Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Give us This Day our Daily Vote (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on October 22, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/10/22/give-us-day-our-daily-vote

In a few weeks citizens will choose who serves as President of the United States.  As many from all sides of the political spectrum have already recognized, the nationwide decision of November 6th will impact the direction of fifty states – as well as the international community – for generations to come.  Since the opposing presidential candidates offer contrasting views for the future, the choice to be made is indeed critical, thus all are encouraged to listen openly and attentively, critique the various policy positions carefully, and when the first Tuesday of November arrives, make an informed choice for the collective benefit of our global common good. 

While one should affirm and appreciate the importance of Election Day, we should also recognize and appreciate our ability to shape society far more frequently than once every four years.  In other words, while several years pass between presidential elections, we vote for the collective benefit of our global common good on numerous occasions with each passing day.   

In reflection upon our communal capacity to vote, some describe the act as directly (and exclusively) related to Election Day.  However, the act of voting is far broader and more inclusive than the first Tuesday of November every four years, for voting is – by definition – a means by which personal preferences and priorities are publically promoted.  As a result, when one takes into account a more expansive definition of voting, we recognize that voting is an act that takes place on numerous occasions each and every day.  In other words, on a repeated basis we publically promote our personal preferences and priorities, which in turn shapes our world, oftentimes in ways and means far greater than what takes place on Election Day.

One of the ways we shape our world is through economic choices.  For example, when I purchase a product, I – by definition – cast a vote, for my preferences and priorities are made known through my consumption of goods and services.  As a result, in addition to supporting the company that produced the product I purchased, I also support the process that allowed the particular product to be produced.  For instance, if I purchase an item that was produced through immoral labor practices, then I support such practices, therefore I “vote” in favor.  In addition, if I purchase a product that requires immoral harm to the earth for its production, then I support such a process, thus I “vote” in favor.  And so, while many more examples could be listed, the general idea is clear: Each and every day we cast a vote, because – by definition – each and every day we support products and processes of production that shape our world. 

With these thoughts in mind, we recognize that our economic choices serve as “daily votes” that mold our future.  As a result, if we delve deeper into the complex and interrelated nature of production, consumption, and waste within our globalized economic structure, we recognize that our daily votes are often far more influential than anything we do on Election Day.  And so, because of the public consequences of our personal preferences and priorities, as people of faith we are challenged to look beyond ourselves and ensure that our personal budgets embody our beliefs. 

When we claim that Jesus prophetically and passionately served the needs of those impoverished and exploited, then our personal budgets should embody such beliefs, thus our daily votes should advocate for the poor and marginalized of society.  In addition, when we affirm God as creator of the Earth and sustainer of our universal community, then our personal budgets should embody such beliefs, thus our daily votes should exemplify faithful stewardship of God’s creation.  All together, when we claim that Jesus came among us to bring God’s freedom from all that enslaves, then our budgets of time, talents, and resources should embody such beliefs, thus our daily votes should be cast in favor of all-liberating dignity-giving causes that promote the fullness of life. 

As Election Day draws closer, we can safely assume that much attention will be given to the formal act of voting, for the choices made at the ballot box will indeed impact our world for generations to come.  However, while November 6th is critically important, we should not forget the reality that each and every day we cast numerous important votes, for the world is our ballot box, and our daily votes shape the world in ways often far greater than anything we do on Election Day.  And so, as people of faith who trust in the life-giving Good News of Jesus, may we display faithfulness and integrity on November 6th, but may we also ensure that our budgets embody the Gospel that we dare to believe.  Since each day involves consumption, production, and waste, we recognize that God “gives us this day our daily vote”, and these daily votes shape the world and mold our future.  And so, may we cast our daily votes with wisdom and strength, and with budgets that embody beliefs, may we vote in favor of the collective benefit of our global common good.   

