Who Cares?

Statue, Three Servicemen, Vietnam Veterans Mem...
Statue, Three Servicemen, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Years ago, while living in Detroit, I was visiting some friends. We were playing a board game and laughing and eating. Out of nowhere, a car backfired, and the husband of my friend was suddenly under the table, his eyes wide, breathing heavily. He had broken out into a sweat and was clearly terrified.

He was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (although it hadn’t been diagnosed at that time.) His wife said that he hadn’t been the same since he returned from Vietnam. He was nervous and edgy; loud noises terrified him, he suffered from nightmares, and just wasn’t the same. To add insult to injury, she said that she couldn’t get the VA to admit that he had anything wrong with him, so she wasn’t able to get him the medical and psychiatric help he needed.  I moved from Detroit soon after and lost contact with my friend; I often wonder how her husband is doing.

Fast forward thirty, forty years and it seems that veterans are not having all that much better luck in getting treated well or in being able to get necessary medical and/or psychiatric help once they get home from war, if what I read and have listened to is correct.

According to an article which appeared in The New York Times, there is what is called a “crushing inventory of claims for disability, pension and educational benefits” for returning vets. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/us/veterans-wait-for-us-aid-amid-growing-backlog-of-claims.html?pagewanted=all) Far too many homeless people these days are veterans (http://www.newdirectionsinc.org/press_ap.html), many cannot get mortgages, some lose their homes while they are deployed, and reportedly the rate of suicide for veterans continues to rise.

I think about this sad reality as we celebrate this Veterans Day. Clearly, young men and women have sacrificed their lives for the United States.  I am not so sure what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, earlier, Vietnam, have been about, but regardless of my confusion, and the confusion of many in our country, young people went and fought.  World Wars I and II vets, wars which seem a little more focused in purpose, produced a slew of veterans as well…and from what I have read, they were not treated much better than present-day vets.  And if white vets have been treated poorly, it goes without saying that vets who are people of color have suffered even more.

It leads me to ask, “America, where is your conscience? How can our government treat vets so poorly?

People who go to war do not come back the same as they were. It would seem that coming back “the same” is impossible. If one gets into a habit of killing other human beings, if one sees ones friends blown away, sometimes in front of them, if one sees horrible suffering day after day, suffers egregiously on battlefields, and really can’t talk to anyone about what the stupid war is doing to his or her mind,  it cannot be expected that he or she would be the same.

And yet, they are treated as being the same. I have seen vets hailed and applauded as they have gotten on flights, on the last leg of their flight going home…or cheered as they have gone off to war. We have somehow, for some reason, romanticized war…and yet, there is nothing romantic about it. After the applause at an airport, after or in spite of the annual Veteran’s Day parades,  the sad reality of “being home” sets in, with nothing the same, and, presumably, not many outlets for help.

These young men and women, too many of them, walk around in torment, unable to function normally. Too many end up homeless; too many commit suicide.

One vet’s experience I read broke my heart.  This young man returned home from war. He was a mess. He would wait for his wife to go to work and “pull the blinds and take out the booze.” He would toy with his gun, sometimes putting it in his mouth, courting suicide. Finally, his behavior became too much for his family. He lost his wife and family, and ended up homeless. (http://www.newdirectionsinc.org/press_ap.html) Sadly that scenario is all too common.

Who cares about the veterans? I mean, in the government, who really cares? Why is there such a backlog of claims for veterans seeking help?  It seems wrong; the country is eager to use these men and women to “fight for America” and when their tours are up, America has little to no time for them. It is kind of reminiscent of how football franchises uses young men to win games for them to help make them rich, but when their playing days are over, the franchise has difficulty getting them help, especially medical help, they need. Many a football star lives a rough life, fraught with suffering, after their playing days are over.

Understanding how difficult it is for vets to get treated with dignity once they get home, the parades bother me anymore. Who cares about these vets once they get home? What is the celebration about? How can we celebrate wars fought if we cannot and do not really honor and take care of the human beings who fought in them?

A candid observation …

Somebody Ought to Tell the Truth!

In a front page article written by  Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff which appeared in The New York Times on February 12, a gentleman was described as being

, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
Image via Wikipedia

anti big government. He printed tee shirts for his local Tea Party affiliate, and says he doesn’t need or want help from the government.

Yet, the article said, he gets a payment from the government every year, a subsidy for working families called the “earned income tax credit,”  “he has signed his three school age children up to receive free breakfasts,” paid for the by the federal government, and his mother, who had to have hip surgery twice, is on Medicare – again, a federal program.

