Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

HIV/AIDS and the First World Response

December 7th, 2011 No comments

The following are remarks by Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, delivered at a plenary session at the 2011 ICASA.  I have reposted them in their entirety because I believe they are worth reading and sharing.  The emphasis is mine.  This can also be found online at:

ADDIS ABABA – With your indulgence, I’m going to deviate from the assigned topic. I shall address the Millennium Development Goals, but not in the way that was anticipated. There are two reasons. First, I want to speak in an unusually personal way, and from the heart, and in a fashion that leaves no room for ambiguity. Second, I consider the attack on the Global Fund to be the most serious assault it has endured in its ten-year history. I would feel utterly delinquent to let the issue slide.

I am seized by frustration and impatience. Let me explain.

I’m thrilled when UNICEF tells us of the possibility of the virtual elimination of pediatric AIDS by 2015. But I know-as knowledgeable people in this audience know-that it remains an unlikely prospect, but more important, that we lost several precious years during the last decade where we simply didn’t apply the knowledge we possessed to prevent vertical transmission. It was a terrible failure on the part of international agencies and governments. Worse, the mother barely factored into the so-called "PMTCT" equation at all. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I cannot forget the millions of infants who died unnecessarily and the women who were never given treatment.

I’m thrilled at the creation of UN Women, and the possibility, once they join as a formal co-sponsor of UNAIDS, that the focus on women will be given a new lease on life. But I can’t dislodge from my mind the experience of my years in the role as Envoy, and subsequently working with AIDS-Free World, when it became clear that in every aspect of the pandemic women were rendered subordinate. Gender inequality doomed their lives. Sexual violence fed and feeds the virus. The entire survival of communities and families was placed on their shoulders. Men were the social determinants of women’s health, and men simply didn’t care. As we come to this thrilling moment of potential progress, I can’t avoid the spectral faces of stigma, discrimination, isolation, and pain, and they are the faces of women. That doesn’t mean that women aren’t the core of courage and strength in this pandemic; it simply means that they have to struggle valiantly to challenge the phalanx of male privilege, of male hegemony. Just a few days ago, coincident with World AIDS Day, the Harvard School of Public Health held a symposium called AIDS@30 to assess the past and plot the future. The symposium had a Global Advisory Council of nineteen eminent experts on the pandemic: 17 men and 2 women. It is ever thus.  It’s the rare woman indeed who doesn’t ultimately report to a man in the world of HIV, or who can command, ever-so-rarely, the place and presence that legions of men command automatically.

I’m thrilled when I hear animated talk of male circumcision. But I know that we didn’t need to wait for the results of the three studies in Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa.  Nothing would have been lost if we’d focused immediately on making circumcision safe and available for informed parents to choose for their male babies; it’s a minor procedure that has been performed for centuries. Instead, during nearly a decade as the evidence piled up that circumcision was a defense against AIDS-evidence provided by experts in the field-we waited and waited and waited, in that self-justifying paralysis of excruciating scientific precision. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress I cannot forget the numbers of lives that might have been saved had we acted sooner.

I’m thrilled with all the talk of "Treatment as Prevention" and how it has suddenly become the mantra of the international AIDS community. But back in 2006, I sat beside Dr. Julio Montaner, about to become President of the International AIDS Society, when he first expounded the proposition at a press briefing at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. His evidence and argument were rooted in science and common sense in equal measure. But he had to endure scorn and derision, and we had to endure a five-year delay until Treatment as Prevention was definitively authenticated by the National Institutes of Health in Washington. Julio’s theory suddenly became the 96% solution five years later, and it doesn’t-I emphasize-it doesn’t apply only to discordant couples. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I cannot forget the numbers of lives that might have been prolonged if we hadn’t waited nearly five years to create the momentum that now propels us.

I’m thrilled with the turnaround in South Africa. The dramatic roll-out of treatment is nothing short of miraculous. But I remember all those years of denialism, and not a single voice at the most senior levels of the United Nations-Under-Secretaries-General, the Secretary-General himself. Not one of them said publicly to Thabo Mbeki, "You’re killing your people". Oh, to be sure, it was said in private by everyone. They took Thabo Mbeki aside and begged him to reverse course. He didn’t budge an inch. Around him, in every community in South Africa, and in communities throughout a continent heavily influenced by South Africa, were the killing fields of AIDS. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I can’t forget the millions who died on Thabo Mbeki’s watch, while those who should have confronted him before the eyes of the world stood mute.

