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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Church-State Separation is Still a Good Thing

I did something the other day I promised myself I would never do: I watched an entire speech by donald trump. It was his speech to a group of evangelical pastors in Orlando, Florida. It was truly difficult to watch, not just because I don’t care much for trump, but because he has a very difficult time making sense. He talks a lot about how his statements get taken out of context. Well, they are even worse in context, at least from what I heard.

Here are a few of my favorite odd statements he made that I wrote down:

  • (In talking about pastors not being able to endorse candidates from the pulpit) “They got so used to something that is wrong, they didn’t know it was wrong, but they knew it was wrong.”
  • “Christianity is having a very, very tough time.” 
  • “Christians from Syria, it is impossible for them to come into the United States. Muslims from Syria can get into the US easy. But not Christians.”
  • “There’s one other person in the room who is a better person than me.” 
  • He talked about LBJ a lot and twice he talked about how LBJ ran the Senate in the 1970s. (For the record, LBJ was the Majority Leader in the Senate in the 1950s, became Vice-President in 1960, President from 1963-1968, and then died in 1972.)

OK, those are just a few. There were more. I don’t think I can allow myself to watch another entire trump speech just simply because I cannot stand to watch or listen to people who have no idea how to speak. Brutal.

One thing I found particularly troublesome (and trust me, there were SOOOO many), was that he had a roomful of pastors, he could talk to about anything he wanted and the one thing he spent the most time on was the Johnson Amendment (the rest of the time he talked about polls). Now, he never explained the Johnson Amendment even though he said at one time he had never talked about it in such detail (he actually gave no details), but he talked around the Johnson Amendment for the overwhelming majority of the speech. It was such a waste of an opportunity.

I could not stop myself from asking, what would I talk about if I had a roomful of pastors and I was running for office? I imagine I would want them to know my faith journey for starters. I would assume that as pastors they have hopes for the people in their churches and communities that I would want to acknowledge and show that I share in those hopes. I imagine some of those hope might be that the sick are being appropriately cared for and are receiving the best medical care regardless of their socio-economic status, that children are safe and not needlessly exposed to violence in their schools or homes, that low-income people or folks who work as unskilled laborers have as much opportunity to find adequate and meaningful employment as anyone else, etc. There is so much to talk about with religious leaders and what they care about.

But trump talked about none of this.

Instead he talked about repealing the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment was a change in the tax code in 1954 which prohibits all tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Tax-exempt organizations are free to endorse candidates or give money to their elections but they must cease being tax-exempt first.

Now, as usual, trump has a very difficult time with the truth so let’s establish what tax-exempt organizations such as houses of worship can and cannot do. Houses of worship are not allowed to do several things under the Johnson Amendment and they include:

  • Endorse or oppose candidates,
  • Donate money to a candidate, 
  • Hand out “voter guides” that are skewed with the intention of endorsing one candidate, 
  • Offer use of the facility where the congregation meets to one candidate and refuse another, and
  • Sponsor campaign rallies for candidates in a house of worship.

On the other hand, the Johnson Amendment does not limit houses of worship from the following:

  • Congregations can openly discuss and advocate for public policy issues, 
  • Congregations can sponsor non-partisan voter registration and encourage voting as good civic behavior, 
  • Congregations can sponsor candidate forums as long as all candidates are invited and a broad range of issues are discussed, and 
  • Congregations can urge congregants to communicate with candidates and make their concerns known to them.

As a faith organizer, I have seen the power of faith communities in helping to move legislation forward on such things as reducing mass incarceration, reducing gun violence, and advancing the rights of immigrants. The power of the faith community is real and has been and will continue to be transformative in policy debates. We just can’t – for good reason – endorse candidates.

But trump repeatedly (and I counted close to 15 times) told the pastors that they had “totally been silenced.” At the same time, he also named at least two prominent religious leaders who had endorsed him (Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr.). Like I said, he struggles with things like facts.

What was especially troubling for me and I can’t imagine how it couldn’t have been for the people in the room, is that trump said that once he repealed the Johnson Amendment people in the United States would start going back to church again. Apparently, according to trump, people will somehow magically know what Sunday school is once that amendment is no longer in place. I can see you shaking your head, but he seriously said that! Now, this is beyond stupid – people go to church because of the choir, or the youth program, or the color of the carpet, but in my life spent serving and attending churches I have NEVER heard of anyone going (or staying away) because of the Johnson Amendment. Dumb.

