5 Things to Make Capitalism’s Collapse Fun at Christmas

It appears America’s creative juices are once again on the rise. We are getting excited about “making stuff by hand” or crafting  or knitting or just fooling around with the glue stick and glitter. Sure, it may be the economic depression forcing us out of expensive, brain-dead consumer habits, but why not look on the bright side? Can’t  the collapse of capitalism be a little fun? (Argh. I know. Layoffs. No healthcare. The poor pay while the rich play. I know.)

Here are a few ideas I’m playing with for Christmas this year. Personally, I think Jesus likes it when the moms and dads and three wierd uncles and stinky strangers and pets and field mice and whoever the cat just dragged in gather around at Christmas, drink something sweet and hot, and just play. I think it makes the baby Jesus smile. I’m just sayin’… So, here are a few ideas. What are yours?

1. Draw Names for Gifts. Have you got a regular pool of folks who all exchange gifts together (most common unit might be a family) or a group who is all going to be together for gift-giving on Christmas day? Instead of everybody buying a little something for everyone, instead draw names! We are doing this in my family this year. Make sure you have an even number of people in the name basket (and if you don’t, why not add in a gift to a local charity as the evener-upper). One person can “draw” the names and let everyone else know who they are to give to. This tactic: 1) lowers stress, 2) reduces shopping, 3) helps the planet, 4) saves money, etc.

2. Only homemade/handmade gifts and/or only gifts that cost $10 or less. Bake cookies. Make your own instant hot chocolate mix. Make candles. Give coupons for a backrub, a picnic in the spring, a story read aloud. Give a donation to a special cause in your giftee’s name. Write a poem. Make a fun YouTube video.

3. Make your own wrapping paper. Try the old “potato stamp” method for decorating newspaper wrapping. Carve potatoes into shapes and dip them in cheap paint and stamp them all over the newspaper and let it dry. Or collect beautiful autumn leaves and iron them between wax paper. Use this as wrapping paper with some brightly colored ribbon. Or iron brighly colored plastic shopping bags/bread bags/newspaper bags together for a very strong, wrappable, multi-colored plasti-fabric.

4. Make your own Christmas cards. Choose your favorite line of scripture or poetry or fiction about Christmas. Buy some blank postcards and a gold-ink pen at the paper/office supply store. Decorate the fronts of the postcards with your quote. Try making all the words a different size. Or try scrambling the words into a funky Christmas  word cloud. Write your personal note on the other side.

5. Play games. Do a “Mad Libs” version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or familiar Christmas carols. Invent a Christmas charades game. Play a card game of “Feed the Reindeer” instead of “Go Fish.” Read aloud the opening chapter of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo.), or read The Holly Tree by Charles Dickens, At Christmas Time by Chekov, “Christmas in the Heart” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Shepherd Song at Christmas” by Langston Hughes, “Brer Rabbit’s Christmas Gift,” “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem,” by Maya Angelou, Junot Diaz’s The Three Kings Lose Their Way, Michael Nava’s Charity, Gary Soto’s Oranges and the Christmas Dog, or Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos.

At a recent baby shower, one woman told me that her extended clan that gets together for Thanksgiving and Christmas decided to read a book together before they all congregated. It gives the inlaws who only see each other once a year something to talk about. Cool idea!.

My Day on the Hugo Chavez Show

Tonight, PBS’s Frontline will air “The Hugo Chavez Show: An illuminating inside view of the mercurial Venezuelan president, his rise to power, and the new type of revolution he seems to be inventing – on television.” In the Washington Post review of the show, David Montgomery writes:

What Americans have been missing is a direct encounter with the temperamental, charming, fierce, cruel, seductive, whimsical and overwhelming personality that comes through on “Aló, Presidente.” When Chávez, 54, isn’t ordering troops to the border, he’s singing folk songs, riding horses and tractors, tramping through gorgeous countryside or castigating cabinet ministers who fail pop quizzes that he administers as the cameras roll.

In 2004, I was in the audience for Chavez’ “Aló, Presidente” … for 5 hours. And this was one of his shorter

Hugo Chavez at taping of Alo Presidente 2004
Hugo Chavez on Alo Presidente in 2004/Berger

shows! It was one of the most fascinating examples of political theater I’ve ever seen. He used media deftly to create a politically engaged populace.

Here are some of my journal notes from that day – January 18, 2004 – Caracas, Venezuela:

We were invited to be in the audience during the screening of President Chavez’ weekly television program. After coffee and about an hour’s wait, we were led to a tent behind the presidential house where the filming would take place (it is in a different location each week) and seated in chairs with our names on them in the midst of cameras and microphones and the “set” for the show.