I’m thrilled by the embrace of the slogan "Know Your Epidemic; Know Your Response" and the current concentration on high-risk groups. But I note that there were many voices, over the years, not all of them eccentric, calling attention to concurrent sexual partners and discordant couples, to MSM and sex work and sexual violence, and particularly injecting drug use, and they were contemptuously dismissed. I cannot but remember that magnificent gay activist from the Caribbean, Robert Carr, who died such an untimely death … back at the pre-conference on MSM in advance of Vienna last year, Robert made one of those speeches that leaves you gasping. When you hear what the experts say, said the normally tactful Robert, it’s bullshit – and he repeated bullshit so many times in the course of thirty minutes that the crass word became a cry of mobilizing dignity. As we come to this thrilling moment of progress, I can’t forget the casual delays in responding to vulnerable groups. Experts fiddled while human rights burned.

So if you sense a certain impatience in me, you’re right. We don’t have another day to lose. Peter Piot did the arithmetic yesterday … 1,350,000 put on treatment in 2010; 2,700,000 new infections, exactly double the number in treatment in the same year. It works out to 7,397 new infections every day. And it’s 2011, for God’s sake. It’s appalling that such numbers continue to haunt us; it’s heart-breaking beyond endurance to contemplate further exponential agony. We cannot delay another minute in putting the ‘prevention combination’ to work.

And I think, judging from the mood in the corridors, that’s what seizes this conference. But right at the moment when we know, irrefutably, that we can defeat this pandemic, we’re sucker-punched at the Global Fund.

What’s a sucker punch? It’s when a boxer in the ring gets a punch below the belt that he doesn’t see coming. No one expected a complete cancellation of Round Eleven, with new money unavailable for implementation until 2014.

It’s just the latest blow in a long list of betrayals on the part of the donor countries, in this instance the Europeans in particular. I’ve heard from several people that the politics of the Global Fund meeting in Accra two weeks ago, when the decision was made, were not just complicated, but amounted to miserable internecine warfare. Certain governments on the Board of the Global Fund simply discredited themselves. They give a soiled name to the principle of international solidarity. The Chair of the Board, in a remarkably convoluted effort, tried to explain things in a press release. He would have done far better to remain silent.

The decision on the part of the donor countries is unforgiveable. In a speech a few days ago, I addressed the Global Fund predicament by talking of the moral implications of a decision that you know will result in death … death on the African continent.

I asked: "Do they regard Africa as a territorial piece of geographic obsolescence? Do they regard Africans themselves as casually expendable? Is it because the women and children of Africa are not comparable in the eyes of western governments to the women and children of Europe and North America? Is it because Africans are black and unacknowledged racism is at play? Is it because a fighter jet is worth so much more than human lives? Is it because defense budgets are more worthy of protection in an economic downturn than millions of human beings?"

These are not phrased as rhetorical questions. I mean each and every one of them.

Spare me, I beg of all the speakers … spare me the economic crisis. Everyone knows that when it comes to financing wars, or bailing out the banks, or bailing out Greece, or reinstituting corporate bonuses, or even responding to natural disasters that threaten economies, there’s always enough money. We’re drowning in crocodile tears. It’s not a matter of the financial crisis; it’s a matter of human priorities. We have a right to ask the G8: what do you sanctify as governments: profits and greed or global public health?

That’s especially true in the case of the United States. I was, like everyone else, delighted by President Obama’s endorsement of the proposition that PEPFAR could treat a total of six million people rather than four million people by 2013 with the same money. And I congratulate Ambassador Goosby for seeing that through. It’s wonderful. No one would take issue. How could you? There’s no additional money involved: it’s just greater efficiency and more targeted spending.

And then the President went on to affirm his support for the money that’s supposed to be destined for the Global Fund … $4 billion over three years, 2011-2013; $1.3 billion a year.

