Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Someone recently asked about the problem of in/out groups and how we treat not just our neighbors, but the rest of the world. We've never had this many people on the planet and the questions of how we live together are getting more pressing. 

There are two levels to explore this; how I approach my local tribe and on the world stage. My bumper sticker answers; I would never refuse someone a meal or shelter if they came to me in need and I could provide it. For the big picture, I believe anything I do to benefit the billions of people who have so much less than me, benefits me. I’m from the land of Paul Wellstone, where we all do better if we all do better.

Granted, there is a lot of devil in the details. That one word “could” in the part where “if I could provide” leaves a lot of wiggle room. I don’t have a sign on my door that welcomes everyone and I don’t bring home a homeless person every night. If I did that, I would exhaust my resources and I no longer COULD provide. That’s the hypothetical situation that gets presented by people who don’t think these things through, when I say we should open borders or just NOT build a wall. I can’t save the world, I need the rest of the world to help me with that.

So, let’s look at the hypothetical. Let’s say we are somewhere that doesn’t have grocery stores or homeless shelters or other excess resources that we can spread around. I have friends who are growing their own food and live off the grid or are otherwise prepared for a day when there is no grid. They do this out of a sense of love for the planet and with an eye toward a communal lifestyle. I’ve also heard a few of them talk about what they would do if they were surviving while most of the people, the unprepared people, were not. A few of them have said they would defend their homes, violently if necessary.

I would not do that. Partly because I just don’t want to prepare for that. I don’t want to buy weapons and learn to use them or even consider combative types of self defense. I’d lose against almost anyone except the feeblest. But let’s same I’m just part of a group and I could just cook the food for the warriors. I still wouldn’t do it. If I did that, I’d no longer be the person I am now. I would in essence die. I would rather die a death of starvation while trying to feed and house as many people as I could, than live a life that depended on the deaths of others, deaths that I caused.

I realize as an American, I’m already living that life. My safety and security depends on a vast military supported by my taxes. That is not the same as the kind of direct action discussed above. As a citizen in a modern nation, actually for any nation or kingdom going back thousands of years, we have all benefitted from acts of violence. If we were not the beneficiaries, we wouldn’t be here. The refugee depends on the country that lets them in and defends its borders from the place they escaped. The conquered ones benefit from the peace treaty that prevented their complete annihilation. We are all born into a world with these acts in our history and most of us don’t have the power to stop it.

So what do we do in a world where the lines of good and evil are not always clear?

First, to the person who asks me why I don’t take that immigrant from Nicaragua into my home, I say, we all do that every day. As a modern democracy, we’ve decided to pay for housing for criminals. It’s called a prison. Almost half of our taxes go to take care of men and women in the military all over the world. We take of children that we’ve never met because we know something could happen to us, and that could be our kid. This is just basic altruism on a scale of millions. When we understand a need for the world, we work together to satisfy it. Obviously we don’t all agree on how to do that. That’s a conversation about democracy that is beyond my scope here. The point is we muddle through.

But what of my statement that I’d rather die than stand by while others die. Why am I not out there right now doing everything I can to save every one of those people that my military is threatening, or the kids closer to home who are hurting because of the oppressive environment and sub-par schools. I’m not going to defend my every action or list my community involvement, that’s a losing game. What matters is we aren’t all starving. This is not a post apocalyptic landscape we are living in. Truth is the things that have been important to me for most of my life have improved. There is less pollution, less hunger and more education.

Also true, I could do more. If I had better leadership skills, I could get more people doing the things I’ve done and more kids would be fed and maybe even more men would understand that it benefits them to have educated daughters. I know I’ve made some difference in the world. I’ll leave judgments up to some other power. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a theory I have. We talk about the “1%” and how they make all these higher ideas difficult to implement. We also sometimes recognize that it’s our participation in their system that benefits them. My theory is, if the people in the 50-99% range would focus more on the lower 50%, the 1% wouldn’t know what to do.

Put it this way; I’ve never known anyone to discuss helping someone who is chronically hungry by supplying them with a new flavor of potato chips or the latest variation of fizzy water. We don’t throw a banquet and invite someone who is struggling with addiction. For that matter, we don’t pick up someone living on the street and enroll them in college. Instead, we start a garden on an abandoned neighborhood lot, we hold a seminar about how to apply for and keep a job, we say hello to someone we see sitting on a corner. These are low cost measures that contribute to the same economy that the 1% say they are responsible for.

