Archive for March, 2010

When “Social Marketing” does more harm than good

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

My wife, Amy and I were watching TV the other night, and a series of commercials came on that told me a lot about who the sponsors of the show thought I was. First, there was a Pepsi ad for this program they have where they give “grants” to people with good, community-changing ideas. Second was a Sun Chips commercial touting their new compostable packaging.

I remarked to Amy about how prevalent this kind of social marketing had become, and did so with no small amount of disdain in my voice, I expect, based on the way she looked at me.

Basically, it’s popular these days for companies to tout their social responsibility to help persuade you to buy their product. From Sun Chips (owned by junk food giant Frito Lay) to Pepsi, and even Coke with their “every time you drink our sugary, caffeine-laced soda, you’re participating in worldwide recycling” promotion, everyone wants to get in on the action. Of course, food and beverage manufacturers aren’t the only one’s getting in on the action. Car manufacturers, clothing designers and all manner of retail chains try hard to give you wamr fuzzies about their products.

On the surface, I know it seems cynical to grumble about companies trying to be socially responsible, even if it only is to better their bottom line. After all, if the result is the same, who cares what their motivation really is, right? But the concern I have hearkens back to my time-tested theory about capitalism at the consumer-level, which is that companies try hard to make us feel good about buying their stuff, and we agree not to ask too many questions, because we’d rather feel good (even if falsely or superficially) about getting what we want rather than doing the hard work of digging deeper for truth and – God forbid – maybe having to sacrifice some wants for our ethics.

First, we should never take a company at their word that what they’re doing is good for us or the planet. As an example, here’s a recent mention about Sun Chips’ installation of a ten-acre field of solar panels to help operate one of their factories, for which they won an “Effie.” This award, it turns out, is not an environmental award, but rather an “effectiveness in marketing” recognition. This from Effie’s website:

On Earth Day 2008, Sun Chips’ factory in Modesto, Calif., opened a 10-acre solar grid so that Sun Chips would be made with solar energy. However, the brand’s users were not hard-core green consumers, and they didn’t care to hear about the details. They just wanted to know they were doing something a little better.

I’m not saying this move to solar is a bad thing, but there are a few questions I’m left wondering about (though evidently, the marketing folks are clear that the general population doesn’t really care):

What percentage of the factory’s total consumption is generated by solar?
Was this part of a government mandate for communities/companies to get certain percentages of their energy from renewable sources, or was it voluntary?
Does the company have any standards for their suppliers and the way they grow, harvest and transport their products?

In short, the idea is to find out if this company seriously is committed to the values they’re promoting, or if it’s simply a photo-op. Before we give ourselves pats on the back for being responsible consumers, we should try to find out.

Second, and perhaps more important, I have concerns that we allow companies who engage in this kind of social marketing to assuage our guilt for our way of life, allowing us to feel like we’ve done our good deed simply buy buying a soft drink or eating chips. Yes, guiding our dollars to more responsible outlets is an important thing to consider, but this doesn’t let us off the hook as human beings, responsible for the care of ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet. It’s not unlike how some folks figure they don’t have to work hard at making the world a better place all week long, just because they go to church on Sunday.

If the companies we support truly are walking the talk, and if we can verify this, more power to them, and more power to us to support their efforts with our money. And if guiding our purchases in such a way is simply a reflection of a greater effort in all parts of our lives to do right by ourselves and our world, that’s great.

But let’s not fool ourselves; just because we drink Fat Tire instead of Miller Lite or buy our gifts from 10,000 Villages doesn’t mean we don’t have a hell of a lot of work left to do.

Can Protestants be “too Catholic?”

Monday, March 29th, 2010

I posted a comment on my Facebook Page and Twitter Page recently about how it seems ironic to me that so many churches who focus on atonement theology (the idea that Jesus died for your sins as central to what they believe) seems to jump right past Holy Week and on to Easter.

It seems to me that someone who preaches about and studies the death and suffering of Christ so much the rest of the year would have a field day emphasizing this central tenet of their beliefs on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But most of the churches in town that I know focus on this kind of image of Jesus have had slogans like ‘Christ is Risen!” on their signs for a couple of weeks already.