Now let me take you back a step. In 2010, when the three-year pledge for the Global Fund was being discussed, the activists in the United States were asking for $6 billion over three years, believing that this was a fair share for the United States and an inducement to all the other donors. They feared that the President would stay at $3 billion over the next three years … roughly the previous allocation for the Global Fund. When he endorsed $4 billion, it was considered a partial victory.

In my respectful submission, it’s time for the United States to take a hard look at $6 billion. Many American speeches glow with the words that the US is the largest donor to the Fund. Well of course they’re the largest donor; they’re the most dominant and wealthy economy in the world. I really think that apart from calling on the European governments to reverse their decision, President Obama should tell Congress he wants a full $6 billion.

I don’t expect that anyone ever listens to me. But I do point out what was emphasized at the opening of the conference: money to do battle against HIV/AIDS is the singular non-partisan issue in Congress. Even those irascible philistines who want to cut foreign aid, or global health, have shown in the past that they’re prepared to shore up funding for HIV/AIDS. It seems to me that President Obama should put his moral authority on the line, and ask Congress to raise the ceiling from $4 billion to $6 billion for the Global Fund.

It’s not a matter of comparison with other countries; it’s a matter of doing what’s  right. And that means doing your fair share regardless of whether others are doing theirs. There are many commentators who agree that the salvation of George Bush’s presidency was PEPFAR. President Obama doesn’t need salvation. But I can’t imagine a greater act of statespersonship than to say to the world: I, Barack Obama, cannot stand the thought of another unnecessary death; if the United States of America has to bail out the Global Fund, we will.

Is the extra $2 billion dollars outrageous? The economist Jeffrey Sachs has answered that question. He points out that the United States defense budget amounts to $1.9 billion a day. In other words, we’re asking that HIV/AIDS receive an additional amount, over three years, that equals American military spending in one day.

It seems to me that that’s an argument that African political leaders can effectively pursue amongst the many arguments they should employ in dealing with the donor community. I agree with Michel Sidibe-who’s given significant and visionary leadership to this struggle-that there must be a high-level crisis meeting, and that Prime Minister Meles should convene it.

We’ve waited for this moment for a long time. This is an opportunity for the African political leadership to show its muscle, and to demand that the Global Fund be restored to its intended level. Remember, at the last formal replenishment in 2010, the funding came in at a dismal $11.7 billion, far short of the $20 billion that the Global Fund really needed in order to scale up to meet universal access. Now we’re being told that even the $11.7 billion is out of reach. It’s unconscionable, indefensible, outrageous. It’s murder, that’s what it is: murder. And the donor countries expect to get away with it because there’s a culture of fiscal impunity.

As I wind my way to a conclusion, let me relate an anecdote that I think is relevant.

When I left my diplomatic post at the United Nations in 1988, I took on a role as the Secretary-General’s Advisor on Africa. (I admit that seems odd, but there is an explanation that more or less justifies the appointment.) There was an Inter-Agency Task Force established, and there was a kind of executive committee of four. The Chair was the noted African economist, Professor Adebayo Adedeji of Nigeria and at the time Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa; the Vice-Chair was the remarkable, brilliant Richard Jolly, Deputy-Executive Director of UNICEF; the Rapporteur was the accomplished economist Sadig Rasheed, also with the ECA, and I was the fourth, a sort of honorary post. (Note that then, as now, men were tapped to lead the way.)

We met, often in Addis – where the ECA was and still is located – with many of our colleague agencies working in Africa. The World Bank was almost always in attendance, and intermittently, the International Monetary Fund.

It was the height of "structural adjustment" programs. Every meeting was a battleground, filled with heated imprecations, accusations, and malice. Our little executive cabal of four detested the international financial institutions, and they detested us.

In the midst of endless angry discussions of conditionality, we looked carefully at the financial data, and suddenly realized a staggering truth: when you took into account the interest payments and some capital payments as well, and ran the statistics carefully, it became clear that Africa was paying out far more than it was taking in … hundreds of millions more. The continent was financing the World Bank; the World Bank wasn’t financing the continent.

