Signs of the Times (12/30/14)

Newsweek Explores Christianity with its Latest Cover

Newsweek’s latest cover gives top billing to an examination of Christianity. Why? “The short answer is that those articles typically get a good response and they sell very well,” Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute told CNNMoney on Monday. Newsweek’s latest cover story, by Kurt Eichenwald and published online the day before Christmas Eve is headlined “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin,” and calls out “God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch…. With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.” Critics have contended that Eichenwald was out of his depth. RedState editor-in-chief Erick Erickson said that Eichenwald “displays staggering ignorance to attack Christianity.”

  • The main theme of the article has some merit. Many, if not most, Christians have an appalling lack of knowledge about what the Bible actually says. But Eichenwald exhibits those same qualities as well. For example, the article contends that the story in John 7 about Jesus rescuing an adulterous woman from stoning was not written by John but rather made up by scribes during the Middle Ages.

Obama Threatens to Employ Veto to Counter GOP-led Congress

The new Congress hasn’t yet been sworn in, but President Obama already is warning he plans to use his veto pen to counter initiatives from the incoming Republican majority. Obama, despite his near-constant friction with congressional Republicans the last few years, rarely has used the presidential veto — in part because legislation he didn’t like typically died in the Democrat-controlled Senate before reaching his desk. But with Republicans taking charge of the Senate next month and building their majority in the House, Obama said in an NPR interview he’s dusting off the veto pen. The president suggested he would mostly use his veto pen to block efforts to unravel existing laws and regulations pushed by his administration. To overturn Obama’s veto, Republicans would need the votes of two-thirds of the House and Senate. Their majorities in both chambers are not that large, so they would still need to persuade some Democrats to defy the president.

ObamaCare Fines Rising in 2015

Don’t have health insurance? Get ready to pay up. The ObamaCare-mandated fines for not having insurance are rising in 2015 — and for the first time, will be collected by the Internal Revenue Service. The individual requirement to buy health insurance went into effect earlier this year. But this coming tax season is the first time all taxpayers will have to report to the IRS whether they had health insurance for the prior year. The fines for the 2014 year were relatively modest — $95 per person or 1 percent of household income (above the threshold for filing taxes), whichever is more. The fine will jump in 2015 to $325 or 2 percent of income, whichever is higher. By 2016, the average fine will be about $1,100. According to government figures, tens of millions of people still fall into the ranks of the uninsured.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant Shut Down

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant stopped sending power to the New England electric grid Monday following more than 42 years of producing electricity from the southeastern Vermont town of Vernon. The state of Vermont remains divided about the closing of Vermont Yankee. The closing has been mourned by employees and supporters, while cheered by critics. In its 42 years of operation, the plant produced more than 171 billion kilowatt-hours of low-cost and low-carbon electricity. During that same period the plant provided 71.8% of all electricity generated within Vermont, or 35% of the electricity consumed in the state. Economic factors, especially related to the natural gas market in the Northeast, were the primary reason for the shutdown. The Northeast has undergone a shift in supply because of shale gas, resulting in sustained low natural gas prices and low wholesale energy prices. The plant closing is having a major negative economic impact on the three-state region.

Delaware-Size Gas Plume over New Mexico from Leaking Methane

The methane that leaks from 40,000 gas wells in New Mexico may be colorless and odorless, but it’s not invisible. It can be seen from space. In the air it forms a giant plume: a permanent, Delaware-sized methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago. The country’s biggest methane “hot spot” is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2 billion leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites across the country. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the warming of the Earth. Methane accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it — nearly 30 percent — is the oil and gas industry. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, enough to provide power to every household in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. As early as next month, the Obama administration will announce new measures to shrink New Mexico’s methane cloud while cracking down nationally on a phenomenon that officials say erodes tax revenue and contributes to climate change.

