Signs of the Times

¶ “One of the few missing ingredients in the wonderful new film Selma is the centrality of music during the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama march. A tiny snippet of field recordings from the march can be heard at the very end of the movie's credits, but otherwise the movie ignores the constant singing that emboldened the marchers during the four-day, 54-mile trek. Not surprisingly, Pete Seeger—who died a year ago at age 94—was there to help lift the marchers' spirits, as he did for every progressive crusade during his lifetime.” —Peter Dreier, “At Selma and Around the World, Pete Seeger Brought Us Closer Together"

The folk at The Prophetic Collection recently highlighted an amazing two-minute video of thousands of starlings creating fluid art, midair. Unmitigated grandeur.

¶ “Closing my eyes and holding still. It’s the end if I get mad or scream. It’s close to a prayer. Hate is not for humans. Judgment lies with God. That’s what I learned from my Arabic brothers and sisters.” —Associated Press report of a four-year-old tweet by Keji Goto, Japanese freelance journalist and Islamic State hostage recently killed by his captors

Bittersweet news. George Stinney, a 14-year-old African American in Alcolu, South Carolina, was the youngest person to be executed in the US, allegedly for killing two white girls. In 1944 it took an all-white jury 10 minutes to deliberate his case following a three-hour trial in which no witnesses were called in his defense. Stinney was so small he had to sit on a telephone book in the electric chair. The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), directed by Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham, in cooperation with pro bono lawyers and a SC judge, reopened the case, and on Wednesday 14 December, SC Circuit Judge Carmen Mullins  exonerated Stinney. CRRJ is working to document every racially motivated killing in the American South between 1930 and 1970. So far, they've documented about 350 cases. Most of the crimes received little attention when they were committed, and often, even the family members of the victims don't know how their relatives died.

Sweeter news from South Carolina. On Wednesday, 28 January, the “Friendship Nine”—students from SC’s Friendship College—were exonerated by former SC Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III, nephew of the judge who convicted the students 54 years ago. The group was arrested following the 31 January 1961 crime of sitting at a downtown lunch counter and, refusing bail, were sentenced to 30 days of hard labor in the country prison. The group’s original defense attorney, Ernest Finney Jr., who went on to become the first black chief justice of the SC Supreme Court, formally read the motion in the Rock Hill municipal court hearing. The city’s attorney who helped prosecute the Friendship Nine in 1961 was present, this time to shake hands with the civil rights attorney who represented the convicted men. Rock Hill’s current prosecutor Kevin Brackett apologized to the eight men still living. Watch the dramatic moment caught on film.

Patriotism’s, and piety’s, imported paraphernalia. In 2013, of the $213.8 million in imported fireworks, $203.6 million of that amount came from China. And of the $4 million spent on imported US flags, China’s share was $3.9 million. Also: China is now the largest Bible publisher (12.4 million copies in 2013).

¶ There are a variety of comparative indicators to monitor how the US economy is recovering from the Great Recession. One that stands out in my neck of the woods is the growth in Medicaid coverage (the government-funded health insurance for people living at or below an income level equal to 133 percent of the poverty line). In our county, an all-time record number of persons are being covered. Significantly, the current total is 29 percent higher than 2007, the year just prior to the recession. The figure does not include another 12,000 that would be covered if North Carolina expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
       Part of the reason is that while the number of new jobs being added is significant, a much higher proportion of them are low-waged. A recent study from the National Employment Law Project revealed that:
       •Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
       •Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
       •Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.

What’s more, the recession squeezed those of modest income in unexpected ways. A number of wealthier communities in Western North Carolina (the mountain views are luxurious)—those with high concentrations of vacation homes for the wealthy—came to depend on the taxes generated by high-end houses. But when construction slowed, taxes waned; and now tax increases on modest homes are set to rise dramatically to keep county coffers solvent.

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it. —comedian George Carlin

In case there was till a question. The gulf between rich and poor people in America has hit a new record. A December 2014 analysis by Pew Research Center finds that the wealth gap between the top 21 percent of families and everyone else is the widest since the Federal Reserve began collecting such income data 30 years ago. Last year, the median wealth of upper-income families ($639,400) was almost seven times that of middle-income families and nearly 70 times that of lower-income families
       The findings follow another Pew analysis published last week which finds that US wealth inequalities along racial lines have dramatically worsened since the Great Recession, with the gap between whites and blacks at its highest in 25 years. According to that study, which also looks at Federal Reserve data, in 2013 white household wealth was 13 times that of black households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. —Wealth Gap Between Rich and Poor Americans Highest on Record, Sarah Lazare, Common Creams, December 18, 2014

Just one week after Scotland announced its moratorium on fracking, the Welsh government voted on Wednesday to block the toxic method of shale gas extraction until it is proven safe from environmental and public health standpoints.

