conservatives whenever conversations about equity take center stage, absolute equality is neither possible nor remotely desirable; it is, in fact, a straw man.  Rather, I hope to suggest ways of limiting the extreme levels of inequality that have, increasingly, come to derail the American civic project in recent decades, as well as developing quality uses for hard-earned tax dollars so that large numbers of Americans are willing, once more, to fund the sorts of ambitious social investments that allowed for the creation of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.  Nor is my goal to undermine important moral and philosophical notions about the importance of personal responsibility; rather, it is to suggest ways of giving everybody an opportunity to maximize their own potential.

Lastly, my intent is certainly not to propose a set of policies that inexorably increase the national debt; nor is it to suggest that the country’s political leaders somehow spin money out of nothing.  The size of America’s economy, as of this writing, is in the region of $16 trillion per year.  That’s large, but it’s not limitless.  In an era of anxieties about ballooning budget deficits, I want to show how, in redistributing a few hundred billion dollars per year of that $16 trillion economy, through changes to the tax structure and changes in how we prioritize federal and state spending – or, to put it another way, in reprioritizing who receives and who spends about 2 to 3 percent of the vast national pot of wealth that is America, while leaving undisturbed the remaining 97 to 98 percent – we can create a set of vital anti-poverty initiatives that have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.  And I want to show how, if done smartly, these initiatives can serve as a down payment for a decades-long push that has the potential not just to ameliorate poverty once it arises but to make its presence a rarity rather than a commonplace in mid-twenty-first-century American life.

Pg. 199
Poverty is, after all, a web of problems enormous in their complexity.  It bubbles up because of systemic failures in how the economy and the political process functions and at the same time, it also emerges because of individual choices and behaviors.  Any simple solutions, any one-size-fits-all promises of reform, are doomed to failure, and anyone who claims to have found a magic bullet to once and for all banish poverty from America’s shores is either a scam artist or a Pollyanna.

Pg. 206
“In seeking to close the achievement gap for low-income and minority students,” wrote economist Richard Rothstein in his 2004 book Class and Schools, “policy makers focus inordinate attention on the improvement of instruction, because they apparently believe that social class differences are immutable, and that only schools can improve the destines of lower-class children. “  But, he continued, in all likelihood “establishing an optometric clinic in a school to improve the vision of low-income children would probably have a bigger impact on their test scores than spending the same money on instructional improvement.”

Raising the minimum wage so that the parents of these children were earning enough money to adequately feed, clothe, and house these same kids would work even bigger wonders.  In fact, argued Rothstein, increasing the minimum wage or boosting the EITC “should be considered educational policies as well as economic ones, for they would likely result in higher academic performance from children whose families are more secure.”

Rothstein calculated the cost of a series of big-picture reforms that would use schools as epicenters in a broader communal effort against poverty and its consequences.  How much wojuld it cost to create a set of conditions that would allow kids from impoverished backgrounds to approximate the experiences, both educational and life, of more affluent children?  His answer: $156 billion per year.

Now that’s a huge sum of money and one that clearly isn’t going to be freed up by federal and state governments anytime soon.  But, as Rothstein points out, it’s about equal to the amount of money redistributed back to the super-wealthy as a result of the tax cuts enacted during the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.  That’s not a nebulous comparison:  In a world of finite resources, tax cuts have consequences.  One of them is that less money is available for public goods that benefit everyone and that can be used as tools to tamp down broader inequities.  Yes, in the current political moment any politician who proposes raising taxes to fund a $156 billion per year increase in education spending would be printing themselves a one-way ticket to political oblivion.  But, in another moment, defined by a different set of priorities, a country as wealthy and dynamic as is America could, clearly, fund some extremely ambitious anti-poverty, and pro-education, measures.

Rothsein’s yardstick is, though not politically realistic, at the very least a wakeup call.  Even if massive infusions of funds are off the table, surely states oughtn’t to be slashing ever more money from already-stressed schools.  For when they do, when states such as California remove billions of dollars from being spent on K-12 classrooms, year upon year upon year, and reduce the length of the school year to further trim costs, inevitably the poor get hurt the most.   And as inevitable, when that happens, inequality increases, and the long-term life prospects for large groups of Americans deteriorates. 

Pg. 211
In 1974, the English political philosopher Steven Lukes published his book, “Power:  A Radical View.”  In it, he argues that there were three core ways in which power could be exercised, each more pervasive than the next.  The first was raw coercion; one person, group of people, or institution had power and through force compelled others to bow down before it.  The second was slightly more subtle, but even more effective: The groups with power managed to convince their underlings to legitimate that power, both by shaping people’s preferences and, as effectively, by determining what they didn’t want in their lives.  In such a society, those without power voluntarily acquiesced in their own situation.  The third, and most dominant of all, occurred when powerful individuals and institutions managed to so control the psychology of those without power that populations no longer even realized they were being manipulated.  They acquiesced in their own powerlessness and no longer could even envision alternatives. 

In such a scenario, power relationships were so utterly omnipresent that they had become invisible; they were simply the background to every experience, to every choice made in society. And, in a world so governed, the manipulation of the many for the benefit of the few became normal, the currency of political business.

That unfortunately, is indeed how too many transactions are conducted in American politics today.  That’s how people who live just inside the margins are convinced to blame those just outside the margins for their poverty; its’ how people whose wages have shrunk – whose benefits have been eviscerated, and whose access to government assistance has wanted are convinced to vote for anti-tax, anti-regulatory, anti-safety net politicians who will further batter their pocketbooks and throw them into insecurity.  It’s how people without pensions are convinced to blame public sector works who still have pensions for the country’s economic plight, rather than asking why more workers in the world’s wealthiest country don’t have secure retirements in the first place. 

Pg. 219
Currently, the federal government mandates that states provide certain benefits and services, but doesn’t mandate how the states fund these requirements.  As a result, in many more conservative states legislators simply adopted deeply regressive tax systems – such as imposing sales taxes on food to fund social services or, in the case of Alabama, calculating higher state tax liabilities for the poor if the poor have been given a federal subsidy such as the Earned Income Tax Credit – to cover their increased obligations.  These are pure examples of robbing Peter to feed Paul, and they are particularly ironic given how vocally anti-tax most of the political leaders in states such as Alabama are.  Any rational antipoverty strategy would immediately alter such tax codes so as to make them more representative to the needs of the poorest of taxpayers.  Failure to do so would only stoke the suspicion that when conservative southern politicians proclaim their hostility to taxes, what they really mean is a hostility to the sorts of taxes paid by the sorts of affluent voters who tend to make up their electoral base and a resistance to fund the sorts of programs generally used by people who aren’t part of that base. 

Pg. 224
But while Medicaid is a whole lot better than nothing, it has, historically, been severely restricted in a number of ways.  In fact, until all of the major Affordable Care Act provisions kick in, in 2014, most states won’t extend Medicaid to childless adults.  At the same time, a minority of states, mainly southern ones, will continue to place huge restrictions on adults of any status, even those with young children at home, gaining access.

The problem, however, goes beyond one of gate-keeping.  Even in states that have relatively liberal eligibility  requirements for their programs, there are strict asset tests in place that have the effect of forcing the temporarily out of work and/or cash poor to strip themselves of almost all their worldly possessions (homes, car, retirement accounts, savings) simply to gain healthcare – even if this ends up condemning them to long-term poverty by depriving them of the possessions and financial cushions that people need before they can even start working their way up the economic ladder again.
How, for example, can an unemployed person in an area without public transport get a job, and travel to that job, if he has had to sell his vehicle so as to get medical coverage?  Or how can a person afford to retire if she has had to liquidate her small nest egg for that healthcare access?  What should the middle-aged businessmen in California who had lost his business during the recession and who needed knee surgery before he could take on new work do when he was told that he couldn’t get medical assistance, and thus couldn’t get his surgery, until he had stripped himself down to a maximum of $2,000 of assets?  It is, truly, a Faustian bargain into which large numbers of Americans have been pushed.