But this is also dangerous. Do we really want churches (or any faith community) endorsing candidates and taking the money we tithe to do the work of the Kingdom of God in our communities and around the world going to ensure that a candidate for office can buy more commercials on TV? Do we really want to go back to the time in Christian history, first started under Constantine and expanded under Theodosius, when the church and the state were fused together? Nothing will weaken the message and transformative power of the gospel like making the church and the government so dependent on one another that we cannot tell the difference between them. Isn’t this why the United States was founded?

Remaining neutral in elections gives people of faith the freedom to be able to speak prophetically to all elected officials on both sides of the aisle. This is not something we should be tempted in any way to sell out. This is what gives us freedom. There have been a lot of troubling things said by trump during this election cycle, but perhaps nothing should be as troubling to people of faith who care about the uniqueness of our message and the freedom to practice what we preach in any way we want if we sell out our neutrality. That would be like selling our birthright for a mess of pottage and I hope we have the strength to resist such a deal.

Monday, August 15, 2016

My One Regret

This Friday we will take our oldest son, Elisha, to Virginia Tech University to begin his college career. I am honestly so proud of him – of all that he has accomplished and who he is as a person. Still, I am feeling a deep sense of sadness at seeing him leave home. I have always heard other parents say they are amazed at how time flies watching their children grow up and I can certainly resonate with that sentiment. But my sadness also carries regret.

My regret for Elisha’s departure is not so much because of a remorse of things I have done or said to him, but rather, it is because of my own faith journey as he grew up watching me. I have always believed that faith is more caught than taught, meaning, discipleship of our children and those we are in leadership over will largely come from what they see and observe of us more than what we actually try and teach them.

I believe Elisha has seen my wife and I live out what we believe when it comes to engagement in missional justice for this is at the heart of our deepest values. Where we live, where we work, who our friends are, and where we go to church has all been decided not because of a desire to feed ourselves, but out of a desire to be engaged in something meaningful that positively impacts the lives of others, particularly those often marginalized by the rest of society. Our decisions have been made in direct contrast to the institutional church as it has not only given permission for Whites to flee diverse neighborhoods, they have made it policy to plant no churches in low-income neighborhoods because the boneheads who make up the leadership of most of our denominations need new church plants to be first and foremost financially viable. They have largely sacrificed experiencing the diversity of the Kingdom of God so that they can pay the bills.

So, our decision to go the opposite way was an easy one to make. Watch what dying denominations are doing and do the exact opposite. They are the George Castanzas of Christendom.

I regret none of this. I pray I have effectively passed on my institutional suspicion, though I hope he does it with more grace and compassion than I have mustered. At the same time, I do feel a great sense of remorse over not better passing on to Elisha an intimate and passionate love for Jesus. This was how I was discipled by my evangelical friends. These are people who love Jesus passionately and who have a tremendous amount of integrity and sincerity. I remain in very close relationship with many of my evangelical friends whose love has shaped me so much. I am so thankful for them.

And yet, ever since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – both of which I vehemently and very publicly opposed – I have fallen away from my evangelical heritage. I got sick of going to church and watching predominantly white evangelical churches focus on their individual sanctification while our country engaged in an unnecessary and unjust war without hardly a peep of objection coming from supposedly “pro-life” leaders. Apparently being pro-life was not meant for innocent Iraqis or Afghans. It also was not meant for the number of people we illegally tortured or illegally sent to other countries for them to torture. To this day, no one responsible for these policies has been charged with a single crime though they are far more deserving of jail-time than most of the people we lock up for decades at a time. It is simply sickening.

I became so disheartened at watching the lack of evangelical engagement on these (and many other) issues that my own personal relationship with Jesus suffered as well. Now, I do not mean to blame anyone else for this. It just happened. I should have continued to pour myself into prayer and worship despite the lack of engagement in justice by my fellow evangelicals. Well, I think I should have. But my heart hardened during this time. I didn’t become cynical (I had become cynical years ago – like when I was 8) and I didn’t doubt God’s existence in any way; I have always known God is real. But I stopped praying, I stopped reading Scripture, and practically every time I worshipped in a larger setting, especially if it was in a heterogeneous setting with other Whites, I just got angry.

When you combine this with the fact that Elisha was raised in a home watching his father get repeatedly frustrated by the overly-institutionalized, overly-bureaucratic, and severely under-missional work of the general church, which is where I worked for a decade, then yeah, you can imagine that finding authentic faith has been a bit of an ordeal for our family.

Elisha does have faith in Jesus. And Elisha is a far better and far more mature Christian than I ever thought about being when I was his age. But I regret that it has only been in the last couple of years that I have rediscovered a passionate relationship with Jesus. I regret he did not see this in me sooner.

