Trump and The Soybean Puzzle

Can someone (a Trump supporter maybe) from the US Mid West explain why President Trump’s notion of putting a heavy tariff on goods from China is going to help the sale of US Soybean to China?

The Mid West voters have been traditional supporters of Republicans for several decades and the biggest swing to the Republicans from the Democrats was particularly marked for Donald Trump in Iowa in the recent elections. This would not have been a particular surprise.  No  doubt the prospects of reduced taxes and a loosening of environmental restrictions offered the prospect of rapid improvement to the business prospects for farming sector. As President Trump’s Agribusiness policies have clarified, the farm sector appears to have a recent unpleasant late awakening as the prospect of Trump’s trade wars begin to take shape. Basically the first part of the problem is this.   Trump’s rejecting the TPP has already removed the prospect of the increase of $4.4 billion dollars which had been calculated for Agribusiness as a result of the increased trade markets for US agricultural products under TPP.

The Chinese as a major export destination (particularly for Soy) are currently facing the prospect of trade barriers and will almost certainly respond with their own barriers if the somewhat unpredictable Trump carries through with his threat. If that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump has stated he wants to torpedo the current NAFTA arrangement which is widely agreed to have provided a welcome boost to the agribusiness.  A range of key farm sector stakeholders (including the American Soybean Association, the Dry Bean Council and the North American Meat Institute have already sent a letter pleading with the President not to torpedo NAFTA.

So what do we have?

Fact – China has stated they will respond to trade barriers with their own reprisals.
Fact – the US has a huge market for Soybean in China.
Fact – Brazil, like the US, has a surplus of Soybean and is competing with the US as a major exporter.

Why does the Trump Government assume that trade barriers against the China will not mean China will then start to turn to Brazil for its Soybean supply?  How would that help the Mid West?

In any case Mexico (a major importer of corn from the US eg $US 2.4 billion in 2015) has already responded to direct threats from Trump with a clear signal it is about to debate a Bill to source its corn from elsewhere.

This morning Graeme Wheeler, Governor of the New Zealand Reserve Bank made a public statement that President Trump’s protectionist economic policies, if enacted, are going to be  a disaster for World Trade.   Even assuming there will be a short-term advantage to the US in setting up trade barriers, surely long term, US exporters are going to find their trade partners will look elsewhere, and even if they don’t, how will placing taxes on incoming goods not raise the prices of those goods for US consumers?      What am I missing?

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Lectionary Sermon February 12 2017 Epiphany 6 A (St Valentine’s Sunday) on Matthew 5: 21 – 37

Richard Holloway, a past Moderator of the Church of Scotland, now perhaps better known as a modern thinker and radical religious writer, once likened the Christian Church to an ancient galleon, now moving very slowly, encumbered with centuries of encrustations on its hull.

Although Richard Holloway’s interpretation resonates with many features of much of the church it occurred to me there are two further parallels worth checking out. To me, the Church is now very fragmented and a more accurate analogy is a whole fleet of vessels of varying age and style all attempting to work their way down a poorly mapped coast.

Unfortunately many of the sailors and passengers assume that Richard Holloway’s centuries of encrustations are essential to the success of the voyage.

Looking back to the early history of our faith, perhaps this was always inevitable. Just as the Israelites borrowed from surrounding cultures and as their circumstances changed, new influences have been superimposed on the old, each leaving its own layers of tradition and practice.

In today’s reading we find Jesus, recognised by many today as the Messiah, breaking with this tradition and offering a form of what we might now call situational ethics. History tells us it was a comparatively short time before, once again, followers of the new faith started adding their own layers of interpretation to what Jesus taught and despite his emphasis on living the faith, his followers opted for placing the emphasis on styles of worship.

What Jesus offered with his teaching was not so much a rejection of the old but rather a new way of looking at tradition that enabled his followers to regain a sense of travelling with perspective and direction. The nearest thing we have to a summary of his teaching was in the Sermon on the Mount.

Today’s lesson is helpful because here in that sermon, Jesus is taking some standard religious laws and customs and is explaining that they mean nothing unless they are accompanied with the right sort of attitude to those around them.

I would suggest two points might be made. First his message would have seemed almost shocking to the traditionalists in his audience who saw the law and traditions as Holy, and what is more, complete and immutable. By launching into a series of statements which had the general form “You have learned….. but I say to you now …..” he was  putting his own spin on the teachings he was using as example.

Jesus words probably horrified the traditionalists because it is most unlikely that they would have expected Jesus to have the right to assume the authority needed to alter tradition in any way whatsoever.

The second point is just my opinion, but I want to suggest that a consequence of picking up on Jesus’ general theme is that that since our attitudes to one another provide perspective to interpret the law for particular situations – this means that even the examples Jesus chose might need rethinking if the situation for those around us is different to that of his listeners.