In other words, while Medicaid does enroll more people during recessions, it does so in a way that, at times, might actually have the effect of tamping down economic recovery down the road by locking recipients into a deeper poverty than they were in when first they lost their income.  In deep recessions, in particular, modifying or eliminating, asset test for Medicaid would go a long way toward keeping people both healthy and out of long-term poverty.  Yet that hasn’t happened.  The political will simply isn’t there. 

Pg. 230
People who feel insecure themselves feel threatened by the idea that somebody who’s demonstrably worse off than they are is going to get help and they’re not.  They have an instinctive feeling these people are not deserving.  There’s been a divide and conquer thing coming from people and interest higher up the income level.  We’ve had an unremitting attack on welfare that started in the late ‘60s.  An unremitting drumbeat saying people who are in need are actually just not trying hard enough, they’re lazy, have become dependent on welfare and it’s ruined their character, and all the rest of it.
Pg. 233
Instead of the current punishment-based approach to welfare – find a job at all costs, or you’ll be cut off from welfare – Americans would benefit from, and the country’s best impulses would be showcased by, an incentive-based solution that rewards those who find work with extra help.  This help should range from an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit to ongoing childcare assistance, from transportation subsidies perhaps on up to top-up welfare checks from the state for a specific period of time while those who have spent months or years on public assistance navigate the tough early days in a new job.  Such a strategy would go further toward raising lower income families out of poverty – to eliminating the poverty trap traditionally associated with welfare – than a great bundle of sticks each used to whack poor Americans harder than the one before. 

Pg. 234
Ultimately, if we cannot work out a language with which to highlight poverty’s corrosive reach, and posit solutions to the problems facing those at the bottom of the economic ladder, our democratic institutions will themselves suffer.  In the long run, the cost of inaction will far surpass the price of intervention.  Far better to get it right now than to deal with decades of collateral damage from our inaction today. 

Pg. 240
[David Onek] urged what reformers were calling “justice reinvestments,” taking money saved by locking fewer people up, and investing it in programs that would lower crime rates through tracking poverty, addiction, mental illness, and other massive societal problems. 
Use the criminal justice system to deal merely with the criminal symptoms of a person’s underlying problems, and you solve nothing, Onek understood.  Instead, you just spent a ton of money locking people up – money that ends up being diverted from other parts of county and state budgets.  And you effectively brand a large pool of people with a modern-day scarlet letter, one they will carry with them when they leave jail or prison, and that will have the effect both of limiting the kinds of work they can do subsequently, and also reducing the amount of money they will earn over the rest of their lives.  In 2012, the Department of Justice reported that a spell behind bars can reduce a person’s future earning by 40 percent.
Imprisonment is, quite simply, all too often a response to poverty, and overwhelmingly it serves as a one-way ticket to lifelong penury.  It is, for this and many other reasons, a powerful weapon to use against someone, and as such it should be used sparingly.
Of course, when people are dangerous, when they are predatory, when their crimes seriously harm others, and when there is no way to keep society safe from their actions other than by locking them up, then incarceration is entirely appropriate.  But when, as is all too often the case in a country that has more than quintupled its incarcerated population since the early 1970s, and that now houses far more nonviolent inmates than any other country on earth, a jailor prison sentence serves mainly to allow society to blow off steam at misfits and miscreants, then, surely, it is better to look for alternatives.  After all, to reiterate a point previously state, in many parts of the country locking someone up costs more, per year, than sending a person to an Ivy League college. And, in the same way as the parents of a Harvard student expect band for their bucks, so, too, taxpayers have a right to expect criminal justice expenditures to make society safer and reduce the likelihood that people will return to crime once their sentences are completed.

Pg. 242
“We have an absolute fiscal crisis.  The number-one driver of that crisis is the cost of prisons.  Meanwhile, teachers are getting pink-slipped, police are being laid off, social services are being cut. Certainly there are people who need to be locked up for long periods of time.  Unfortunately, we have lots of people being locked up who don’t meet that description. “  Onek talked of a three-strikes inmate serving life for breaking into a soup kitchen, another serving life for stealing a pair of socks. And he spoke angrily of how it would cost California nearly $5 billion during the following twenty years to keep incarcerated its population of nonviolent three strikers. “obviously, life in prison, any reasonable person would say, is completely exorbitant punishment for the minor crimes they have committed.  It is foolish; it is literally bankrupting our state.  And we can’t afford it.”

Pg. 264
At the risk of flogging a dead horse, let me reiterate a key point here:  cutting education grants to poor people is utterly counterproductive.  It’s stupid, slash-and-burn, public policy.  It burdens families who stay they educational course with crippling levels of debt, and it discourages others from staying in school and going to college in the first place, thus tamping down their income potential for the remainder of their working lives.

Pg. 266
Again, let me stress a point I made earlier; our problem is not a lack of resources to tackle poverty; rather, it has been a lack of will to enact the legislature and taxation reforms that would free up the necessary dollars for such an effort.

Pg. 275
Stable economic environments tend not to produce gangs, street-level drug markets, hunger, homelessness, and all the other daily facts of life that poor kids have to navigate in their communities. Less hunger, violence, and drug dealing tends to mean less disruptive classrooms.  Less disruption inside the classroom means that teachers have more time to actually teach kids and engage with them educationally as opposed to trying to impose discipline on chaotic, and sometimes dangerous, situations. And more meaningful teacher-student interactions tend to lead to higher educational attainments.
In many ways, I believe, educational virtuous circles can be spurred at least in party by non-educational reforms. And many of those reforms are at the heart of the holistic anti-poverty strategy that I have detailed in the pages of this book.  Absent those changes, absent the pathways to broader prosperity made possible by investments in job creation, by affordable healthcare, by large-scale changes in housing markets, and so on, the path to a renascent K-12, even with significant infusions of extra cash, is much rockier.

Pg. 276
Navigate a virtuous circle counter-clockwise, and one dysfunction butts up against another.  If you’re born into wealthy, you will have available to you the most cutting-edge educational facilities.  But if you’re born into poverty – and, increasingly these days, into middle-income families – your options, unless you are one of the lucky few to live near a thriving charter school or a good local public school, are far more limited.  Your family will be unable to afford quality preschool – which makes it far less likely that you’ll succeed academically once you do enter school.  You will suffer the consequences of buzz saws having been taken to programs like Head Start that subsidize early learning opportunities for lower income kids.  You will all too likely attend overcrowded schools reeling from teacher and staff layoffs as a result of endless local and state budget fiascos, in which you use out-of-date textbooks, no longer have access to non-core requirement courses, and rarely are exposes to music, art, and other vital, culturally enriching, aspects of life.  Your school year will likely be shorter than that students experience in most every other wealthy democracy.  And, if and when you manage to get into college despite these obstacles, you will end up heavily indebted and working an array of jobs in a vain attempt to keep up with soaring tuition costs and make up the shortfalls from inadequate Pell Grants.
At every stage of the educational journ, in short, we make it harder on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  It’s as if we set up a one-hundred meter race, some of the participants in wich get to sprint down open lanes, while others have to jump a series of hurdles. No guesses for which group of racers will tend to finish ahead of the pack.

Pg. 278
But [educational reform] must occur in a way that recognizes that schools, and school problems, are anchored in the broader community.  While taking dollars away from schools is a surefire way to reduce the quality of the learning experience, raising the money spent on schools, while leaving the broader social conditions unchanged, can’t in and of itself guarantee improvement. 

