Saturday, May 16, 2009

Consumer Advocacy: Credit Cards

I've been thinking a lot lately about the need for regulation in the small-scale marketplace of consumer goods. As Gina and I have become more and more poor to pursue our dreams of higher education, it has become easier to see just how often companies cut ethical corners to make a few more bucks. The Hebrew Bible demands ethical dealings in the marketplace, especially prohibiting those practices that oppress the powerless members of society. I think this provides a great jumping off point for deciding which economic practices are ethical and which are not, as it points to the issues of exploitation, class division, and powerlessness. This column, which I'm calling "Consumer Advocacy," will take a closer look at one type of consumer good and examine ethics of common practices within that market.

Credit cards

Most have felt the sting of high interest rates from their credit cards. Credit cards are in need of reform, and a bill is going through Congress right now attempt to do just that. I am taking a look at not only the practices in need of reform, but the proposed Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights Act of 2009. For a decent summary, click here or for the full text click here. Is it really the be-all, end-all of reform, or is it just the first step in the right direction?

First, credit card companies automatically apply your payment to the lowest-interest balance first. A credit card company will offer you 0% interest for a limited time. Let's say you have $1000 of 30% balance on a card, and you're trying to pay it down. Then you have a small financial crisis. You just got a 0% interest deal from your credit card company, so you buy $600 worth of goods at 0% interest. Each month, as you pay your payments, they will now be applied to the $600 balance while your $1000 balance continues to skyrocket. The consumer should have the choice to apply their balance as they see fit. The current bill in Congress sets up requirements for how the balances are to be paid off. These requirements are generally in the public's best interest, but the freedom of choice is still not in the consumer's hands, as the rules require the credit card companies to apply the payments.

Another issue with credit cards is the use of double-cycle billing. Double-cycle billing works by charging interest over the average balance of the most recent two billing cycles. So let's say you carried a $1000 balance throughout May, and you paid it off in full on the last day of May. In June, you added no new balance, so you carried a $0 balance for the month. With double-cycle billing, they'd average your last two balances--$1000 for May and $0 for June--in your June bill. Thus, they would charge you interest on $500, even though your principle is zero! The new bill in Congress makes this illegal.

The third--and possibly the most controversial--issue with credit cards is how high the interest rates are. Unfortunately, the new bill in Congress does not address this issue. Many attempts have been made to cap interest rate, but none have succeeded. Part of the problem is that no one can agree on a cap: proposals have ranged from a ridiculous 36% (which is hardly a cap at all) to very low caps that have no shot at passing Congress. The best answer is probably a cap expressed in "percentage over prime" language, but none have been proposed. I'd like to see something under 20%, because that's more than sufficient to keep someone in debt slavery. Something that would hover between 10 and 15%, depending on the market, would be a good compromise. Obviously, credit cards' interest rates can't be as low as a savings account, but they shouldn't be as high as they are.

Finally, too many credit card companies target young people in order to drag them into a lifetime of debt. The current bill in Congress does nothing to correct this. To prevent predatory lending practices, there should be a limit to the amount of credit extended to a first time card user, which is allowed to increase only if they have proven to be responsible (with "responsible" being clearly defined in some way). After five years, this limit could be lifted. This would protect not only young users, but first-time users of all ages.

Unfortunately, these gripes do not begin to describe the excesses of credit card companies. Thankfully, while the CCBOR does not address many of my concerns, they are addressing other ones, such as limiting the amount of rate increases are allowed, and limiting credit card companies to just three over-the-limit fees per instance of going over the limit. It also allows a cardholder to opt into a program where their card is rejected--without fee--when they try to purchase something that would put them over their limit. These are good decisions, and it's good to see Congress doing something to provide some laws to this otherwise rather lawless market. However, they have still only adequately addressed three of the four issues I find most pressing. I invite you to read the bill and/or offer criticism/comments below.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Prodigal Cat

I love our cat, Desdemona. I picked her out when she was a tiny kitten and I could hold her in the palm of my hand. She has grown up to be a timid but affectionate cat, and like most pets, she loves us intensely in her simple, unconditional way. She's been an indoor-only cat since we took her from my parents' farm, and she has never once escaped (or even wanted to)... until yesterday.