Character and Context (Brian E. Konkol)

The following is a pastoral letter first published in the "Dialogue" of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Volume 29, Issue 10: October, 2012), and can be found at: http://www.lelc.org/sites/default/files/Dialogues/October%202012%20Dialogue.pdf

As we consider the various changes that are currently taking place at Lake Edge Lutheran Church, we are mindful that such moments in history carry with them a diversity of emotions.  For some, change brings excitement and energy, while others feel an outpouring of anxiety and fear.  In other words, some jump for joy, while others mourn and shed tears.  In all reality, the far majority of us are somewhere between these two extremes, for we are excited, yet also nervous, and while we are energized and thrilled, we are also anxious and concerned.  And so, as we wrestle with the assortment of thoughts, emotions, and expectations that accompany us during these times of change, it is important to remain grounded in prayer, keep faith, and humbly ask God to show us a path forward.

In the midst of this period of significant and persistent change, God calls us to be faithful in two primary ways: 1) Faithful to our CHARACTER, and 2) Faithful to our CONTEXT.

On the one hand, the CHARACTER of Lake Edge Lutheran Church is that which defines our identity, and among other things, our CHARACTER is rooted in who God is and that which God is calling us to be.  In other words, we belong not to our church, but God’s church, thus it is God to whom we are ultimately accountable, and it is God to whom we seek for direction and strength.  And so, we are called by God to remain true to our CHARACTER, which is found in our vision, mission, and values.  And so, in order to remain faithful to our CHARACTER, the time is upon us to review and reflect upon our identity, for such acts are incredibly important as we move forward into the future.

In addition to our commitment to CHARACTER, we are also called by God to be faithful to our CONTEXT, for the world around us is constantly changing, thus God’s church requires flexibility and an ability to adapt to new and unfolding circumstances.  As stated by Jaroslav Pelikan, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  And so, in order to honor the mothers and fathers who helped build God’s Church in the past CONTEXT, we should not blindly accept what has always been done before, but rather, consider our current CONTEXT, and do what is best to ensure a proper future for those who will come after us. 

All together, we recognize that living in faithfulness to both CHARACTER and CONTEXT is by no means easy, nor it is rarely clear.  Nevertheless, we dwell within this tension of life, and as we move forward with faith, we trust that what remains the same in the mist of our various changes is the amazing grace of God which is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  As was the case 2,000 years ago, we at Lake Edge Lutheran Church have nothing to fear (Acts 5:38-39), thus we can listen for God’s voice with humility, yet move forward in the way of Jesus with boldness, for the God of peace and love is on the journey alongside us, each and every day.     

In the coming weeks and months, some changes will take place naturally, while others will require more intentional discussion, compassionate listening, and thoughtful decision-making.  Through it all, we should remain mindful that each change will bring gains and losses, joys and pain, and of course, support and resistance.  However, in the midst of it all, while our CONTEXT will most certainly change, our CHARACTER found in Jesus Christ must also remain, and the God that binds us together into this beautiful community of faith will continue to shape us, guide us, mold us, and move us.  And so, as we thank God for the faithfulness of those who came before us, may we continue down the path of change that God has laid before us, so that we may Dare to Embody the Gospel together, and by God’s grace, strive to be all that God is calling us to be.

Friday, October 19, 2012

SERMON: Bread, Wine, Budgets, and Belief (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio for "Bread, Wine, Budgets, and Belief", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on October 14, 2012.

http://www.lelc.org/content/bread-wine-budgets-and-belief

With Mark 10:17-31 as the central preaching text, this message focuses on the revolutionary nature of Holy Communion, and the responsibility to shape budgets that embody beliefs.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

SERMON: My Story, Your Story, Our Story, God's Story (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio for "My Story, Your Story, Our Story, God's Story", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on September 9, 2012.

http://www.lelc.org/content/september-9-2012-sermon

Among other things, this message focuses on my journey of faith, which has taken Kristen and I from the USA, to Guyana, South Africa, and now back to Wisconsin.  This is my first sermon as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

On the Incalculable Power of the People (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on September 28, 2012, and can be found at http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/09/28/incalculable-power-people

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  On a similar note, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution declares “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of; or abridging the freedom of speech…”  All together, while certain opponents exist, most agree that free speech is an essential ingredient for a mature democracy, thus it should be encouraged, protected, and further developed.