Then Chavez sat at a desk “on stage” and for five hours hosted a program with only two short breaks. He talked about teachers in honor of National Teachers Day – honoring and joking with the Minister of Education who was present. He introduced an old prize fighter who was also present. He talked about the cross and scapular he wears. He chatted on the phone through a call-in mechanism with a number of people from around the country – a young girl about her school, one woman about the need for her to get involved in elections for mayor in her town, another woman about jobs for her sons and her nephew.

He talked about how unemployment was often the result of the neoliberal capitalist model and how Venezuela was creating a new economy – that they were going to initiate another revolution within the revolution by starting a new “mission” called Mision Vuelven Cara. This new mission will train and incorporate workers into development projects that will emphasize small farms and forestry projects, petroleum related businesses, tourism etc. The unemployed will be included as they build Venezuela’s capacity for productive employment. Then he recommended a book on the rebellion of 1840.

Then he went on to talk about how Venezuela has a deficit of beef and would be importing beef for a while from Brazil and Argentina, but that Venezuelans will be trained to raise beef, as well as for dairy farming. He said that it was good for poor people to eat more beef for the protein and that beef would be made available in poor neighborhoods for purchase in small quantities. He introduced the new Minister of Defense. He read from newspaper articles about the strengthened position of Venezuela in the world.

Then he spoke about the 1979 Puebla Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops which outlined the preferential option for the poor and he talked about the death of Oscar Romero. Chavez said that the challenge before Venezuela now is to take up the challenge of an option for the poor. Fr. Roy Bourgeouis was invited to make a statement. Fr. Roy talked about the School of the Americas and asked Venezuela to stop sending soldiers there for training. Chavez listened very intently. When Roy finished Chavez said quite a bit about the SOA. He had obviously done his homework. Then he moved on to talk about the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith. And so the program went on and on.

Chavez continues to be an ego-obsessed narcissist who doesn’t mind using his cult of personality to promote a particular political and social agenda and he’s not above taking direct, anti-democratic action against his enemies and to maintain his own power. So what else is new in the world of politics?

He is also “the peoples’ choice” in Venezuela’s fair elections. This week Chavez’ party swept most states, according to The Guardian, in Venezuela’s regional elections. The record turnout of 65% among 16.8 million registered voters shows the passion and antipathy elicited by this larger-than-life personality.

The Frontline show is tough, fair, and shows Chavez with his good points and his bad points. “The documentarians credit Chávez with being the first president in the 50-year history of Venezuelan democracy to elevate themes of poverty and social justice to the top of national discussion,” writes Montgomery. “But they suggest that his methods for addressing those issues have been uneven and over-hyped.”.

“Christ the King” in an Election Year

The great wheel of the Christian liturgical year is turning once again.

In the Catholic tradition, we mark the end of the church year—and all the good and bad that occurred therein—by crowning Jesus Christ as King. We go all out on the Feast of Christ the King to name and proclaim

Angry Christ by Alfredo Ossorio on Negros, Philippines
Angry Christ by Alfonso Ossorio on Negros, Philippines

that there are no temporal authorities—religious, political, economic, or otherwise—that own us. As Christians, we are owned by one alone—and that is Jesus the Lord.

On this day, we are also a triumphant people. This triumph is not human over human or even religious system over religious system. Instead it is the victory of truth over the dehumanizing illusions spun by powers and principalities of this world. In our Christian freedom, we tear off the masks of the death-dealers and expose their stratagems to the light.

In the liberty of this victory, we proclaim with Paul: “death hath no more dominion” (Romans 6:9)! Death, fear, and scarcity are the reins used by the little gods to control human lives. But as followers of Christ we stake a claim that “death hath no more dominion over us” either.

Secure in this truth, we are respectful of the little gods of the world—governments, economic systems, religious institutions—for the roles they play in the organization of human society at a particular moment in history. But we do not worship them; we do not offer sacrifices to them; we do not place them before the Lord our God.

I spend all this time pontificating on Christ the King because, in an election season, it is easy for us to get confused. It can be exhausting to separate the religious and political rhetoric that’s been flying all around us—somewhat unique to the American context—from deeper foundational truths.

Make no mistake: A new American presidential administration, at this time in history, can lead change of great consequence. By advancing an agenda that promotes human dignity and the common good, a leader committed to integrity and possessing a love for the fundamental ideals of democracy can create a better life for the poor both here in the United States and around the world. For our part, as citizens, we should work to see that this agenda is advanced at every level of governance.