Apparently, one of our windows didn't have a screen in it. We had forgotten and left it open two days in a row. Desdemona worked up the nerve and hopped out. We found out the next day, after I had closed the window and she had been outside for at least 14 hours.

We read somewhere that cats tend to hide near home when they got lost, so I stuck my head out the window to see if I could see her hiding somewhere nearby. Turns out she was hunched down behind a bush on the side of the house just a few feet from the window. We went and got her and she came back in with little fuss.

We both felt so neglectful. I don't know how we didn't notice that the window didn't have a screen, except that we probably opened it at night. Also, I know I saw Desdemona sitting in the window just like she would if it had a screen. And it's also just something you take for granted.

I also felt pretty stupid that I didn't notice she was gone the whole next morning. I usually get up and try to do schoolwork and I don't even think about her (except to fill her food dish). But then she ends up annoying me until I spend a lot of time with her; usually we take a nap together because I'm too lazy to pet her for like an hour straight. Anyhow, that morning, I didn't even notice that she wasn't around. She doesn't always bother me every morning, but I usually at least see her, so I should have known something was wrong. I also remember I went to school feeling intensely lonely. I thought I was in a funk due to the weather or something. Now I realize how therapeutic Desdemona's morning routine had become. She makes me stop running around and spend some time at peace.

The whole thing seems so surreal in retrospect. We lost Othello, Desdemona's brother, to some mysterious disease a year ago. Gina took it really hard, because Othello was "her cat," just as Desdemona was always "my cat." That whole experience was so quick and so final, so for Desdemona to escape, knowing how unlikely it is to find a lost pet... it seems crazy that she could be lost and then found.

Part of how I deal with the uncertainty of life is to prepare for traumatic experiences, but I'm almost never prepared for the things that end up happening to me. So it was also surreal that this fact I knew--that lost cats tend to hide close to home--ended up being right. It's crazy that it could be that simple. And most likely, we would not have found her if we had not known that; she never would have left that bush, even if we walked by it and called her name. I think I'll always remember the image of her huddled in fear under that bush staring up at me. I still just can't believe she was right there for 14 hours. If something had scared her out of that spot, we might have never found her.

After we brought her back in, she ate and used the litter and groomed herself, since she hadn't been able to take care of those needs overnight. And after that, she went back to her normal self, sleeping on everything and pestering me. It's great to have her back, and I'm glad she's too simple to hold a grudge. Why God would choose to make this tragedy into a miracle, I don't know, but I'm just glad he did.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Jesus of Nazareth Part 5 - Spiritual/Eclectic View

Now that we've looked at all three of the characterizations of Jesus introduced by Adele Reinhartz, we can make some closing comments. As many of you have mentioned, these three versions all seem to bring out certain elements of Jesus' life and leave others out. I believe that we do the same sorts of things when we attempt to understand Jesus. Thus, I hope that examining these three scholarly viewpoints of Jesus has shaken up our individual notions of Jesus' earthly life a bit. These scholarly visions are just a means of getting the conversation started. By sharing each others' conceptualizations of who Jesus is and was, we can each gain a better glimpse of him.

The Jewish Jesus can remind us that Jesus did not live in a cultural vacuum. He did not live and die only for us. Instead, he lived in a specific time and place. He was Jewish, through and through. He observed the festivals and he prayed to the Jewish God. He was steeped in the knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament along with other books).