His first example is a particular case in point. Jesus correctly points out that not committing murder may be a standard teaching but it is also one that doesn’t go far enough. If we are nursing anger against our neighbours, he suggested, or abusing or even simply sneering at them, we also require judging. This first part is fair enough and indeed it might be argued that if our attitude was right towards them in the first place, no harm, including murder would have taken place.

But if our faith is to be our own faith, simply cobbling together what we remember of Jesus’ teaching on murder and following it slavishly, will not cover many of our modern situations. For example modern warfare may have morphed into murder without us noticing. Many of the wars in the past have been between soldiers with soldiers as the main casualties. Since modern warfare has a much higher proportion of civilian casualty we should at least ask the question if there is a danger of becoming accessories to murder if we support a modern war.

Another newer related issue is that the right-to-life supporters are starting to insist we resist abortion on the grounds that killing the unborn as potential humans is equivalent to murder. But before we rush to lend our support to that campaign think again what Jesus was saying about attitudes. If a teenage mother to be, whose only crime was to be raped, or a mother carrying a child known to be likely to be born with a serious mental defect, or a mother living in absolute poverty are all also our neighbours surely to simply insist that they carry the child to full term without dealing adequately with their personal concerns is not in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.

Another situation which modern medical practice introduces a new set of ethical considerations in the termination of a life by what is often called mercy killing or euthanasia. Before leaping to judgment on this one, again we must remind ourselves that our world is now very different to that of Jesus and his disciples. One of the consequences of modern medicine is that many people are kept alive by medical intervention – and often long past the point where they might be said to have quality of life. The set of questions that deserve the attention of modern Christians relate to how best to approach that particular dilemma without forgetting we are talking about our neighbours.

Nor should we ignore the implication of Jesus’ requirement that we desist from harbouring grudges or anger, and the reminder that we should not abuse or even sneer at those who aggrieve us. Perhaps easier said than done, yet if we are following through on the attitudes part of the Sermon on the Mount, we may need to remind ourselves that although it is our choice to follow Jesus, having taken up that challenge, we can hardly say we will follow without following the spirit of his essential teaching.

For example if we were to step back to reflect on what more actions our Church community should be taking to ease the lot of new immigrants, how better we might show we welcome those of different culture or faith into our community. If better we might make minorities feel when they join us as guests in our Church functions and in our homes, we may be coming closer to saying Amen to this part of Jesus’ teaching.

“When you are bringing your gift to the altar”, Jesus went on to say ….Well again for many of us, we now live in a different age. We no longer buy pigeons in the Temple Courtyard to sacrifice on the altar. But this does not mean we should simply ignore what Jesus is saying.

The gift we may be bringing is often nothing more than a token offering for the collection plate. Yet Jesus’ teaching may still have something for us to consider. If we also find ourselves harbouring resentments then even a humble gift of a few dollars in the offering plate is not going to mean much for our Christian journey if we have no intention of sorting out our differences before we make that offering.

Next Jesus addresses the issue of private disputes which I guess includes the matter of unpaid debts. It has always seemed rather odd to me that if a person breaks into a few homes taking nothing but a few IPods, cell phones and the occasional piece of jewellery he or she is quite likely to find themselves with a short sharp prison term to remind them of the need not to steal.

When on the other hand someone racks up a huge debt to you – often equivalent to your entire life savings, at best they tend to get some form of diversion or community service. Jesus’ words should remind us that debts hurt – and that by implication the hurt matters. Again for those claiming to be Christian, unpaid debts and what we call civil cases whether it be for unsettled accounts with trades-people, goods taken on deposit and not fully paid for within the agreed time, or faulty vehicles sold under false pretences – we might remember all are actions taken which imply we are not prepared to follow the spirit of Jesus’ recorded words.

I said before that some of Jesus’ words are best understood as being directed towards an audience who lived in his time not in our time. This means that with issues like divorce where the surrounding laws are very different to those in Jesus’ time, an exact attempt to follow the letter of the Jewish customs is frankly inappropriate. In any event Jesus simply did not give direct guidance on many of our contemporary situations relating to matters like child custody, like grounds for divorce, like maintenance, like gay marriage or for that matter like the complicated workings of the matrimonial property law. In fact I would go further and say that many safeguards and laws now offer far better protection than was the case in the days of Jesus and his disciples. We should however acknowledge Jesus’ guidance at that time was more helpful than the then current teaching on divorce.

But the mention of divorce is also an appropriate reminder that apart from being the sixth Sunday of Epiphany today is also Valentine’s Sunday, being the closest Sunday to St Valentine’s day.