That economy depends on the participation of everyone across the entire income spectrum. What we have right now is a few people who are secure enough that they think they can experiment with how much poverty and starvation and all the problems that come with it the system can stand. They don’t care about any tribe as far as I can tell. Most of the world does not think this way and never has. History has not turned out well when there is this much wealth disparity. It is not tolerated. The question before us is can we make the correction peacefully?

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


When attempting to understand someone who holds an opposing opinion to your own, a useful exercise can be to attempt to make their argument. This can lead to more discussion with understanding and less arguing. Here, I attempt this with the immigration debate in the US. I focus on illegal immigration, but that crosses over to the general question of how we regulate all immigration.  I did my best to remain neutral about what the laws currently are. I had a little more difficulty in finding data to support the conclusion that immigrants are the cause of broad social ills. In the end, I think this is a question of who we want to be as a nation and as citizens of the planet.

A nation of laws

Laws regarding immigration to the United States have been a heated political issue for as long as there have been any laws about it at all. Immigration Acts date back to the Reconstruction era, but that’s too much to cover in one blog post. Ellis Island opened in 1892 and its storied history is engrained in our culture. The World Wars led to increasing trepidation of foreigners entering the country and to the Immigration Act of 1917, which imposed quotas. Despite quotas being abolished by the Hart-Cellar act of 1965, restricting the number of immigrants continues to be central to the debate.

Fundamental to the discussion is that we are a nation of laws. There should be no debate about that. Ideas about open borders are up for discussion, but until we design and implement laws that can promote that idea and maintain a safe and civil society, we need to operate within the laws we have. There are other aspects of this discussion that are sometimes brought up but are not covered by laws. We don’t have a law that requires anyone to speak a certain language. We don’t have laws that require patriotic statements or participation in patriotic rituals. We have a law that says you are free to practice religion however you want. There is no test for how much you love America. There is a civics test for immigrants that many natural born citizens would find challenging.

A law that is central to the current debate is how a non-citizen gets into the country. To cross the border, you must use a designated US immigration border inspection point or port of entry. To do otherwise is a misdemeanor offense. Repeated attempts can carry stiffer penalties. A misdemeanor is not a crime that automatically results in deportation. The classification “misdemeanor” includes hunting on a wildlife refuge, assault, using counterfeit money, desecration of the flag, parading without a permit, and possession of illegal drugs. These can result in jail time, but often don’t.  The consequences of crossing the border can also vary. There are also a wide variety of visas and permits that allow people to work, study and live here for limited times. When those expire, technically, they are in violation of the law if they don’t return to their home country.

 A little more complicated is the law regarding requests for asylum. If you aren’t already in the country legally and you try to make the case that you fear going back to your home country, it can come down to the judgment of one Customs and Border Protection officer and you could be refused entry, or you could be detained. These actions are discretionary under the law and recent Presidents have varied widely in their policies regarding who they detain, why, and for how long.

We are a nation of laws, and that includes due process under that law and it extends to non-citizens. A young citizen of the US accused of assault would most likely be allowed to continue their education and their work while they awaited trial. They are more likely to receive counseling and do community service rather than jail time. A person who crosses the border because they fear for their life would most likely not be able to find any legal help or be given time to prepare their case and get a fair hearing. That is how the law currently works.

The scenario I referred to above applies mainly to our southern border, a border that can be accessed via foot and is not far from countries where we know violence is occurring. Those in countries farther away can register as refugees. They will then go through background checks, extensive interviews and even biological screening involving multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies. This can take up to 2 years. Only a few of these are referred for resettlement.

When looking at a single instance and making assumptions about the innocence of the people involved, it’s easy to find flaws in the system. But there are larger issues, and policies need to be designed to protect everyone, not skewed toward a particular group. To determine if that is what is happening, we need to open up the conversation to questions of how immigrants affect our economy including our crime rates. Are they in fact, “taking our jobs”?

Who is coming to the US?