At the same time, Cynic Jesus can remind us that there was a Greek culture into which Jesus was also born. Judaism was not itself a vacuum, separated from the Greek/Roman culture that dominated at the time. Instead, Jesus was exposed to various schools of philosophy. He probably spoke Greek in addition to the Aramaic spoken by Jews. He probably experienced many of the same things that citizens of third-world nations feel, since his home "nation" was ruled by a foreign, European power (Rome).

Social Critic Jesus reminds us that Jesus was able to rise above all of the cultures present in his time in order to offer a better way to live. It also reminds us that he wasn't simply a teacher, droning on about insignificant stuff. He practiced what he preached. When he criticized the way the rich treated of the poor, he also showed them a better way through a practice of open table fellowship.

Even if we take a conglomeration of these three views, though, we will still find our view of Jesus limited. He also healed and restored people--clearly another example of him putting his teaching in action. In the ultimate example of practicing what he preached, he allowed his oppressors to put him to death in order to stay true to his message of peace--he did not resist or start an uprising, as other so-called "messiahs" had done. And maybe that's a big part of why Jesus' teaching caught on--he actually lived it out perfectly.

That's not to mention the spiritual component that we haven't even touched upon. Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple forty years before it happened. He raised people from the dead and walked on water--clearly something not seen in other faith healers. He prophesied that the Holy Spirit would appear after he ascended, and it did. Early believers saw his prophecy coming true, and they took this as proof of his message. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and again at every baptism, the early Christian missionary named Paul saw that as proof of God's message. And when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD, the author of the Gospel of Luke (who is actually anonymous) saw that as proof that Jesus was a prophet like those of old (and even more than a prophet). All of these things have contributed to Jesus' success and the popularity of his message. And I'm sure there are more things still--we didn't even get into the crucifixion!

Thanks for reading all this time, and I hope you'll be willing to share any revelations that came to you as a result of this conversation. What have you learned? How do you feel about "Historical Jesus" scholarship? Has your conceptualization of Jesus been altered, and if so, how?

Jesus of Nazareth Part 4 - Prophet and Social Critic

The third and final version of Jesus outlined by Adele Reinhartz is what I'll call the "Social Critic Jesus." Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright are the main proponents of this view. I'm unfamiliar with Borg but I have a deep respect for Wright. Similarly to my knowledge of these two scholars, the Social Critic Jesus is equal parts peculiar and familiar.

Let's get the peculiar out of the way first. The weirdest trait of this week's characterization of Jesus was that he saw apocalyptic events as mere metaphor. The power in these apocalyptic visions was not expressed by a literal interpretation, hoping for a future age of justice like Jewish Jesus. Instead, they were powerful for what the ways in which they critiqued Jesus' own times. Like the Old Testament prophets, the future was not as important as the present for this version of Jesus. Thus Social Critic Jesus thought of the "Kingdom of God" as a present possibility, not a future reality.

Although it may be weird to think that Jesus may have been thinking metaphorically when he preached his views on apocalypticism, what may be more familiar is the idea of Jesus as a social critic. When we talk of Jesus "challenging the status quo" or something similar, we're talking about social criticism, at least on some level. Social criticism is exactly that: challenging what people take for granted, in the hopes of helping people to develop better or more healthy social practices. Like the Jewish Jesus, this Jesus was a prophet who looked around him and offered critique at the world he saw. Whereas the Pharisees were obsessed with purity, Jesus intentionally combated their philosophy by inviting all kinds of people to eat with him. Scholars refer to Jesus' eating practices as "inclusive table fellowship," and this view of Jesus holds that this practice was one of the primary ways Jesus communicated his message. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Jesus taught a message of compassion, and he backed that up in a tangible way by communing with outcasts.

Further, this view holds that Jesus criticized the Judaism he saw in his time. The obsession with the Temple and the purity laws all came under his attack. He felt that God's plan stretched beyond the limitations of the Jewish Torah (law). In this criticism of Jewish practices, Jesus stood in a long history of biblical prophets who criticized the faithlessness of the religion of their days.

