Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Gated Community Ethics

Hi Marcia,

We've been here in Stellenbosch (Cape Town, South Africa) for a month. We have been guests of some dear folks while awaiting our apartment to become available. Being long-term guests has its own sidelights, but I am more troubled by where we are guests.

This is a gated community perched on a beautiful hillside with a view of some breathtaking mountains, surrounded by vineyards. There is a rather unsavory ramshackle settlement a few kilometers away and out-of-view with all the resulting problems of poverty and crime.

But we are ensconced in a mini-paradise of 1200-1500 architecturally impressive homes. An electric fence with proper warnings surrounds us. Two gates control ingress and egress. Residents have their index fingers registered to admit them without disturbing the guards. We are guests, so we sign in and out and guards scan our licenses and car registration every time we come and go. 

The guards at the gate are friendly souls, greeting us with banter over our Texas licenses and generally making folk feel good about how secure the haven is. And it is a haven. The roads are paved and bricked. There are ponds and parks, places to walk, garbage is non-existent, people are carefree as they walk their dogs and nannies push their children in prams. One hears peacocks screaming from the neighboring exotic animal farm and sees horses grazing on the hillside. Bucolic, serene, safe.

So what is my problem? It's a gated community.

Something in me doesn't like the whole idea. I will be relieved when we move our bits and pieces to a less remarkable place. Am I judging them or is this just what is right for me?

My concern is the basis for this type of lifestyle. It appears to be based on fear. Fear for the safety of one's family. Fear of what is going on in that random hodgepodge of shacks just over the next hill. It also appears to be rooted in comfort: the need to have everything just so. There are outdoor fireplaces (complete with chimney and weather vane) attached to most of these homes and one can smell the meat roasting many evenings. The gardens are delightful and attest to the creativity and means of those enclosed by them. The residents walk casually, barefoot or shod, absorbed in their mobile devices--confident that they will reach home safely.

Why does this disturb me? Shouldn't I be happy for them? That they have found security in such a volatile country? Just over those cut-out mountains, vineyard workers have rioted and burned and vandalized.

I suspect the folks are telling themselves some half-truths. And it's usually the half of the truth that isn't told that gets us.

1. They are telling themselves this isn't discriminatory. They are half right. Residence here does not discriminate on the basis of color. There are people here of every shade. This is a rainbow residence. But it does discriminate based on economics. And the cost alone is the factor that eliminates the riffraff. Where am I, as a follower of Jesus, in the midst of this?

2. They tell themselves that living here is a free choice. They are half right. People can choose not to live here, but they cannot choose to live here unless they meet certain criteria. What kind of free choice is that? Or perhaps am I too simplistic.

I look around me, and although it is very much like middle class America, I feel uncomfortable. Who am I to judge these people and what they have been through? I do not know their stories or the price they have paid to survive. But I wonder if Jesus came to South Africa today whether He would live in a gated community.

What do you think, Marcia?

Dear Karen,

I had to read your post several times to ascertain the real issue you present. I'm still not quite sure.

Is it fear vs trust?

Is it wealth vs poverty?
Or is it class discrimination?  

I don't live in a gated community, but I do live in one of the safer neighborhoods in my city. And those who can't afford the homes here can't live here. 

I like having neighbors who are gainfully employed, who don't make noise or trouble in the streets, who keep their yards neat and landscaped. The streets in our subdivision were resurfaced last summer, and I like how smooth they are. 

I'm feeling a little guilty right now. But not guilty enough to unlock my doors before I go to bed tonight. Not guilty enough to move out of my home and into a sketchier part of town. 

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is full of admonitions toward the rich: Don't oppress the poorBe generous. Be merciful.

But I don't see a passage that tells us that everyone should be financially equal. Jesus's advice to the rich young ruler is a thorn in our side, of course. But we certainly don't want to proof-text there! 

Would Jesus live in a gated community? Of course not. Should you? Definitely not. Should the people who live in your host home live there? Probably.