It is amazing how much we impact others. It is also frightening. I have loved being a dad. From the first day I have felt such a bond, first with Elisha and then later with Isaiah. There are no words to describe the joy I feel at watching them live their lives and become the men I know they will be. I have seen – am seeing – the grace of God cover for my many mistakes over the years. I don’t regret those mistakes (well, most of them!). I firmly believe that God has a calling for Elisha’s life that is meaningful and that will bless others – so many others. I believe in the power of God’s grace and love, that it is stronger and more transformative than my mistakes have been. This is what we fall on as parents. It is what sustains us because none of us can parent perfectly. Indeed, there is only one perfect parent.

I only wish I could have loved Jesus more.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Refuge Denied...Again

Recently, I went to the United States Holocaust Museum with my family. It was one of the things I wanted to do with Eli before he heads off to college. He had been to Germany and Austria for a post-graduation trip and toured the Dachau concentration camp so it seemed like a good time to follow that up and take in the Holocaust Museum.

As expected, the Holocaust Museum was powerful and overwhelming. I earnestly encourage everyone to go here at least one time in your life. It is well worth it. Reading and hearing the testimonies of those who survived the war and the genocide of the Jews is both sobering and challenging. My family and I were repeatedly asking ourselves, “what can we do to make sure this never happens again?” It is a haunting question that deserves to be asked more than once. What can we do to ensure this never happens again?

One story I saw initially at the museum and have read up on since then is the story of the voyage of the St. Louis, a ship that left Hamburg Germany filled with 937 passengers on May 13, 1939 sailing for Havana, Cuba. Nearly all of the passengers were fleeing Germany because they were Jewish and were escaping with their lives. And though they had acquired all of the necessary paperwork before they left, they did not know that they had become pawns in the political games in both Cuba and the United States.

In Cuba, there was a great deal of resentment brewing at that time against newly arriving migrants because of the high rates of unemployment at the time and so many were afraid of migrants taking away jobs from Cubans. But these concerns were fanned into hysteria by far right-wing nativist groups who, without any basis in their assertions, began accusing the soon-to-be-arriving Jews of being communists – the terrorists of their era.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Substitute European Jews with Syrian Muslims and you have the exact same situation today in this country; baseless, hysterical accusations hijacking humane and sensible policy.

Sadly, after docking in Havana Bay for several days, and despite having legal paperwork, the St. Louis was turned away except for a handful of people. As they left Cuba they sailed so closely to Miami they could see the lights of the city. But President Roosevelt, also bowing to political pressure from a newly elected Republican Congress, refused to allow entrance to any of the passengers.

Can you imagine the pain and fear of those aboard as they were forced to set sail back for Europe, unsure of what would happen to them? Having seen the lights of Miami, knowing freedom was literally just yards away just beyond their reach? It’s like having a roomful of desperately starving people right next to a kitchen where a full course meal is being cooked and then eaten – the sounds of laughter and pleasure are heard while the smells of such a delicious meal drift through the room. People can almost taste for themselves the meal being enjoyed just a room away. But it is not for them. It is cruel to tease people in this way.

It was cruel to tempt a ship full of Jewish refugees, fleeing for their very lives, with the sights and sounds of freedom, only to be whisked away at the last moment all because of political games and the baseless suspicions fanned into full blown xenophobia by nativist political “leaders” more interested in political gain than in humane and sensible policies. Roosevelt and others blamed the restrictions put in place by the 1924 US Immigration and Nationality Act, but they never actually urged Congress to expand the number of visas being issued to the many Jews fleeing Europe. But this is what people do when they are content to allow injustice to continue and simply want to appease their conscience – they do nothing and blame others for why something is happening (or not happening). It is the golden rule of politics.

Yes, this sounds all too familiar from the current set of far right-wing politicians like donald trump, Steve King, and even Mike Pence who, when he was Governor of Indiana led the fight against resettling Syrian refugees in his state. These nativist politicians are hell-bent on scaring the rest of the weak-kneed political leadership into refusing to resettle Syrian refugees just like the right-wing nativists in the 1930s and 40s who scared Roosevelt and others from resettling the Jews. We all like to look back fondly on World War II and boast about how we as a country were on the right side of that war. Yes, we stood up to the Nazis in Germany, but we certainly didn’t stand up to the nativists on our own shores. When it came to resettling the people whose lives were most in danger of being crushed by the Nazi regime the US stood safely on the sidelines taking care of our own.

Just like we are doing today in regards to the Syrian refugees.

So, what happened to the res of the refugees on the St. Louis? 288 were admitted into Great Britain, the Netherlands took in 181, Belgium took in 214 and 224 went to France. Of the 620 passengers who returned to countries on the European continent, 87 managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe began in May 1940. 532 passengers from the St. Louis were trapped on the continent when Germany conquered Western Europe. Of those trapped, just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust.