Accordingly I would like to finish with a brief mention of part of a sermon I once heard at a wedding. The preacher commenced with a rather surprising assertion, directed to the newly married couple.

“Marriage”, he said, “is not for you!” I might add at that point there appeared to be a collective intake of breath from the startled congregation. Then he continued. “Marriage is for the person you are marrying.” In other words, if we set out in marriage, intent on getting the best for yourself, the marriage is unlikely to succeed. If on the other hand if we think first of the other and put them first in the decision making, then marriage indeed becomes a living relationship.

Well, we are not all currently in marriage relationships. However at the centre of everything Jesus taught by word and action is how to develop proper relationship not just between husband and wife but with basically whoever we might come into contact, whether it be relationship with family, or with friends, or with neighbours, or even whether it be relationship with the dimly understood one we understand to be the God encountered in acts of Love and Compassion. “ Living for the other” subsumes the law. It sorts out our decision making and will help us come to sensible conclusions on a whole raft of puzzling issues.

I wonder if “Living for the other” might even be the Epiphany summary for the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. If it is, St Valentine’s Sunday seems as good a day as any to start to make it our own.

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Lectionary sermon for 5 February 2017, (Epiphany 5A) on Matthew 5:13-20

You probably remember a few months ago when the world TV viewing audiences were shocked by a news clip of a young Syrian boy, sitting alone in mute despair in an ambulance after an air strike on Aleppo, covered in blood and dust. The image of that boy, Omran, is now considered an iconic symbol of the toll the conflict in Syria has been taking on its people and an uncomfortable reminder of the on-going refugee crisis it has created.

There are of course different ways of coping with such an image. By far the most common is simply trying to put the image out of mind. Refugees are an uncomfortable presence and carry with them a reminder of dangers…. refugees are different… and when they come from a different culture, have a different religion and particularly one we don’t really understand and all the while calling on a response which will require us to put ourselves out for them, is it surprising we prefer keeping them at a distance – even to the point of reducing funding for assistance to refugees.  Hence the populist response.  The current travel ban.   We should never forget that this is a popular idea to some. Why else would the world community pretend not to notice and have millions of refugees kept in distressing situations for year upon year.

But back to that small boy in the ambulance.  Not all who saw that image of little Omron wanted to turn their backs. Alex is six years old and lives just outside of New York City with his mom, dad, and little sister Catherine. When Alex saw what had happened to Omran, he sat down at his kitchen table and wrote President Obama a letter. “Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home],” he asked. “We’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.” There was more to that letter and I would encourage you to look it up and read it for yourselves.

In the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees last November, President Obama shared that letter with the world leaders who had gathered together to discuss what they might do towards solving the global refugee crisis.

As the then President Obama put it “We can all learn from Alex” he He told the leaders to see in Alex “The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness

I think President Obama – at least in this case – was absolutely right. Six year old Alex even at that tender age was being an unconscious light on the hill. Yet isn’t it also the case that sometimes those who offer those simple truths which light the way for others have those same truths easily snuffed out as we find ourselves attracted back to the safe line of minimal help and maximum self interest.

Obama’s modern words about needing to follow Rex’s example and treat others with kindness and compassion come very close to one of the central themes of the Sermon on the Mount.  So what happened next.  Those same leaders Obama addressed, working with their voters, no doubt initially intending to initiate practical responses to the refugee issues, but their answers turned out to be very different from the sort of thing Jesus encouraged – and certainly very different to the response six year old Alex felt called upon to make.

It is odd from one point of view that the very so called “red states” in the United States where the majority were claiming most affinity to the literal inspired words of the Bible appear most inclined to discourage the resettlement of refugees. But make no mistake about it. Britain with its Brexit policy, along with European populations like those of Germany and France, despite their Christian majorities, are complaining that their leaders are too accepting of refugees. Surely these are no different to those who currently applaud Donald Trump. The shell-shocked tiny figure of Omron might be welcomed by young Rex – but Trump rides a wave of support when he says those like Omron must be kept out. And if it comes to that countries in my part of the world with their Christian majorities are similarly niggardly in their response to the refugee crisis.

It is all very well accepting that Jesus asked his followers to be a light on the hill rather than a light under a bushel …or accept the challenge to be the salt of the earth. But can we be honest enough to admit our community may not accept the challenge. Would Omron find our welcome the same dramatic and open response that a follower of Jesus should offer?

Perhaps to get the most from Jesus’ words, a brief historical reminder mightn’t go amiss.

Salt in the days of Jesus was absolutely critical for survival for any community. Valuable for its unique preservative property in days before refrigeration, salt was even used for trade and barter. This incidentally was the case over much of the civilised world for many hundreds of years, and those for example who have been lucky enough to have done a river cruise on the Danube may well have done a side trip to Salzburg (the salt trading capital of the area) at a time when many of the castles built along the Danube were there expressly for controlling and taxing the passage of salt down the river.)

