Paying Attention: Principle Comes Before Loyalty

Do you remember the lame elementary school prank where someone would deceitfully get you to look in another direction while they take something, hit you, or just laugh at your gullibility?

Our susceptibility to this prank apparently never goes away, it's just that the game gets more complicated, and more high stakes.

Exhibit A: the Bradley Manning case.

Bradley Edward Manning, now also known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, was a U.S. Army intelligence specialist who was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses after releasing the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public. He was slapped with a dishonorable discharge and a 35-year prison sentence (with good possibilities for parole after 10).

The United States government, standing to lose a lot of credibility at home and abroad, has successfully used the media to get the public talking mostly about Bradley Manning himself (including his mental stability) and the abstract debate of whether he's a hero or traitor. As if the public wasn't distracted enough, he decided after his conviction to announce his desire to live as transgendered woman Chelsea Manning. Once again, we saw shock and confusion about something quite trivial in comparison to the horrors Manning revealed, which continue to go unread, undiscussed, and get a shoulder shrug at best. Yes, a lot of people have seen the video of an airstrike against innocent civilians and journalists. But for most, that's the extent of it, and the fact that the video is all we've seen is an indictment of our entertainment-induced poor attention span and our unwillingness to read.

Haven't we fallen for the "hey look" trick one too many times? Of course Manning's actions were illegal. That was never a question. But Manning released these secret documents with a willingness to suffer the consequences (a key criteria for civil disobedience) and did so believing that the justice that could be brought about outweighs any potential negative consequences (another criteria for civil disobedience). Yes, I understand the complexities, and no, I wouldn't want every person with government security clearance out there revealing stuff (e.g., I'd like them to keep my SSN private). But when viewing this particular case from an ethical point of view, it becomes clearer for me. Indeed, some U.S. officials have been forced to admit that they have no evidence that Manning's illegal leak has caused a single personal injury or fatality. The policies and practices of the U.S., however, have killed unspeakable numbers and have wreaked havoc in already volatile places.

The documents leaked by Manning reveal indiscretion, immoral policies, and illegal practices on the part of the U.S. government and military.
  • The "Guantanamo Files" show the trivial and shaky grounds upon which the U.S. has
    arrested and detained "suspected terrorists." For example, some Middle Eastern farmers remain at Guantanamo to this day having been originally arrested for wearing clothing or accessories that are popular among al Qaida operatives. They also reveal that a primary criteria for releasing prisoners is their country of origin, not objective evidence. Such nonsense would never see the light of day in an American court of law, which is why the U.S. State Department has offered millions of dollars to other countries to take and try our prisoners.
  • The "Iraq War Logs" reveal official death tolls, despite the insistence by the White House that there is no official count. Between 2004 and 2009, in Iraq alone, there were 109,000 deaths, and nearly two-thirds (66,081) were non-combatants.
  • The war logs also revealed gruesome reports of prisoner abuse and torture by Iraqi Security Forces, and under an order called “Frago 242” implemented in 2004, U.S. personnel were ordered not to investigate the allegations of abuse, a direct violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, ratified by the U.S. in 1994.
  • Leaked diplomatic cables show that the U.S. Embassy in Haiti was involved in an effort to block a bill that would have raised the minimum wage there. The increase was backed by an overwhelming majority of Haitian lawmakers and citizens, and was initially supported by then-President Rene Preval. But Preval ultimately caved to U.S. pressure and kept the bill from passing.
  • Leaked cables that have become known as the "Amn Dawla Leaks" show the head of Egypt’s State Security Investigative Service (SSIS) had received training from the FBI in Quantico. Human Rights Watch has reported that this same man and his agency "have a longstanding and well-documented record of engaging in arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees."
There is more, but you get the idea.

A disturbing number of Americans seem to not even want to know what Manning's leaks revealed because "he's a traitor," they say, apparently putting loyalty above anything else. How about we put principle above anything else? This appeal to loyalty always reminds me of the die-hard fans of sports teams. Every time there's a game, they are there to cheer the troops on in a defeat of the opponent. When a call is made against their team, they boo, hiss and lash out, regardless of whether the call was correct. When their team makes a mistake or breaks the rules, they either say nothing or blame it on the opponent. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon opposing the Vietnam war, said, "Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism." When we're dealing with stuff that affects real people with real families and real lives, we cannot afford to mindlessly cheer for our team, not caring what happens to anyone else.