254 people died. 254 people who had seen the lights of Miami; who had seen the possibility of their liberation died knowing freedom was denied them. I doubt there can be a worse feeling of rejection than that.

In our world today there is the greatest movement of people ever in history. Many of them are Syrian refugees. They are not terrorists, they are people fleeing terrorism. Too many of us today are like the Cubans and US citizens of the 30s and 40s – good people who are allowing the loud-mouth, senseless nativists to make so much noise that weak-kneed politicians give into the squeakiest wheel – no matter how racist or xenophobic it may be. Good intentions mean little if not accompanied by action. Our welcome signs aren’t worth the paper they are printed on when we allow the nativists to scream and yell louder than us and thwart humane and sensible polices to resettle the refugees in this country. We must match our passion for justice with the passion of those opposed to justice and the concern for the most vulnerable. If we don’t, let’s not be surprised to see more boats or airplanes full of refugees fleeing for their lives, pass us by, their faces fixed to their windows, hoping someone would open the door and let them in.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Captivity of Titles and Status Positions

Not a lot of people know this, but before I became the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church – a helluva long title by the way – I was writing my dissertation, was an anti-war activist (this was during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan), was a stay-at-home dad as we lived in downtown Lexington, KY, and I worked three part-time jobs. One of my part-time jobs that allowed me to stay at home while my wife took on the bulk of the responsibility of bringing home enough money so we could pay our bills was that I delivered the Lexington Herald-News every morning at 4 am. Yep, two days before I started as the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church I was a paper boy.

There is something about titles that is seductive. The minute word started to spread on my seminary campus that I was to become the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church; I mean, before I even started the job or moved to DC, people started coming to me and asking to meet with me. These are people who had never given me the time of day, people I had hardly ever talked to before. But, all of a sudden they wanted to grab a cup of coffee and visit with me. At seminary I was always just kind of a back-seat, loud-mouth, smart-ass, hell-raiser, but once I got the big title – Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church – I had the distinct impression that people were puckering up to kiss my backside.

Besides being kind of funny, it felt kind of sleazy. I am fairly sure they felt let down once they did talk to me though. Title or no title, I was still just a back-seat, loud-mouth, smart-ass, hell-raiser. Maybe that’s why I don’t have that title anymore.

But it is disturbing how title-driven we are, not just as a society, but especially within the church. Considering that God seems not just indifferent, but even put off by big, impressive titles and status positions I am surprised at how status-driven as a church we still are until I remember how overly-institutionalized we United Methodists tend to be. Then it begins to make sense. You remember how David looked around at all of his wealth and then seeing the Tabernacle – the place of the Lord’s presence – underneath a shabby tent, he built a massive temple for God? He had to improve God’s status to legitimate his own. Something tells me we still do this with all of our titles and awards. I am not sure God really gives a damn.

But titles and status positions grease the wheels of institutional machines. I have seen it up close. We opt for the title over the role like we opt for form over the function. Though someone might be more gifted at performing a specific role or task, we tend to go with the one who has the job title because it confirms the institutional seal of approval. We seem far more fascinated by what we call one another than by what we do or how well we do it. And this is all to the detriment of the effectiveness of our mission.

One of my favorite passages in Scripture is at the beginning of Luke 3. I was first drawn to this way back when I was in college and it still convicts me. The passage reads:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Phillip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitus, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)

I love the subtle contrast it makes as Luke lists the power players of the day, not only in the government but in the priesthood as well. These are the movers and shakers of their day and yet, despite their significance and impressive resumes, God chose none of them to send God’s word to; the word that will set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Instead, God chose John. John has no title and in comparison to the titled and privileged, he is unimportant, virtually unknown. In fact, he is identified only by his relationship – the son of Zechariah. On top of all of that, he was even in the wilderness! He doesn’t live in a center of power, he holds no special distinction, yet John will be the one to prepare the way for the coming Messiah to the world. He is just John. And God chose him.

The funny thing is that after I became the Director of Civil and….blah, blah, blah (that title is too damn long to type it every time), when I began finding out who in the United Methodist Church were immigrants and who was incarnated among immigrants I usually had to skip past those with the fancy titles, and instead, look for those who, regardless of whatever title or status they had (or didn’t have), held the greatest passion for immigrants. Great passion for immigrants was evidenced by people who were faithfully doing the hard work of organizing and advocating for just and humane immigration reform. Yes, occasionally those with titles also had tremendous passion, but to be brutally honest, this was more the exception than the rule.