Pg. 280
So long as the broader conditions limit children’s learning potential – so long as kids are homeless, coming to school hungry, living in communities broken down by drugs and gangs, attending schools so short of funds that class sizes are soaring and textbooks become a luxury rather than a necessity – good teachers along will not be sufficient.
“No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers,” wrote New York University research professor of education Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books .  “Nor does research support either strategy. But these inconvenient facts do not reduce the reformers’ zeal.  The new breed of school reformers consist mainly of Wall Street hedge fund managers, foundation officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and policy makers, but few experienced educators. 

Ravitch, a onetime assistant secretary of state for education under president George H. W. Bush and author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, felt that wealthy reformers were setting up charter schools that, because they could cherry-pick their students, weeded out those who did badly on tests.  They provided the illusion of better education while, in reality, oftentimes they were simply being more selective in which students they accepted than could the regular public schools with which they were in competition.  “Charters would be fine if they focuses on the kids who were the lowest-performing kids. And then [they could] come to the public schools and say, ‘Hey, we’ve learned something new, we want to share this with you because we’re part of the same system we want to help,” she told the American Prospect’s Abby Rapoport in the fall of 2012, “Instead, charters have become a competitor to see who can get the highest test scores.”

Pg. 283
Think about these problems in isolate and they appear overwhelming.  Think of them as pieces of a whole, and paradoxically, they problems become more solvable. Fixing America’s educational system cannot be done simply by focusing on schools; but understand the specific challenges faced by low-income kids who go to school hungry, who lack basic medical attention, who might have never been tested for eye problems, whose parents have lost jobs or landed themselves in prison, and more realistic solutions present themselves.  Understand homelessness as simply a personal catastrophe and it is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom why so many millions of Americans lack stable housing options, but approach this crisis as the collateral damage caused by unemployment, by the systemic marketing of bad debt, by underinvestment in mental health and foster care systems, by overinvestment in criminal justice systems, and, again, new and creative solutions can be generated.
As a country, we have the political tools to break both old cycles of poverty and also the new ones produced in the wake of financial collapse.  Add in a credible does of empathy, of moral imagination and indignation, and there’s no reason that we couldn’t, to deliberately misquote Grover Norquist, shrink the problems of entrenched poverty down to a size at which it could be drowned in a bathtub.
That someone is born poor in a country as wealthy and dynamic as is the United States ought in no measure to determine that they will die por.  And yet, for millions of Americans today, their birth is indeed their destiny.  Ensuring that the democratic aspirations of mobility and opportunity for all becomes a reality once more should, I believe be one of twenty-first century America’s top political and moral priorities.

Pg. 287
The disparity of wealth, the disparity of income, the shrinking of wages.  We find our country moving into the most stratified class distinctions that we have ever seen.  And with it comes an increase in poverty.  It’s a very dangerous social crisis that faces this country.  Every time we cut a vital support program the poverty rate goes up and the misery quotient goes up.  For us to tolerate a poverty rate and a permanent underclass of poor people in this country goes against everything that we believe we are as a nation in terms of our values.

Pg. 317
The central idea is simple: As a community, we strengthen ourselves when we find ways to protect our most vulnerable.  When we work out mechanisms to boost the wages of earners trapped at the bottom of the economy.  When we think up creative solutions to keep poor people housed and with access to healthcare.  We bolster the country when we invest in educational infrastructure in a way that makes it possible for poorer children to have as much opportunity in life as their more affluent peers, and when we make sure that pension systems are strong enough to keep the elderly out of poverty.  We enrich ourselves as a society when we reinvigorate our sense of the common good.

Pg. 325
How do we pay for such an ambitious set of projects?
Partly through targeted, sensible, fair tax increases: raising the capital gains tax, increasing the income tax on the wealthiest Americans, eliminating the upper limit for Social Security contributions, reintroducing an oil windfall profit tax, creating a viable financial transactions tax, and imposing estate taxes on large inheritances that are more in line with the taxes levied by countries such as England and Germany.  We un-starve the beast that Grover Norquist’s acolytes have spent three decades gratuitously depriving of nutrients. The creature that is social assistance for the poor, the young, and the elderly is, after all, a far less harmful beast than that of the new plutocracy – which has spent the past several decades fattening itself at the public’s expense; insulating its moneys from taxation; and ensuring the uninterrupted transfer of wealth, privilege and power down the generations.
Partly, we fund such programs through paring other areas of the budget – for example, limiting defense spending increases and restricting the percentage of healthcare dollars that can be used to feather the nests of insurance company executives.  And by asking consumers to pay marginallymore – for goods bought at big box stores and fast food restaurants, for example – so as to provide mechanism to boost the wages of the working poor. 
And partly, through designing them well, we make sure that these programs help fund themselves: Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, for examply, by providing low-income families more money to spend on nutritional food and on preventive healthcare, reduces the medical costs associated with large numbers of low-weight and premature babies. Creating a guaranteed minimum income, using taxes imposed on the extraction of state’s natural resources to distribute annual checks to residents of specific states, or seeding businesses in poor communities through an expansion of micro-credit – all would help circulate money through depressed neighborhoods.  Boosting employment through public works would lead to a virtuous circle of economic growth.

How do we generate the political will for such an overarching and holistic project? We educate.  We empower people.  WE convince enough Americans that no matter how much money from big-dollar donors flood the political system, a democracy as vibrant as America’s can, and should, respond to the fundamental needs of its populace.

As did Peicles two and a half millennia ago, when he warned that raging economic divides threatened the Athenian citizen democracy, and as did Polanyi sixty years ago, we detail the dangers to freedom than necessarily accompany a stampede toward ever greater levels of inequality. And we highlight a set of values and a slate of policies that can block that journey into plutocracy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Back in Kansas City

Months.  I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for months.  We’ve been back in Kansas City since mid-December, living one block north of Independence Avenue and just around the corner from Grace Church of the Nazarene.  I’ve written this blog post many times in my head and even twice on paper but it’s past time to actually post this update.  I’ll give an update on a few different areas to show what life has been like since moving back to Kansas City, USA.

Our Neighborhood
We’re now living in a hundred plus year old house in the “Historic Northeast,” as residents proudly refer to our neighborhood.  It’s a fascinatingly diverse neighborhood.  The houses range from castle-like mansions to boarded up drug houses.  When people immigrate to Kansas City, they usually end up in the Northeast.  For this reason, there are approximately 55 different nationalities represented in our neighborhood.  The different cultures are prominently on display all over the Northeast.  When I subbed at East High School, I heard five different languages being spoken in the hallway before hearing English.  While the Northeast isn’t the roughest part of the city, it still has high crime and poverty rates.  The sirens never stop.  We hear drive-by shootings quite frequently.  While subbing at Northeast Middle School, the kids fearfully told me about white vans that will abduct unsuspecting kids.  Anything left on our front porch is likely to be stolen and many corners are occupied by ladies selling their bodies.  While I’m not scared, I’m often uneasy.  I’m always however, entertained by the colorful characters on Independence Avenue.  While it might seem strange, I’m actually experiencing more culture shock living in Northeast KC than I did living in Palaiseau, France. Our old home in Gardner is about 40 minutes away by car but might as well be across the globe. 

Our Church
We are a part of Grace Church of the Nazarene.  The 90 year old Nazarene congregation is comprised of just a handful of people.  The building however, is used by five other congregations from various places from across the globe.  I enjoy surprising members of the Congolese Congregation by speaking to them in French. 

We haven’t really established a role within the congregation yet, other than being present on Sunday mornings.  I’m not sure what our role will eventually be, but for the time being, we’re trying to support the pastoral family, Joey and Tammy Condon.  Dawson has also become good friends with the Condon’s youngest son. 