With these thoughts in mind, while we should indeed celebrate the numerous positive outcomes of free speech in the USA, we should also account for its costs, for even the most worthy of causes – such as free speech – bring an assortment of unintended negative consequences.

As our November Election Day draws closer, we are mindful that a defense of free speech has led to millions of dollars directed toward ads, phone calls, literature distribution, and other activities that seek to sway the electorate.  As countless studies have shown, the totality of these campaign strategies holds a significant impact on voter decisions and overall turnout.  In recent times, due to the Supreme Court verdict of January, 2010 (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), corporations and unions are allowed to make direct campaign contributions, thus the effect is enormous.  For instance, American Crossroads (the group associated with Karl Rove) reportedly spent over $9 million in July alone, and the group is said to have nearly $30 million yet to invest.  In addition, the Congressional Leadership Fund, NEA Advocacy Fund, and many others hold significant public authority as they influence the hearts and minds of voters throughout the nation. 

In addition to the level of financial resources raised (and spent) during election season, one can also take note of the ongoing monetary influence of our elected officials.  As lobbying is protected as an expression of free speech in the USA, the costs of such activity to our democracy is an outpouring of special interest funds that push for specific causes.  For example, from 1988 until 2012, the following are leaders in lobbyist spending: US Chamber of Commerce ($866,005,680), General Electric ($274,100,000), American Medical Association ($274,017,500), American Hospital Association (225,239,136), and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America ($224,263,920).  In more recent terms, over $3.3 billion was spent on lobbyist activity in 2012, with top spenders such as the US Chamber of Commerce ($55,350,000), National Association of Realtors ($16,162,290), Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($11,193,532), General Electric ($11,180,000), and AT&T (10,540,000).  All together, the amount of finances poured into government influence is staggering, and one can safely assume that the recipients are not allowed to forget the strong strings attached to the sources.

In light of the various costs that are associated with free speech in the USA, the time has come for serious financial reforms within our political process.  In other words, one can reason that donors are not offering their finances out of unconditional love, thus one may conclude that those placed into office are pressured to display legislative loyalty toward those who have provided assistance.  In addition, one is deeply troubled to recognize the amount of funds poured into lobbyist related activity, for the result is a disproportionate amount of influence surrounding important issues, such as transportation, defense, agriculture, energy, banking, and of course, campaign finance.  As these matters are influenced most intensely by those with the most financial resources, the poor and marginalized are too often forgotten, and as a result, we observe an ongoing spiral into poverty and gross inequality.  All together, in the midst of our current donor-dependant and finance-friendly electoral and legislative system, the number of advocates for common people (and common sense) is on the verge of extinction. 

At this point in our national history the mass electorate is relatively absent in public life, for the top earners – and more specifically, a few billionaire families – hold the majority of control upon elections and legislative processes.  Nevertheless, all is not lost.  As people of faith we recognize the dignity, determination, and dynamism of common people, for Jesus himself began with a small group of ordinary disciples and expanded an extraordinary movement that would change the course of history.  And so, in addition to the spiritual strength one draws from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as Lord, one also takes inspiration from his example of community organizing, public empowerment, and deep commitment to structural transformation.  As Jesus faced opposition from powerful elites of the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago, we also learn how to counter the disproportionate level of power that plagues our present political system.  In the midst of countless dollars invested into political fundraising and lobbying throughout our nation, the voice of the common people is increasingly left behind, common sense is evaporated, and the screams of the poor and marginalized are mostly unheard.  As people of faith who claim to follow the way of Jesus, such realities are not tolerable, and the time for dramatic transformation is upon us.