What do you think of Social Critic Jesus? Does he resemble your conceptualizations of Jesus? Do you think Jesus' practice of inviting social losers to dinner was a big part of his ministry? Do you think he saw himself as a critic of first-century Judaism? Please leave comments below, and stay tuned to the final wrap-up in part 5!

Jesus of Nazareth Part 3 - Wandering Cynic

As the series on Jesus of Nazareth continues, we examine the most philosophical version of Jesus. Of the three characterizations outlined by Adele Reinhartz, this one is probably the most controversial. The lead scholar supporting this view is John Dominic Crossan, one of the leaders of the infamous Jesus Seminar.

Jesus' place of origin in Nazareth/Galilee was a bit more exposed to Greek culture due to its location(a quick search reveals this useful, yet small map). As a result of this confluence of cultural activity in Jesus' life, scholars like Crossan decided to investigate whether Jesus' teaching innovations might have been influenced by one of the Greek philosophies of the first century.

In comparing these schools of philosophy against Jesus' teaching, these scholars found that Jesus' teaching lines up very well with the philosophical school called Cynicism. This is not "cynicism" the way we think of it, but a particular type of philosophy that had been around five hundred years before Jesus and stuck around another five hundred after him.

For proof of the similarities between Jesus' teaching and Cynicism, check out Wikipedia's description of the philosophy: "[The Cynics'] philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a life free from all possessions... They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society." Jesus taught people to sell their possessions and to see worldly wealth as inconsequential. He criticized those who put faith in wealth, power, and "worthless customs and conventions." Further, Cynics were known for wandering from town to town teaching their beliefs to anyone who would listen. So it's not hard to see how scholars like Crossan can see a Cynic in Jesus.

Jesus doesn't fit perfectly well into the Cynic school of thought, though, since he called people to communal living, whereas the Cynics preferred isolation (for example, see the above image of the Cynic Diogenes living in a washtub). Further, since Cynicism was a Greek philosophy school, a normal Cynic would have believed in the Greek or Roman gods instead of the Jewish God Jesus spoke about. As a result, the scholars who conceptualize Jesus as a Cynic tend to solve these inconsistencies by noting that he was a Jewish Cynic. As a student of both Cynicism and Judaism, Jesus combined the wisdom he found in both "schools" to create his teaching, which ended up being a more communal version of Cynicism intimately connected with worship of the Jewish God.

What do you think of the Cynic Jesus? Does he resemble the way you understand Jesus? Before you say "no," think of some of the ways Jesus is similar to a Cynic. If you're like me, you probably hadn't heard of Cynicism before. However, maybe you think of Jesus as blending Judaism with other kinds of wisdom (since he does actually critique Jewish practices). If so, the Cynic Jesus could make sense to you. Also, if you think of Jesus as a wandering teacher, teaching others to give up their faith in wealth and empty religion, you have a lot in common with those who conceptualize him as a Cynic. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned for Part 4 - Prophet Jesus.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Who Was Jesus of Nazareth - Part 2

This week will be a longer blog, since I want to respond to the prior posts, introduce Adele Reinhartz, make some disclaimers, and actually move into Reinhartz's first characterization of Jesus. With that, let's get right into it.

The responses I received were well thought out and almost exclusively in theological terms. There's nothing wrong with theological descriptions of Jesus (such as "Son of God," "Messiah," etc.) because they are expressions of our faith. However, when thinking about how we characterize Jesus, I think we'll find that, whether we're faithful Christians, atheists, or anywhere in between, we all have a conception of Jesus that informs our reactions to him. These conceptualizations operate beneath faith and doubt, and I hope to penetrate to that level of thought.