We are also a part of a mentoring community from Lees Summit New Beginnings.  It’s a support and training group for people trying to live missionally in their communities.  We have the intention of doing that within our neighborhood, but we haven’t really started it yet. 

Real Estate
After several years of considering it, as a result of hearing of other pastors doing the same thing, I’ve now earned my Real Estate license and have started working out of the Reece Nichols office on the Plaza.  I’m still in the very early stages, but I have signed my first client and held my first couple of Open Houses.  I’m giving Real Estate a shot because the flexibility will allow me to earn some money while doing the ministry things I really enjoy (but don’t get paid for). 

When I left Melcher Elementary in the fall of 2011, I had no idea I’d eventually be back in the school.  It was just one day, but when the opportunity to sub in that school arose, I took the one day job.  The day was a disaster, just like all my other days at Melcher, but it was a bit freeing to be able to go back to the place where I’d experienced my one (and hopefully only) nervous breakdown.  I also had the privilege of catching up with some of the wonderful people who work there.

My first actual day of subbing however, was at Satchel Paige Elementary (or Satchel Rage, as another teacher calls it) a school as out-of-control and impoverished as George Melcher.  In fact, I walked into the front office and saw the nameplate of the same lady who had been my principal at Melcher.  I was horrified at the coincidence of running into her on my first day back.  I fully expected her to give me a cold reception, but I actually received the opposite.  I will say though, that it’s very disappointing that they keep shuffling around such an incompetent principal.  It seems like the poor kids in these inner-city schools aren’t worthy of having someone who knows what they’re doing running their schools.  The principal has recently been fired, though, in the middle of the school year.

In fact, Erin is now doing a long-term sub at that school.  She is a second teacher in a room of 30 unruly and disrespectful third graders.  In another interesting coincidence, the teacher she’s working for is actually a Teach For America Corps Member finishing up her first year.  Erin says she does a great job controlling the class, which allows Erin the opportunity to model skills in giving lessons.  The current principal has come out of retirement to lead the school and appears to be doing a great job.  A good principal really can turn around a chaotic school, as evidenced by another rough school in the district, King-Weeks Elementary.

As I’ve subbed around the KC area (several different districts) I’ve been able to observe first-hand all the different schools in the area; high schools, alternative schools, middle schools and elementary schools.  Center School District is, by far, the best public school district in the city.  It’s so great to see poor African-American kids being able to benefit from a good school district.  It sure would be nice if the other districts could follow Central’s example. 

I’ve also had the chance to catch up with former Melcher teachers who are at different schools in the district.  It’s helped me heal some of those old wounds.  Yes, that experience still kind of stings.  What also still strikes a discordant note every time I experience it is seeing the line of kids entering their schools through  a metal detector.   I understand the need, but if you stop and think about how much schools and prisons resemble each other, it’s quite disturbing.  I’ve also been able to catch up with Melcher kids who are now 8th graders scattered across the district.  I’ll eventually write a full post on what that’s been like. 

Our Future
I’m not sure how everything will develop with this new experience of living in inner-city Kansas City.  We’ve both had some good opportunities come our way and it’s just a matter of sifting through them.  We haven’t started doing much ministry or community involvement yet, but things are starting to open up.  We’re just finishing the process of getting our feet underneath us, as we’ve just landed back in the US, but we’re also beginning to look toward the future.  It should be an interesting journey.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Colossians Remixed

The book is now 10 years old, but I finally got around to the theological and ethical masterpiece that has been recommended to me by many different people, "Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire."  The book is a work of historical fiction, the story of a wealthy Roman citizen who is considering giving her life to Christ, which causes her to grapple with the differences between the Caesar's Kingdom (the Roman Empire, which has secured a good life for her) and the Kingdom of Jesus.  While comparing the differences of the two kingdoms, the book works through Paul's letter to the church at Colossi.

Here are some of the notes I took from the book.  Enjoy.