But can we really celebrate the resurrection, whatever meaning that takes on for your and your church, if we skip over the crucifixion? Moreover, aren’t we missing something if we don’t participate in the Passover Seder meal on the Thursday before Easter? Yes, this is traditionally a Jewish ritual, but it is, after all the meal that took place at the Last Supper.

(Side note: I know this is shocking stuff for some, but Jesus wasn’t a Christian; he was a Jew.)

Some of the responses I got to this comment were more lighthearted, pointing out that those who emphasize death and suffering so much year-round may see Easter as a time to take a little break, albeit maybe poorly timed. But Liesl, another friend of mine, pointed out that, in the church of her childhood, the reason Holy Week was not observed is because it “is too Papist.”

Basically, what she’s saying is that, since Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church thanks to Martin Luther (the root meaning of “Protestant” is “protest” against many teachings of the Catholic church at the time), it’s in our theological DNA to reject all things Catholic. Since the Reformation, lost of us have defined ourselves more by what we’re not like in the Catholic tradition than by what we are though. And frankly, I think we’ve missed out on a lot of good things the Catholic church does really well.

As for Disciples in particular (the denomination of my wife and me, who co-founded Milagro Christian Church together six years ago), we have a real opportunity to connect with people who have some historical connection with Catholicism, but who do not actively participate in that church tradition any more. For one, we observe communion every week, much like the Catholic church, but rather than placing the church in a position of arbiter over who is fit to receive it or not, most Disciples churches observe an “Open Table,” which means that it’s not up to us as leaders to determine your fitness to take communion. We offer it to all people; whether you choose to take it is between you and God.

The fact that some of us also observe the liturgical calendar (observation of holy Week and following the Lectionary, among others) also appeals to a lot of people who are Catholic, and yet they find an openness in our lack of creeds or dogma that gets them past whatever alienated them from church in the past. As for Milagro, nearly half of our congregation is made up of these kinds of folks. so for us, the connection to Catholicism is not only valuable to enrich our sense of connectedness to deeper tradition; it’s a part of who we are today, as a faith community.

We do, however, have a couple of folks who respectfully decline to participate in thins like out Maundy Thursday, Passover Seder and Good Friday services namely because they feel “too Catholic” or “too not-Christian.” Here, we just agree to disagree, though I can’t help but think they’re missing out on a broader perspective on their faiths of origin.

(Another side note: it’s common practice here in Pueblo to ask folks, ‘Are you Catholic or Christian?” is if the two are mutually exclusive. Weird.”

So I’m curious what others think. Do you feel like we may have gone a little too far with the Reformation, losing out on things like images and theology of the Divine Feminine, Holy Week and the like? Or is it important to maintain a cleaner break, setting ourselves apart from the faiths of Judaism and Catholicism that we came from? For that matter, is there value in digging deeper, looking into even things like Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and other Pagan beliefs that informed many sacred practices we still embrace today?

Let me know what you think.

An open letter to critics of health care reform

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I understand that not everyone is a fan of the changes coming with the new health care reform legislation. However, I expect most can understand why at least the 32 million people anticipating having some kind of coverage would beg to differ.

This is not my issue. My beef is with the fear-mongering about the “government takeover of health care.” this is a broken system, and most of us simply find basic health care and insurance untenable. It’s been a problem for decades and nothing substantial has been done, so kudos to those lawmakers who bucked up and spent some political capital to do SOMETHING. But in debating the law’s implications, let’s stick to logistics rather than capitalizing on fear of big government to polarize public opinion.

I would also suggest that such rhetoric is hypocritical for anyone benefiting from any of the following taxpayer-supported programs, which we have “no choice” but to support through our taxes:

VA Benefits
Public Education (this includes state universities)
Social Security
Transportation systems (you drive on a road I/we paid for with our taxes)

I could go on, but the point is that ALL of us benefit from taxpayer-supported programs. Sure, health care is a huge portion of our national economy, but how about national defense? I’ve yet to hear a tea party activist complain about their tax dollar going to missile systems or to fund internment camps for enemy combatants. Why is this? isn’t the health of our citizenry at least as important?