I think God gives each of us passions that everyone else will just not share. I read that Jim Elliot asked his classmates in college why they were not going into foreign missions. His passion, to him, was the correct one. 

And your passion, Karen, is to live closer to the poor so you may better minister to them. I am proud to be your friend. I'm proud of your ministry. And I'm so glad it's not mine. That irritation in your heart when you look through the gate to the other side? it's like the sand that irritates the poor oyster before he makes the pearl.

It will be a lovely pearl, I'm sure. I'm looking forward to seeing it. 

God's blessings as you and Phil begin your ministry.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Comparing African and American health care

Last year, while you were living in Zimbabwe, Phil fell out of a tree and shattered his ankle. I shook my head as I read your account of scurrying around, trying to collect the cash required for each Xray and consultation.

Now, as you are in the States, poor Phil has fallen off of his bike and broken his collarbone. Can you compare the quality, access, and procedures of the health care industry in the two countries?


Very good question, but it took me a while to get my thoughts together. Being in the middle of the American labyrinth made it hard to see the big picture.

But now, a couple months on, I can make an attempt at objectivity. Surprisingly, I found them very similar.

The preliminary paperwork, getting "accepted" and all our ducks in a row was complicated in both places. Different ducks in different rows, but bureaucracy grinds on both sides of the Atlantic. We were no more/no less patients to the paper pushers. The Zimbabwean protocol requires money up front. The Americans just require you to sign your life away, and be in some network (which they may or may not be able to verify) before treatment commences.

Once you are in medical hands, the differences fade. People who deal with hurting folks are kind and friendly on both counts. We found nurses, doctors, techs all interested in us as people--eager to talk and sympathetic. Both sides also shook their heads and bemoaned the system they worked for, seeing it as ungainly and impersonal. (They were right on both counts.)

Obviously, there is a massive gap in the technology of Africa and the US. In Africa it was a little more footwork for us, as we had to run our blood to the lab or get ourselves to the x-ray room. But overall, unless one suffers from an exotic disease with difficult diagnostics or treatment, the tech level is insignificant. Highly technical societies depend on their technology, charge more for it, and only occasionally get the benefit. Phil calls this the law of diminishing returns. For example, in the US an MRI was ordered for his ankle. We were not in system, so it took quite of bit of extra effort to find a place which would take cash (the cost being half, $400, of the $800 had it been an insurance charge.) In the end, the money was ill-spent. The results were "inconclusive" and the orthopedic surgeon we found for Phil's shoulder assured us that an MRI could not have determined anything on the ankle. Technology in the wrong hands--

One raging difference between the US and Zimbabwe was the prices. Of course, you know that African prices are going to be less, much less. Less than a tenth of here. That is not the significant difference. In Zimbabwe, if you need an x-ray, they tell you now much it is, depending on the size. It is that price. All the time. Every day. But in the US, prices are negotiable. X-rays vary in price and size depending on YOU. Not the hospital or clinic, but whether you have insurance or are in their network. Why prices are such arbitrary items, I don't know. The organization should know how much it costs them, have a mark-up, and there is the price. But insurance and a host of other variables skew things. We pay much more for much less. And we will rarely get an answer to: "How much will this cost?" because no one knows. It depends on all the variables in your paperwork. 

The quality of care and sincerity of the health workers was comparable between the US and Zimbabwe. The bureaucrats also rated equally, with a parallel indifference to your situation and your patient's suffering. Their job was to get the money. Nothing else seemed to matter. In Zimbabwe, they demanded it up front, in cash. In the US, your signed everything and they would get it out of you or your insurance company one way or the other. It was all about the money, either way. Both countries get high marks for competent and personable health workers. Now if we could only turn medicine into a community service instead of a business.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Drive-thru politics

I am not going to eat Chik-fil-a now because I never have. Why should I start filling my body with fast fried food because I happen to agree with a man's definition? What on earth are Americans thinking?