What a great myth it is that those who criticize their country must hate it. Quite to the contrary, I criticize my country when it is wrong precisely because I love it, and because I want it to be the world's shining beacon of freedom and democracy. Unquestioning loyalty is not only the bane of society but the complicit pathway to power by which some of the world's most brutal leaders have come. Yes, loyalty has a place, and had Manning's actions caused significant harm and loss of life, I wouldn't be writing this. But as it stands, the only significant loss to the United States is its credibility, something that cannot be regained by imprisoning Manning. Credibility should be earned by virtuosity, not maintained by deceit. The best way to know whether you believe in your own principles is whether you live by them.


Wichita School's "5 Pillars" Incident Shows Confusion and Prejudice

Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, KS was the center of an uproar earlier this week after a photo taken on the first day of school showing a large "5 Pillars of Islam" display was shared online. The Wichita Eagle reports that the display, which was part of a larger school curriculum, has since been taken down. State Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, said he was “appalled” when he first heard of the display. The original person posting the photo reportedly said, "This cannot stand." It's been the subject of many social media posts suggesting that there is something egregiously unAmerican about it.

Several important facts have been largely absent from the public discussion. No one apparently captured photos from other parts of the school that include displays from other religious traditions, including Christianity (there was a painting of the Last Supper elsewhere in the hallways). A spokeswoman said that the unit of study, which is part of a core knowledge curriculum in place at the school for years, has students "study Islam, as well as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism in the historical and geographical context of understanding the development of civilizations."

Rep. Hedke and other parents who are in opposition to the display have accused the school of "glossing over some of the more unsavory aspects of the religion, such as Jihad and the annihilation of Israel." They joined the loud chorus of many who go around talking about how Islam is a "violent religion," apparently not aware of the fact that the Bible contains more numerous and more graphic stories of divinely-commanded violence than the Qur'an does.

Incidents like these, which are not uncommon in this country, always disturb me for two major reasons.

First, there is a clear lack of understanding about the role of religion in public schools. In 2007, The First Amendment Center published a handbook called Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools. It was compiled by two experts, one a scholar and one a Constitutional lawyer, and was sponsored/endorsed by more than two dozen organizations as diverse as the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Evangelicals. It should be required reading for all school administrators, teachers, and concerned parents. Chapter 9 explains, in essence, that a public school can teach about religion, but cannot tell students what to believe and cannot favor one religion over another. In Abington School District v. Schempp, the 1963 case that struck down teacher-led, devotional Bible reading in public schools, Justice Tom Clark wrote:
It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization...Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.
Other commenters on this Wichita story have cried, "There should be no religion in school!" That is a very careless statement that begs to be fleshed out. Religion as an informational subject should be no more absent from public schools than it has been in the history of civilization. The Finding Common Ground resource offers several well-articulated distinctions:
  • The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.
This display was part of the school's larger effort to do this. To be fair, I can actually sympathize with a certain level of surprise at the sight of this large bulletin board on the first day of school. One may have a case in claiming that the nature, timing, and prominence of this bulletin board--irrespective of the religion being highlighted--may give the impression that a religion is being promoted. But even if the method was ill-advised, the intention was not unconstitutional. That's the legal perspective. Beyond this, Christians need to understand that such careful separation actually helps, not harms, religious belief and honors the idea of a God who does not coerce us into believing in or loving Him.

The second disturbing factor for me in all of this is the hatred or distrust toward the Muslim faith that is almost always accompanied by a lack of knowledge about it (the definition of prejudice). This has been a troubling, well-documented problem in the United States ever since September 11. You may notice one important thing about the bulletin board in question: it was blank. The bulletin board was not even finished. Other than the heading about the 5 pillars, there was no content on the board yet and they had not written up what the 5 pillars are.