For me, this is an issue of theological importance. If Jesus were here today, it would be hard to argue that he wouldn’t chastise us for our treatment of the poor and less privileged, here in the wealthiest country in the world. And while I’d love to see our communities address this and other issues without government intervention, how much longer do we wait? How many more thousands/millions should remain sick or die while we debate how to best reform a broken health care system? How many more decades should we say is acceptable until we say “enough”?

It’s not a perfect bill, and no one is saying it is. But thank God something is changing. At least now we’re taking some responsibility for one of the most sorely neglected issues of social justice we’ve yet to content with as a nation.

My LOST prediction: Who will be the hero?

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

In a recent interview for a radio show about LOST, I was asked a lot about the coming end of the show, including who I thought the hero or heroes ultimately would be. Though I honestly hadn’t thought much about it, the person that we all tended to agree on surprised even me:


That’s right, the dude man. After I thought a little more about it, the long-shot idea began to make more sense. Thinking about the theme of redemption and transformation throughout the show, all the main characters have gone through major personal revelations, eschewing their spotty pasts for a second chance at a new life on the island. Some have done better than others with this second chance, but no one has been left unchanged.

Now, the most obvious choice for hero is Jack, who even has the Christlike name “Shephard” and is, by profession, a healer. But given the complexity of the show, I expect a curve-ball or two come the apocalyptic end. But the only one who has been good, more or less from start to finish is Hurley. And there’s one other key reason why I think he might be the one; he’s the only one who came to the island with thew apparent understanding that getting everything you think you want in life can actually be more of a curse than a blessing.

This theme of wish-fulfillment being a curse is getting stronger throughout the final season, partcularly with Smokey/Locke dangling carrots in front of folks like getting off the island or getting all the answers they ever wanted. Hell, he might as well have a forked tongue and slither on his belly.

But so far, he hasn’t tempted Hurley as I can recall, and neither has anyone else. He’s followed other people when he thinks it’s the right thing to do, but never out of persona self-interest.

So there it is. I’ve said it. It’s out there. tell me what a moron I am and why this can’t possibly be what’s coming. But my money, at least for now, is on Hurley.

Tire-Burning, Corporate “Citizens” and the Supreme Court

Friday, March 5th, 2010

By Christian Piatt

(Originally printed in PULP)

Love or hate it, we have a new cement plant in Pueblo. Yes, it will bring jobs, and yes, it will add pollution to our local environment. Spin it however you want, but no one can argue in good conscience that cement manufacturing has a positive – or even neutral – impact on the planet.

What we’re left with, then, is the challenge of at least mitigating those negative effects on our community. Already, we see growing numbers of respiratory-related problems in Pueblo. So what to do?

Some local media have celebrated the proposal to burn used tires for fuel in the plant, indicating that this is an excellent example of “real recycling” for our state to celebrate. Apparently, the other recycling efforts currently underway in Southern Colorado don’t qualify as “real.”

Granted, we have millions of tires that have to be disposed of every year, one way or another, and burning them for fuel does decrease the need for fossil fuels. But to tout tire burning as an alternative energy source is, at best, disingenuous.

As the Montana Environmental Information Center points out, “Tires contain chlorine. When chlorine is burned, it can form dioxin. DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) admits that the dioxin emissions pose the greatest risk to health and the environment from tire burning.”

But dioxin is only one concern. The Energy Justice Network lists lots of other dangerous byproducts on tire burning:

“The fumes emitted are packed with the many toxic chemicals that tires contain (including volatile organic compounds such as benzene, metals such as lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo(a)pyrene, and synthetic rubber components such as butadiene and styrene). Additionally, the chlorine content in tires leads to the creation of dioxins and furans (which are extremely toxic chemicals) when tires are burned.”

One argument that proponents of this energy strategy make is that, although these compounds created in the fires are highly toxic, the systems used to burn the tires can clean such chemicals from the gases emitted into the atmosphere.

They’re right that such systems exist. The problem is that cement plants that burn tires aren’t required to have them.
Said environmental researcher Dr. Neil Carman: “Cement kilns are not designed or required to have major fail-safe combustion devices such as large afterburners that all state-of-the-art incinerators must have by federal law today…”

Research for this piece yielded no federal or state standards to which polluters are held to determine if their tire-burnings are in compliance or not, and emissions from such plants generally are tested only 2 1/2 years, at most.