Ebola Update

The United States’ months-long effort to stop the deadly Ebola outbreak is reaching a “pivot point,” but Americans should expect more domestic cases, White House Ebola czar Ron Klain said Sunday. “We will see (cases) from time to time,” Klain told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “There’s still work to be done in Sierra Leone and Guinea. But we’re nearing a pivot point.” Among the roughly 19,340 cases recently confirmed by the World Health Organization, Sierra Leone has the most with 8,939, followed by Liberia at 7,830 and Guinea with 2,571. Klain, a long-time Democratic operative and former chief of staff to Vice President Biden, told CBS that the number of cases in that region is now at five to 10 a day, compared to 50 to 100 daily. Klain called the CDC’s mishandling last week of an Ebola sample “unacceptable” but said the technician involved has so far shown no signs of infection. A health care worker who was diagnosed with the Ebola virus after returning to Scotland from Sierra Leone was transferred early Tuesday to the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Minimum Wage to Rise in 21 States

The minimum wage will rise in 21 states on January 1st, putting it above the federal pay floor in more than half the USA and highlighting the impact of a national movement to boost the earnings of low-paid workers. The increases will lift the hourly wages of 2.4 million workers to an average of $8 and a high of $9.15, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The federal hourly minimum is $7.25. Minimum pay will rise more modestly for another 1.9 million workers in nine other states as a result of automatic cost-of-living increases.

Super Wealthy on the Rise

There were 12,040 new people who have more than $30 million in net assets in 2014, according to the Wealth-X and UBS World Ultra Wealth Report 2014. That’s a 6% increase from last year, pushing the worldwide total to a record 211,275 people. Of them, 183,810 are men and just 27,465 are women. The U.S. had the highest number of uber wealthy. The wealth of these super rich people increased 7% to $30 trillion in 2014, almost twice the size of the entire U.S. economy. Although they only account for .004% of the world’s adult population, they control almost 13% of the total global wealth. 64% of them are self-made and only 17% have fully inherited their wealth. However, 48% of ultra-wealthy women fully inherited their fortunes. Nearly 88% of these super rich individuals got a bachelor’s degree, though 12% didn’t make it beyond high school.

Economic News

Heating bills across the United States are falling this winter as unusually warm temperatures in the Eastern United States have crimped demand for natural gas as a source of heat. The diminished demand has pushed prices below $3 per British thermal unit (BTU) on the futures market Friday for the first time since 2012. Prices are down about 33% since Thanksgiving. Government data released last week showed a growing surplus in natural gas supplies.

Gasoline prices may have tumbled, but truckers and other who depend on diesel fuel aren’t seeing as much relief at the pump. The spread between the price of diesel fuel and gasoline has widened to nearly 88 cents a gallon in this week’s Energy Information Administration’s price survey. Gas prices plummeted 86.8 cent a gallon to an average of $2.40 from a year ago in this week’s government survey, but diesel has come down only 59.2 cents a gallon with the national average now at $3.28.

Russia’s central bank is running down its stash of foreign cash to try to stop its currency from plunging and contain the crisis threatening its economy. So far this year the central bank has burned through more than $110 billion in foreign currency supplies. That’s more than a quarter of what it has in reserves right now. That, along with a series of other measures to support the banking sector, has helped to stabilize the ruble. However, the ruble extended its losses Monday, declining as much as 8.5% before recovering slightly as the economy shows the first signs of recession, contracting for the first time in 5 years. Starved of international funding sources, Russian banks are finding it tough to lend to local companies, threatening to hurt the country’s already fragile economy.

Greece’s parliament will be dissolved and the country will hold snap elections within the next month, risking a nasty fallout for Greece’s fragile economic recovery. The need for snap elections was triggered Monday after Greece’s parliament was unable to secure enough votes to install a new president. The main Greek stock market index plunged by as much as 11% after the voting results came out. Greece’s massive bailouts from 2010 and 2012 kept the country afloat and within the Eurozone, but left it saddled with a mountain of debt worth about 170% of GDP.