Dorothy Sayers warned us: ". . . regulations founded on consent are confused with claims to interpret universal law, and vice versa; with the result that the logical and historical structure of Christian philosophy is transformed in the popular mind to a confused jumble of mythological and pathological absurdity."

I make no bones about my traditional view of marriage. But I don't put it in people's faces, either. Goading and "honesty" tread a very fine line. When my two kids were smaller, I must have told them not to provoke each other so many times that I would occasionally get informed, "Mom, so-and-so  is provoking me." And they knew it was wrong--as kids they knew.

So why on earth are all of us grown ups acting like a bunch of kids who didn't learn the basics of getting along with others in kindergarten?

There is no chance I am going to start in on either side of this gay marriage issue because there is NO POINT. In the long run, it doesn't make a hill of beans difference if the US constitution or legal system declares something legal. If it is good in God's sight, the law-makers are redundant. And if it is not, their saying so doesn't change the deeper reality.

Most of all, I'm ashamed of my sisters and brothers in a Body in which we are supposed to be known for our love. Taking sides instead of making peace. This isn't a hill to die on. We can die or fight on, but the victory and truth have already been assured. Let go of it, I cry to my family, my fellow believers. Let truth and reality slowly dawn a new day.

I am tainted by the reading of so many books on the apartheid era that even showering doesn't make the repugnance of it go away. A powerful government with an inhuman constitution decided that an entire group of people (determined by skin color) were sub-human. The laws passed were appalling. But they were legal. 

That didn't make them right. So, don't you suppose we can leave it with God? He was the One with the idea of marriage in the first place. I imagine He can preserve it without our engendering more animosity than we already have.


Whoa, simmer down there, girlfriend. I'm a member of the suburban Christian homeschool community. I, too, have been exposed to the wild indignation of conservatives on this point. Sometimes I'm embarrassed to be identified with them. Sometimes, like you, I'm ashamed of their unloving attitudes. And sometimes I'm downright jealous of their ability to live in a black-and-white world. It seems so much less stressful than my own daily struggle.

To clarify the issue, Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, said, when asked his opinion, "We are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.' I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about." 

We never would have heard his opinion if it weren't for the reactions of some high-profile political figures.

Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago: “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values."
Boston's mayor, to Chick-fil-A: "I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston."

San Francisco's mayor: "I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer."

That's when "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" happened. And now Mayor Emanuel, choosing not to escalate the debate, says, "enough has been said already."

 Isn't America great? We have the right to make the wisest and stupidest comments. We have the right to spend our money on junk food. We are truly blessed. And let me assure you I'm not being sarcastic.

Now, on to your comparison of gay marriage and apartheid laws. Do you really think we should "leave it with God"? I don't think we should let the government decide the legal definition of marriage, and I don't think Nelson Mandela thought the government should make apartheid laws.

Opinions are easy to state. Stating them lovingly is hard, but it is our responsibility.

When you're in town, let's go to Chick-fil-A! Not as a statement, but for lunch. I've never heard a bad comment about their food. 


Saturday, July 28, 2012

Justice: cultural or universal

While we ponder this justice question, some questions bubble to the surface: 
Where do our ideas of justice come from? 
Is it human to simply find excuses to rationalize our behavior by redefining justice?
I'm on my fourth biography of Nelson Mandela, and am reading Steve Biko and Desmond Tutu. It's a sobering experience to see what humans do to one another in the name of their perception of justice. Apartheid is a screaming example of skewed "social justice."

Here are some thoughts I wrote several years ago while we still lived in Quelimane. the complications of culture seethed through the weird gruesomeness of this story. Here, Marcia, is an example of African justice from 2009.

We can’t say that we’re having a drought here in eastern Zambezia, after all, we have had some rain. But it hasn’t been enough to keep the seedlings alive. When it comes, it spatters and leaves.

In the developed world there are many theories about such freakish weather, not the least of which might be global warming, that scapegoat catch-all. But Africa is different. When things go wrong in Nature, people start looking around for who is responsible.