Paying for a slave who turned out to be lazy or useless gave rise to the expression, “not being worth his salt”, and paying soldiers and servants in small bags of salt was the origin of the word “salary”. Salt losing its flavour was actually a much more local experience for those in Palestine because salt from the Dead Sea contains a mixture of substances together with the salt, some of which would change over time and which could indeed cause a change of the original flavour.

Salt of course is only of value if used appropriately and when Jesus says we are the salt of the world and then follows it up with a suggestion that we might become a salt that loses its flavour, suggests he does not award his followers the title “salt of the world” with the presumption the title is theirs for ever as of right or that it will remain theirs without some appropriate response.

We might start out to be Christian in word and action – but if in our actions we turn out to be hard hearted are we still even worthy of calling ourselves Jesus’ followers?
Remember last week’s reading about the Beatitudes. Living out these according to their spirit is another dimension of being the light shining on the hill, or to put it the other way is to be the salt on which the good food depends, is to accept discipleship.

Certainly we are right to remember Matthew talking earlier of Jesus as the light of the world, because after-all hadn’t he specifically quoted Isaiah as talking about the Messiah with the words: the People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light? Yet we can’t leave it there. When Jesus tells his disciples and other listeners, you are light of the world, this is critical because in effect it says by implication: “My mission has just become your mission”.

The seemingly attractive cop-out alternative is to assume it is only Jesus who carries the light, in which case we have an excuse to be spectators to the faith.

If we are thinking first and foremost of ourselves it is true we are unlikely to want to set our light in the open on the hill. Thinking selfishly we are much safer if we don’t venture out, and unfortunately – or if we are among the timid – perhaps we might even say “fortunately”, we may feel safer with our light under the bushel so to speak. On the other hand to stay with the gist of Jesus argument which he follows through in much of the rest of the sermon, if we are thinking first and foremost of others, we would be anxious to place the light where it would be most helpful to others.

And rather than let us escape the full force of what Jesus is reported as saying Matthew goes on to tell us Jesus is not providing any sort of escape from the essence of the law. Perhaps Matthew is aware that here he is setting his writing at variance with the teaching recorded in Mark and from Paul. We may need reminding that by the time Jesus was on the scene the excessive teachings of the law were appearing so confining and even awkward to live that even some of the Rabbis were beginning to shift direction. The Hillel school of Rabbis were for example teaching that there were some practical situations which would permit a relaxation of the laws of divorce. Mark is prepared to choose Jesus words which suggest that circumstances allow us to set aside some laws which discriminate against people and no longer make sense, particularly some laws relating to food. Likewise Paul suggests that with Jesus we might now look beyond rules about circumcision.

So what then do we make of Matthew recording Jesus saying he did not come to replace the law? In a way it could be argued that Matthew is the most conservative of the New Testament writers, yet don’t forget he also records Jesus as setting priorities within the law. What sounds like legalism, where every jot and tittle of the law needs to be taken into account, turns out to be an exercise in which perspective arrives when we put the emphasis on the laws relating to love and compassion. The law is interpreted not on the basis of slavish attention to which acts are permitted but rather on how the law is interpreted in the attitudes to people and situations – or if you like, the Beatitudes attitudes.

Matthew introduces his gospel with the story of the baby Jesus and I guess this suggests the image of starting a mission as a small child. The six year old Rex shows that it is possible to catch on to the spirit of Jesus mission without years of maturity and depth of learning. However, staying the course of that type of decision is not for everyone. In the real world decisions are not always going to be easy and real world ethical dilemmas provide a genuine test of faith.

Here in today’s reading, at least for those who would follow Christ, there is an implied radical approach to this confusion, but whether or not we can show we trust his challenge as still being relevant for our present circumstances, and where we in effect will come to place the light we are invited to hold up for others may not yet be decided.

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The White House Press Secretary is rightly insisting that the journalists check the facts before launching into print. This is wise and sensible advice. In case the news hacks are as ignorant as Donald Trump suggests, I would like to start the ball rolling with a few questions to seek helpful information from the White House.