As it was when God chose John, the pursuit of titles often prevents us from seeking after that which matters: authentic relationships among those directly impacted by injustice. I tend to be an ecclesial anarchist, but I do seriously wonder what would happen to our beloved United Methodist Church if we dropped all of the titles altogether – no Bishops, no ordained elders, no deacons, no General Secretaries, and no Director of Civil and Human Rights! Instead, what if we just functioned on who was gifted by the Holy Spirit for achieving specific tasks? Let the titles fall on people organically and according to where the fruit is rather than make them a political game geared for those with the temperament to uphold the institutional status quo. Rather than forced statuses that are politically driven, let’s equip the entire Body of Christ to serve and those who love the most, get to lead the most. Something tells me I think we might all be surprised who the real directors of civil and human rights are. They might not even work in a big building in Washington DC. In fact, I am pretty sure they won’t.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Liberation of Starting Over

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

I remember growing up and reading this passage and thinking, “man, that sounds nuts! There’s no way I would up and leave everything to follow someone I didn’t even know!” I thought of all that I would miss if I just walked away from everything I had known, everything I was comfortable with, everything I had built up and that formed not just what I did for a living, but who I was; my very identity. The story just sounded too challenging for me to identify with. 

The funny thing is that the older I have gotten though, this story doesn’t sound so nuts. It sounds and feels quite refreshing, even inviting. 

I remember back when I graduated from high school in Plano, TX how much I honestly hated living there. It was superficial and elitist and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. So, the primary attribute of the college I picked was to go to a place where I didn’t know a soul. I wanted to start completely over again. That was why McMurry University for me was a Godsend. I found myself there – indeed, I really began my walk with Jesus there. 

There are moments when, at least in my life, I have intentionally chosen an unknown path simply to find a new way to begin again; to redirect my life from what I had known and to find new meaning. In some ways, I willingly followed the example of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Laying down our nets – all we have known, all we are used to and comfortable with, can be extremely liberating. 

This year, however, the liberation of new beginnings has not been of my own choosing. As I shared earlier on my blog, in January I was fired from a job I had done with passion and excellence (I don’t mind saying so myself). It was something I totally did not see coming, but yet, also knew was inevitable. I worked in the upper echelons of the institutional church and I am extremely an anti-institutional kind of guy. I worked in a place where the centrality of institutional power and preservation of the institution is of highest importance and forms the vision of the work of the organization. I, on the other hand, have always – and I mean always – distrusted vertical power structures, challenged hierarchies, and am innately suspicious of institutional power. Yeah, this was not exactly the best fit. I believe in horizontal structures (isn’t that what the “priesthood of all believers” means?), a diffusion of power so that there are no opportunities for abuse, and that God’s preferred locus of change is through small bands of believers in local communities living and working incarnationally among the most vulnerable. 

So yeah, the surprise is not that I was fired. The surprise was that I lasted ten years. 

Still, being fired has been a time of hurt and loss in so many ways because I truly loved the United Methodists throughout the country that I worked with in building grassroots movements on such issues as immigration, mass incarceration, and ending gun violence. Liberation is not always sugar and spice and things that are nice. Breaking away can be hurtful and moving on implicitly involves loss. It has been a hard year in many ways and the pain and loss always seems to be present even as new creative expressions are being dreamed of and birthed. Liberation is not for the faint of heart.

But being in something of a liminal space has given me the ability to dream wildly again, something not always smiled upon by the stifling power of institutional preservation. I have been rediscovering what I am passionate about and what I want to pursue in life. I loved – and I do mean LOVED – the work of building movements, raising up new leaders engaged in the holy work of justice and discipleship, and connecting folks who share similar passions. I also hated – and I do mean HATED – all of the institutional maintenance nonsense that increasingly sucked up my time the last couple of years I worked there. So, I have decided to follow the advice I have repeatedly given to others in similar liminal spaces and I have decided to follow my passions. It is time for new dreams, new leaders, and new connections. 

In the coming weeks, from numerous conversations with some folks who share a similar passion and whose counsel I hold dear, I will move this blog over to a new site where I will join with a team of other folks who share the passions I listed above. The focus of the new site will be not only to blog – to articulate the need for a biblically-based progressive understanding of the Jesus movements towards justice and mission – but also to feature new leaders who are doing amazing and creative justice work wherever they might be and to take action on important justice issues. We will provide opportunities to take action for justice and we won’t be reigned in by institutional concerns because liberation is about freedom. It is time for new dreams, new leaders, and new connections.

One thing I have learned in recent years (and especially in recent months!) is that Peter and Andrew, and James and John did not lay everything down and follow Jesus by themselves. They did so in community. I want to live into the liberation that I have started sensing lately. But I don’t want to do it alone. The church and the world need new dreams, new leaders, and new connections. 