Yesterday as the rain clouds threatened, and thunder rolled, I waited in the heat for the release of cloud buckets and the smell of wet earth. Instead, the weather toyed with our expectations, promised, and withdrew. Disappointment. At least I hadn’t gone out and transplanted seedling flowers like Jacky had.

You know, I was nearly tempted to complain to the Lord; He is in charge of the weather, after all. But I think I found out why it didn’t rain later in the afternoon. An outlying village, also hard hit by the dryness, went on a witch hunt and decided that a widow with an elderly mother was responsible for the drought. So they caught her and beat her “to a pulp” were the words used to me. Two timid police on a motorcycle came and reluctantly took her away for her own safety. The crowd turned on her mother. Their house was destroyed and belongings smashed.

I don’t know how either woman is doing. My heart goes out to them. How sad to live where you can pay the price for something all reason would tell you was out of your small control. Why did they pick on her, I wanted to know. Apparently, as a widow she is supposed to accommodate whatever man in leadership wants accommodating. But since she would not hand out sexual favors to the leaders, she was the scapegoat for the community.

I just talked with a well-educated Mozambican friend who has confirmed this story and added that there have been a variety of incidents like this: some scapegoats have not had police assistance and have died at the mob’s hands. Makes me wonder: what type of mind would think that a person who could control the weather would still be weak enough to be victim of a hostile rabble?

There are well-meaning non-government organizations who disparage mission work because it interferes with the local belief system and challenges the culture. “The people are perfectly happy in their own milieu,” they insist. Ask the scapegoats, I say.

Anyway, now I know why it didn’t rain yesterday. And today clouds promised and wimped out, too. And hot as I am, I’m glad.


Abuses like that don't generally happen in the States. It's not because we are better people, more moral. We are equally depraved. But in our western culture, there is an ethical code of justice and equality.

So we Americans exercise our evil natures secretly. Many saintly Christian men abuse their families behind closed doors. School children are bullied under the cover of the herd, sometimes to the point of suicide. The anonymity of the Internet has revealed the depraved and vindictive nature of the public.

So, is there a difference in the rampant evil of the two cultures? Probably. We have a code of ethics, written and understood, that reins in an evil that runs unchecked in other cultures. We may not be better morally, but our identity is bound up in our standard, and the opinions of others regarding our behavior are important to most of us.

Will the western world continue to prevail in justice? Probably not. Human nature is not to act justly. Our view of the world is a snapshot of the brief time in which we live.

Oddly, I think that, the bolder depravity is expressed, the better the chance true Goodness can be seen in contrast. And God is a God of justice.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Just and Fair, or is it?

I feel uneasy assuming toddlers understand justice because they have a sense that if someone else has something that they want, they, too should have it. I tend to draw a broad line between "fairness" and "justice" because in western culture, the line is so thin it borders on invisible.

To me, "Justice" embraces equal rights and responsibilities, protection from corruption, and an underlying respect for one another. It is about not showing partiality (Dt 16:19) and treating foreigners and dispossessed with consideration (Dt 24:17). It isn't about everybody having the same amount or equal shares. That is the concept kids invoke in their time-honored, immature assessment of life having gone counter to themselves: "that's not fair." 

And it may well NOT be fair. But fair and just are not the same. How on earth did they get so tangled together that we end up watering down the mighty notion of Justice to  equal opportunity, equal pay, equal education? And because we've focused on items which we believe to require attention, we blind ourselves to where the true injustice is: in our hearts. We think by a token redistribution of stuff that we have implemented Justice. 

Our hearts are far from it. 

Justice is a very big deal to God. But He doesn't implement it by giving all His children the same things, gifts, abilities, or brains. Justice isn't about stuff. I have a sneaking suspicion it is about a state of mind. When the Queen of Sheba was overwhelmed by Solomon's opulent possessions--greater than had been reported, she surmised that God gave it to Solomon because He loved Israel and made Solomon king to maintain justice and righteousness.