Persecution Watch

Over 200 Muslims reportedly protected Christians from attacks in Nigeria Christian Today reports. After Boko Haram militants carried out a series of attacks in the area, young Muslims volunteered to protect the Christ Evangelical Church in Kaduna while it conducted a Christmas service. Pastor Yohannah Buru told the News Agency of Nigeria that the courageous act was the first of its kind and he hoped that such peaceful initiatives would continue. Christian Today reports that Kaduna State has experienced increasing religious tension. On Saturday (Dec. 27) 10 people were killed and many others injured during an after Christmas celebration when militants invaded; Boko Haram is believed to be behind the deadly attack.

Security personnel in Sudan have held a pastor from South Sudan since Dec. 21 after he delivered a sermon at an embattled North Khartoum church. Agents from Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested the Rev. Yat Michael of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church after Sunday worship concluded at Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church on Dec. 21. As of Tuesday, he remained in jail without charges. Police in North Khartoum on Dec. 2 beat, arrested and fined 38 Christians from the church after nearly two weeks of raiding and demolishing church property. Pastor Michael had been invited to encourage the congregation to stand firm amid persecution. Besides arrests, the North Khartoum church compound has been subject to demolition of buildings and part of its worship center as Muslim investors seek to take it over.

Islamic State

Since June, the Islamic State terror group has executed nearly 1,878 people, mostly civilians, in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based watchdog group. The killings took place between June 28, the day ISIS announced a “Caliphate” in Syria,” and Dec. 27. 120 ISIS members killed were executed for trying to go back to their homes. The report said there could be more executions that have gone undocumented. In response, the U.S. has led a coalition to launch airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “ISIS] was presenting itself as an unstoppable movement,” The Guardian quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying. “That kind of unstoppable momentum has been blunted, to say the least. We have killed over 1,000 of their fighters.

Iraq

As the Pentagon continues to add ground troops to Iraq for the ISIS war, it is expected that considerable numbers of private military contractors will follow. Currently there are around 1,800 such contractors working for the State Department, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered another 1,300 sent. This will likely be just a fraction of the overall deployment. At the peak of the US occupation of Iraq, there were over 163,000 contractors involved in the war. The use of contractors allowed the US to mask the size of the overall deployment, but was controversial because of both cost and oversight problems. The Pentagon made it clear, before they even started going into Iraq this time that they were looking for contractors for long-term deployments. Officials say the exact size will depend on how spread out the actual ground troops are, but signs are it will be considerable.

Afghanistan

The United States and NATO formally ended their war in Afghanistan on Sunday with a ceremony at their military headquarters in Kabul as the insurgency they fought for 13 years remains as ferocious and deadly as at any time since the 2001 invasion that unseated the Taliban regime following the Sept. 11 attacks. The symbolic ceremony marked the end of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, which will transition to a supporting role with 13,500 soldiers, most of them American, starting Jan. 1. The new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan’s military, with the U.S. accounting for almost 11,000 members of the residual force.

Syria

The Syrian government is ready to send envoys to Moscow for talks with representatives of the opposition it has been fighting in a brutal civil war for over 3½ years, according to state-run media. The government of President Bashar Al-Assad wants to find a way out of the conflict. But moderate opposition groups say they have not been invited to the talks by Russia and will not participate. Moscow apparently invited only loyalists groups that are close to the Syrian regime. Negotiations in Geneva, brokered by the United Nations, fell apart last February. Since then, the extremist group ISIS has become a growing force in northern Syria and al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front has made gains, weakening more moderate opposition groups.

Pakistan

Pakistani warplanes and ground forces killed 39 militants as part of an ongoing operation in a volatile tribal region near the Afghan border, the Pakistani military said. The airstrikes were carried out Friday evening in the Datta Khel area of the North Waziristan tribal region. The military claimed several important militant commanders were among the dead, including the alleged organizer of last week’s school massacre, the latest sign that the government and military are stepping up their assault on the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militant groups.. Also late Friday night, Pakistani troops ambushed a large assembly of militants on the border between the Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions.