This is one of the areas where scholarship really shines as a tool, since scholars of the Gospels come in all faiths and beliefs. On that note, let me introduce Adele Reinhartz. She is a Jewish scholar whose area of study is the Christian New Testament. She has a passion for discussing views of women and Jews, especially in the Gospels. The book that I'm using is actually the rather lighthearted Jesus of Hollywood, which was a textbook in my class on "Jesus in Film." Because it's a lighter book (and not gritty scholarly fare), she is able to make generalizations about scholarly opinions, which she does to great effect. She sees basically three ways that Jesus is characterized in scholarship, which she details based on the "Jewishness" of Jesus in each characterization.

The view of Jesus that I'd like to discuss this week is the most "thoroughly Jewish" one. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to call this characterization the "Jewish Jesus." The main scholars holding the torch for the Jewish Jesus are Ed Sanders, Geza Vermes, Sean Freyne, and Paula Fredriksen (none of which I'm familiar with, unfortunately). These scholars see Jesus as really a product of the Jewish culture of his day. One of the things we know for sure about Jesus is that his teachings most closely resemble those of the Pharisees. Like family members, the quarrels between Jesus and the Pharisees were so passionate because they really had so much in common that their few differences became exaggerated. In addition, Jesus (for the most part) was seen as observing all the Jewish laws, including "Sabbath, purity, sacrifice, and atonement" (he also wouldn't have trimmed his beard, as in the depiction on the right). We can see Jesus' observance of Jewish ceremonial law in things like the Last Supper, which is really the Jewish meal of the Passover. However, Jesus saw himself as a prophet--in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets--whose mission was twofold: 1) to call people to true worship and 2) to prophesy the end of the age and the creation of a new age. Thus, his teaching was primarily what we call in scholarship, "apocalyptic," meaning that it came out of the Jewish stream of thought that looked forward to God's destruction of the current age and creation of a new, just age. We can see evidence of apocalyptic thought in the way Jesus talked about the coming "Kingdom of God/Heaven," as well as the prophetic passages that warn about the terrors of the coming day of destruction. So, to summarize, these scholars characterize Jesus as the Jewish apocalyptic prophet whose teaching emerges from that of the Pharisees, but also critiques them for their inadequate worship.

So, now that I have detailed one of the scholarly images of Jesus, I hope you can see how we can characterize Jesus this way whether or not we are Christians who believe in the Gospel story. If we think of Jesus as primarily a Jewish prophet, then we hold similar views to the Jewish Jesus. In fact, I started with this view because I think it, in a lot of ways, resembles the Jesus we tend to see in the conservative church traditions most of us came from. You can see a lot of truth in this characterization of Jesus, and a lot in common with the Gospel stories. At the same time, though, each characterization is missing gaps. So, what I'd like to see for next week are your thoughts on "Jewish Jesus." And let's move beyond a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to this characterization; instead, let's break it into component parts and analyze it that way. For instance, here are some questions to think about: Does he resemble the Jesus you think of? How is he different? How is he the same? Did you learn anything from reading about this version of Jesus?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Who Was Jesus of Nazareth? - Part 1

In biblical scholarship, there has been an ongoing debate, dubbed "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." Essentially, this academic pursuit is an attempt to find out who this person, Jesus of Nazareth, actually was. The "Quest" has raised many interesting topics over the years, and has had a big impact on biblical scholarship. However, it's not just limited to academia! I think it is worthwhile for everyone to try to understand Jesus of Nazareth, as he has had a huge effect on the world we live in today.

So, to start what I hope will be a multi-part discussion, I'm casting the question out there for you to answer: who do you think Jesus of Nazareth was? If that seems too vague, how about this: what--if anything--made him different from other teachers, healers, exorcists, and messiah claimants? How would you characterize his life? Please post an answer in the comments below! Since this is just a discussion for the purpose of provoking thought, there are no wrong answers, so please be courteous of others who may have different beliefs/doubt/disbelief.

Next week, I will discuss your answers and add in some from the scholarly circles. Specifically, I want to discuss Adele Reinhartz's claim that there are three versions of Jesus seen in biblical scholarship. Please look forward to it. It is my sincere hope that we can all learn something as a result of this discussion.