I would have absolutely no problem with my children learning the 5 pillars of Islam. If they became friends with a child from a Muslim family, I would be on the front lines of encouraging them to understand their friend's beliefs. I know what the 5 pillars are and find nothing objectionable or harmful about them. Based on experience, I would venture a guess that neither the congressman nor most of the opposing parents would be able to cite a tenet of Islam. Have your opinion, but if your opinion is formed without any knowledge of the subject, that is irresponsible and one of the true banes of society. In a climate where people hold signs in public saying, "All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11," we need informed and responsible people to speak up. The 9/11 terrorists no more represent Islam than Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity. The Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, venerates and respects Jesus, sees Jews and Christians as fellow "people of the book" and not the enemy, and contains some laudable teachings that Christians would find familiar ("Treat kindly your parents, relatives, the orphans and those who have been left alone in the society," Surah 4:36). There are, of course, many points of departure as well. The Qur'an teaches that Jesus was never crucified, for example, and does indeed contain some calls to violence (though many scholars of Islam say that they are usually in the context of self-defense). But just as with Christians, the vast majority of Muslims look at the greater picture and see the ultimate goal as one of right relationship with God and people ("[God has] divided you into peoples and tribes that you might have knowledge of one another," Surah 49:13).

Although such outcries as in Wichita no longer surprise me, I still deeply grieve the vitriol that comes from the mouths of alleged followers of Jesus. Some of the rhetoric is indistinguishable from the exclusivity and nationalism we abhor in others but on which we give ourselves a free pass. This Lord and Savior we claim to follow said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." We cannot love those whom we do not even know. Think of the message this must have sent to any students from Muslim families. "You are not welcome here." Some of my own denominational leaders and theological educators are engaging in dialogue with Muslims, and I hope to see such things more widely embraced.

May we first seek to understand. In coming to understand our neighbor, the Spirit may just move us toward compassion for that neighbor. And then maybe reason and understanding will drown out fear and suspicion. That is my prayer.

This post was originally written for the Associated Baptist Press Blog and was published there on 8/27/13..


Profit, Values, and the Glorification of Walmart

You may have seen the viral post floating around social media sites that glorifies Walmart, praising its business success. In part, the post points out:
Americans spend $36,000,000 at Wal-Mart every hour of every day. This works out to $20,928 profit every minute!...Wal-Mart now sells more food than any other store in the world, has approx 3,900 stores in the USA, of which 1,906 are Super Centers...90% of all Americans live within fifteen miles of a Wal-Mart.
The post contrasts Walmart with other "broke" government-run agencies and programs, and says that if Walmart executives were running the country, we'd be much better off.

The first thing I'm curious about is how these folks imagine a Walmart-like government would achieve the massive increase in revenue that would be necessary. But here's the thing: Walmart-type people ARE running the country. They're called corporate lobbyists. Profit is their only motive and their only value, and they put gobs of cash in your representatives pockets every year so that they will vote for their interests. Campaign contributions hang in the balance for any politician who would dare not give them what they want (it's essentially a system of bribery). And here we sit in America with one of the largest income disparities in modern times. Yes, Walmart is one of the largest and fastest growing companies in the world, employing more Americans than any other corporation. But missing from this post and many others like it are the Ethics 101 questions concerning the human cost of these ends.

Here are some other Walmart stats for you:
  • A majority of Walmart's employees live below the federal poverty line--including the full-time employees--while having one of the largest CEO to store employee pay disparities in the country. 
  • The employee turnover rate is 70%, and a UC Berkley study found that employees who have been there 2 years or more make up to 32% less than their counterparts in other retail jobs.
  • Despite a campaign back in the 80s to encourage American manufacturing and purchasing, Walmart now obtains more than 60% of its goods from overseas.
  • According to a study by economist Emek Basker, when a Walmart opens in a typical United States county, three other retailers close within two years and four close within five years. Another study at Penn State found that communities with a Walmart have a higher poverty rate, all other factors being equal.
  • Duke professor Gary Gereffi found that Walmart puts constant pressure on its suppliers to lower cost however possible, leading many to turn to international sweatshops where there are little or no employee protections, and wages are as low as $0.20/hour.
  • Walmart offers some of the poorest healthcare benefits in the industry (to the 48% of its workforce that receives healthcare at all), and recently instituted a program that forces employees needing certain types of surgery to choose between one of six hospitals in the entire country.
  • Claims of withheld overtime pay are rampant with some becoming lawsuits (that Walmart employees don't have the money to fight in court).
Walmart's great for America? I think it's fair to say that such a claim is on shaky ground when scholarly studies published in peer reviewed journals have proven the opposite. 

