A little counterfeit money…

shapeimage_2-5To be honest, I’m not much of a cash girl. I prefer to swipe the plastic and deal with the consequences later. I’m not a big spender either – pretty frugal in fact – but sometimes my love of lattes and iPhone apps gets out of control. So my sweet husband and I decided to tighten up with a budget. Its a good practice – a spiritual practice even – to know where you’re money is going and be a good steward of what you are given. We’ve been going to a budget class at church based on the Dave Ramsey system, and Dave’s answer to our money woes is create a budget and only spend cash. Gasp! Did I mention I hate cash? Its too real – which is just the point. Real money is harder to spend. We learned that in budget class too.

So our budget class homework for the week was to spend cash – and only cash – as we worked from our new budgets. Wes and I were pretty excited to try this out. So I made the bank run and grabbed our cash for the week. As I left the bank I was nervously looking over my shoulder, a little scared someone would see the “I’m carrying cash” look on my face and mug me. Perhaps these are leftover fears from living in Nairobi where ATM’s are guarded with guys who have guns, but I digress. I made it home fine, but there was one problem. I asked for small bills but got all hundreds. So Wes took the money back to the bank to exchange the huge bills for manageable money. When he did, we found out one of our bills was counterfeit as it was promptly seized by the bank. So for now we’re out $100 and a little scared to spend anything else that came out of that bank envelope.

Of course, the entire funny money fiasco completely stopped both of our days. Wes was stranded at the bank, Jack the dog was panting in the hot car, and I was at home, listening to Bank of America’s on-hold music. (I will mention that they finally called me back an hour after I openly aired my grievance on Twitter.) This interruption gave me a bit of time to think about money and the dishonest little thief who created my fake bill. I stared at the 100-dollar bill on my desk and Ben Franklin stared back, mimicking my disgruntled facial expression. Because I’m knee deep in a dissertation, and because I’m not good at waiting, I began to think philosophically about counterfeiters – about people who get greedy and hurt others. Greed explains a lot of the ethical conundrums in our world. Too often, someone ends up short because someone else has taken too much.

This past Sunday our pastor, Julie Pennington-Russell, preached an excellent sermon titled “How much do I really need?” She started the sermon with a great story from Leo Tolstoy titled “How much land does a man need?” The story begins with a man who heard that land was being given sold at a ridiculously low price. When he approaches the sellers, he learns that the land is being sold “by the day,” and whatever boundaries he can mark out in a day become his land. There’s only one catch. If he doesn’t return to the place he started by sundown, he’ll lose his money. Well, the man paid his money and set out to mark the boundaries of his land, but as he walked the land kept getting more beautiful. He finally made his first turn, but again, the more he walked the land was more beautiful still. The sun was already starting to set as he made his third turn. The man was determined not to lose his money, so he ran and raced until he reached the place where he started just as the sun was setting. Then he promptly fell over and died. His servant picked up a hoe and buried him there. Tolstoy ends the story by answering his own question – How much land does a man need? Six feet – enough to bury him from head to toe.

As I start my new budget this month, I’m reminded of how little I need. The boundaries of my life due not need to be gregarious or grand. I can live more fully if I do not measure my life by the things I own. After all, a bigger yard just means you spend more time mowing.

HIV/AIDS, Justice, Poverty

More on Justice: Rawls and Mill

shapeimage_2-4Today I wanted to write a little more on justice. My goal in this blog post is to begin to create space to talk about important issues on this blog – so I’m trying to be a good theologian and start by defining my terms! When I think about justice theories, there are two important thinkers that come to mind – John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.

John Rawls imagined justice by creating a scenario he called the “original position.” Rawls believed that taking a group of knowledgeable people and putting them behind a “veil of ignorance” would be a way to discern justice. Behind this veil, they would be asked to imagine a just society, but they would not know what position they would be in once the veil was lifted. In Rawls’ “original position,” the person would be unable to know whether she or he would be rich or poor, well or sick, HIV+ or HIV negative. Rawls’ believed this uncertainty would cause people to choose the maximum advantage for the greatest number of the world’s people.

Rawls’ method is most useful in that his articulation of the original position opens space for imagination within ethical discourse. In a similar way, the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill offers a space to imagine happiness. Mill begins with Bentham’s understanding of utility, or the greatest happiness principle and defines this by saying, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill extends this definition by saying, “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”

While John Stuart Mill focused his ethics on a microlevel and neglected the macrolevel, there are important implications of his thought that could be made within the realm of global ethics. First, if the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people moved beyond the realm of the state, it would certainly change our understanding of obligation beyond our borders. While this may not be a realistic model for a ethical relations between states, it can certainly inform our understandings of aid and development in regard to moral obligation as it points out that the greatest happiness currently rests with a very small portion of the world’s population.

