Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Equality Riders @ Calvin College

For the past several months Calvin College, my home institution, has been very intentionally planning for a visit from the SoulForce "Equality Riders"--a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christian students who, in the spirit of the civil rights "Freedom Riders," planned a road trip to visit Christian college campuses and raise awareness about the challenges faced by gay Christians. Some thought that Calvin's administration was over-preparing for this visit, and making a mountain out of a molehill. However, a blog post from an Equality Rider this morning seems to make all that labor worthwhile: Rider "Matt" described their Calvin visit as a "true Christian welcome" and the "most welcoming stop on the Equality Ride." While there was not necessarily agreement, there was nonetheless a charity that trumped disagreement. And that, it seems to me, is witness to a tiny little in-breaking of the Kingdom.

It was precisely because it went so well that there seemed to be so little news coverage of the visit! Whereas their visit to Cornerstone University yesterday, where they were barred from campus, led to arrests and--you guessed it!--news coverage on every local station.

Kudos to the college administration who worked so hard on this, particularly Shirley Hoogstra (VP of Student Life) and Dale Cooper (Chaplain), along with many others, who modeled thoughtful and intentional compassion.

Jeff Sharlet Audio

I previously announced a lecture by Jeff Sharlet at Calvin College on "Fundamentalist History, Secular Myth, and the Media's God Problem." Audio of that lecture is now available via the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (with thanks to Dale Williams). Sharlet's talk was entertaining, informative, and disturbing. Enjoy!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Stark Options in France

Imagine living in a country where you could actually choose between the Left and Right, and not just Right and Right-Lite? Though it does seem that Le Monde was pulling for the "centrist" Bayrou--who, even though he didn't make the run-off, has become a crucial figure in this election because he holds sway over a very important voter base.

Friday, April 20, 2007

New Obsession: The Deadliest Catch

Having conceded to my wife and children's request for something more than basic cable (but not premium!--yes, such a martyr, I know...) has translated into a new vice for me: an almost obsessive interest with the Discovery Channel's The Deadliest Catch. (This brings on bouts of affluenza on the nights when I have to choose between The Deadliest Catch and American Chopper, but I find Catch winning out.)

I discovered Deadliest Catch on New Years' Day. For the past several years our family's New Years' tradition has been to all cuddle up on the couch for the afternoon (Michigan winters will do this to you), load the coffee table with hot chocolate and snacks, and watch a movie or two together. This past year, after watching the movie, somehow we ended up on the Discovery channel which was offering a Deadliest Catch marathon. I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I stayed glued to the television for, I think, four hours straight!

For those who haven't seen it (which will include, I guess, those with more spiritual discipline than I, who remain committed to simplicity and thus spurn the temptations of cable--pray for me!), The Deadliest Catch is a documentary series that recounts the drama of fishing vessels pursuing king crab off the Alaskan coast. I hesitate to describe it as "reality TV" since it makes a mockery of all the other drivel that traffics under that banner. Crab fishing in the icy Alaskan waters is one of the deadliest jobs in the world (over 90 fishermen have died in the past 20 years) and the drama is heightened by the brevity of the season. The crews are looking to make their year's wages within a short window, all dependent on the ability to actually find the crab and at the same time survive the dangers of these Alaskan waters. (And kudos to the cameramen who undertake the same risks to bring us these images!)

The show follows the ups-and-downs of these ventures, ranging from the hilarity that comes along with such labor comraderie to the heart-breaking sadness when tragedy strikes. Rugged, cussing boat captains are reduced to tears as they hear word of a ship going down and claiming three lives. It is some of the most compelling drama I've ever seen on television, and goes a long way to redeeming the medium. (Further kudos to the Discovery Channel, which is a Smith family favorite and goes a long way to alleviating my guilt for caving in and signing up for standard cable.)

But I must confess that there's a regrettable aspect to all of this, namely the economics that drives this drama. While there are some fishermen for whom this is a way of life that is in their bones, for most it seems that the only "end" for such risk is the astounding paycheck at the end. Thus one regularly hears comments from the crew--smashing 6-inch ice off of overhead cables and braving rogue waves that threaten their footing--about the "ca-ching" that they're after. In other words, this is a drama undertaken for lucre, and pretty much nothing else.

On top of that, the entire industry is one generated by economies of luxury. They are fishing for king crab, which doesn't make its way to all that many American dinner tables. Rather, it is the fare of the rich, or the middle class who splurge once or twice a year. It is sobering to think of how many lives are lost for the sake of providing the well-heeled with luxurious cuisine.

Neither of these economic factors seems to redeem the tragedy. Perhaps, though, one can find it redeemed in the friendships forged amongst this community who lives on the icy edge of danger. But I fear not.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Secchia's Economic Logic

[This is a response to Peter Secchia's recent op-ed in the Grand Rapids Press arguing for the benefits of a downtown casino in Grand Rapids.]

For Peter Secchia, the generation of revenue covers a multitude of sins.

Despite charges of hypocrisy, I don’t think Secchia has really changed his mind. While he has opposed a tribal casino in West Michigan, his opposition was “based on economic factors.” Unlike others who oppose casino development on moral grounds, or on the basis of the documented social repercussions, Secchia’s opposition concerned economic fair play: as tax-free entities, tribal casinos are playing with a loaded deck.

But in his argument for a downtown Grand Rapids casino, I detect a worrisome logic at work. So let me take up his invitation to conversation about his proposal.

Secchia’s argument goes something like this: The federal law that authorizes tribal casinos is regrettable and lamentable, but won’t be changed anytime soon. So tribal casinos are inevitable. Since they are inevitable and unpreventable, they will inevitably suck revenue and profit from Grand Rapids. Therefore, we should build a Grand Rapids casino to stem the tide, protect private sector profits, and generate revenue that will benefit the community.

Let’s call this the argument from inevitability. It amounts to a version of the axiom, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The argument begins with a sigh, recognizing a regrettable state of affairs. One then throws up one’s hands and laments, “But it’s not going to change.” Therefore, the argument concludes, we should harness this regrettable but inevitable reality and turn it to our good (where “good” means profit and revenue).

Based on this reasoning, Secchia suggests that a Grand Rapids casino could be a cure to all kinds of social ills in the city, from empty swimming pools to empty bellies. (Was he kidding when he suggested funneling gambling profits to churches?)

But why stop there? Based on the same logic, it seems like we could harness all kinds of lamentable but inevitable activities in order to generate revenue for our beleaguered city. For instance, consider this version of the argument from inevitability: Prostitution is a terrible thing. But given its status as “the oldest profession,” it’s not going away any time soon. As a result, prostitution represents an entire underground and tax-free economy that is, in effect, robbing our city of revenue. Therefore, we should legalize, regulate, and tax prostitution. The funds generated could open the pools and perhaps provide scholarships for GRCC.

And while we’re at it, drug trafficking in our city won’t soon go away. You get the idea.

Running the argument with these alternatives shows us more starkly that Secchia’s logic is purely economic. But the generation of revenue does not cover the multitude of sins and injustices associated with casinos and gambling. We shouldn’t let Secchia’s fiscal myopia blind us to that.