So, what do you say, want to experience a little liberation? Want to raise a little hell, kick a little ass, and have a little fun? Then stay tuned. The Fig Tree Revolution is coming. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Advocating for Justice: A Book Review

As those of you who follow this blog know, I rarely recommend books, especially Christian books. In fact, I have written previously about the danger of trying to grow in our relationship with Christ through the fluff being put out regularly by the “Christian” book industry (more industry than Christian I am afraid). But I am happy to recommend a book that will help fill what is currently a wide gap that exists in a crucial area of church mission: political advocacy. The book is called, Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.

The book is written by a group of evangelicals, including the Chair of the School of Mission at Asbury Seminary (where I went to school!), and it is written for evangelicals. But believe me, progressives need to hear much in this book as well. Though one could arguably say that progressives have far more experience in faith-based political engagement our engagement has not always been biblically-based. Progressives often too easily adopt the vocabulary of community organizers and political strategists for what they want to change. There have also been far too many times in my experience when I hear progressives not be able to give biblically-based answers for why we engage in justice-oriented ministries.

So, with a few hesitations I will name later, I highly recommend Advocating for Justice. The authors spend a good deal of time – time well spent in my opinion, establishing what advocacy is and its biblical basis for normative Christian use. They remind those of us who have spent our lives in this work that advocacy is in the very essence and nature of who God is as a triune God. Advocacy is not just something God does; it is part of who God is. The relational nature of the Trinity enables us to see “the Trinity as a polis, a community of Beings who perfectly represent goodness, love and beauty…Such a Trinitarian polis reframes power as a power-for-the-other, as well as a power-for-the-world.” (p. 58)

And it is the authors’ treatment of the powers in Scripture and our call to advocate so that the social, political and economic structures are redeemed that this book makes its greatest contribution. The authors remind us that because God is the Creator, even the structures which currently oppress and destroy so many and work to benefit so few owe their allegiance to Christ and therefore can be redeemed. We are reminded that the powers are sinful because they “are bent on their own survival – as ends in themselves – and engaged in practices that create allegiance toward themselves so as to ensure that survival.” (p. 90) When we acknowledge that structural sin is based in its disposition to be power-for-itself rather than power-for-the-other – or as I would prefer, power-for-the-powerless – then this helps to determine what our public engagement will look like; reminding the powers/structures of their God-given purpose.

Another important emphasis is the authors urging readers that advocacy must become normalized in the Christian life. Advocacy must be a part of the discipleship for all who follow Christ. This means that advocacy should not be reserved for a few who are usually so far to the left (politically and theologically) that they are irrelevant to the life of the overall church. If we do not partition prayer out to a committee of specialists, then why do we do the same with such a God-centered activity as advocacy? “We believe that engagement in advocacy is an issue of spiritual maturity, and that most of our leaders are not equipping congregations to respond faithfully to God’s calling.” (p. 15) Amen and amen.

Moreover, the authors rightly put the responsibility of discipling followers of Jesus within the context of the local church. Far too often – as in almost all of the time – the work of mobilizing/discipling congregations into political advocacy is left for ministries outside the local church. We can be assured that the large infrastructure and bureaucracy of churches like the United Methodist Church have never done, and will never do the work of mobilization effectively. But local churches are the locus of God’s change and transformation on the earth and any attempt at discipleship that fails to include the practice of advocacy is a failure not only for that person’s individual spiritual maturity, it is a failure that hurts the church and all of creation.

So, yeah, I recommend Advocating for Justice. But hey, it wouldn’t be a blog post if I didn’t have something critical to say, right? So here it goes. There are two weaknesses in this book that I see.

One is that the authors make the mistake that far too many evangelicals make when they talk about Scripture. Though I share with the authors a love for Scripture and a high view of Scripture, I also have come to strongly believe that much – and I mean much – of our understanding of the Bible is shaped and formed by where we live and who we relate to. If we live isolated from the poor and vulnerable so that our experience of poverty and oppression is filtered through the media (particularly through such outlets as Fox “News”) or through other biased lenses, then chances are our reading of Scripture will be tremendously impaired. At the same time, if we are rooted in a community experiencing police brutality, ICE raids of our undocumented neighbors, and a lack of any kind of economic distribution because all of the stores are owned by people who live outside our community (and usually are based in communities isolated from the poor one we live in), then we will read and understand (and obey) Scripture in vastly different ways. I believe we will be more faithful.

And I ain’t talking just about location; it is our relational rootedness – or incarnation – among the poor that determines how deeply engaged in justice we will be and how biblically faithful we will live. Our proximity to the poor and vulnerable certainly opens doors for even the possibility of authentic relationships to occur, but it is incarnation among the poor – when their hurts become our hurts, their struggles our struggles, their fears our fears and their dreams our dreams – where the most effective advocacy occurs.