However, Protestant theologian Reinhold Nie­buhr reminds us that the church has a unique role in a pluralistic society. “There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence,” says Niebuhr. As people of faith, it is essential that our first allegiance be to that “realm of truth.” This year the Feast of Christ the King can clarify and restore for us the proper order of our worship. It is the last Sunday of the church year. Advent awaits.

DURING ADVENT, I’LL BE POSTING DAILY REFLECTIONS. These are super short, but hopefully will keep us all in the Advent spirit. If you want to get them sent directly to your e-mail box, then add your e-mail address to the “Follow Me” box or set up an RSS feed.

Gather your evergreens. Go buy (or make) purple and pink candles. Get wire to make your wreath and a few simple purple and pink ribbons to weave together the greens. Clear a space on the kitchen table or anyplace where your household gathers. Write down a short Bible passage on an index card  – something from the Prophet Isaiah would be great – and keep it near the wreath. Now that we’ve cleared a space for prayer and quiet celebration at home, we can begin clearing the same kind of space in our heart.

A portion of this is reprinted with permission of Sojourners (www.sojo.net)..

Jesus Bees and Street Honey

I love bees. I took a semester of bee-keeping when I was studying biology at the University of California, Davis. It was always a great adventure to ride my bike out to the veterinary medicine school where there was a “study hive.” I would spend hours tracking particular bees in the large glass-walled hive. For extra credit in that course, I wrote a collection of “bee poems” to submit with my research.

Someday, I’ll take up the renegade art of urban beekeeping and sell street honey in the inner city. (It’s actually illegal to keep bees inside the District of Columbia.) Read  here for more on the joys of backyard beekeeping.

Bees also have a time-honored place in Christian history. There are several mentions of bees in the Bible. And they are considered to have attributes of Jesus due to their honey and sting. According to an interesting article by Croatian vet students about animal symbolism in Christian art:

Honey symbolizes gentleness and charity, and sting symbolizes justice. Furthermore, bees are of the symbols of resurrection. Three winter months during which it does not come out from the bee-hive remind us of three days after Christ’s death when his body was invisible, then appeared again and was resurrected. The organisation of life in the bees community, with perfectly defined interrelations and relation to the queen-bee, became almost the ideal of Christian virtues. On the other hand, bees and bee hive symbolise eloquence, and are presented with the three known holy orators called “Doctores melliflui” (scholars sweet as honey). They are: St. Ambrosius, St. Bernard of Clariveaux, and St. John Chrysostom.

There’s also a fascinating bible study out there somewhere on Judges 14 where a hive of bees in the carcass of the lion distracts Sampson as he is on his way to “take” his enemy wife. Tell me what you find. The Hebrew word for bee is: devorah. It’s etymologically related to the words for “speaking” and “choosing a direction.” It’s associated with prophecy.

Of course, most folks have heard that bees are under attack from climate change and mono-crop agriculture. So eat your honey, plant native wildflowers, don’t use pesticides, and love your bees..

Columbia Heights: The Art of Spray Paint

I was driving by 11th St and Park Rd. in Columbia Heights, D.C., last week and noticed a drop dead fantastic spray paint art of Obama on the construction fence around the old liquor store. I checked on the Columbia Heights e-list and found out that the whole thing was part of a public art installation project by Albus Cavus artist collective.

by Albus Cavus Collective
by Albus Cavus Collective

On Sunday, Nov. 9,  artists from the DC area and the East Coast created a public art installation that seeks to lift up the Columbia Heights community spirit by improving aesthetic enjoyment. A dozen artists worked together with renown graffiti artists, like Tim CON and Leon Rainbow, in a live, outdoor presentation of art and people changing their environment. The artists covered the 80-foot fence of a construction site with color, imagination, and reflection.

“We are transforming an eyesore to eye-candy,” said Albus Cavus executive director Peter Krsko, the organizer of the art project. “Fences around building sites are usually to be endured, not enjoyed. In Columbia Heights, public artists and residents will smash that old construct with paint and spirit.”

Read more about it at the Prince of Petworth blog..

News of a Bookish Nature

I’ve been out sick this week, so this little ephemeral artifacting project–called blogging–has languished a bit. But: Here’s the news.

Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood, my first book, is due out in spring 2009 from Apprentice House press at Loyola College in Baltimore. It’s been an interesting process working with Apprentice House. I’m learning so much! And I’m really excited about the prospects of getting this little book into print and into the world. I’m geeky that way, I guess.