1. How many of the Muslim countries chosen for the immigration ban have had their nationals commit terrorist acts on US soil over the last 40 years? (Stupid Google claims none! Google is presumably wrong because Mr Trump claims not to be intimidated by imaginary threats!)
2. Why were a number of the Muslim nations chosen for exemption coincidentally nations where President Trump has had investments?
3. Why was Saudi Arabia, the main source of genuine terrorism in the US (ie the Twin Towers) not high on the list of counties likely to furnish dangerous visitors? What about Bin Laden’s stamping grounds?
4. Given that all the terrorism experts claim that acts interpreted as anti-Muslim increase the incidence of terrorism, (eg the marked increase of terrorism when Iraq was “punished”by US invasion) is the President surprised that terrorist leaders via ISIS sites are using Trump’s ban against many Muslims as encouragement for Muslims to think the US really wishes war with Islam?
5. Given the Wall is necessary what is the evidence that Mexican behaviour is worse than that of other national groups? Silly Google claims the Mexican behaviour is rather better than average ( i.e. lower crime figures).
6. Is the President prepared to guarantee to Congress and the Senate that the US is not in fact going to have to fund the wall on an interim basis beyond President Trump’s well informed estimate ?(which is less than half that quoted by a number of stupid construction engineers)?
7. When Mexico pays for the wall (as Mr Trump guarantees) why will Mexico not seek to get some of the money by foreclosing on US investments?
8. If some of the US factories are saving money at present by operating in Mexico, who is going to pay extra for their goods when their increased labour costs go back to the new factories in the US.
9. Which endangered species are threatened by the wall?
10. Which of last week’s Executive Orders signed by the President have a guarantee of subsequent support by the Government?
11. Are the North American Indians important enough to consider their opinions on pipelines and fracking ?
12. Why are the polls continuing to show a substantial resistance to the new policies when President Trump has explained that the nation has come together behind him?
There must be other questions worth asking. Ideas please.

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That Wall Will Do What?

While President Donald Trump has a reputation for glossing over inconvenient truths, when it comes to building a wall with Mexico, he appears to have overlooked the blindingly obvious. He says it will be simple bookkeeping to make Mexico pay for the wall.

Although the President has come out with wildly different estimates for the exact price of the wall, it will almost certainly turn out to be greater than his present claim of $10 billion. Since a mere 650 miles of fence has already cost $7bn the calculations from the current experts who have oversight of barrier as a mere fence, more than 1000 miles of a much more costly wall is hardly going to cost $10bn at today’s prices regardless of whatever way it is calculated.

Ali F Rhuzkan, a structural engineer based in New York, is quoted saying that a 1,900-mile wall – seemingly Trump’s original plan – would require about 339 million cubic feet (12.5 million cubic yards) of concrete – which turns out to be three times that involved in building the Hoover Dam, a single localized site.  Other estimates say less than this will be required but since the description of the wall has changed many times over the last month it is had to be sure.   But thus far the calculations appear to have been assuming the costs are in construction. Since the proposed wall criss-crosses many privately owned properties the legal costs in gaining the necessary permissions and for that matter the prospect of years of litigation would give experienced contractors pause for thought.

In practice some sections of the wall would be much more expensive particularly where the ground is unstable or in the case of the Rio Grande where the wall has to cope with periods of serious flooding. The BBC has reported that virtually all the engineers they have been able to locate for an opinion seem to quote considerably more than twice Trump’s claimed estimate. If they are correct Trump will face considerable embarrassment further down the track when the figure negotiated with the Senate and Congress turns out to be based on a serious misjudgement.

One further complication is that despite past calculations for large concrete structures in that part of the world ( unofficially) they have included factoring in illegal migrant labour. In this instance it is hardly likely that even a Trump led government could sanction building a wall built with illegal labour when a key purpose of the wall is to keep illegal labour out. According to Trump all the US may need to do is deduct this ever shifting price of the wall from the substantial annual aid package the US presently makes available to Mexico as an annual grant.

Another of his suggestions is that the US could put a substantial tariff on the goods coming to the US from factories in Mexico. Some British economists have predicted that the logical Mexican answer would be to start removing the substantial tax benefits currently being earned by US investments in Mexico which even in 2013 were over $100bn.

A further irony there is that the more expensive cross border goods from Mexico would be ultimately paid for by US consumers who thereby indirectly pay for the wall. And what of the poor who already have the legal right to live in the US. Relocating the factories to US soil where there is not ability to attract cheap labour must surely increase the price of the goods.

The consumer is expected to pay this increase…so who does that hurt?
Since the US depends on at least minimum goodwill of its immediate neighbours for assistance with its border controls it is not immediately obvious why the Mexicans (who desperately need the aid to keep their minimal social services going) would increase goodwill as a consequence of a depleted aid package. If the other alternative is favoured, the return of US factories to the US will cause a spike in Mexican unemployment. Understandably the Mexican President seems more than a little miffed at the current talk of the wall.

There is also the widespread view that poverty increases the incentive for individuals to seek alternative sources of money eg crime and drugs. Give the Mexicans less money, bring the US owned companies currently providing employment for Mexican citizens back home….. and voila ….the dodgy Mexicans will become model citizens???? Yeah right!