This kind of situation is not the exception, but, rather, the rule, and I am finding it harder and harder to listen to GOP presidential contenders talk about how they will slash domestic spending because it represents big government. At the end of the day, politicians are not telling people the truth, but, rather, what they want to hear. The people are not clear on what “big government” is, and politicians are allowing their ignorance to remain, because their lack of knowledge is the pot in which raw emotions fester, and politicians know that many an election has been won by stirring the right pot with the right emotions.

Are people really thinking about what would happen if the host of government benefits we all take so for granted suddenly were not there? What WOULD happen to our elderly if Medicare were no more?  The Times article said that “dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in 2009, a 69 percent increase since 2000.” The article said that older people get most of the benefits, primarily through Social Security and Medicare. So, if we cut domestic spending, how would “the least of these,” in this case, the elderly, get by?

Rick Santorum said that while Jesus wanted people to help poor people, social justice creates lazy Christians. That statement was stunning in and of itself, but it is disturbing and misleading and leads Americans to visualize “the poor” as lazy and probably members of a minority group. Like it or not, there are certain buzz words that get self-righteous Americans stirred up about who “the American taxpayer” is helping…but what is not being discussed or highlighted is that, again according to the Times article  “the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits.” Now it seems that the doling out of government benefits has been more focused on saving the slowly dying middle class.

There is no doubt that the nation’s economy, in fact, the world’s economy, is in horrible shape.  GOP presidential hopefuls who want to beat President Obama cannot be pleased that the economy seems to be getting better, albeit slowly. That fact takes the wind out of their argument that the Obama administration is a “failed presidency,” but they still beat the drum that the biggest reason, or one of the biggest reasons the economy has pitted is because of big government and reckless government spending.

Somebody needs to be bold and tell the truth about what is going on. Rick Santorum looks like a clean-cut, all-American choir boy, and he stands on his Christianity, but Christianity  i.e., the following of the Christ – demands a social conscience and a heart for “the least of these.” Santorum has not voiced the truth that “the least of these” is a group growing larger and larger as the income disparity between rich and poor gets wider and wider.  William Sloan Coffin once said that what the “Christian community needs to do above all else is to raise up men and women of thought and of conscience…” Merely advocating for slashing of needed government programs, at the expense of people who have been the backbone of this country, providing the labor and services that made wealth possible for so many, would seem to be immoral, unethical …and un-Christian.

Santorum is talking a lot of religion lately, going so far as to say President Obama has a “phony theology.” I do not understand that phrase, but what I do know is that the Jesus in the scriptures I read would not condone the wealthy getting more wealthy while more and more people are falling deeper and deeper into financial ruin, with the threat of what little help they have hanging over their heads.

I cannot believe God is pleased with what is going on.

A candid observation.



No Outrage Over Poverty

How come it seems like nobody gets outraged about poverty in the United States?

I ask the question on the heels of the outrage expressed by Catholic bishops over the Obama administration’s policy that would have required Catholic institutions (churches excepted) to cover birth control in the health insurance coverage for their employees. Catholic bishops and others protested, calling the requirement an assault on religious freedom.

The furor has somewhat died down, as President Obama has announced a compromise that will require insurance companies to require contraceptive coverage directly to women. While some are skeptical of the new policy, others say the compromise is on target.

But I found myself shaking in my boots as I wondered why there seems to be so little outrage about poverty in this country? In the United States, there are 46 million people who are officially “poor.”  Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote this week that the disparity between rich and poor is making hunger in America more and more real for more and more people; for as many as 14 million children, free food programs provide some with the only food they get. She reminded readers that hunger due to extreme poverty has been an American reality for a long time by recalling a visit Robert Kennedy made to the Mississippi Delta in the 60s where he saw for himself children who were literally starving. Ironically, today, while some children are becoming obese, many others are losing weight not because they want to, but because they do not have enough food to eat.

One thing is clear: we as humans tend not to empathize with the plights of people unless we see with our own eyes what people are going through. The stark pictures of people’s suffering after Hurricane  Katrina mobilized the nation and the world to do something; in the 60s, the nation and world, again, were both outraged and provided the impetus for Washington to do something. When I have visited tropical islands, West and South Africa, my privileges as a tourist seemed less palatable after I traveled into the territory beyond the posh hotels, including the shanty towns in Cape Town, South Africa, and saw how awful living conditions were for so many of the people.

The lack of a deafening outrage from religious and non-religious leaders makes me wonder if people really know how bad poverty is in America, and how many it is affecting. Sabrina Tavernise wrote in Friday’s The New York Times that poverty is affecting education as well. While the big gap in educational achievement used to be that between white and black children, Tavernise wrote that “the achievement gap between rich and poor children is double that between black and white children according to a study done by a Stanford University sociologist.”