Mill also addresses issues such as poverty, disease, and gender inequality. In speaking of poverty and disease, Mill is optimistic that human creativity can extinguish both, even though their removal will not come quickly. Mill puts it this way: “Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society combined with the good sense and providence of individuals.” Mill goes on to say the same for disease and other “grand sources” of human suffering, saying they are “almost entirely conquerable by human care and effort” even though their removal is “grievously slow.”

In my own work on HIV/AIDS I find Mill’s work especially helpful. Ending this pandemic is also “grievously slow.” Yet we are challenged in reading Mill as we realize he is not writing in our contemporary era, but more than a century prior to significant scientific advancements in science and medicine. The removal of a disease such as AIDS should not be so “grievously slow” in our day and age. The fact that it remains a pandemic after a quarter of a century calls into question our commitment as a global community to the happiness and health of the world’s poorest people. In understanding Mill’s claim, we can find space to re-envision a happiness that takes into account the lived experiences of those who suffer the most.

Mill’s work on gender is also of interest. In his text, “On the Subjugation of Women,” Mill uses utility to argue that the oppression of women is wrong. Here, he says that if half of the population is unhappy, then utility cannot be served. He used this argument to advocate for voting rights for women by comparing this inequality to women’s subjugation to slavery. As we celebrate the anniversary of women winning the right to vote this month, we can remember that this right we take for granted was once unimaginable. Justice CAN be imagined and imagination can push us toward creating a more just world.

Both Mill’s utilitarianism and Rawl’s understanding of “justice as fairness” can bring us two steps closer to imagining justice. If utilitarianism served only to restrain us, reminding us that we cannot steal happiness as the expense of others, it would be revolutionary for our society. And if “justice as fairness” could really teach us to imagine our lives as a little less secure, then perhaps we could imagine spaces where security for all could be abundant.


Defining justice (AKA: How to not do theology Fox news style)

shapeimage_2-3Since I named this blog after two of my favorite theo-ethical concepts, (justice and imagination). I thought I’d give one of them (justice) a little space by blogging about it here today. To be honest, the concept of justice is terribly misunderstood, primarily because it has different meanings and functions on different levels. When we speak of justice from a theological perspective, it does not have the same meaning as when we’re speaking of justice from legal perspective. When something is “just” from a legal perspective, it means that it satisfies the rule of law (or at least someone’s interpretation of that law). But morality and legality have never been the same thing, though sometimes they overlap.

Something can easily be illegal but not immoral (or vice-versa). Throughout Christian history, human or temporal law has been seen as a servant to divine law. Aquinas saw the goal of law as serving the common good. When it failed to serve the common good, it had no authority. Aquinas also said that unjust laws were violence – a concept that Martin Luther King Jr. resonated with during the civil rights movement.

Like Aquinas, Martin Luther (the reformer, not the civil rights leader) also put human (or temporal) law under divine law and said that the purpose of the law was not to achieve morality but to regulate peace. It was the Gospel, not law, that produced righteousness, but the law was still necessary because the Gospel was not compelling for unbelievers. Luther believed that Christians didn’t need the law at all, but should obey it for the sake of their neighbor.

So law and morality have never been the same thing, just like theological justice and legal justice are not the same thing. It may seem like a small nuance, but it is an important concept to understand if we want to talk about justice from a theo-ethical perspective. The distinction helps us to conceptualize what we mean when we say something is “right” or something is “wrong.” Separating legal obligations from moral obligations, also helps us get at what we “ought” to do as moral people.

For instance, when we talk about a subject such as immigration, we usually begin with either plea for a legal obligation or a moral obligation, yet we often don’t name the space from which we’re speaking. The two are collapsed into one another and when this happens, there is very little space for dialogue. Its like doing theology Fox news style. You’ve got Glenn Beck, a lawyer and a preacher on a panel and you can’t tell who is who (but they’re all against James Cone and social justice).

So the first step in talking about justice is to decide what kind of justice you’re talking about. And then you can begin to get to the business of thinking through what justice might mean.

Now sometimes when you write a blog you intend to say something you never get to say, and this is the case with today’s blog. I had great intentions of talking about John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, Liberation theologians and feminist theologies and justice, but I’ve hit the tolerable amount of readable words for a blog. So, the rest of this week, I’ll blog a bit on what my theological heroes and heroines have to say about justice… stay tuned!


Blogging on Ethics in Public Spaces

                                                                                                             Picture from an IDP camp outside of Nairobi, Kenya
Picture from an IDP camp outside of Nairobi, Kenya

After a summer of flying around the globe for this and that, I’m glad to announce that I’m back at home, in the US, with fast, fast internet. So, my hiatus from blogging (which was all too infrequent to begin with) is now over. In fact, I’ve even redesigned the blog and am promising myself I’ll be here once a week to ramble about what it means to do ethics in public spaces. On this site, I’ll be tackling different subjects as they come up and sharing what I’m learning from others. The first installment will come this Monday – as soon as I figure out what to write about. I hope you’ll journey with me, and contribute when you’ve got something to say. (Guest bloggers are always welcome!)