And what of the poor who already have the legal right to live in the US. Relocating the factories to US soil where there is not the same ability to attract cheap labour must surely increase the price of the goods. The consumer is expected to pay this increase…so who does that hurt?

In any event we already know the crime syndicates have shown they can burrow beneath walls to release their drug crime bosses. Maybe ordinary poor Mexicans (eg illegal migrant labour on US building projects) don’t have that advantage, but I thought the new US President campaigned on the premise that the bad guys (ie the guys with the proven tunnelling record) should be preventing from entering the US.

According to the Department of Homeland Security a large sum is already being spent on detecting the myriad of tunnels under sections of the present fence with Mexico and it is common knowledge that when the drug runners are not using the tunnels for their immediate needs, they offer paid passage to the many illegal workers going back and forwards to Mexico.

Since the now increasingly problematic unity of the United States depends on the people in individual States perceiving the Federal Government acting in their interests it is not clear why some of the States in America and individual cities who have a high percentage of Mexicans amongst their population will be favourably inclined to a President who now is wanting to penalize those cities and states for a situation they did not initiate or did not have the means to control.

Because President Trump had previously boasted of using cheap and illegal labour for some of his hotel and casino building projects it is also particularly difficult to understand why Mr Trump now expects to be respected for his current enthusiasm for the wall.

And finally, since President Trump claims to be an environmentalist, what is with this obsession to put a wall in the part of Mexico bordering the National Park area of the Rio Grande? The wall would clearly affect the substantial animal migration patterns across the border and interfere with an already delicate balance. Threatened species such as some of the bears and wolves depend on the ability to find mates in closely related species across the border. Creating a situation where some of the more famous of the threatened species are wiped out would further infuriate the environmental lobby.  A further complication for those concerned about the impact on the environment will be the carbon footprint of the wall in that conventional concrete structures are known to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

DISCLAIMER: The above comments are made on the basis of incomplete information. If any of the readers notice flaws in the argument, their corrections or contributions to the discussion would be welcome.

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While I am sure President Donald Trump knows how to add using his fingers, I wish he had used bigger fingers before maligning the junior trading nations with the US like New Zealand.

According to our New Zealand Statistics figures for 2016 we sent NZ $5.6 billion worth of exports to the US and in return received NZ $5.7 billion worth of Goods and Services from the US.   In the Brave New World according to Donald Trump he claims this means that New Zealand gained far more from this trading relationship than did the US! ?  In response, small minded journalists might suspect that (using Trump’s own invented language) he might have “misspoke bigly”.  At the very least, his assertion that smaller partners have been gaining more from trade with the US than does the US doesn’t match the New Zealand example.   Assuming Trump gets his way and achieves a one on one trade agreement with partners like New Zealand, I am puzzled in our particular case why he assumes a new future agreement whereby the US gains more at our expense would have us wanting to trade under such conditions. To take one example, I happen to know that our national airline Air New Zealand is currently buying fewer planes from Boeing and more from Airbus.   If President Trump were to succeed in making our buying from Boeing even less favourable, why on earth would we move more to Boeing while taking fewer planes  from the EU Airbus conglomerate?

The other curious aspect of the new President’s action in closing down TPP is that for some reason he was either denied the information generated by President Obama’s economic advisors – or more likely, simply couldn’t be bothered asking.     From the previous White House point of view the TPP was partly designed to help the large and growing poorer sector of the population.   Landing goods more cheaply in the US may not initially directly benefit the captains of US industry but it sure helps those US consumers who are struggling to make ends meet.  Landing goods after tariffs???  In any case I would have thought extending the US range of target nations for US manufactured goods would have provided at least a few extra jobs.

The other key aspect of the TPP was that by helping the junior trading partners the TPP was supposed to supply what President Obama called the “Asian Pivot”.   In other words by assisting the trading partners develop their own economies it means the US could guarantee future stronger trading partners who would support the US.   We can already see Fiji turning to China because China offers more trade assistance to Fiji.   Friendship has to be a two way affair.

I am assured by the few New Zealand producers I happen to know, that without the current trade barriers with the US we would have been able to purchase more from the US and sell the US more of our goods.   My reason for suspecting this is plausible is that China with a much more relaxed approach to trading with New Zealand has now displaced the US as our second biggest trading partner.    New Zealand’s trade relationship with China has nearly tripled over the past decade, with two-way trade rising from $8.2 billion in the year ended June 2007 to $23 billion in the June 2016 year.

That Donald Trump is intentionally or more probably unintentionally set on making China great again by encouraging them back into the partnership with the other 11 prospective TPP nations may seem a mystery but would at least allow us to set up a further trading relationship option where we would not suffer the prospective indignity of being punished after thirty days for not signing up to a lopsided relationship designed to make the US rich at our expense.  This of course is partly guesswork because the future arrangements of the TPP partners are still at the reorganization stage.   However the TTP is not the only game in town.