Pg. 31, Empires are built on systemic centralizations of power and secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control.  They are religiously legitimated by powerful myths that are rooted in foundational assumptions, and they are sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captivate the imagination of the population.
Pg. 33, Another way to look at this is to say that in a world of imperial control, in a world that is suffused with the rhetoric, symbolism and images of empire, we need to have appeal to a power, a sovereignty greater than the empire, if we are to have any hope. 
Richard Berger anticipated the commodification of belief in a radically pluralistic society in The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.  He argued that once culture recognizes the constructed character of reality, religious traditions can no longer be imposed (so say nothing of “assumed”); they must be marketed.  Religion “must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy.’  The pluralist situation is, above all, a market situation.  In it, the religious institutions become marketing agencies and the religious traditions become consumer commodities.” 
So captivated by the consumerist imagination of the empire, and so immersed in the empire’s self-justifying mythology and rhetoric, we find ourselves unable to fathom the depths of the crisis in which we now live.
Pg. 51, an imaginary conversation between a Christian and a wealthy Roman citizen considering following Christ
“Why, if someone unsympathetic heard you they might think you were suggesting that Caesar isn’t our lord and savior.  They might think you didn’t appreciate the peace and prosperity that Rome brought.  Don’t you see the kind of trouble you could get into with this way of thinking?”
“But that’s the point,” she said, “I don’t believe that Caesar is our savior.  I don’t believe that he has brought peace and prosperity.  And I don’t believe that Caesar is our savior.  I don’t believe that he has brought peace and prosperity.  And I don’t worship him or any of the other gods, any more.”
“And has Caesar given them peace?  No. Only death and destruction, demolishing their cities, enslaving the inhabitants, demanding taxes that drive the small landowners to slavery and revolt…. This is peace by the blood of the sword… This peace is good for you.  And it has been good for me, too.  But it isn’t good for everyone.  This peace divides – it makes the peasants hopeless and the wealthy even wealthier. 
But the peace of Jesus is different.  The peace of Jesus isn’t imposed by violence.”
“You see, what Lydia was telling me was nothing less than treasonous, a threat to the empire.
I was disturbed.  Lydia had offered a challenge to my faith in the empire.  I knew that her story and mine couldn’t both be true.  Either Caesar had brought forgiveness of our sings, fruitfulness and peace through the great victories he had wrought, or Jesus had brought forgiveness of our sins, fruitfulness and peace through his paradoxical victory on a Roman cross.  But this seemed impossible, unimaginable!
It was also clear that Lydia’s story of Jesus could not be happily accommodated by the imperial regime.  Devotion to Jesus was not like the devotion to Isis or Apollo.  These gods and their cults were no threat to the empire.  Actually, such private devotion, it was believed, made one a better citizen and enhanced one’s public duty to the empire.  Jesus, however, created a problem.  His lordship clearly precluded Caesar’s, and the guarded privacy of my conversation with Lydia notwithstanding, it was clear that following Jesus could not be a private matter but would have to be a public faith, transforming public life.”
Pg. 58, In chapter one we stated that empires are 1) built on systemic centralization of power, 2) secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control, 3) religiously legitimized by powerful myths and 4) sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captive the imagination of the population.
Thus, it is no surprise that for every dollar that is sent in foreign aid to Africa, four are returned in the form of debt-servicing.
Pg. 67, When Israel enters the Promised Land, it faces its greatest challenge not to become like the empire it left behind.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that such an empire is very seductive.
It is the prophets who most tellingly deconstruct the imperial distortions of Israel.  The covenant people do not care for aliens, widows and orphans, or the weak and injured (Is. 1:23; 10:2; Jer. 5:27-29; 7:5-7; 22:3-6; Ezek 22:7, 34:1-6, Zech 7:8-14; Mal 3:5).  Failing to practice mercy and justice (Is 5:7; Jer 22:13-17; Hos 12:7-8; Amos 5:7; 6:12; Mic 6:1-12), Israel grinds down the poor and needy (Is 3:14-15; 10:2; 32:7; 58:3, Jer 2:34; Ezek 22:29; Amos 2:6-7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4-8; cf. Job 24:9-14; Ps 37:14; 109:16).  The people have been engaged in the consumptive practices of empire, filling their land with silver and gold, horses and chariots buying up neighbors’ fields until nothing is left but industrial farms-as-business that kills community (Is 2:7; 5:8).  Moreover, they consistently engage in business deals that exploit the poor (Amos 8:5-6).
Pg. 68, This is a call to be God’s people by bringing shalom and healing on places of brokenness and despair.  And what could be more broken and more in need of healing than the place of oppression, the heart of the empire?
Under the oppressive rule of Babylon and Assyria, the Israelites are still called to build a faithful community and to live subject to a different kind of rule and kingship, one where imperial might and power is used for feeding the hunger of the people and binding up their wounds.
Pg. 70, As Luke tells the story, almost everything Jesus did or said was an implicit challenge to the empire and its way of working in the world…. This is a kingdom where the ruler is enthroned on a cross – the Roman Empire’s instrument of torture – and in such an enthronement winds freedom and life for its people.
Pg. 74, As the parallel passage in Matthew shows, reconciliation is the fruit of this kingdom (Mt. 5:25-26).  This is an ethic in which the generosity of God overcomes the violence and economic exploitation of the empire.  And once they are so overcome and undermined, the empire begins to crumble. 
Pg. 75, Paul tells the Colossians that the gospel of Jesus bears a fruit in their lives that is fundamentally different from the fruit of the empire.  The fruit of this gospel is rooted not in military might and economic oppression but in the practice of justice and sacrificial faithfulness.  This is a gospel that bears fruit “in every good work” of forgiving generosity and therefore undermines the hoarding abundance touted by the empire.
Pg. 90, [On Colossians 1:15-20] So what does Paul do with these cultural myths?  He turns them on their head and replaces Zeus, Caesar, Rome and any other pretender to sovereignty with Christ.  Then he takes it a step further and replaces the body – whether it be the cosmos or the empire – with the church.
And the main use of “powers” is not in reference to spiritual beings but to what Walter Wink calls the “legimitations, sanctions, and permissions that undergird the everyday exercise of power.”
So it isn’t a stretch to say that in the Roman empire, “thrones, dominions, rulers and powers” referred to Rome – to its “ruler” Caesar, on the “throne” established by the gods, to his “dominion” over all the known world, established and maintained by the “power” and might of the empire… It would be impossible for his listeners to hear this list – thrones, dominions, rulers, powers and not have thought of imperial thrones, imperial rule, the emperor and his court, and imperial sanctions and legitimations.
That spiritual dimension has to do with whether these structures of our life are directed by an idolatrous spirit of empire or the Spirit of God in Christ, who created all of these structures of life and before whom they are subject.
You see, when the Christian community abandons discussion of oppressive social structures, there are consequences.  In the first instance, if the Christian voice is absent, then the discussion necessarily goes on without a Christian perspective.  It is not surprising that other worldviews and categories of analysis fill in the void.  And if Christians don’t like those worldviews – whether they be Marxist, anarchist, “green” or whatever – then they really have no right to complain.  After all, these same upset Christians have left the world of oppressive social structures for someone else to worry about.
A lack of attention to the temporal structures of oppression is devastating for the community that follows Jesus.  Berry describes a dualistic church in an imperial context:
“The church has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty, divided and plundered its human communities and households.  It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire.  It has assumed with the economists that ‘economic forces’ automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that ‘progress’ is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times.  It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults.  But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directed with the murder of Creation.”
For Paul, rather than “flying the flag of empire,” the church is a community in refusal of the empire which bears the image of another Lord in its daily life.
A split-vision worldview that divides faith from life, church from culture, theology from economics, prayer from politics and worship from everyday work will always render Christian faith irrelevant to broad sociocultural forces.  And that is exactly what the empire wants – a robust, piously engaging private faith that will never transgress the public square.  Allow religion to shape private imagination, but leave the rest of life, the public and dominant imagination, to the empire.  Only as we break through this dualism can the poem (Colossians 1:15-20) be given be given enough space in our lives to liberate our imagination. 
Pg. 96, It is quite another thing to hold a faith that is seditions to the empire.  How do you go about confessing Christ as Lord when everything all around you – all the power structures, the images that dominate your daily life and even the very temporal rhythms of that life – declare the sovereignty, lordship, honor and glory of the empire and its emperor?
This was as vexing a problem for first-century Christians as it is for twenty-first century Christians.
Pg. 110, Again, the foundation of this kingdom is not in the self-righteous exclusion but in the inclusion of forgiveness… But if the rulers and authorities, regimes and empires that so oppress us are to be defeated, they must be defeated not by further violence but by sacrificial love.
“The cross was not the defeat of Christ at the hands of the powers; it was the defeat of the powers at the hands – yes, the bleeding hands – of Christ.” – NT Wright
Turning the empire on its head, the cross becomes the site of the victory march of the victim.
Pg. 114, Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.