Estimates of immigrants living in the US illegally are somewhere around 12 million. That’s about 3.5% of the total population. 12 million is also the number of people who arrived through Ellis Island. When it closed in 1954, our population was half what it is now. That brings us back a couple generations. According to the US census, 3/4 of the population today identifies as at least a 3rd generation immigrant. I don’t see much argument about the fact that everyone descended from immigrants (except the native population that can trace its history back thousands of years). The current immigration debate tends to be more centered on demographics such as the few percentage points shift toward more 1st and 2nd generation immigrants that has occurred since 1998. 

This shift is a reversal of the trend of the last half of the 20th century but similar to the trend of the first half. One difference is where the immigrants of those few generations ago came from versus those from the current generation; Europe as opposed to Latin America and Asia. These are all factors that contribute to the perception of the current generation of immigrants, legal or otherwise. It would be difficult to sort out the contributions of millions of people and trace the impact of immigration from 100 years ago and compare it to recent immigration. I can however address current talking points. There is ample anecdotal evidence of crime committed by people born in Latin American countries and acts of terrorism committed by Middle Eastern immigrants. There are stories of high crime and high unemployment in some areas and stories of 1st generation immigrants working as laborers as well as owning businesses and even fighting and dying in the US military. There are stories of young Spanish speaking people having babies and dropping out of school.

What I can’t find is data that says crime rates or teenage birth rates or drug abuse occur at higher rates in immigrant populations than they do in the population as a whole. Even acts of terrorism, that is, someone killing or plotting to kill people they don’t know, are committed by legal citizens of European descent. Nor can I correlate unemployment rates to the rise in illegal immigrant population. The current rate is lower compared to before that population began rising in the 1970’s and it has fluctuated while that rise has occurred.

Controlling the southern border

Some data can support actions. The rise in border crossings on the southern border from a quarter million in 1970 to over 1 million per year during most of the 80’s and 90’s was a problem for people living along that border. A sparsely populated region can’t respond to a situation of that magnitude with its normal level of law enforcement. Serious efforts to secure the southern border began under Bill Clinton and continued with the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed by George W Bush and voted for by then Senators Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Apprehensions at the border have since returned to 1970 levels.

Meanwhile the population of Mexican-born people now in the US has steadily risen from under 1 million to over 12 million. It might be that tightening the border has led to this, since it is now harder to cross back and forth. Whereas before, people came and worked temporarily, now they stay rather than risk another crossing. Also noteworthy is that annual immigration from Mexico has declined sharply since 2005, long before talk of extensive additions to border security. The policies enacted since then may be reacting to problems that no longer exist or that could be dealt with in new ways.

Economic policies

There is no question that millions of people work in the US without proper documentation. There are also gangs that consist largely of foreign born members. There are high profile cases of people living here legally who have participated in horrific crimes in the name of their religion or ideologies that are mostly foreign to our way of life. The connection I can’t make is to how additional restrictions of immigration would alter the overall data. The elimination of a class of people to reduce problem behaviors means also eliminating workers, entrepreneurs, military personnel and others who contribute to the economy. I would need to see how those contributions can be sorted out from the problems. Is their country of origin a cause, or are crimes rates the same in all groups and better correlated to age or economic status?

There is more than anecdotal evidence that immigrants use the social services provided by our government. It is a separate debate, but many of these services began around the same time we began restricting immigration. As states it, since we have been running at a deficit, “essentially everyone receives more in public expenditures than they pay in taxes”. So, questions about socialism aside, are immigrants causing these deficits? Do they take more than they contribute? This is a complicated question. I can’t make a case that they are a cause, but I would need more understanding of economics to make the case against it.

What is an American?

Putting all the dry data about economics aside, a key issue for many is the question of just what this country “is”, what is our essence, who are we? I’ll avoid mining our history for quotes from founding fathers because support for our Christian roots can be found just as easily as quotes about keeping government and religion separate. There is more to this than our 1st amendment and even if I provided case law that supports the separation, there are still those who feel those laws should be changed. The complicated nature of our identity as a nation of immigrants and one that desires purity can be found in our Declaration of Independence, where it is stated that King George,

“has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

This appears to be a response to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that said although the colonists had participated in defeating the French, who fought along with natives, they could not expand their boundaries into the territory they had won, across the Appalachian Mountains. This could be seen as just one of the ways we wanted to be free from British rule, but the language is unmistakable, we felt we were superior and had a right to that territory. To be clear, when I say “we”, I’m referring to a group of white male land owners from a long time ago. We can’t know the pulse of the entire population at the time. We are not beholden to every thought of the men that signed that Declaration. It is however one of our most important founding documents and something we should fully understand and come to terms with.