The Chinese, earlier sidelined from the TPP, have been developing their own free Trade network alternative and according to the Wall Street Journal are now well advanced in their plans to establish favourable trading for potential partners under what they are calling the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (The RCEP). Since Trump’s election, China has been aggressively moving ahead with the RCEP, and the Wall Street Journal has been reporting that several TPP signatories have been “shifting their focus” to RCEP.

A few days into the “Make America Great Again” campaign and our nation is being forced to find a more positive form of greatness in other main trading partners. Is this really what the Trump supporters had in mind?


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Sermon for 29 January 2017 on Matthew 5:1-12

ADDRESS   I want to start with a confession. I guess I have become so accustomed to the very familiar passages in the New Testament that I keep forgetting how far we as a Church may have drifted in intention from what Jesus claimed was important. I recently came across an American Christian minister called Robin Meyers who has written a number of books dealing with the need to live rather than talk about the faith.

When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount – and in particular, the beatitudes, I should acknowledge using one of his ideas. Robin Meyers suggests to us what might have gone wrong. Meyers challenges us by saying of the Sermon on the Mount: “In the whole thing“,he says” there is not a single word about what to believe, only instructions on what to do or how to be” But here is the puzzle. “Fast forward 300 years to the Nicene Creed and the essence of what is supposed to define a Christian, and there’s not a word about what to do or how to be—only about what to believe. Clearly, something’s gone wrong,”.

Then Meyers goes on to goes on to push further, “Not plain enough? The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed themselves add insult to injury. Both creeds are products of a church trying to ‘circle the wagons’ and establish an institutional identity. Both creeds more or less say Jesus was ‘Born of the Virgin Mary (comma) suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ And there you have it: the entire life of Jesus, all of his teachings, the parables, his interaction with the poor, his healings—whether metaphorical or literal—all reduced to a comma.”

Assuming Jesus’ teaching was important to his disciples, then what the creeds miss out and what the sermon on the Mount teaches may turn out to be the heart of Christianity for modern disciples as well. If we think of ourselves as disciples perhaps formal beliefs about Jesus status might need to take second place to what the Christian life should mean in the here and now.

Well let’s join the disciples, as Jesus takes them up the hillside and shares with them the key teachings. Remember not a word about stuff he wants them to believe .. but some key markers he expects…but who from?

And while we are about it, did you notice that although the crowd were present, and no doubt were intended to hear what Jesus was saying, first and foremost Matthew says this particular teaching was delivered to the disciples. It was almost as if Jesus was saying my way is based on these ideas, and you as my disciples are expected to follow these ideas. The crowd would be listening, and many no doubt approvingly – but if they had noticed as Matthew pointed out that Jesus was speaking to the disciples, perhaps those in the crowd who knew the disciples might have suspected how this was going to pan out was now going to depend on whether or not the disciples were now going to start living out what they were being taught.

If we wanted to distinguish Christians from non Christians while it might be easy enough to ask them to list their beliefs – there may be a more important question namely -what would their behaviour look like compared with non Christians? Would we be doing what Jesus put as important. Blessed are those – those who what?

Over the last week we can hardly have missed that world has been focused on the new US President. Political leaders are supposed to be important because if they do what we hope they help us achieve a sense of well being. They are expected to be fair, care about those who get a raw deal … and of course achieve peace and prosperity.

But did you notice Jesus doesn’t say look to our leaders to mourn for those who suffer loss, for leaders to be meek, for leaders to be peacemakers on our behalf, for leaders to put righteousness ahead of personal achievement, and so on. That would be passing the buck. It is quite simply instructions not just for leaders, whether they be political or church leaders – it was addressed to those who would be disciples.

It is all very well asking Prime Ministers and Presidents to bring about peace on our behalf – and certainly to be honest I am worried that President Assad, Putin and now President Trump will turn out to be rotten peacemakers on our behalf but quite frankly Jesus did not exclusively address his instructions in his Sermon on the Mount to Presidents or even to Emperors – in fact if Matthew is to be believed he wasn’t even talking specifically to the general crowd of spectators.

For the church regulars among us, this is just part of the Sermon on the Mount. Profound wisdom in summary form, and for those familiar with the other gospels, it sounds very much like the same material scattered in Mark and collected in Luke (Ch 6 – verses 20 -49) which certainly strongly suggests that the record of all three gospel writers used some common source. However rather than looking at the similarities and differences, setting the scene in broad brush strokes might be more helpful.