And it continues to this day. Again, I remind you of Peter Piot’s reference yesterday. I have a close friend who writes columns for the newspaper The Globe and Mail in Canada. Commenting on the study that Peter Piot referenced, the title of his column was, "Africa: The World’s Most Generous Foreign Aid Donor". It confirms the fact that a study of nine African countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe showed that they had exported doctors to Canada, the United States, the UK, and Australia, costing Africa between $2 billion and $13 billion in education and training, and saving the four western countries more than $4.5 billion in education and training. The nurses’ financial ratios would be even higher.

This is an AIDS conference. We talk endlessly about capacity building. Africa desperately needs its doctors and nurses. Instead, in the vital field of health professionals, Africa loses billions in exporting its human resources.

I say all this to challenge the artificial debate on dependency. From slavery to today’s extractive industries of minerals and oil, Africa is financing the world. The modern world’s economy was built on Africa’s human and natural resources, and it depends on them to this day. The money from the Global Fund and PEPFAR amount to partial reparations. Western donors are not engaged in some kind of financial philanthropy: we owe Africa what we give to Africa. And a hell of a lot more to boot.

That’s the debate that Prime Minister Meles should induce. The donor countries to the Global Fund, having ransacked the continent for six hundred years, have no right to withdraw. They must be confronted. And all of you, who make up civil society in so many countries, must press your Presidents and Prime Ministers into action.

Let me end by coming full circle to the Millennium Development Goals. Africa will never reach the MDGs if AIDS is not vanquished. AIDS adds to the desolate state of poverty. Obviously, it affects both maternal and child health. It continues to leave children parentless (though the millions of orphans whose plight seemed a priority at past AIDS gatherings, increasingly, mysteriously, disappear from view).  Gender equality is a mockery in the face of AIDS. And the so-called partnership between the haves and the have-nots is rendered laughable. Even sustainable development is influenced, because climate change feasts on weakened populations.

If the MDGs are as important as everyone says, then AIDS must be subdued.

As a last parting thought, in respect of the Global Fund, I beg you to mobilize as a truly civil society and stand up to the reckless nation-states who dare to decide whether Africans will live or die.

Bishop Davis on Immigration

January 12th, 2011 No comments

The following statement was issued by Lindsey Davis, the Bishop of the Kentucky United Methodist Conference.   Bishop Davis provides a well reasoned response to the issue of immigration in this nation and I felt it deserved a reading far beyond just Kentucky Methodists.  It is reposted with permission.

A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Davis

My grandson is six years old and a kindergarten student at Veterans Park Elementary in Lexington. Veterans Park is a Chinese Language Immersion school. So he is learning a second language while he is also learning to read and write English. Such is the world in which we live. We live in a nation that is very diverse and rapidly changing.

Immigrants are a part of our current reality. They make up 15% of the work force in our nation, and it is estimated that a third of these persons are undocumented. They work jobs many others don’t want, sometimes two and three jobs at a time. They do it on the cheap so that their children will have a better life. They use services like hospitals and schools. They also pay taxes which contribute to those public services.

Like most issues, immigration is complex. If there were simple solutions, our nation would have employed them by now. Sure, it would be great if everyone were here legally. It would be helpful if our borders were secure. It would be wonderful if our immigration service was not a disaster. It would be great if other nations had economies robust enough to support their citizens so that leaving home was not so attractive. Public policy has to deal with how things are, not always how things ought to be. Immigration legislation in Frankfort is currently being considered, and I have some deep concerns about what direction these efforts will take.

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on immigration issues. But here are a few things I do know.

1. We have many immigrants in our United Methodist Churches. Some are documented and some are not. They love the Lord and they love our church. They are my people and I will stand for them and with them during these current debates.

2. Scripture is very clear. We are to treat with love, care and generosity those who are strangers and sojourners among us. I take this biblical mandate very seriously. It would be a mistake for our state to criminalize the ministry of churches which feed the hungry, clothe the naked and reach out to the poor.

3. Immigration reform is needed but on a federal level. Individual attempts by states will, in my opinion, not be helpful. In fact, it will be very costly.

On our website you can find several source documents which will help you understand some of the complexities of this issue. Let us all be in prayer for our legislative leaders. They have a difficult job and are in need of our prayerful support and encouragement in these days to come. And, as we consider these issues, may our speech and actions take place “as if we were in the immediate presence of God.”