All together, while free speech has far more positives than negatives, we should recognize and critique its various costs to our democracy.  In other words, free speech does not lead to equal influence, and the current disproportionate impact of the wealthy minority has led to a multitude of societal issues for the common majority.  In many ways, if the current trend of unequal and unjust influence continues, our democracy will deepen its slide into oligarchy, and the livelihoods of the masses will be increasingly subjected to the narrow agenda of a few.  And so, as Jesus also lived within a similar era of imperial inequality, the time is upon us to draw strength from God’s Spirit, and thus follow Jesus’ example of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment.  While Jesus’ disciples were not wealthy or publicly prominent, they possessed what money could not buy, and the Spirit of God led them to follow Jesus into the pits of community dysfunction, and by God’s grace, transform the world around them.  Jesus’ grass-roots and Spirit-led movement altered the course of history, and as disciples of this day and age, we are called into the depths of our damaged democracy, for the current situation is not acceptable.  While speech is free, the impact of common people connected through community is beyond calculation, and such a movement is needed to ensure our government is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Isolation, Integration, and the International Day of Peace (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on September 21, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/09/21/isolation-integration-and-international-day-peace

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States currently spends more than  $711 billion per year on military expenditures, which is – by far – the most of any country in the world.

In fact, if one were to combine the totals of the next 14 nations on the list (China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, India, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Turkey), their combined amount is similar to the USA.  All together, the USA provides about 43 percent of worldwide military costs, and in addition, the USA per capita ($2,240) and percent of Gross Domestic Product (4.8 percent) in relation to military funding is far greater than any other nation in the world.

With these statistics in mind, one is provoked to ponder some important questions. For example, what is revealed to us about the USA – and our world in general – when military expenses constitute such a significant percentage of a government budget?

In specifics, why does the USA spend far more on its military than any other country? In addition, what is revealed to us about the condition of our global village when $1.73 trillion is allocated each year to military funding? As stated by Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis, “A budget is a moral document.  It clearly demonstrates the priorities of a family, a church, an organization, or a government. A budget shows what we most care about.”   

As we celebrate the International Day of Peace (also known as World Peace Day, which falls each year on Sept. 21), one proposal worth exploring is the implementation of a U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence into the USA federal budget.

In specifics, in February of 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives heard H.R. 808 (first introduced in July of 2001) to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace and Nonviolence that embodies a broad-approach to peaceful, non-violent conflict resolution at both domestic and international levels. Among other things, the Department of Peace and Nonviolence would serve to promote non-violence as an organizing principle of life, and help to create the conditions for a more peaceful world.

The following are some highlights from the proposed legislation:
  • Establish a cabinet-level department in the executive branch of the federal government, headed by a Secretary of Peace and Nonviolence, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  The Department of Peace and Nonviolence would be dedicated to peacemaking and the study of conditions that are conducive to both domestic and international peace. 
  • The mission of the Department of Peace and Nonviolence shall be: to hold peace as an organizing principle; endeavor to promote justice and the expansion of human rights; strengthen non-military means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution; and take a proactive, strategic approach in the development of policies that promote national and international conflict prevention, nonviolent intervention, mediation, peaceful resolution of conflict and structured mediation of conflict.
  • The Department will create and establish a Peace Academy, modeled after the military service academies, which will provide a 4-year concentration in peace education.  Graduates will be required to serve five years in public service through programs dedicated to domestic or international nonviolent conflict resolution.
With these thoughts in mind, one way to celebrate the International Day of Peace is to support a Department of Peace and Nonviolence within a USA government that spends far more on its military that any other nation in the world.  If we value peace, our budget should reveal it.

While some might view such actions as anti-military, one would like to believe that all people – especially the brave women and men sent off to war – would appreciate the pursuit of alternative structural responses to violence.  In addition, a commitment to peacemaking would send a powerful message to others within the global village, and would thus empower the USA to engage more fully and faithfully with others in our international community.

As people of faith we should be attentive to the various dangers in our global village, and protection from harm is indeed necessary.  However, in response to the peace we ultimately find in Jesus, our global community is called to live in harmony and display mutual respect, offer compassion, and promote dignity.

While the ongoing cycle of violence and anger around us may appear to be unsolvable, hope should not be lost, for we find peace in the embrace of God, and in the way of Jesus – the Prince of Peace – we see a path laid before us.

And so, instead of allowing military expenses to define our relationships within the international community, the time has come for our faith to drive us toward embrace, to accompany our foreign companions, and in doing so, cooperate toward a more peaceful and nonviolent global village.  A better world is indeed possible, and while the road to such a place is indeed long and winding, it is paved with peace, and we are called –one step at a time – to keep moving forward.