We already know that poverty has resulted in people not being able to get health care, which was a major impetus for the push for health care reform. In this, the richest nation in the world, people are dying from illnesses that are treatable. Just last month, I learned of a woman who contracted a cold which didn’t get better, but the woman couldn’t go to a doctor because she had no health care, though she was a full time employee at a fast food restaurant. Her cold developed into something more serious, landing her in an emergency room, then in intensive care. She died after two weeks on a respirator.

How come there are no religious leaders, no political leaders – somebody – screaming about poverty in America?

A person attending my church one time took me to task for talking about poverty. Her statement still troubles me. “You are wrong to talk about poverty,” she said. “The Bible says that the poor will always be with us. There are supposed to be poor people.”

I was stunned at her comment.  It is true that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can always help them, but you will not always have me.”  The statement came after a woman came to anoint him with expensive oil from an alabaster box.  Those surrounding Jesus were angry at the apparent waste of the oil. Some in Jesus’ presence said that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Apparently the oil the woman used was so precious that it could have been sold for 300 denarii! (One denarius is said to be worth about $20)

Were the oil that valuable, I rather doubt money garnered from its sale would have been given to the poor …but the point is, the woman who approached me had apparently read that scripture to mean that there are supposed to be poor people.

Interestingly, she didn’t mention Deuteronomy 15:11 where it says that there will be poor people and therefore “I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

There is nothing fun about being poor; it is far easier to avoid the poor sections of town, and to complain that the poor are poor because they want to be, that they are lazy and want to live off the wages of others. It is as easy to do that as it is to go to Cancun and stay protectively cooped up in the luxury hotel and banish the real world out of our minds.

But the luxury hotels are not the norm. The people who serve us in the luxury hotels and on the cruise ships, many of them, are horribly poor. While they serve us the best of foods, many have little to eat themselves.

Why isn’t there more outrage about poverty? It is OK for the Catholic bishops to be outraged about contraception and a perceived imposition of a federal policy on religious liberty, but where are their collective voices – in fact, where are the collective voices of religious leaders, period, on the subject of poverty?

It seems we have it confused; we honor and reach for prosperity. The poor, who should have a voice through us, are ignored largely because of us.

A candid observation …



God and Government, Really

It occurred to me that we humans treat God and government in much the same way.

When times are good, we tend to marginalize God and we rail against “big government.”

But when the bottom falls from beneath us, we run to God or government or both, depending on the situation.

Nicholas Kristoff wrote an article in The New York Times about a former employee of Chase Bank whose job it was to award sub prime loans to people whom the bank knew were poor risks. If things fell apart, the bank reasoned, the government would bail the banks out …and no one would be the wiser.

Things did fall apart and the government (that would be big government) did in fact bail banks and corporations out, and the people who had been granted loans the banks knew they’d never be able to pay were left out in the cold – some of them literally.

Big government did what a government is supposed to do, right?

In times of economic prosperity, however, big government is spurned and scorned. It is pushed to the side; a government too involved in the life of the masses of people makes it too “socialist.” Whatever America is, it is not socialist. God forbid.

The same type of marginalization of God tends to be a reality. When times are good, for way too many people God is an afterthought, or if not an afterthought, an unwelcome reminder that there is a God who is the same whether times are good or not.

In Biblical literature, the Israelites, over and over, rejected God when times were good, when they were enjoying economic prosperity and benefited from all that money gives. They failed to understand that God doesn’t like to be marginalized and they failed to appreciate God’s anger against such insensitive treatment.

When times got bad, however, and they always got bad – these same people would fall before God and ask for forgiveness and mercy and relief from their dilemmas.

Government doesn’t much care, one would suppose, if it is marginalized. Government, though it is supposed to be “of the people, by the people and for the people,” doesn’t have a personality with which adherents have to deal. Government takes its knocks;  some politicians do what they can for “the least of these” when the anti-big government cries are loud, and they see that those whose voices cannot be heard are those who are themselves marginalized, with seemingly no voice.

God, on the other hand, according to the Bible, doesn’t take very well to being marginalized. If we are to believe the Biblical texts, then God must be fuming because the recent spate of prosperity encouraged way too many people, some of them church-going believers – to push Him/Her to the side.

But that’s how we treat God and government. We consider them our tools, our property, really, to use when we need them, but to be pushed onto a nice shelf when we are doing all right.

A candid observation …

God and Government, Really © 2011 Candid Observations