Here are resources pertaining to our stance on immigration issues:

United Methodist Book of Resolutions 2008 – Statement on Immigration

United Methodist Church Council of Bishops – Statement on the U.S. Immigration Situation

Kentucky Council of Churches – Immigration Reform Statement

Click here to email your state legislator.

It is what it is…

November 3rd, 2010 1 comment

Election night in America has come and gone and while all the results are not yet in, the picture is pretty obvious.  The GOP handily captured the House while the Dems barely kept the Senate.

I am not angry, frustrated, disappointed or surprised.  It is what it is.  While my politics generally lean towards the progressive side of things on most issues, I have been just as frustrated with congress as many of my conservative friends have been.  I even support many tea-party back ideals: more personal freedom, less involvement in international conflicts, balanced budgets, term limits, etc.  Of course there are still many ideals I hold that would make a tea-partier cringe: strict oversight of corporations, universal healthcare, social welfare programs, international aid, etc.

The peaceful transition of government through national elections is one aspect of American life that I am deeply proud of.  That is why I am not angry about the results.  The American people have spoken, and our government will change because of it.

What worries me is that if were gridlocked with a single party in control, then what is going to happen with a split congress?  I certainly hope that it forces us to re-engage in meaningful political discourse and compromise.  However, I fear it is just as likely to launch us into increased (and more bitter) partisan wrangling, hyperbole and demonization of "the other guys."  Only time will tell which direction we go as a nation.

It has been interesting to go through this polarized political season while also preparing to move to Swaziland.  You see, in Swaziland political parties are outlawed.  The idea is that if people were allowed to organize into political parties then they would refuse to work with people in competing parties.  5 years ago I would have called that position completely irrational.  Our history has shown that in most cases people of competing political ideologies can co-exist, work together, and even be friends.  (In my own life I have close personal friends that are Republicans, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, neo-cons, anarchists, communists and even monarchists and my life is better because of it).  However, I think that as a nation we have regressed in the last two years when it comes to political discourse; it is harder and harder for people to be understood on their own terms without their political affiliation short-circuiting things to assumptions and hyperbole.  I am not going to point fingers, but it is disappointing.

In many ways I am really looking forward to moving to a country where political parties don’t officially exist, where there is no 24-hour news cycle, and where pundits aren’t making a living mixing politics / entertainment / ratings / stereotypes / etc.  Of course every system has its issue, but it might be refreshing to deal with a King for a while instead of this crap we have endured this election cycle.

It is what it is…

Rejecting Nationalism on July 4th

July 3rd, 2010 No comments

The following excepts are from an article written by Howard Zinn on the dangers of nationalism. (HT to Donna Aros for posting it on facebook).  You can read the whole article here: Put Away the Flags

On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

These ways of thinking — cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on — have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.

We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.

Throughout the article, Zinn discusses the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Nationalism.  His argument for an allegiance to humanity is challenging.

For those of us who follow the teachings of Christ, we have another — much greater — reason to reject nationalism: Our citizenship is not here, but to the Kingdom of God.  This citizenship calls us not to dominance and defense, but to submission and to participation in the restoration and redemption of all things.

I could wax on about the dangers of nationalism and an americocentric understanding of the world, but instead, I will simply say that my identity as a participant in the Kingdom of God is exponentially more important than my place of residence or my county of origin.

5000 Barrels a Day

May 20th, 2010 No comments

By now everyone knows about the environmental catastrophe unfolding in the gulf coast.  Initial estimates of 1000 barrels a day were horrendous enough and soon upgraded to an estimate of 5000 barrels.  However a few weeks ago, new footage emerged showing the actual leak:

This lead to researchers to conclude the leak could actually be as high as 80,000+ barrels a day.  That means that every 3-4 days as much oil as the entire Exxon Valdez spilled is leaking into our oceans.  Just yesterday, experts testified before congress that the actually amount is most likely close to 95K barrels per day.

What really chaps me is that BP is refusing to acknowledge the extent of the flow (and thus the extent of the damage).  They are sticking by their early figures of 5K despite the fact they are woefully inaccurate and they are refusing to put forth the effort to actually figure out the flow rate.

After many unsuccessful attempts to address the problem, BP finally was able to insert a tube into the broken pipe to siphon off the oil.  They claim they are now capturing up to 5,000 barrels of leaking oil.  That just happens to be the magic number — the amount BP still claims is all that is leaking.