Pg. 115, Empire loves to have a monopoly on truth.
Pg. 130, Remember, from a biblical perspective truth is not a correspondence between ideas and facts.  Truth is embodied in a person.
Pg. 138, And Jesus takes precisely the principalities and powers that placed him on the cross – the idols of militarism, nationalism, racism, technicism, economism – and on that very cross disarms, dethrones, conquers and makes public example of them.  In this power struggle, sacrificial love is victorious precisely by being poured out on a cross, a symbol of imperial violence and control.
Pg. 150, Everyone, we contend, lives out of a metanarrative, everyone meets their life in a grounding worldview that directs their praxis and serves to legitimate that praxis… Pg. 156 We don’t allow the empire to captivate our imagination and set the final term of our praxis in the world, because we can see a kingdom that is an alternative to the empire.
Pg. 155 (Col 3:17) Seeking that which is above is a matter not of becoming heavenly minded but of allowing the liberating rule of Christ to transform every dimension of your life.
Pg. 166 In his 1994 annual report, the president of Campbell’s Soup Company wrote “As I look forward to the future, I shiver with business excitement.  That’s because Campbell’s Soup Company is engaged in a global consumer crusade.  This is a crusade to capture both consumer taste and culinary practice.  There is nothing that Campbell’s would like better than to have more markets of people who will forget how to make soup for themselves and will become dependent on a can.  Or consider this moment of enlightened business ethics from David Glass, CEO and president of Wal-Mart, “Our priorities are that we want to dominate North America first, then South America, and then Asia and then Europe.”  Business development is couched in the language of domination.  This, we contend, is the abusive language of our time.  When “free trade” means corporate sovereignity, “fiscal responsibility” means that the poorest in our society have to put up with even less, “quality of life” means quantity of consumption and the “liberation” of Iraq means the expansion of the Pax Americana, then our language has been debased and deformed into a discourse of deceit that justifies violence…. Pg. 167, Rather, the real abusive language is in the often sanitized ways of talking and thinking that serve to make this culture of death appear normal and acceptable.  Indeed, when the church’s language, in all of its piety, serves to give an air of normality to an idolatrously constructed culture, thereby functioning as a polite cover-up for a comfortable life in the empire, then that language is also abusive. 
Pg. 168, The ethical crisis of Christianity at the turn of the millennium is that Christians, by and large accept the empire as normal.  Here is Wendall Berry’s prophetic appraisal of the church:
“Despite protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and economic status quo.  Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly villainy.  It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households.  It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire.  It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history.  It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress is good… It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and faults.  But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation.”
Pg. 170, As long as we lack the courage to take a stand and remain unrooted in a narrative that would be subversive to the principalities and powers, the empire can remain secure. Kall Lasn puts it this way: “American culture is no longer created by the people… a free, authentic life is no longer possible in America ™ today.  We are being manipulated in the most insidious way.  Our emotions, personalities and core values are under siege from media and cultural forces too complex to decode.  A continuous product message has woven itself into the very fabric of our existence.  Most North Americans now live designer lives – sleep, eat, sit in a car, work, shop, watch TV, sleep again.  I doubt there’s more than a handful of free, spontaneous minutes anywhere in that cycle.  We ourselves have been branded.”
Lasn likens life in what he calls America ™ to a life in a cult in which “we have been recruited into roles and behavior patterns that we did not consciously choose… When a whole population dreams the same dream, empire is triumphant… In the face of the ensnaring sovereignty of the empire, we must submit to a subversively liberating sovereignty.  Our lives must be animated by an alternative narrative, sovereignty and hope.
Pg. 172, Paul’s response is to offer his readers a kingdom in contrast with an empire.  If the problem with empire was idolatry (3:5), then the alternative of the kingdom is the renewal in the image of God (3:10)… In Christ we are restored to our full humanity as God’s stewards of creation and shapers of culture. 
Pg. 174, Paul calls for the community members to “clothe themselves” with certain virtues.  They are called, if you will, to drape themselves, surround themselves, present themselves with and embody the character traits of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.  They are called to be a people rooted in and dedicated to peace, living lives characterized by gratitude, wisdom and worship… In Paul’s vision this community not only abandons the discourse of violence and exclusion that characterizes the empire; it manifests an ethos that embraces the pain of the world, a ‘compassion’, a shared passion, that pays attention to the deepest brokenness of its human and nonhuman neighbors.  This is an ethic of compassion, because the God of Israel revealed in Jesus is a God of compassion who hears his people’s cry and knows their suffering (Ex. 3:7).  Jesus calls his followers to be compassionate just as their Father is compassionate (see Lk 6:36).
Pg. 175, Now Paul says that in this community the ‘peace’ of Christ rules.  In radical contrast to the violent, imperial rule of the Pax Romana, or the economically motivated violence of the Pax Americana (in which people will be ‘liberated’ by military force if the economic well-being of America is threatened), Paul subverts what the empire calls peace by appealing to a peace achieved through a victim of the empire: allow that all-pervasive, cross-shaped peace to rule your life as a communal body.
Pg. 176, We have argued throughout this book that the primary way any imperial culture claims our lives is through the captivity of our imaginations.  Take an average of twenty-six hours of television a week, thousands of brand-name logos a day, an educational system structured to produce law-abiding consumers who always crave more, and dress it all up with a mythology of divine right to world rule, and it is not surprising that the dominant worldview is so deeply internalized in the population – including the church – that it is simply taken to be the only viable, normal and commonsensical way of life.  In the face of such a deeply ingrained worldview, Paul says, “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16).
Pg. 179, Love cannot remain an abstract idea; it must take on flesh in the embodied life of the Christian community in particular places and at particular times.
Pg. 180, What would a political vision shaped by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love and peace look like?  How could we envision a politics of ‘compassion’ that insists on standing with the most vulnerable members of our society?  Would this be a politics of greed that is preoccupied with tax cuts for the richest members of our society and international trade policies that aim for economic growth for its own sake?  Or is the community renewed in the image of God committed to a politics for the “least of these” (Mt 25:40) – for aboriginal peoples, drug addicts, gays, the homeless and the poorest of the poor?
Further, this is a servant politics that is characterized by humility because it seeks to serve the humble, not the haughty.  Rather than enacting policy that makes our nation “great or our town a “world-class city,” this politics serves “the least of these.”  Perhaps this will mean shifting the agenda away from amassing economic power to addressing the scandal of child poverty, or away from focusing on national security to forming refugee and immigration policies suffused with hospitality.
Pg. 181, In a politics that is addicted to the quick fix, it would seem that patience is not a political virtue.  But it is a Christian one.  Christians can be patient about righting the world’s wrongs (though still passionate about justice!) because we know that the establishment of the just society – what the book of Revelation calls the New Jerusalem – and the healing of the earth are not finally in our hands but God’s.  We long to see Christ revealed, and we live our political lives anticipating his kingdom, but we can do so with patience.  Ours is a political vision for the long haul, not preoccupied with power or the quick fix.
Pg. 182, What all of this is about is love.  A politics rooted in love is not the sentimentality of warm feelings in the political arena.  Rather, love takes on political shape in justice.  Justice as the political face of love is never impartial but is always biased.  In the kind of biblical faith that occasions Paul’s understanding of love, justice is always suspicious of the powerful and biased toward the powerless. Justice is first and foremost directed toward the orphan, widow and stranger precisely because these people lack the economic and political power to defend themselves.  Love shapes the very content of Justice.  God’s love takes sides with the most vulnerable, the most oppressed.  Therefore a Christian political praxis of love seeks justice for those who are the most marginalized, the most oppressed and downtrodden.  While an idolatrous culture of greed is always willing to allow the powerless to be oppressed by the powerful and will always tolerate homelessness, disease and violence amongst the disfranchised, and an ever-growing income gap between the rich and the poor, a Christian community of love will strive to bring justice to those at the bottom of society.  Love, Paul says, “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14).  Love unifies and love heals.  In a society that has gaping wounds in its social fabric, the Christian community, through its example and its societal and political witness, is called to be an agent of reconciliation and justice.
Pg. 182, A war-mongering empire should find no support from a community that worships the Prince of Peace.  Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that “a nation at war has no time for the poor, no space to worry about the extraordinary inequities that constitute this society or about those parts of the world ravaged by hunger and genocide.  Everything – civil liberties, due process, the protection of the law – must be subordinated to the one great moral enterprise of winning the unending war against terrorism.  Not if the peace of Christ rules in your hearts!  Then everything – whatever we do in word or deed – is directed to a politics of peacemaking.  ‘Everything!’  Whether it be protesting the war, refusing to serve, withholding taxes, going to the enemy country to stand as a witness for peace, engaging in civil disobedience, supporting the victims or boycotting the corporate players in the military industrial complex, everything a Christian community does in a time of imperial war should be directed to peace.
Pg. 183, What was the Roman empire up to when it provided legitimation of its regime by means of the imperial cult?  And what other role do civic events such as Independence Day, the State of the Union Address and Remembrance Day, together with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America” (these are ‘hymns,’ remember!) have but to provide a moment of ritual that gives religious legitimation to the American empire?  But these are not the worship events of the Christian community!  In our worship we tell and retell another story than that of the republic, hear another word proclaimed, eat an alternative meal of remembrance, pledge allegiance to another sovereign, and sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs that set our imaginations free for another way of life, another politics… In a context in which patriotism has become an idolatry of nation, yes, we are saying that Christians are not called to patriotism.  The Bible never calls us to be patriotic to the empire.
Pg. 185, (in reference to Romans 13) Public officials who misuse their authority must face up to that misuse in public.  Paul honors those magistrates precisely by calling them to task.  And because he believes that their authority is not ultimately rooted in the authority of the emperor but instituted by God, Paul demands that they exercise their authority in a way that demonstrates that they really are servants of God.
Now we suggest that this sheds some light on the matter of subjection to political and legal authorities.  Rather than read this text as providing carte blanche legitimation for any regime, regardless of how idolatrous and oppressive it might be, we suggest that Paul is actually limiting the authority of the state.  The state is a servant of God for our good.  It has no legitimacy or authority in and of itself, apart from subjection to the rule of God.  And when the state clearly abrogates its responsibility to do good, when it acts against the will of God, then the Christian community has a responsibility to call it back to its rightful duty and even to engage in civil disobedience (see Acts 12:6-23).  The state has no authority to do evil….
Pg. 185, In the first place, we need to take seriously the context in which Romans 13:1-7 occurs.  This teaching can’t be isolated from what Paul is saying in the surrounding passage.  It is preceded by a radical call against conformity to this age (12:1-2), within a context of persecution at the hands of the empire in 12:9-21.  It is followed by a call to “owe no one anything, except to love one another (13:8).  In the midst of this clear context of nonconformity, persecution and call to love not only the community but also one’s enemies, Paul’s comments about the state have ambiguous overtones.  It was, after all, the state that had persecuted the Roman believers and caused their suffering.
In the second place, the violent nature of the state is underlined by references to “fear” and to the state’s bearing of the sword.  Paul emphasizes that the state should be obeyed because of the fear of wrath (13:5), a fear that is underlined in 13:7: “Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due” (our translation).  Note that we have translated the greek word “phobos” as ‘fear’ to show that this is the same word that is used in verses 3-4.  The use of the language of fear in relation to the state, along with the mention of the sword, heightens the ambiguity of the passage.  On the one hand Paul is echoing Jewish sources such as Philo who use the language of fear in describing both the brutality of rulers and the need to be obedient out of expediency; on the other, he is using language that is “quite out of place with the contemporary propaganda of the empire” that touted Nero as a ruler who engaged in no bloodshed and no wielding of the sword.
As Neil Elliot puts it; “’Honor’ may be due the authorities  - at least some of them  - but so, given the reality of the Roman sword, is fear… Given the reality of Roman rule, one may ‘do good’ and hope for the best (13:2); but under the circumstances, open resistance cannot be contemplated, so long as the authorities wield the sword (13:4).” What sounds to our ears like a completely straightforward call to obey governing authorities, especially when read out of the context in which this instruction was given, has overtones of persecution, fear and bloodshed for the community reading this letter.  Romans 13:1-7 is not a call to blind obedience to the state but to prudent action; its very vocabulary hints that this particular authority is not living up to its God-given calling.  In a nutshell, Paul is saying, “Be careful.”