We are a nation of laws, and currently our laws restrict immigration to a degree that many more people want to become citizens than are becoming citizens. Since we export food and have experienced unprecedented economic growth over the last century, I see no reason to believe we are at any kind of a limit to capacity. It seems rather we need more people willing to come to places that are experiencing growth and are in need of people ready to contribute.

We are a nation of laws and those laws include traditions of restricting others from crossing our borders and of welcoming others. Our Constitution is designed to allow for change because our founders knew they could not anticipate the changes that have occurred in the last 250 years. I think the best question to ask ourselves is, who do we want to be?

Friday, August 3, 2018

Jesus didn't say that

A response to a response, from the Counter Apologist.

There are few ways to go with this. CA’s original statements stands well on its. Also, in any current form of religions I know, there is no preferable universalism that I know of. My problem with Randal is, he doesn’t go far enough with interpreting hell out of Christianity. I think that can be done, although it strips Christianity down to its Jewish roots, even into some type of Reformed Judaism, so it probably is not a popular route. My problem with the Counter Apologist is the use of assuming beliefs by the gospel writers when it’s convenient while claiming we don’t know what they meant most of the time. I think this hinders the very reforms we want to see in religion.

Starting with the reforms; I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the arc of the Biblical narrative is that history has a goal, that there is some inherent reason for our existence, and it’s something good, and we need to discover our part in making it happen. This is the MLK thesis on justice and even if you take the atheist view of meaning created by the individual, it is compatible with a goal oriented form of utilitarianism as a theory for morality. To have this discussion across cultures, we need to be reasonable and accept that neither modern philosophers nor the Bible have a clear sense of what “justice” and “good” are. Modern philosophy accepts that, practically as a premise. The Bible has its moments, like Job arguing with God, but for the most part modern day practitioners of Abrahamic religion believe a supernatural force is the source of “good” and don’t care if they can’t prove it with scripture.

The above point is somewhat proven in the way Randal backtracks on his own religion when confronted with a rather straightforward problem like eternal or long lasting punishment. So let’s look at how CA supports the argument.

If atheists want to make the point that the Christian version of hell is wrong, I don’t think they need to stray deep into what the Bible says hell is. The Bible is not clear on that, that’s clear. Atheists don’t need to quote Jesus to prove Jesus was saying something. This degrades their own arguments since they begin with the understanding that the gospels are a poor reflection of any actual Jesus. This is the consensus of scholars, including religious scholars, but it seems to get forgotten when atheists start looking for proof texts. We are always quoting unknown authors and worse we might be quoting many authors in the course of just one passage.

For example, “torments” and “flame” in Luke 16 might be an allegory of justice for the rich man who neglected to care for the poor man at his gate. The thrust of the parable up to that point is about upending the power structure, and rewarding goodness for goodness sake instead of rewarding the powerful just because they do their rituals. This passage looks like a Greek version of hell getting tacked on to an earlier tale. Whether that was for better marketing of the book or because that belief was creeping into Jewish culture is debatable and barely relevant to a debate on the reality of hell.

What I think is important here is to recognize the opening Randal gives us. Christian scholars are quick to say things like Hellenism had crept into and corrupted Judaism at the time the gospels were being written, but they are slow to say exactly how. Christian scholars probably won’t lead those discussions because they suspect or fear they will result in less believers. This is exactly why atheists should be pushing in that direction.  Two passages from Revelation were included in CA’s list. Maybe Randal is open to eliminating Revelations from the canon. It has been debated since it was first proposed and is not in some Bibles. If it is an inaccurate depiction of hell that is incompatible with 1st century teaching, then let’s settle that and then move on to the next misinterpretation, redaction or mistranslation.

This might sound daunting, but I don’t think every line of scripture will need to be addressed before Christian culture begins to change. This approach to the Bible has been happening for a long time and has altered many denominations and led to reforms like women and gays being accepted. Atheists would do well to understand it.