Sunday, April 30, 2006

01 May fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. (Applause.) And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.

— United States President George W. Bush, May 01, 2003

Monday, April 24, 2006

which part don't they understand?

[As the US Congress returns to work this week, i offer this, posted April 11 at This is a good week to be in touch with our US Representatives and Senators, all of whom have easily accessible email addresses at and]

Let's acknowledge that the U.S. immigration dilemma is complicated and multi-layered. And loud. The din of voices speaking — even shouting — about immigration emanates from every ideology and economic viewpoint. One of the most interesting takes we've heard lately, by the way, is from Tobin Smith at ChangeWave.

The debate so far, though overly emotional at many points, is certainly broad on the macroeconomic side. But there's something on the microeconomic side that none of us at InsideWork has heard anyone talk about. So, without trying to address everything about everything, we want to hold a magnifying glass over this one thing.

Where I live, we're in the final days of a special congressional election to fill the seat vacated when Duke Cunningham pled guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors. One of the candidates is asking the rhetorical question, "Which part of illegal don't they understand? We need to tell the people who are here illegally to go back home and get in line..."

With due respect for the technical accuracy of his argument, here's what I think he doesn't understand: I believe most of the people working the meanest jobs in this country without the benefit of legal status have no intention of immigrating to the U.S.

They are in the United States to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible and go home. The handful of undocumented working poor people I've spent much time with — almost every one of them — possess a strong sense of oikos. It's Greek. Oikos is a social contract all-but-forgotten in mainstream North American cultures — but not in the rest of the Americas from which most of the workers come. Oikos is more than an extended family; it's a social economy in which everyone in an extended household looks out for everyone else. At its worst, that turns clannish and insular and bad behavior multiplies.

At it's best, being part of such a communion means doing whatever it takes to support the household — including dangerous border-crossing to find work if things get too bad at home.

What we refer to these days as Christian faith first spread in a world primarily organized by the economy of the oikos. That sentence, in fact, is redundant since oikos is the root word from which we get economics (and ecology by the way). For many —probably most — North American Christians, the notion of the oikos is as dead as the prohibition against touching pigs. What can that possibly have to do with life in this time and place?

Not to worry: what you do with bacon in the privacy of your own home is of little interest to us. But oikos as a core value in human interactions is another thing entirely, about which we have much to say. The shift in modern Christian faith from organic households to corporate structures is almost certainly a mistake, if not a hijacking. It denatures the relational ecology where people know how each other is doing because they live and work in proximity with each other. One unfortunate byproduct of that shift is the disconnect that makes way for extreme poverty:

There is a class of people for whom God is especially concerned. They are the poor and needy. These need to be distinguished from the foolish poor who are impoverished as a result of their senselessness and the wrong moral choices they make.

The truly needy are impoverished because of calamity, injustice, oppression or inheriting the indebtedness of their families. God told Israel in the Book of Leviticus that “you shall have no poor among you.” He made extensive provisions to enable the restoration of the poor to their full and productive stature as those carrying the image of God so that they can fruitfully execute the purposes of God. Again, note that God deals with people, the poor and needy, and not abstractions such as “poverty and welfare.”

Many of the causes, as well as the solutions, of poverty centered around the household. There were no “employers” that provided “jobs.” To be a part of an oikos or household meant to have access to livelihood. Compassion and justice meant creating access back to the resources that would enable a person to accomplish God’s purposes.

More Than Money, The Scriptural Roots of Commerce, InsideWork, page 80

The people I'm concerned about are not illegal immigrants; if you insist on employing that adjective, they are illegal workers doing what it takes to assure the survival of their oikos. They are always thinking of the people and place they love — always thinking of home.

What part of that do people not understand?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

step on a crack...

This from Garrison Keillor's weekly column at Salon (no kidding, I'm really glad I scraped together thirty bucks for a premium subscription):

In time, one wearies of foolishness, but not soon enough. I look at crowded bars on Saturday night as a form of hell. I see the high school girls getting plastered at the prom and vomiting their little hearts out in the parking lot and think, "No more for me, thank you very much." But there is always some fresh foolishness to try.

Here in the Midwest, we're brought up to act older and to be solemn little children, and serious young people. Many of us don't indulge in extravagances (vacations, impractical cars, haircuts that cost more than $10) until our late 30s and early 40s. Having been middle-aged for most of the first half of our life, we start thinking about maybe sowing some of the wild oats we've kept in the granary. Of course, it's hard to be wholly foolish knowing as much Scripture as we do, but sometimes in a particularly warm spring, we achieve a breakthrough and trade in the van on a red MG convertible, have our hair bleached and our foreheads Botoxed, take dancing lessons, buy the powder-blue tuxedo, look at beachfront property on Antigua, and switch from beer to Campari. Our friends are embarrassed for us. We disappear for six months and return, chastened, and take a back pew in church.

The Christian religion, let me point out, is no guarantee against foolishness. In the church that I go to, which is one of those old-fashioned churches where we sing out of hymnals, not off PowerPoint screens, and the minister doesn't have much hair and we don't hold our arms up in the air (we could but it would make it harder to sing from the hymnal), people seem to have about as many problems as they have over at First Atheist. We set out to love our neighbor and the next thing we're running off with her in the red MG.

I have found the adage "Step on a crack and break your mother's back" very useful as a guide in life. It has helped generations of kids imagine that acts have consequences beyond what we can imagine. Without meaning to, you might cause the old lady to suddenly fall to the floor, writhing in pain. Who knows how it happens? It just does. So if you stay off the pavement and walk only on grass or bare dirt, you are likely to stay out of trouble. Try it for 30 days and see if I'm not right.