Other news of import—ISIS, measles, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s goal line call at the end of the Super Bowl—has drowned out coverage of the ongoing talks in Geneva by representatives of the United Nations Security Council member states (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US), plus Germany, with Iran over its nuclear power production plans. Critics of a deal, both in the US Congress and in Tehran’s parliament, are busy trying to scuttle the talks. In a significant breach of diplomatic diplomacy, House Speaker John Boehner unilaterally invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which considers Iran its chief nemesis, to address a joint session of Congress next month prior to the 24 March deadline of the Geneva negotiation. See Circle of Mercy Congregation’s “We Say No Again”  public statement (first adopted in 2007, reaffirmed in 2012) opposing war with Iran.

Friends doing training in the Middle East recently reported on a remarkable encounter in Jerusalem. A friend-of-a-friend connection led them to a few days of lodging with a gay couple, Moshe and Ahmed.
       “It was a divine appointment. We had a great time as tourists, but that's not what was interesting. Moshe is a secular Jewish Israeli. Ahmed is a Catholic Christian Palestinian Israeli (who doesn't attend church but thinks Pope Francis is the best news in a long time) working as a human rights lawyer. Moshe is doing work in human rights education with young people. He got his life turned around when he attended a program at the Center for Humanist Education at the first Holocaust museum in the world—not Yad Vashem, but the Ghetto Uprising Memorial up in the north coast of Israel. They brought together Jews and Arabs for a program that first studied the Holocaust and then studied the Nakba” [“the catastrophe,” when more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes when the nation of Israel was founded in 1948].
       “Michael connected us with Ir Amim, an Israeli non-governmental organization that is trying to do education about the situation of Jerusalem related to peace process possibilities. They gave a fantastic 4-hour free tour of East Jerusalem. Our guide, a former Israeli tank commander, gave one of the most thorough and devastating critiques of the Separation Barrier and the politics and hypocrisy behind it I've ever come across.”

Responding to the above testimony, a reverential expression seemed to appear on my computer screen of its own volition: The greatest joy in being able to circulate widely is the discovery of all the holy, redeeming anomalies God has stashed in every zip code and time zone, every latitude and longitude, every clime and GPS coordinate—and for all we know, in every galaxy as well!

Christian Peacemaker Teams’ work in Hebron, on the West Bank of Palestine, is of personal interest partly because I’ve been there and partly because a member of my congregation is now a full-time member of that team. If you’d like some brief accounts of their work, view their recent newsletter. The last item in that report includes a five-minute video of Israeli security forces arresting two 10-year old Palestinians for allegedly throwing stones at police. (See Ken Sehested’s “House to House: Reflections on a peace mission to the West Bank.”)

Every year, prior to Valentine’s Day (celebrated in a surprising number of countries), children in our church create homemade Valentine’s cards to send to inmates, observing St. Valentine’s Day as the occasion to remember those in prison. Here is a little background.
       While the existence of St. Valentine is not in doubt—archeologists have unearthed a chapel built in his honor—reliable accounts of his life are scarce. Which is why, in 1969, the Vatican removed St. Valentine from its official list of feasts.
       In ancient Rome lived a man named Valentine (in Latin, Valentinius). He was a priest and a physician but was not free to express his Christian faith without the threat of persecution. He tended to his patients by day and prayed for them by night.
       Eventually however, he was arrested for his faith and executed on 14 February 270 during one of the persecutions ordered by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. In 496, Pope Gelasius I declared 14 February as St. Valentines Day.
       It is told that a jailor in the Roman prison had a daughter who was one of Valentine's patients before he was arrested. He tended her for her blindness, but when he was arrested she still had not regained her sight. Valentine asked the jailor for some parchment and ink. He wrote the girl a note and signed it "From your Valentine." When she opened the note, a yellow crocus flower fell out of the parchment and it was the first thing she had ever seen. She had received her sight. The crocus is the traditional flower of St. Valentine.

Bumper sticker. “Spirituality” doesn’t make hospice calls.

Another foreign affairs quiz. The East African nation of Somalia recently ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, described as “the most ratified international human rights treaty in history.” Which two countries have yet to ratify? South Sudan is one. Go here for the second.

Like good cholesterol, there’s good socialism. The first bill approved (overwhelmingly so) in January by the 114th Congress renewed a federal program providing supplemental insurance covering acts of terrorism. First approved after the 11 September 2001 terrorists attacks, the current renewal will double (over a course of five years) the previous $100 million threshold.

Benediction. The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: When God created the creation, he inscribed upon the Throne, “My Mercy overpowers My wrath.” —Imam Bukhari and Muslim b. al-Hajjaj ahadith, or official collections of oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad

Featured this week on prayer&politiks
Resources for Lenten preparation (four litanies and a meditation on fasting)
       •Lent is upon us
       •Bright sadness
       •Come Into the Desert
       •Fasting: Ancient Practice, Modern Relevance
Hallelujahs and Heartaches, Too,” a poem celebrating a 25th anniversary pastorate

©Ken Sehested, Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor. Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site) for noncommercial purposes.

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