Pg. 186, When the state functions as an empire, when it bears an uncanny resemblance to Babylon, then “seeking the welfare” of the state requires shaping an alternative community that practices an alternative politics (Jer 29:7).  Our discussion of Colossians 3 was an attempt to broadly sketch out what that kind of politics might look like in our present context.  If the empire is war-mongering, then the Christian community is called to be a witness for peace. If there is racial oppression in the empire, then a community that believes there is neither Jew nor Arab, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, because Christ is all and in all, will lay down its life for the sake of racial justice.  If women and racial minorities receive unfair treatment in the marketplace and the public square, then the church calls for, and demonstrates, equal opportunity.  If homelessness and hunger are on the rise in our society, then a community suffused with kindness builds housing, feeds the hungry and then gets busy addressing the root causes of that homelessness and hunger.  If the empire enacts social policy that leaves the poor destitute, establishes trade policy that legitimates unfair trade practices, and passes environmental law that allows global warming to go unchecked, species to go extinct at alarming rates, and our waterways to become chemical sewage dumps, then a Christian politics of compassion, kindness and meekness both lobbies for alternative policies and attempts to live in a way that is consistent with these foundational Christian virtues.
Pg. 188, So we need to think long and hard about our investments.  Perhaps a credit union or a local bank with social conscience will provide a viable alternative to large charter banks... we tend to think the ration should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor… Maybe we need to reconsider the local supermarket as the source of our food…. Our point is that food is deeply political, and we need to pay attention to where our food comes from and what is in it… There are also community-supported agriculture programs, in which urban folk make a contract to buy the produce of a particular farmer, who then delivers the produce throughout the season as crops come ripe.
Pg. 196, Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.
Pg. 199, We can probably tell as much about the real spirituality and the real spirituality and the real worldview of a people by looking at the cars they drive, the food they consume, the gadgets that fill their homes and the garbage they throw out as we can by listening to the songs they sing and the prayers they pray… An otherworldy spirituality that is preoccupied with “me and Jesus,” and escaping from this world into heavenly bliss, will never engender the kind of ecological ethos we are here suggesting.  Moreover, an individualistic spirituality will inevitably legimate an ecologically disastrous lifestyle.
Paul would not recognize such worship as having anything do with the gospel that he proclaimed.  Indeed, in light of our discussions of Paul’s rhetorical attack on the “ensnaring philosophy” of Colossians 2, we could easily imagine him addressing contemporary evangelical spirituality in the same tone.  If your worship serves to give you an ecstatic experience of personal relationship with Jesus without challenging you to see more deeply the way Jesus comes to reconcile all things in creation – including your ecological practices – then Paul would have a hard time recognizing it as a response to the gospel that he proclaimed “to EVERY creature under heaven” (Col 1:23).
Pg. 200, Paul’s ethic in the third chapter of Colossians is rooted in the narrative of Christ – died, buried, risen ascended and coming again.  This is not a narrative that imposes a series of absolutes to oppress us; it is a story of liberation from an empire that would take captive our imagination while it rapes and plunders the earth.  This is not a violent, metanarrative of exploitation of the earth.  This is a story of restored relationships, a love story that calls forth an alternative community characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, gratitude and wisdom.  This is a story of creational restoration, a renewal to full humanness, in the image of the Creator.  This is a community in which the word of Christ dwells richly.  This is a community that is shaped as a countercultural force through the subversive worship of a subversive Lord.
Pg. 206, In this letter, Paul appeals not primarily to the ancient philosophers, nor to the edicts of the emperor, but to the ancient stories of Israel.  Those stories describe how, in the shadow of the empire, Israel was called to form an alternative covenant community rooted in the Torah of a God who freed the slave, loves the refugee and cares for the widow and the orphan.  As that community was called to be holy, so we are called saints, the holy ones.
The Kingdom of Jesus is just such a covenant community… In our Scriptures, forgiveness of sin and redemption from slavery are always at the heart of God’s dealing with the covenant people.  In the community of God called together to bear his image, such forgiveness and redemption were to be most obviously evident in the forgiving of debt and freeing from slavery.
Pg. 209, For those who do not have ears to hear, for those who do not know the story, either of Israel or of Jesus, this advice seems innocent enough.  It appears to uphold the status quo while advising tolerance.  But for those who know the story, the clues are there, the allusions are made, and the hidden meaning is understood.  For those with ears to hear, the message is clear: this is a God who proclaims a different kingdom from the ensnaring oppression of the empire, a God who frees slaves and calls for his followers to do likewise.