Let me play along for a second and assume that the American government should adopt the practices of a successful for profit business (which it shouldn't). If we're going to emulate a business, let's emulate Costco (a direct competitor to Walmart's "Sam's Club"). Adding together base pay, bonuses, and stock options, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek took home 77% less than Walmart CEO Mike Duke, and yet he paid his employees approximately twice as much (looking at the average pay for corresponding positions). Only 4% of Costco's workforce is part-time, compared to 25% at Walmart. During the recession of 2008-2009, then CEO Jim Sinegal increased the pay of his hourly workers. He is quoted as saying, "This economy is bad. We should be figuring out how to give them more, not less." Since going public in 1985, Costco has endured relentless pressure from Wall Street to cut pay and benefits, but has never done so. Costco employees' self-reported job satisfaction is one of the highest in the industry, and 88% of them have company sponsored health insurance (in contrast to Walmart's 48%). The company is known for treating it's employees well, and CEO Jelinek says this is intentional: "We know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty." Retail industry expert Doug Stephens makes an observation that rings true: "A lot of people working at Walmart go home and live below the poverty line. You expect that person to come in and develop a rapport with customers who may be spending more than that person is making in a week? You expect them to be civil and happy about that?”

Both Walmart and Costco make their business philosophies clear, and they have both been effective at achieving their stated goal. However, Walmart's priority is on the ends, and Costco's on the means. From its beginning, Walmart set out to make products available at the cheapest price possible. It has done that. In contrast, Costco has focused on investing in its "human capital." It's a strategy that business gurus have written about for a long time, but the ravenous profit hounds don't have the time for it. In his best-seller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey likens the need to invest in people to the lesson of Aesop's fable, "The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg," in which a farmer, in greedy haste, kills the goose to get to his eggs faster, only to realize that he destroyed the one thing that could produce the eggs. Covey refers to it as the P/PC balance; balancing production with production capability, a balance that is particularly crucial with your human assets. Covey writes, "There are organizations that talk a lot about the customer and then completely neglect the people that deal with the customer: the employees...Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers."

All of this must be especially critiqued by Christians, those who claim to follow Christ and believe in the God who cannot be served alongside money (Matt 6:24). There's something amiss when Costco and Stephen Covey have more to say about the value of people over profits than Christians do. In the past few years, there has been a troubling wave of elected officials who successfully got people railing against "government spending" with no discussion of what the spending is for. We were pulled into an abstract debate about budgets and deficits that was morally void and paid no attention to the needs of citizens and what constitutes a good investment in the common good (which the Constitution explicitly identifies as one of the purposes of government). The result has been a government that crunches numbers while crushing people, adopting the business model of Walmart. In the midst of jumping on the bandwagon, many Christians have neglected the Bible's high value on economic justice and its concern for how the powerful treat the vulnerable. Proverbs 31:8-9 is one of the most clear and powerful: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Jeremiah 22:13-14 carries a harsh warning to those who build their wealth on the backs of the poor, as Walmart does worse than anyone: "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, 'I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.'" In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a verse the Bible that talks about the wealthy or the powerful without an accompanying warning concerning how that wealth and power is used.

In a strictly for-profit mindset, employees are annoying hindrances on the way to a fat earnings sheet. Hiring employees, especially full-time ones, is a course of last resort for businesses and is done only when consumer demand requires it. This exposes the inimical effect of giving tax breaks to "job creators" who hire part-time and low paying whenever they can. This is the pervasive reality of the business world, but Christians are called to live out and support a totally different ethic. You cannot be a Christian and value profit above the well-being of people. It's that simple. Even Costco, who treats its employees like gold compared to other retail stores, does it because it's "more profitable in the long term." As Christians, we begin with the belief that every person is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), deserving of equal worth, and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39). I have not figured out a way to have genuine care and concern for others while complacently watching them live in poverty despite having a full-time job.