Justice and righteousness are a package deal in the Scripture. They come together as attributes in a person or in commands for behavior. And they describe God and His Kingdom. 

Sadly, it seems like we just don't get it. Out in the obviously oppressive tyrannies of  underdeveloped countries, it is easy to finger one injustice after another. You find it at all levels. Seems like here in the US we are trying to fix the problem of miscarried justice by making everything fair. Promoting a sense of entitlement. Education is a right. A comfortable home and safe vehicle, rights. Medical treatment, a right. The vote, a right.

Maybe it makes people feel good to argue or fight passionately for these things to be equally available to all. But they are not fighting for justice. Because justice has to start in the heart, and it isn't in there unless we ask God to put it there.

God got sick and tired of the rituals of Israel (they did animal sacrifices, grain offerings, and sang lovely music). He just told them: "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." (Am 5:23-24)

Off there in the developing countries, they are heartsick for lack of justice. They are resigned. They are victims. They have so little hope. We Christians need to bring the word of justice to them. And share their lives and infuse the hope of justice. 

Instead, I see organizations sending money to rectify a heart problem and then shrugging when it doesn't provide a fix. Being a messenger of Hope takes time, not money.


Time, yes, but, as you said, a heart change is crucial.

In the US, the history of African-Americans shows the hard heart of the masses.

At first, these Africans were treated like animals--taken, sold, used for uncompensated, hard labor.

Their emancipation began decades of their being treated not as peers, but as aliens. Most whites made no effort to integrate them into society.

Those who cared (there are always some) came up with the concept of affirmative action. African-Americans were given legal preference at times, in school and employment.

So, do we now live in a just society? Not as long as hearts are hard against others.

A black friend of mine, married to a white man, told me two stories. In the first, her young daughter was invited to a classmate's birthday party. This classmate whispered to her that she want my friend's daughter to arrive at the party with her daddy, not her mommy.
In the second, my friend made an enthusiastic acquaintance, who intimated to her that she had "always wanted a black friend." It makes me sad that some can't see my friend as a person.

The legislation of hearts is not possible. 

I would like to hear more of your experiences with both justice and injustice in Africa. I'm wondering, too, how do we compare? And what can we do?


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Injustice: tasting it or living with it

Marcia, yesterday I read your latest blog post on Strengthen the Things that Remain (marciathomas.blogspot.com). Then I noticed that I'd missed the one on "Justice" which you posted in June. It stirred some strong feelings in me. (If you're reading this, I recommend reading that post as well.)

I've lived in the parts of the world where Injustice runs things with an Iron Hand. You have lived in a pretty secure "bubble of justice" as you described it.  You were very observant about one thing: if you live in that bubble and confront injustice, you feel rage. If it is part of the warp and woof of your life, you become resigned.

I commend you for seeing the damaging effects of long-term injustice.  You said:
"Injustice can destroy your soul. Or bless you with empathy and hope."

Injustice is soul-destroying, searing, desperately painful. Its victims die or shrug; there seem to be no alternatives. You mentioned being blessed with empathy and hope. Key word there is empathy. 

Empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of another. Sympathy is sorrow for their misfortunes. Empathy is going to get you off your seat and help you do something. Empathy is for people who are on the outside of the injustice looking in, but feeling it along with the victims. Even empathy can make you burn out sometimes.

The "good people" of the world have faced this awful thing, injustice, and have come up with an odd crusade for "social justice" which makes me wonder what about being social makes it any more just. Justice is something every Christian should pray for, crave, and insist upon wherever he or she is. Crying for justice from God is one of David's favorite things to do in the psalms.

I love this St Francis prayer (whether it's his or not, he should get the credit, he lived it):

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. Amen.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. Amen.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection,starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. Amen.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.
And the Blessing of God, who Creates, Redeems and Sanctifies, be upon you and all you love an pray for this day, and forever more. Amen.