Lebanon

For more than two decades, the whirr of cranes and the hum of bulldozers have resounded through Beirut, the capital city, as shiny new skyscrapers went up and buildings pock-marked by bullets and bombs came down. The redevelopment of Beirut’s downtown was intended to heal wounds from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with hopes to draw back tourists. But these days, visitors are met with rows of shuttered shops, boarded-up restaurants and rent signs flapping in the wind following a spate of kidnappings and bombings over the past two years. The war in neighboring Syria, now rolling into its fourth year, threatens fragile ties that have kept Lebanon united since a conflict that pitted Lebanon’s sects against each other came to an end in 1990. And with the Islamic State looking for access to the sea via the northern port city of Tripoli, instability in Lebanon could have repercussions far beyond its borders.

Somalia

The United States conducted an airstrike Monday in Somalia against Al-Shabaab, said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary. The strike, which took place in the area of Saakow, was targeting a senior leader of the Islamist militant group. The strike was carried out by an unmanned aircraft, and was an operation of the U.S. Defense Department, according to a U.S. defense official. On Saturday, Somalia government forces captured a top Al-Shabaab commander, said two of the country’s military officials. The capture came after militants with the group, which is linked to al Qaeda, attacked a large African Union base in Mogadishu last week, killing three Ugandan soldiers and a civilian.

Cuba

Cuban dissidents have expressed frustrations with the U.S. government over which political prisoners will be on a list of 53 people scheduled to be freed by the Castro regime as part of an effort to normalize relations between Washington and Havana. According to Reuters, the dissidents say that U.S. officials have kept them in the dark about who is on the list, leading to concerns that common criminals will be freed while genuine political prisoners will be left behind. A U.S. official told Reuters over the weekend that the U.S. had asked Cuba to release a specific group of people who were imprisoned on charges related to their political activities, but did not reveal Havana’s response to that request. It is not entirely clear when or how the list was assembled, who was consulted inside Cuba, or even when the prisoners will actually be released.

Weather

The U.S. was fortunate again this year, as large-scale weather catastrophes — including devastating and deadly hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires — were few and far between. Not since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast in 2012 has a single natural disaster cost the U.S. tens of billions in damage, according to a report released today by CoreLogic. Sandy cost the U.S. about $70 billion. Despite the overall quiet pattern, major local flooding occurred in California, Arizona, New York and Michigan this year. Floods in metro Detroit, for example, caused more than $1 billion in damage. The worst tornado outbreak of the year occurred on April 27-28, when 31 people died in the South and hundreds of homes were destroyed. Overall, 2014 is on track to have the fewest annual number of tornadoes recorded in the past decade. Globally, Asia took the brunt of the natural disaster damage this year, due primarily to a series of powerful typhoons that blasted the Philippines, Japan, China and Taiwan.

Flash floods and landslides triggered by Tropical Storm Jangmi left at least 29 people dead and 10 missing in the Philippines, including in areas still recovering from last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, officials said Tuesday. Jangmi, dumped heavy rains Monday on southern Mindanao Island, where floods destroyed bridges and highways, sending thousands of residents to evacuation centers. The storm then pushed its way through eastern and central islands, where most of the deaths occurred Tuesday.

Several drivers were stranded overnight in Britain as snow and ice stormed through parts of Europe on Saturday. Snow and ice stranded thousands of drivers and caused at least one death in the French Alps Saturday night into Sunday. Thousands were left without power. Switzerland and Southwestern Germany were covered with snow with higher parts of Germany’s Black Forest receiving more than 8 inches. The cold weather stranded several British motorists, trapping some for hours and forcing others to abandon their vehicles. A bus traveling from Sheffield to London became stuck in the snow, and the vehicle’s passengers spent the night in a church. Western Power Distribution said 36,000 customers were without power, and another 69,000 had short interruptions to supplies. The snow was welcomed in the French Alps, which have seen hardly any since the start of the ski season. But with up to 2 feet predicted this weekend above 2,000 yards altitude, one of the busiest vacation weeks of the year looked more promising – if drivers could reach the mountains.

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