On another note – I should probably officially apologize for making fun of Twitter all these years. I gave in and finally joined the Twittering-world today. As soon as I figure out how to speak in 140 characters or less, I’ll be tweeting @imaginejustice. I swear I’ll never tell you what I’m eating for breakfast or that I’m shopping for lettuce.

While I’m introducing the new blog, I’ll share a quote – one of my favorite – that I’m using as a bit of inspiration for the site:

Injustice flourishes because those who love justice are singularly lacking in creativity, content to denounce the structures we see causing harm, inept in producing other forms of art, other economic structures, other political systems. – Sharon Welch

This quote is from Sharon Welch’s book, After Empire (p. 19). The book is an amazing read – this is one of the many quotes I have underlined in my copy. So often we look at the world and see something that is unjust but are helpless to imagine anything different. We too often think inside boxes and re-quote what we’ve always heard rather than imagining something new. As a Christian ethicist, I think and live within a faith tradition rooted in creation, a space where God breathed something new into a spaceless void. I think this is the task of faith and the task of ethics. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it being “co-creators with God.” This is the work of justice – to imagine something new – to not only denounce, but to creatively imagine.

So here, in this small space, I invite you to imagine with me…


On how to grow veggies in a sack…

shapeimage_2-1This past weekend, I took a break from my research to help plan a permaculture event with the Diocese of Victoria Nyanza. For this event, we hired a facilitator from Catholic Relief Services to come in and teach us how to grow veggies in maize sacks or old tires. This type of gardening is important in cities like Mwanza, where plots are small and there is no room for a proper garden. Here, most people live on the hills surrounding the lake and don’t have the flat land needed for traditional farming. Yet, most everyone here came from somewhere rural, so they have the needed skills for gardening, they just don’t have the space.

For this seminar, members of our HIV/AIDS support group were invited to attend at no cost. This was a particularly important event for this community because people living with HIV/AIDS need to take their medicines with food. Good nutrition is of upmost importance. And for many in Tanzania who are HIV positive, poverty resulting from their illness has severely compromised their food security. These kitchen gardens are easy to maintain and can provide an important source of nutrition. And of course, with enough sacks of veggies, you can even start a small business.

When thinking about development, sometimes the simplest methods are the most effective. A project that builds on existing knowledge (such as knowledge of agriculture) is a great place to start. As a city girl whose tomatoes have always come from aisle 9 at Kroger, I am often sad that so much has been lost. My grandpa was a farmer, but I have no real knowledge of how to make things grow. Fortunately, the same is not true for most of my friends here in Mwanza. Here, we don’t sell produce indoors so we’re still connected to the earth where food grows.

Personally, I left inspired. I think there’s a kitchen garden in my future. But it will have to wait a bit since you probably can’t grow one out of a suitcase.


The case of the missing cell phone

shapeimage_2Last week during my fieldwork session, my field assistant’s cell phone went missing. At the end of the session, when she realized the phone was gone, she panicked. Without alerting any of us as to what was going on, she pulled everyone back in from the packed vehicles and made people dump their purses. I was horrified. The conversation got heated and too quick for my slow swahili ears to comprehend. I tried to bring order, but no order was to be found. Even when the phone was found in the car (the person who stole it abandoned it when everyone was called back inside), peace was still out of reach.

I spent much of the week thinking about the incident and worrying that this would completely sabotage the sense of community we had created in the fieldwork group. On the advice of my affiliate here in Tanzania, I sent everyone a text message during the week letting them know the problem had been resolved and that I loved each of them very much and hoped they would return the following week.

Preparing for this week’s meeting, I was worried the issue would resurface. Everyone knew who stole the phone, but I still wanted to avoid accusation. St. Thomas Aquinas once said that a person who steals when they are in need is not morally culpable for the sin because the greater sin is their being in such great need. I don’t know if this applies to cell phones, but I could certainly understand why someone might steal. Almost all the women I’m working with are in need. All but one of them are widowed or separated; almost all are working small jobs that probably don’t cover their basic expenses. I knew a wrong had been done and needed to be rectified, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it without it leading to someone being accused or feeling the need to leave the group.

But when we gathered together again this week, there was a sense of peace in the room. The person who stole the phone was initially withdrawn and isolated as we gathered. However, when we addressed the issue together, some of the women in the group shared some profound things about forgiveness and unity that allowed us to move past the event. It was agreed that as a group, we would forgive and put this behind us and “never speak of it again.”

In this event, I learned several important things. The first is the obvious lesson of forgiveness. In this group, the unity of the whole was more important than seeking justice through accusation. Justice was reached without judgement. The second thing I learned was that the women in the group were most disturbed that a theft happened in the space where we were meeting together. The space of sharing we had created was seen by many of them as a safe, almost sacred space. The women were upset not because they thought they were being accused, but because this space of trust had been violated. When we met together again, the main goal of forgiveness was that we as a group move on and accomplish what we set out to do.

In the end, I think trust was restored and a lesson was learned. And I’m pretty sure my field assistant won’t leave her phone sitting on the snack table again.