Monday, November 28, 2011

Bunny Culvin, The Wire's Bonhoeffer

In the final episode of season three of The Wire, Bunny Culvin the architect behind the infamous Hamsterdam project pulls a Bonhoeffer. After McNulty accuses Bunny of "cutting a few corners" Bunny replies, "I just did what I did, it felt right, and I'm fine with that". Sounds eerily reminiscent of Bonhoeffer's justification of his violation of his own pacifist code.

Monday, November 7, 2011


I get ripped off everywhere I turn in South Asia – higher auto ride fares, double parts prices, hidden labor costs, wacky weights and balances. I can’t buy a liter of petrol or a kilo of mangos without watching the vendor with eagle eyes. My white skin is a badge of wealth, an entry ticket into the upper economic echelon of this country. It also feels like a “kick me” note taped to my back.

World Bank says forty-two percent of this country live on a $1.25 a day. Oxford Poverty and Human Development says two thirds are poor on several dimensions. So the white skin test here is usually pretty accurate. My modest income makes me wildly rich. And it feels like my poorer neighbors are often more than obliging to lighten my financial load.

What does this mean for Christians?

My sense of justice rages inside of me: If I let these people take advantage of me, I’m teaching them it’s okay. I’m hurting the next guy they cheat. They need to learn justice and mercy, a just wage for good work. So I keep a posture of suspicion, double and triple checking, arguing at every turn, and squabbling over the last penny spent. It makes me miserable and miserable to be around I’m sure.

My sense of justice is pretty warped. A man born into poverty carts me around in a ragged auto rickshaw and charges me twenty cents extra to pad the couple dollars a day he earns. Who’s being cheated?

If a donor gives to a beneficiary, clear lines are drawn and we call it charity. If you let a poor person take advantage of you, is it still charity?

Jesus made some obscure references to offering the other cheek and parting with cloaks, of walking two miles and lending indiscriminately. Bonheoffer scoffed that even if we dared preach on this text, we’d try to come up with a costless application. He’s right. I’m already coming up with checks and balances to keep people from taking advantage of this. Which means I’ve already missed the point.

Grace-filled living paints a radical alternative. It would rather take a blow than give one; walk two miles than short an oppressor the one he didn’t deserve. It would rather be defrauded than sue a brother. It would hang around an opened prison cell to make sure the jailer is all right. It is so enamored by the gift given, the status lifted, the righteousness imputed, the payment sealed that it becomes reckless with rights.

I still prefer giving grace where clear lines on drawn. I want both parties to know who gave what to whom and why. I’d rather see the smile on a Compassion child’s face than hear the snicker of an auto driver who pulled one over on me. An ungrateful beneficiary is bad enough but an unknowing one is almost too much to bear.

Is it grace if you don’t get credit for it? Is it grace if you do?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Time Isn't Money

Wendell Berry's book The Unsettling of America is a virulent attack against the rising tide of commercialized agriculture. But, it's filled with thoughtful and general remarks about American culture. For Berry, of course, an agricultural crisis is a crisis of deeper proportions. It is a crisis of American character and it is a crisis that is spawned by the degradation of our society as a whole.

In one of his essays Berry takes aim at the common slogan, "time is money". As I read his small paragraph devoted to debunking this myth I thought of all the times that phrase had been barked at me. "John, hurry up, we don't have all day, time is money". "John! c'mon man, you should've been done with that an hour ago, time is money". What's the problem with that? It's true isn't it? The longer it takes to do a specific task, that is paid for by a pre-determined price means that the money that is being paid per unit of measuring time (seconds, minutes, hours etc.) lessens. Baloney! Wendell Berry would say. Sure, if all you are thinking about is the mathematical formula between the given number of money and the allotted amount of time to make that money, time is money. But time is not money. It is so much more. A dying man wants more time, he doesn't want more money. He wouldn't trade a week as a millionaire for fifty more years as a pauper. Time isn't money because not all of our time makes money, thank God. And, as we can all attest our most valuable time rarely makes any money at all.

Berry goes on to connect this slogan with the idea that, "people are money". It isn't difficult to map out the connection once you play a scene out in your head in which the phrase above would be said. If a boss tells his worker, "time is money, hustle up", he is essentially saying, "all you are is money, hustle up".

Unlike money, time is something that can be redeemed (Eph. 5:16 check the Greek not the ESV). We aren't mere stewards of time, we are its participants. In it we live and move and have our being. In it we perform acts that money cannot buy. In it loving acts are performed on us that money cannot buy. Time's value is unquantifiable. A novel can be bought, but it takes time to read it. Whiskey can be bought, but it takes friends made in time, and time itself to drink it with. Love cannot be bought, and it takes time to make it, and to share it.