The problem is, the leak is still flowing.  Check out this footage:

This has been going on for a month.  Even when we aren’t thinking about it, or the news media isn’t covering it, thousands and thousands of gallons of toxic crude oil are blasting into our oceans.  It literally makes me sick to think about the towns in Alabama that survived Hurricane Katrina, only to be (irreparably?) damaged by this man-made disaster.

Now who thinks “Drill Baby Drill” is a good idea?

UPDATE: Right when I posted this, I found this article where BP finally admits the leak is bigger than 5,000 barrels, but still refuses to acknowledge the extent of the damage.

Light of the World… Used to Kill People

January 20th, 2010 1 comment

There is outrage in this country, but I fear it for the wrong reason.

A story just broke this week which revealed the weapons company Trijicon has been branding their military rifle scopes with Bible verses.  I have included one such example below.  The ACOG4X32 model number ends with "JN8:12" – a reference to verse 8:12 in the New Testament Gospel of John.  The fear is that this constitutes "proselytizing" and thus is outside the regulations.  People have been outraged that such blatant Christian influence was allowed to find its place in our military.


Oh believe me I am upset by this, but not for the same reasons the ACLU is upset.  It is more likely someone will convert to being a fan of Nashville Hockey by flying an unmanned drone than it is someone will become a Christian after using these sights.  What is frustrating to me is how offensive this juxtaposition of worldviews is.  In John 8: 12 Jesus says:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

That is written on the side of a device used so you can see people more clearly so that you can kill them.  Does anyone else see how screwed up that was?

The entire life, death and resurrection of Jesus points to a life of non-violence and sacrificial subversion.  Jesus embodies love, grace and mercy, yet his words are used to brand an instrument of war and destruction.

We might as well name our next warship the USS Martin Luther King Jr. or put a picture of Ghandi on our nuclear weapons.  I am not worried Muslims will be offended by this verse on the side of a rifle scope.  I fear they will be upset when we use this rifle scope to kill them

I guess I must admit that I do fear proselytizing, but not in the way many have expressed.  I am not worried about people sharing their faith in Christianity through verses written on a scope.  I fear people will continue to be converted to this false gospel that the way of Jesus is one of force and privilege.  I fear people will convert to seeing an American Jesus and ignore his radical message of peace, love and non-violence even in the face of oppression and persecution.

Trijicon messed up when they put this verse on their product.  Not because it broke military regulations, but because they have grossly misrepresented the savior they have claimed to serve.

The government and human rights

September 28th, 2009 No comments

In the past few months I have had several excellent conversations about the origin and inventory of human rights.  It seems most people agree with the idea that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” yet when it comes to specifics there is much disagreement.  For instance… does “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” refer to freedom or opportunity (put another way, are these things something all people should have, or have the option of having — the difference is substantial).

This discussion began when I compared universal education with universal health care and asked if both should be considered human rights.  My friend Aaron pushed back saying that rights exist individually apart from anyone granting them to you.  (Therefore if the government is the purveyor of universal health care, it cannot exist beyond them and thus cannot be a right). Desmond Tutu takes a different approach by saying human rights exist because we are created in the image of God.  Without too many specifics, he argues this means we should extend respect and care to all people.

As nice as it is to say that rights are inherent and/or God-given, it seems the facts of history do not support this.  Most would agree the freedom (from slavery) is a God-given right.  However, in the hundreds of years across which the Bible was written, this “right” was never extended or even articulated.  Heck, even our constitution, which is still a relatively recent document, did not consider this to be a right.

At the end of the day, societies are the ones who give rights, and this usually comes in the form of the government.  Put another way, rights can not be rights until they are extended by the authority of a group of people (government).  Freedom of speech, which is actually a relatively old idea, was first extended under Greek empire.  Before the powers that be articulated and defended that right, it did not exist.  Likewise, freedom from ownership was not a right to be extended until governments listened to the Abolitionists and began protecting people from slavery.