The importance of incarnation to the work of advocacy cannot be overstated. I believe that relationships are the primary way most people are mobilized to engage in political advocacy, even more so than Scripture. Thus the formative power of Scripture is certainly not lost, but it is not necessarily one to initialize engagement. Instead, the work of mobilization must primarily lie in creating spaces for people (evangelical or not) to have even the opportunity to enter into incarnational relationships with those directly impacted by injustice. The authors touch on this in several places, but I think the book would be strengthened through greater emphasis on this point.

Lastly, I am troubled by the fact that this book is so limited in its focus on evangelicals. I know focusing on evangelicals is sexy among funders and publishers these days, but this book would have lost nothing had it been more expansive in its audience. The challenges prohibiting evangelicals from greater engagement in political advocacy are many of the same obstacles progressives face. I am not saying that progressives and evangelicals are the same – we aren’t! But our differences are not so great as to demand entirely different approaches to engagement in such ministries as advocacy.

Let me give you an example. I led the organizing work around immigration, mass incarceration and ending gun violence for the United Methodist Church for ten years. On immigration, I saw United Methodists in local churches lead thousands of public witness events in support of immigrants and in the need for humane and just immigration reform. Many of those who led those events had never been engaged in political advocacy before. The tens of thousands of Methodists who engaged in this work came from all over the political and theological map. And yet, in the work of mobilizing folks I never developed separate messages based on which side of the theological or political spectrum they came from. I didn’t have time or patience to delineate between two separate groups of people in the same church. We didn’t have evangelical teams and progressives. We created and maintained teams of people with passion because they were incarnated among immigrants who were living under the state-sponsored terror of indefinite detention, lack of due process in our courts, and mass deportations. When you are faced with such a reality, nobody gives a damn if you are a Democrat or Republican.

So, when I have seen separate messages being used to mobilize progressives from religious conservatives, devastating results have been seen. Let me explain.

My office was part of a very powerful coalition, in fact, the largest faith coalition working on immigration in Washington DC called the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC). Instead of joining the IIC, several of the evangelical groups, led by a secular organization, received millions of dollars of funding and started the Evangelical Immigration Table, as discussed in the book’s Appendix. In the 6 years I was leading the work of the Methodists, though I reached out several times to coordinate our work as faith partners I met with EIT leaders exactly zero times. For whatever reason (and yes, there are a bunch), evangelicals work well with almost any faith group except for progressive Christians. And though I had experience mobilizing both evangelicals and conservatives together no one asked me my thoughts about the wisdom of creating two separate coalitions to work on one issue.

Thus, the resources and efforts for advocating for justice for immigrants were split – for no real reason. And in creating the principles for what these evangelical groups stood for – though I had shown there was no need to develop vastly different messages or principles – the EIT, for some unknown reason, decided to adopt principles that were not just conservative; they were adverse to moving forward real reform. I have written about this previously so I won’t go into depth here, but one mistaken policy the EIT called for was “guaranteed secure borders.” Why faith communities should be for guaranteeing the security of national borders is beyond my understanding and is without any kind of biblical justification that I have been able to find. The only thing that seems even partly sensible to me is that groups that make up the EIT hold to a Christendom model of relating to the state. But even more, advocating for this position actually guarantees that there won’t be movement towards immigration reform. In 2012 more than $18 billion was spent on securing the southern border – more than all federal expenditures on law enforcement put together. And still, that was not enough for conservative politicians who refused to budge. Their hunger for militarization of the border that feeds the bottomless pockets of defense contractors who fund their campaigns means that these elected politicians will never move towards reform especially while they can point to religious groups supposedly in favor of reform but who believe that secure border should be “guaranteed” first. Thus, we are stuck.

I would hope that the goal for immigration reform (as one of many issues we should all be working on) would be the same for evangelicals as it is for progressives: to build a movement among those who are directly impacted by the broken immigration system themselves or who are incarnated among those directly impacted. Evangelical, progressive, it doesn’t matter. The movement will only be built only through relationships with those directly impacted by a broken and unjust immigration system. When it isn’t about relationships, that is when you need special talking points, but that is also when you aren’t really engaged in authentic advocacy.

Wisely, the authors of this book end the book urging evangelicals to work with other groups. But that counsel is most likely to be drowned out by the fact that the book marginalizes other groups in its title and throughout the substance of the book. My wildest hope is that many evangelicals (and progressives) would read this book and things like the Evangelical Immigration Table would break up and we can all work together more effectively to achieve justice. But, I’m a realist and I know there is too much money from too many funders for that good idea to ever gain traction. So, for now, I will settle for local churches reading it, implementing its ideas, and seeing the Kingdom more evident in the lives of the people they love in their communities. That’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Republican Racism

I stayed true to my promise last night to not watch the Republican National Convention, but from seeing the aftermath on social media and on all of the cable shows (yes, I even watched Fox “News”) it seems the GOP decided their theme was going to be “Make America Racist Again.”