There is a fee that the state collects every time a new tire is sold. Approximately $1.50 of each sale goes to the state, supposedly for the purpose of subsidizing proper disposal of the tires once they’re out of commission. The problem is that this fund has regularly been raided, allocated instead for general fund expenses rather than being set aside to aid the purpose for which the tax was initially levied.

There are lots of other more Earth-friendly uses for old tires, especially once they are ground into “crumb rubber.” The byproduct is used for playground surfaces, running tracks and even in asphalt for roads. But these uses don’t fetch the same premium that they do as fuel. Meanwhile the shell game of environmental risk factors continues, and our community’s health suffers the inevitable consequences.

On a somewhat related topic, state manufacturers are incensed about proposed legislation that would lift the tax exemption for two years they’ve enjoyed on all money spent on energy to run their factories. The impact would indeed be close to home, with companies like Evraz Steel and Summit Brick realizing a significant tax increase.

The companies are fair in arguing such expenses may result in layoffs down the road. Pro-business advocates argue that the absence of such exemptions make us appear less business-friendly as a state. All of this aside, I have more of a philosophical issue with this complaint.

Personally, I get no tax break for the money I spend on electricity and gas in my home, and a big percentage of every dollar I spend on gasoline goes to the government coffers. Corporations don’t want to be treated like individuals because, theoretically, they bring more economic value to the table. They deserve special treatment.

Then the federal Supreme Court ruled recently that corporations indeed should have the same First Amendment rights to free speech that individual citizens have, which means they have free rein to donate to the political campaigns of their choosing.

It seems that businesses want to be treated as individual citizens when it benefits them, but not when it comes to taxation. This double standard not only serves to erode the confidence of a public already suspect of the impartiality of government; it also makes a mockery of the Constitution upon which our system of governance is based.

God’s Power: Wrath or Restraint?

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

God’s Power: Wrath or Restraint?
Smells Like Spirit
by Christian Piatt

(Originally printed in PULP)

When I was younger, there were many stories in the Bible that freaked me out. While the Sunday School classroom walls were covered with cute arks and animals walking two-by-two, the subtext is about an angry God exacting cataclysm on nearly every living . Is this really a kid’s story?

Then we have David killing Goliath with a rock, people being thrown into pits of lions, tossed into ovens … it’s enough to give a kid nightmares, especially if the lesson taken from the tales is “straighten up or God will make you dead meat.”

Two things happened as I got older, though, which helped me appreciate these stories rather than fear them. First, I began to understand Biblical narrative as metaphor, explaining basic truths about human nature rather than recording literal, historic facts. Second, I started recognizing something not pointed out in my youth: the restraint of power.

To me, the real message behind the flood story — incidentally, most world cultures have a similar story of their own — is about God holding back. First, God decides to wipe the whole slate clean and start all over. But mercy prevails and at least a few faithful are spared.

As far back as Adam and Eve, there are stories of people screwing up, despite the threat of dire consequence imparted by God, and then God backing off — changing the divine mind, if you will.

And so it goes, from Sodom and Gomorrah to Jonah and the Ninevites, someone’s always talking God into taking it easy on us humans. Now, I’m not one to believe that God’s actually that involved in daily life, doling out punishment like a high school principal. Actually, it’s we who to try to find reasons behind the bad things that happen to us. It makes it easier to swallow, after all, if we can convince ourselves that everything actually happens for a reason, rather than accepting the possibility that, sometimes, really bad stuff happens, even to really good people.

But back to the underlying theme in so many of these biblical stories. Like all metaphor, we have the opportunity to read any number of messages into them. For those intent on gleaning an image of an angry, vengeful God from the pages of Scripture, they most certainly will find it. I choose, however, to see a God of forgiveness and mercy.

Considering the example we’re presented with in the life and teachings of Jesus, it’s hard for me to conceive that someone who calls him- or herself a Christian would see anything else. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was replacing a culture of vengeance and retribution with a new ethos of compassion, love and forgiveness.

So, if we’re called by the one who many claim embodies the wisdom of the Divine to be purveyors of compassionate mercy, why would we choose to conceive of a God whose essence is anything but the same?

New Podcast: Time, death and the Brain

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

I just posted a new podcast called “Time, Death and the Brain”

Let me know what you think.