Rights may in fact come from God, but at the end of the day, it is up to governments (or other authoritative communities) to identify and codify these rights.  One thing is clear… Rights are not static, but are evolving.  In the last 250 years, Americans have come to generally agree on a slew of individual rights: right to bear arms, right to vote, right to practice religion, right to private property, right to a fair trial, etc.  While people may consider these to be God-given, they are all actually given by our constitution.

It is my belief that we as a society are moving towards a more civilized existence.  I am glad our constitution protects so many rights and I am also glad our nation has risen up to extend more rights (like voting and abolishing slavery).  I believe we have reached the point where we understand what things should not be done to people and are starting to understand what things should.  It is my guess that in 100 years, everyone will consider education, healthcare, clean drinking water, adequate food and shelter to be basic human rights that should be extended to all.  We should not fear the government extending these rights anymore than we should have feared the government banning slavery.  Change happens, and when it comes to governments extending rights, history has consistently shown this to be a good thing.

America on a collision course

September 20th, 2009 5 comments

Who would ever have guessed that we would be looking back at the presidential campaign of 2008 as a time of relative tranquillity and good fellowship?

Bob Greene made the above observation in his article Commentary: America on a collision course on  Greene examines and laments the current political tension that is miring our country.  It is an article well worth reading.

Categories: Politics Tags: , , ,

Ban on clove cigarettes doesn’t make sense

September 3rd, 2009 2 comments

A few days ago I wrote a post on the The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and how it would effectively ban clove cigarettes on September 22 (along with all other flavored cigarettes except menthols.)  Apparently I am not the only one who finds this particular provision of the bill to be backward.  In fact, since making that post, traffic to this blog has more than tripled (and to think, I thought everyone came to read my ponderings on how the Babylonian exile contributed to the concept of an afterlife.)

Earlier I made a few comments on how ludicrous it was to assume that banning flavored cigarettes would decrease smoking among minors.  Sure kids like sweet flavors, but guess what… adults do too.  I mean seriously, how many kids do you know rolling up a pack of Djarum Blacks in their shirt sleeves? If we extend this line of thinking, it is scary to think what else might be banned.  What about sweet liquors?  I know lots of underage youth who like flavored vodka and Jagermeister and schnapps.  Aren’t these possibly contributing to underage drinking?  Probably a lot more than clove cigarettes are contributing to underage smoking — and really, which one is more harmful?  I would say the drinking.  At least you can die a lot quicker with alcohol than you can with smoke.

Does this ban really affect me that much?  No, not really me personally.  But does it irk me?  Absolutely.

Some people are always bashing big government and think any law is infringing on their rights.  I am not part of that crowd, but at the same time I do get frustrated when laws don’t make sense and unfairly limit choice.  What is most frustrating is to see the inconsistencies are that are obviously present because of some major lobbying dollars from Big Tobacco.

I am not the only one who thinks this.  Here are a few comments from others:

I don’t know of any “kids” that smoke clove cigarettes. They are just too expensive for a young adult’s budget. The teenagers and college students that I see smoking use menthol “FLAVORED” cigarettes or Marlboros. What is happening here is a ban on the freedom of choice on what to smoke. Why not eliminate ALL tobacco products? Why not eliminate beer, as that seems to be the alcoholic “beverage of choice” with the local college kids (I live across the street from a large university in Coral Gables, FL.)Lisa DeTournay

I am extremely disappointed by this legislative move because it is statistically unsound and most of all I would almost consider the ban illegal. If certain types of alcohol (honestly nearly as harmful whether to the persons body or in the damage they cause as a result of being drunk), say for instance any that is over 35%, were banned, the uproar would be as equally widespread. This law is ludicrous and it, in my opinion, is removing a high volume of taxable commodity that the damn US government could be getting revenue from to get its ass out of the economic pig crap were in. Instead of banning them, make the import tax higher. Its really that simple. -Jennifer

In related news, it looks like a few of the major cigarette companies are trying to stop part of the law before it takes affect.  They contend the requirements for packaging and marketing infringe on their free speech.  What is interesting is that this major lawsuit is being filed here in my home town of Bowling Green, KY.  You can read the whole story in the New York Times: Tobacco Companies Sue to Loosen New Limits.

Let’s keep our kids safe, and let’s try to limit underage smoking; but for the love of God, let’s be reasonable and not destroy freedom of choice with asinine laws and regulations.