I especially love, "bless you with enough foolishness to believe you can make a difference." That is probably our best defense and offense against injustice meted out to others. As for injustice we receive ourselves, the best advice I have heard is:
"Never look for justice, but never cease to give it."--Oswald Chambers


The desire for justice is present in every toddler I've known. "He has one, and I want one, too." Self-centeredness is its close companion, so the reverse sentiment is rare. More likely, the feeling is, "I have one, and I'm going to hold onto it."

Maturity and empathy can move us toward the desire for justice for others. Ignorance, as you know, often results in throwing money at people who have none. This is what some call "social justice" and it ends with an attitude of entitlement.

Believers are tiptoeing through this quest for justice. If it were only so easy as treating one another with respect.

I would like to hear more about your concept of justice, social and otherwise, since you have spent so much of your adult life in the third world.

How much can we accomplish in this fallen world?

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you  and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. --2 Thessalonians 1:6,7


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Changing with technology

My first job when I left college was answering salesmen's calls and writing down the numbers they dictated to me. When I told my kids, they laughed, as if I told them I had been a scrivener. (Remember Bartleby by Herman Melville? People still read books, right?)

Technology seems to be changing lives more quickly now than when I was younger. When he was small, one of my children believed the world had been in black-and-white because the old TV shows taught him that (color was invented in the '60's, I think).

Like my first job, activities are rapidly becoming obsolete. I no longer wait for my credit card statements in the mail. I hardly ever write checks. I text my kids when dinner is ready instead of calling to them. I'm waiting for the app that does laundry. That would be amazing.

When my husband and I went plant-shopping, I got out my phone to take notes on the descriptions and care of shrubs. He got out his phone and took pictures of the descriptions. I guess he won.

Remember, Karen, when you were overseas and the only way I could contact you was to write on a thin, blue piece of paper? I'm guessing technology has changed your life at least as much as mine. What have you experienced?

Ah, yes, those thin, blue pieces of paper. Aerogrammes: and I could fit more words on one of those, all in the name of economy. At my feet is a bag with 2 manila envelopes bursting with those very items. My mom saved every letter I ever wrote her while I was in college and in Africa. Now I am teetering on the blade: keep them? toss them? what do I do with all those memories?  Fast forward: I'm a mom of college kids and technology has changed my world. I don't have a single letter from either of them. They text me. Or email. No piles of ancient mss for them to deal with in the future.

Back in the day, it took six weeks for me to get an answer from my folks. Three weeks each way. Now I find out if Isabel's work schedule has changed on the very day it happens. Over the years I have found out weeks/months after the fact that my uncle or cousin has died. On Monday I heard (via Facebook ) that my best South African friend lost her husband on Saturday night. 

That kind of change means that Africa isn't the same place I arrived in back in 1977, fresh out of college. Back then, Africans missed funerals, too, because they had no quick communication. Now with cell phones, they find out and make their sojourns. (No one in Africa misses a funeral if he can help it.)

Interestingly, Africa has leap-frogged quite a bit of technology. People who live in huts without water and electricity will never deal with landlines, they have cell phones. They will never struggle with antennas for tv reception, they watch DVDs. They have no need to read books, they go straight to video.

One hugely difficult decision in packing for Africa was: which books do I take? I'm a bookaholic. Now I have hundreds in my iPhone and iPod and don't wrestle with that at all. Believe it or not, when I went to Swaziland the first time, I hauled a reel to reel tape recorder so I could listen to music. To say nothing of those miles of tape. Smile.

And as for movies: you only saw them in theaters, once. Unless you were very extravagant. Now you can rent, buy, or download them. They are yours as long as you want to bother to watch them.

Most of these changes focus on entertainment and communication--making my life easier and more convenient. I think that has numbed me to what it does to my self: lulling me into thinking I ought to have convenience.

How can I exploit this technology to build the Kingdom of Heaven in Cape Town or wherever I end up? That will take more thought. I remember Dad telling about how he knew God made him an engineer, but could not imagine how God could possibly use an engineer in missions. He struggled with that. Before he died he built five Christian radio stations around the world. If I struggle, I might figure it out, too.