Pg. 212, Sure looks like slavery to us.  What names would we name?  Well, just take a look at the tag in the clothing that you are wearing.  If that article of clothing was produced in what was just called an Economic Processing Zone, then the odds are pretty good that you can name the brand of clothing you are wearing, as a slave trader.  And all of us who purchase these goods are thereby complicit in slavery.
But that’s just the point.  They are slaves.  Every time we step into a Wal-Mart or Niketown or Gap or Winners and exclaim over the great deal we can get on an article of clothing or how trendy we now look, we’ve made sweatshop workers our slaves.  Every time we buy coffee that isn’t shade grown and fairly traded, we’ve made those coffee producers and their children into our slaves.  Every time we have purchased a product – any product – that says Made in China, or Indonesia, or the Philippines, or Sri Lanka, it is pretty likely that we have made someone our slave. 
But we have no choice about buying products made in these places.  Some things can be bought only from these companies!  Buying some of these products is inevitable.
The language of inevitability is the language of empire.  Whenever we hear, “We have no choice,” our ears should perk up.  It is precisely the strategy of the empire to take our imagination captive so that we think we have no choice.  When a certain lifestyle seems to be inescapable, you need to realize that you are imprisoned.
Pg. 214, But maybe you can’t afford to pay more for clothes that are locally or fairly made.  Perhaps you will simply decide to have fewer clothes as a result.  Or perhaps you will decide that if you are going to end up wearing sweatshop-produced clothing, then at least you will do it in a way that will serve the poor locally by making your purchases at secondhand shops.  That way, a local charity benefits from your purchase.
Our point is that when there are options available – whether various consumer choices or lobbying – to decide not to do anything at all is itself a choice.  The Gospels call it the wide and easy path.  But we can choose another path.  There are ways to proclaim and enact Paul’s word of release to slaves, women and children.
Pg. 217, Rather than instilling in them [our children] a desire to get to the top, to move up, we want to encourage our children to develop a sense of calling and service, including an awareness that this may require a process of downward mobility, a decision not to strive for the top but to care for those who are on the bottom… We hope that our children will not need to secede from the empire, because they were never captive to it.
Pg. 218, To be wise is to be able to make connections between the food you eat, the store where it was purchased, the transportation systems that brought that food, the land where it was produced and the people who produced it.
Pg. 224, [a fictional trial of the lady mentioned above, Nympha, a wealthy woman who converted to Christianity and renounced the empire, she is accused based upon the finding of the poem of Colossians 1:15-20)” Caesar has brought peace?  Let’s look at the peace brought by your Caesar.  Let’s take as an example Galilee, the homeland of Jesus.  All the Jewish people want to do is live in peace in their own land, free to follow their ancestral laws, with a king from their own people and a high priest from the priestly line.  And the Romans continually beat them down, imposing rulers who oppress them and impoverish them.  When they rebel they are ruthlessly cut down, their cities burned and their children enslaved.  This is how Rome keeps peace by military might and violent force.  They make a desolation and call it peace.
“Their favorite symbol for peace is the cross, on which they condemn those who resist their rule to an excruciating death.  This is the peace they bring.  This is the peace that killed Jesus.”
There was a shocked silence, “You don’t mean to tell me,” said Trolius, “that this Jesus you worship was killed as a political rebel!”
“Yes, I do,” I said.  “And though that death, by taking the evil of Rome and the evil of the universe upon himself, he exhausted it and brought a peace and a reconciliation deeper than any peace Caesar can even dream of.  By emptying himself in love, he reconciled all things, in heaven, on earth, everything in the Roman empire and beyond, between all of creation and all of you and God.  That is the kind of peace Jesus brought through the blood of a Roman cross.”
“Enough!”  It was Lucius again.  “I say that not only have we heard enough from this woman’s own mouth to condemn her; we have also seen how the actions of her household and community fundamentally challenge the empire and all it stands for.  There is now no doubt in my mind that she stands guilty as charged, and all those who confess Jesus with her.”
Pg. 226, Bringing the cosmic claims about Christ to bear on the lives of the Colossian community, in their struggles and their stories, Paul personalizes and localizes the “and he” of the poem by writing, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he was now reconciled” (1:21-22).  The counterimperial vision of cosmic reconciliation in Christ is the vision that has transformed this community into a subversive body politic, counter to the empire.  This metanarrative of creational reconciliation through the blood of a Roman cross – a story that radically contests the imperial metanarrative of violence and oppression – reshapes and reconstitutes this community as citizens of the kingdom rather than subjects of the empire.
Pg. 229, If, as Paul asserts throughout his letters, we are called to share in the sufferings of Christ, and if such suffering is for the sake of the body of Christ, where does that leave a Christian community that seems to avoid any sort of suffering?  Where does it leave those of us whose lives seem to be blessed by the empire rather than threatened by it?  Where does it leave those of us whose blessings seem to actually be dependent on the oppression of our brothers and sisters elsewhere?
The hope of glory therefore is a hope in which the Colossian Christians will once again be full image-bearers of God.  The mystery the Messiah reveals is that this full image-bearing of God, this glory, will be found among both Gentiles and Jews, breaking down the ethnic divisions that have led to one people’s continued oppression of another.
Pg. 232, Perhaps we need to overhear Paul’s admonition to Archippus and apply it to ourselves as Christians living at home in the imperial realities of the Pax Americana.  We are called to proclaim and embody the gospel of a crucified Messiah.  This gospel challenges the principalities and powers of our own age.  This gospel proclaims that reconciliation and peace come not through the power of unilateral military force but through the blood of the cross.  And such a reconciliation is manifest in a community that is renewed in the image of Jesus, a community that shares in the suffering of Jesus in its attempts to bring peace to the social, economic, political, racial and ethnic divisions that sin has caused in the world.  In proclaiming and living that gospel, this community will begin to take on the suffering of those who have been oppressed throughout the ages at the hands of the empire.  In taking on that suffering, the Christian community will truly enact peace by sharing in Christ’s afflictions.  This is the call and the challenge with which Paul ends Colossians.  And the letter of Colossians does not function as Scripture in the life of the church if this call is not heard and responded to by the church today.

Pg. 29, “Wait a minute,” someone is bound to say, “Capitalism is about capital, it’s about money.  Religion is about faith.”  Well, we’re not so sure that capitalism isn’t ultimately a matter of faith.

Pg. 34 You see, the danger of wanting a god, without being willing to allow this god to speak in a voice that is radically other to our own voice, is that the god we end up with is like any other consumer product we take off the shelf.  We would never be accountable before such a god, precisely because we never allow this god a voice that would actually call us to account… Rather, it would be an idol.  And before idols like this the empire has nothing to fear, because ultimately such idols – such gods – are  in the service of the empire. 
Pg. 35, The tragic events of September 11 cannot be fully understood apart from the dynamics of empire….  So what happened on September 11?  In a stroke of perverse, conteremperial genius, America was attacked at the site of its socioeconomic and military control.  The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, of course, the perfect targets.  This attack went to the systemic center of American culture – its economic control and military power.  But just as important, these were targets of profound symbolic significance.  These institutions are at the heart of the powerful myth that legitimates the empire identified with America.  As Benjamin Barber puts it, this was an “astonishing assault on the temple of free enterprise in New York City and the cathedral of American military might in Washington, DC.
Pgs. 71, Again and again the two are linked; fertility and fruitfulness in the land on one hand, and peace the other, and peace and security on the other, are rooted in rejection of the militaristic consumerism of the empire and the social and economic practices that support it.

Pg. 94, Because we have been so preoccupied with “incanting anemic souls into heaven” as Wendell Berry puts it, we have missed the fact that this poem envisions nothing less than the reconciliation of all creation.  If “all things” are created in, through and for Christ – even the thrones, dominions, rulers an d powers – and “all things” are reconciled through the blood of the cross, then the power of this good news must permeate all of life.

Pg. 99, Worldviews-turned-ideologies present their view of the world as simply the way the world is  They are world “views” that function so well that it is forgotten that they are “views.”
Pg. 108, In this story Israel is called to be a “priestly kingdom and a hold nation” (Ex. 19:6) not so it could be a regime of truth that exists for the exclusion of others but in order to play a role in the restoration of the whole human race… If this drama has the redemption of all creation as its focus, then any violent, ideological, self-justifying ownership of the story – either by nationalistic Jews or by sectarian and self-righteous Christians – brings the story to a dramatic dead end that has missed the creationally redemptive point.
Pg. 154, Praxis has everything to do with ‘sovereignty.’  What or who is sovereign in life?  What is it that matters the most?  What provides both a bedrock for our life – a sense of ultimacy – and an orientation?