Tutu on “Religious Human Rights and the Bible”

August 29th, 2009 8 comments

I few weeks ago I wrote a post discussing health care as a right.  Since then I have had several good conversations with people from across the political spectrum on what constitutes a “human right” and what the implications are of such a delineation.  Last night I came across a 1996 article by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a hero of mine) entitled Religious Human Rights and the Bible.  In just a few short pages he frames the question brilliantly by exploring how the Christian worldview calls us to understand the importance and dignity of each human being.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Tutu begins by acknowledging that religion (especially Christianity) has led to oppression and injustice.  Yet, he is quick to counter by pointing out the narrative of Scripture calls for a different view of things.  He bases his argument on the implications of the creation story where all humanity is uniquely created in the image of God.  He says:

The Bible claims for all human beings this exalted status that we are all, each one of us, created in the divine image, that it has nothing to do with this or that extraneous attribute which by the nature of the case, can be possessed by only some people… We must therefore have a deep reverence for the sanctity of human life… The life of every human person is inviolable a gift from God.

Being created in the image of God is not just about identity Tutu contends, it is also about calling and purpose.

The [Biblical Narrative] declares that the human being created in the image of God is meant to be God’s viceroy, God’s representative in having rule over the rest of creation on behalf of God.  To have dominion, not in an authoritarian and destructive manner, but to hold sway as God would hold sway–compassionately, gently, caringly, enabling each part of creation to come fully into its own and to realize its potential for the good of the whole, contributing to the harmony and unity which was God’s intention for the whole of creation.

When we understand ourselves and others in light of our connection with God, it requires a different response to questions about humanity and the rights of all persons.

[This understanding] imbues each one of us with profound dignity and worth… In the face of injustice and oppression it is to disobey God not to stand up in opposition to that injustice and that oppression  Any violation of the rights of God’s stand-in cries out to be condemned and to be redressed, and all people of good will must be engaged in upholding and persevering those rights as a religious duty.  Such a discussion as this one should therefore not be merely an academic exercise in the most pejorative sense.  It must be able to galvanize participants with a zeal to be active protectors of the rights of persons.

Even if we capture the depth and breadth of the implications of this understanding of God and his people, we are still faced with the fact that humanity was given the freedom to choose right or wrong, good or evil, obedience or rebellion.  We must not only understand who we are in light of our creator, we must also walk the delicate line of what it means to embody this reality.  Tutu explains:

We are created to exist in a delicate network of interdependence with fellow human beings and the rest of God’s creation.  All sorts of things go horribly wrong when we break this fundamental of our being.  Then we are no longer appalled as we should be that vast sums are spent on budgets of death and destruction, when a tiny fraction of those sums would ensure that God’s children everywhere would have a clean supply of water, adequate health care, proper housing and education, enough to eat and to war.

Tutu contends that it is only when we are willing to first understand ourselves and others in light of our relationship with God and our role as bearers-of-the-image-of-God, that we are truly able to to grasp the dignity, worth and inherent rights of all persons.  He concludes:

The biblical understanding of being human includes freedom from fear and insecurity, freedom from penury and want, freedom of association and movement, because we would live ideally in the kind of society that is characterized by these attributes.  It would be a caring and compassionate, a sharing and gentle society in which, like God, the strongest would be concerned about the welfare of the weakest, represented in ancient society by the widow, the alien, and the orphan.  It would be a society in which you reflected the holiness of God not by ritual purity and cultic correctness, but by the fact that when you gleaned your harvest, you left something behind for the poor, the unemployed, the marginalized ones–all a declaration of the unique worth of persons that does not hinge on their economic, social, or political status but simply on the fact that they are persons created in God’s image. That is what invests them with their preciousness and from this stems all kinds of rights.

Tutu’s analysis is poignant and thought provoking — especially for Christians.  It is not adequate to define human rights in terms of the constitution or any body of law.  Likewise, we cannot base our decisions on what is right on economic models or political ideologies.  Instead, we must ask a different sort of question. We must inquire as to how we can love and care for all people — all of whom are created in the image of God.

All marks of emphasis in quotations are mine. Religious Human Rights and the Bible was originally published in Volume 10 of the Emory International Law Review.  You can download the complete file here from The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.