Apprentice House is only campus-based student-staffed educational publishing house in the United States. I think that’s really cool!  It’s run by Gregg Wilhelm, who also runs Baltimore’s CityLit program. Here’s part of an interview with Gregg from the Baltimore Sun:

What makes Apprentice House different from other publishing houses?

Apprentice House bills itself as the country’s only campus-based, student-staffed book publisher. All those words are important—there are newspaper publishers on campuses, there are journal publishers on campuses that are student-staffed. But we are the only book publisher in the sense that we’re not a university press, which are very different animals and have a very different mission. We’re educators first and foremost.

We are at the production stage where I am giving them a final manuscript and Gregg has assigned it to Emily, a student in Loyola’s design program, to work up cover treatments. I’ve still got some fact-checking to do, footnotes to complete, and a few research leads that I hope to track down before printing. But, otherwise, the book process is moving forward–and I’m excited!.

Military Empire Requires Religious Blessing

“What will be God’s if all things are Caesar’s?”–Tertullian (160–220 AD), De Idolatria

“In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil—they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams. The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests. To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.”–Jim Wallis, Dangerous Religion (Sojourners, September-October 2003)

Contact the GI Hotline if you are or someone you know:

*is in the U.S. military and wants to get out

*is considering joining the U.S. military

*is being pursued by an army recruiter.

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Remembering Cardinal Bernardin

Twelve years ago today, the Catholic Church lost one of her great and humble leaders, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Bernardin grew up in the South. Born in South Carolina, he served for many years in Atlanta until he was asked to lead the U.S. Catholic bishops as their General Secretary. He held that position in the critical and turbulent years between 1968-1972, when Catholicism world-wide was trying to get it’s footing in the Post-Vatican II era.

Bernardin captured the vision of the second Vatican council: Carry forward tradition, not traditionalism; cling to the faithful first, and the dogma of faith second. He was a rigorous intellectual and philosopher, but, above all else, he was a pastor.

Cardinal Bernardin is probably best remembered for introducing the concept of “the seamless garment of life.” In his 1983 speech at Fordham University, Bernardin put forth an inquiry to the audience: How can Catholics address the need for a consistent ethic of life and probe the problems within the church and the wider society for developing such and ethic? He made this address in the context of the bishops’ letter on war and peace issues (The Challenge of Peace), which had been recently released. He said:

Right to life and quality of life complement each other in domestic social policy. They are also complementary in foreign policy. The Challenge of Peace joined the question of how we prevent nuclear war to the question of how we build peace in an interdependent world. Today those who are admirably concerned with reversing the nuclear arms race must also be those who stand for a positive U.S. policy of building the peace. It is this linkage which has led the U.S. bishops not only to oppose the drive of the nuclear arms race, but to stand against the dynamic of a Central American policy which relies predominantly on the threat and the use of force, which is increasingly distancing itself from a concern for human rights in El Salvador and which fails to grasp the opportunity of a diplomatic solution to the Central American conflict.

The relationship of the spectrum of life issues is far more intricate than I can even sketch here. I have made the case in the broad strokes of a lecturer; the detailed balancing, distinguishing and connecting of different aspects of a consistent ethic of life is precisely what this address calls the university community to investigate. Even as I leave this challenge before you, let me add to it some reflections on the task of communicating a consistent ethic of life in a pluralistic society.

I encourage you to read Cardinal Bernardin’s full address, especially in these days when the current cohort of American Catholic bishops seems to have lost sight of the “seamless garment” and of the delicacy of pluralism..

Joan Baez Serenades O-Talkers in VA

Joan Baez was in D.C. last week promoting “Day After Tomorrow,” her new CD. (Check it out! It’s produced by Steve Earle and Stevie-boy wrote one of the tracks, “God is God.”)

Joan Baez with Obama crew in VA.
Joan Baez with Obama crew in VA.

But, guess what? She also took time to stop by the Obama campaign office in Alexandria, Virginia, and sing a few lines. My friend Nate Solloway was there volunteering and got a great picture with Sweet Joanie.

With her political spirit fully intact, the 67-year-old pacifist endorsed a candidate for the first time. “I haven’t heard an orator like [Obama] since King,” she said. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” in 1963 to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

As a point of interest, Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience when she was 16 years old. She refused to leave her high school classroom in Palo Alto, Calif., during “practice atomic bomb” evacuations. Instead, she sat at her desk and read her book. I wonder what she was reading?.

Political Punch from Jim Morin

By Jim Morin, Miami Herald, 11-6-08
By Jim Morin, Miami Herald, 11-6-08

The post-election political cartoons have been hilarious, poignant, inspiring, and some have been downright scary. But, as Abraham Lincoln said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.”.