Although Jesus covers a lot of ground in the Sermon which follows, today we only reflect on his introduction to the sermon with the brief list of who should be seen as blessed. This list is probably more commonly known as the beatitudes. A funny word that. The word Beatitude comes, of course, from Latin. The Latin word “beatus” means happy. For those amongst us who like obscure learning, the Greek, from which the translation comes, is the one Matthew used as the beginning of each phrase in his list as the word “Makarioi” .

This word can, and has been translated into English in different ways. Most commonly it is “blessed.” Other biblical translations use words like “happy” or “fortunate” or sometimes “honoured”. The French version of the New Jerusalem Bible even translated the word as “debonair”…which I am still thinking about!

I guess each of the nine beatitudes, used in this particular context, is apparently intended to identify a blessing or some sort of favour, but in some way to our contemporary minds, it is a surprising list. In a 21st century world we would probably first think of someone being blessed if they lived long and prospered in material ways.

Indeed virtually every one of the extremely numerous advertisements we see on our flat screen TVs implies we will be most blessed if we invest in the right material goods. If we buy the right car, look like that shapely model using that butt tightening exercise equipment, own the latest vacuum cleaner, drink the happiest of mood enhancing drinks, win Lotto, install the best lights, get the cheapest takeaways from the shiniest fast food outlet – you get the picture.

Donald Trump will no doubt be envied by some for his personal fortune but I suspect on the Jesus scale, Jesus turns that on its head. He finds the blessings in an entirely different set of values….and what’s more he seems to expect those who set out to be his disciples to recognise these as values in their own lives.

It also grounds what we now call Christianity in the real world. Regardless of what good fortune may come our way, for virtually every person on the planet there are also inevitable hard times, whether they be in coping with loss, dealing with setbacks in health, coping with criticism and envy, or dealing with our own sense of injustice – or injustice for those we may be in a position to help. Disease is no respecter of position and it would take an extraordinarily obtuse person to assume they would never encounter adversity.

Perhaps I should say it outright. A neat comb-over on the top of the head cant preserve the nerve connections, neuro-transmitters and the myelin insulation sheaths of those neurons in the brain. Botox might smooth the wrinkles on the outside but it wont keep you young on the inside anymore than the embalmer’s art would keep you living for ever. What however may be novel in the beatitudes is to suddenly realise that here Jesus in this reported list, helps us find the blessings in the midst of difficult and inescapable realities.

Certainly we can live our lives as if wealth and position will shield us from any serious darkness in our lives. On the other hand if we listen to Jesus’ words about finding blessings, we find ourselves called out of our intended isolation and ushered back to the world as it really can be. Jesus is advocating an emotional openness which enables us to encounter the depths as well as the highpoints of existence – and find something worthwhile in both.

The beatitudes have the potential to help us find worth in the whole of life – both good and bad, but for them to have any meaning at all in the personal sense , they need to be part of our very being – and bluntly – this will not happen unless we first accept them.

For some strange reason, outside formal Christianity, this notion that those who follow Jesus are expected to remodel their lives according to his principles is not widely acknowledged. In my admittedly limited experience it is not even the sort of topic that makes it onto the agenda of important Church business meetings, synods and conferences.

Even when we can remember the list, it is the rare individual who lives as if it is true for them. And to be honest – I am not just talking about other people – me too.

Perhaps it is simply that while most of us have probably heard the beatitude phrases about who will be blessed many times through the years, I wonder if rather we expect to associate them with the sort of thing we hear from the pulpit, without ever entertaining the thought that others might expect to see the same humility, the same insistence on mercy, thirst for justice, peace-making characteristics, and so on from the list as identifying us among the blessed. Perhaps if we recalled how those in other branches of the Church are sometimes criticised by people like us for their failure to match behaviour with their claimed teaching, we might be a little more concerned about our own shortcomings in this department.

Four of these same beatitudes are listed in Luke but notice he only lists the needy, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted. In Matthew’s extended list, there is a subtle change. The focus is less on the needy themselves and more on changing the attitudes of the hearers.

The challenge as Matthew remembered it was now no longer Luke’s version of simply “blessed are the poor”, or “blessed are the hungry”. No rather it was the challenge to reflect an attitude of being poor in spirit, and the hunger was no longer hunger for food. It was now having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness.

Notice too, the last beatitude of Matthew’s list is personalised – instead of saying blessed are the – it becomes blessed are youwhen you are reviled, persecuted, have evil falsely said about you – for that makes you like the prophets who were persecuted before you. Because Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the persecution was already beginning, we might even suspect that either Matthew is putting words of encouragement into Jesus mouth, or perhaps it is simply that he is selectively collecting the words of encouragement from other memories of Jesus.

So….”blessed“….. Does that sound like you – or me?

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