The Republicans had various forms of racism on hand last night. Of course, they engaged in out and out race baiting as they exploited the sadness and loss of mothers whose sons were tragically killed by people who happened to be undocumented immigrants. This sends the obvious message that all immigrants are dangerous and gives credence to the ridiculous notion that building walls is a valid means towards protecting the public as if public safety was a priority for the Republican Party. Despite their repeated claims of this being a priority all evidence is to the contrary.

Let me give you an example. Hundreds of people are killed every week to senseless and preventable gun violence and yet the Republican-controlled Congress has not enacted one single piece of legislation that would address this in any sensible kind of way. Hell, they haven’t even enacted senseless legislation (though they do this on other issues!). They just pretend it doesn’t happen. Their only attempt was a failed effort in the Senate that was approved by the NRA – the “no fly, no buy” bill that would not have prevented a single one of the recent mass shootings. Other than that, the Republicans have treated the greatest threat to public safety in this country as just another common cold; something we will easily recover from if we drink enough liquids and just sleep it off. We entrust our leaders with our collective public safety and the Republicans have eagerly traded that in for high approval ratings from the NRA.

But that hasn’t stopped them from using every opportunity to bash people of color. Bellowing and cheering “Blue Lives Matter” (and they do!) while ignoring the original statement, “Black Lives Matter” is a not-so-veiled reminder that Black lives simply do not matter as much to them. Ignoring the rash of senseless killings and brutality committed against Africans Americans at the hands of law enforcement is a defiance of sensible concern for public safety.

Every single member of the law enforcement community that I have ever heard or talked with readily admits that they aren’t safe – no one is safe – when law enforcement is done unfairly and in a discriminatory way. The assassinations of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas are horrific and obviously worthy of condemnations (which BLM activists have repeatedly made), but to bifurcate our concerns for the welfare of life between Black lives and Blue lives unnecessarily infuses greater angst into an already adversarial relationship. Republicans too readily disregard the fact that our criminal justice system is innately racist in its arrests and sentencing of Blacks. An unfair criminal justice system is both a denial of public safety and a very loud and powerful dismissal of the value of black lives. Black lives matter AND Blue lives matter. We have to be able to say both and the Republicans didn’t just miss that chance, they intentionally played to a racist and xenophobic base of support in not doing so.

Perhaps the most glaring form of racism happened in the most talked about goof of the night: Mrs. Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. After a night full of subtle and not-so-subtle accusations towards people of color for many if not all of society’s problems the moment for inspiration was cunningly stolen from a woman of color! I was amazed at the way some in the media immediately afterwards cleared any and all blame away from Mrs. Trump, even though she claimed she wrote the majority of the speech herself. Some even tried to say that stealing the First Lady's words was actually a form of flattery! Of course, one can only imagine the savagery directed towards Michelle Obama if she had stolen the words from Laura Bush or Nancy Reagan.

But isn’t how this racism works? White-dominant society uses coded words like “law and order” (first started by Nixon in his successful effort to lure away blue-collar and southern whites from the Democratic Party in the early 70s) and then also use isolated tragic incidents to put forward a message that people of color are dangerous and a threat to “our way of life.” So, therefore, let’s go back to a time when a great society was a white-dominated society. In other words, that was a time when people of color “knew their place.” Yes, that was a time when America was truly great – for white people. Let’s make America great again is a code for making America overtly racist again.

And not only do we diminish people of color into dangerous threats to our way of life, we make them into one-dimensional caricatures by stealing the best that people of color have to give and make them our own moments of inspiration, which is exactly what happened when whoever wrote Mrs. Trump’s speech (and no, she did not write this herself) stole the inspirational words from Mrs. Obama. This has happened before however. Isn’t this exactly what happened with the invention of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was a white stolen invention from Blues and Gospel music, written and performed almost exclusively by African American musicians?

No, this is not a conspiracy theory. This is the way racism works: demonize and dehumanize people of color while at the same time steal and take credit for their moments of inspiration for your own glory (and then deny it which the Trump campaign is doing at this very moment). Do not be mistaken, Democrats have racism in their ranks as well. But the Republican form of racism was in full view for the nation and world to see Monday night. If only we have eyes to see. I don’t want America to be great again. I would be happy if America would be honest for the first time and confess our overt and hidden forms of racism.