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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"I Wish My Dreams Were in Your Politics"

On this past Saturday (May 2) I marched with 500 people to protest the family detention center in Dilley, TX. Yes, our government detains families; women and children, many of whom are fleeing unbelievable violence and poverty in their home countries. Many of those held in these family detention centers are asylum seekers. An asylum seeker is someone who fleeing violence and who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. Once they are granted asylum, they are a refugee. Many of the families who are detained in the family detention centers will, in fact, be granted asylum. But still, they are detained for unknown amounts of time.

And why are they fleeing? Oftentimes, the violence they flee from is, in part, created by U.S. foreign policies. The failed War on Drugs has not only led to an explosion of the prison population for such things as low-level drug offenses in the United States, this failed policy that spans the terms of 8 presidents has also armed violent and brutal dictatorships in Latin American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In an effort to reduce the tide of drug trafficking the United States has supported and given aid to violent dictators who have no qualms violating peoples’ civil and human rights in their efforts to maintain power.

In addition, free trade policies have devastated agriculturally-based economies in these sending countries, while U.S.-controlled lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have installed “structural adjustment programs” through loans granted to these countries that have emphasized market-orientation of their economies to the extent that vital social services have been stripped, which, of course, harms their poorest citizens.

Therefore, people are forced to flee the violence and poverty, and when they arrive in the United States seeking asylum – which, again, many of them will receive – they are detained in one of three family detention centers located in Dilley, TX, Karnes, TX, and Berks, PA. Ever hear of any of these places? Me neither. Imagine if you know or are related to families located in these places, which are rural and isolated. How would you go visit them? Imagine the cost involved in going to see them.

Further, the conditions in these centers are often wretched and have been cited for being so. There have been documented cases of rape and violence. Parents have become depressed and leave the centers stressed and hardly ready to begin a new life in a new country. The stress on children is even greater.

So, why do we detain families when they pose absolutely no security threat, when our own policies have often helped to create the very factors for their need to flee, and our “solutions” to their countries’ problems only further benefit the United States? One reason at least for why we detain families is because it makes a boat-load of money for private prison corporations. You see, private prison corporations such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) own most of the detention centers in this country and they make hundreds of millions of dollars in doing so. There is big money in the mass incarceration of people of color and the Obama Administration is handsomely awarding it to these corporations.

This is nothing more than modern day slavery and it is the best evidence we have today that we live in a thoroughly racist country that in its policies cares nothing for people of color.

This is why we marched on Saturday. The feeling of anger and outrage was palpable as we came onto the detention center, located a little over a mile outside of Dilley. As the guards stood silently scattered throughout the field in between the front gate and the facilities where the families are detained, we chanted and yelled, all of us hoping that the detainees would hear us; hoping they would know that someone in the United States actually cares for them, values them. It was weirdly festive but also maddening at the same time.

One of the things I love about marches are the creativity in the signs that people make and the messages those signs carry. There were lots of powerful messages, but one in particular stuck out to me, “I wish my dreams were in your politics.” Man, if ever the solutions were trapped inside the political maneuverings of power-hungry politicians and demagogues, it is this one.

But let’s imagine if this sign were true. What if we really created policies and legislation that made the dreams of those most directly impacted by injustice a priority? What if we took seriously the desires of children who I heard on Saturday whose highest dream is to be reunited with both of their parents and to be allowed to live their lives in a safe place free from violence? What if we made the dreams of a mother who wants to see her children go to high school and then attend college so that they might have a secure future become an actual reality? Seriously, would it weaken our nation to make our priorities not those of the private prison corporations but of those whose dreams are to live together in a safe environment, to attend school, to work, to worship in freedom and to contribute to their communities? Not one damn bit.

To make the dreams of those seeking asylum a reality it must begin by ending family detention. That is why I urge you to do more than read this and shake your head, feel outrage and then turn the page and move on to the next issue. I urge you to call President Obama and demand – not ask – demand that family detention be ended. His number is 202-456-1111. Call him today. Call him tomorrow. Call him the day after that. Get your Sunday School classes, United Methodist Women’s circles, Wesley Foundations, and every network you are part of to make calls every day until this injustice is ended.

To make the dreams of those directly impacted by injustice a political priority means that we must follow closely another dreamer whose mission was simple and direct:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me 
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
he has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Yes, let the Kingdom come.

Monday, April 27, 2015

They Know Me, And They Love Me

This past week I traveled to beautiful San Diego and met with my accountability group, something we have been doing for the last 17 years. It’s a small group of us that got together towards the end of our seminary time and we have been meeting each year ever since.

It might be the most important commitment – outside of our marriages – that we have. It is for me. No matter the job I have, the church I am attending, the place I live or anything else that comes and goes in and out of my life, this group is my mainstay. They know me. They know me better than anyone outside my wife and my boys. And they love me. I know them. And I love them.

Sounds easy enough, huh? It hasn’t always been. Back during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq our group nearly shattered because I took a very hard line against the war. I made it very uncomfortable for anyone to sit silently by, particularly leaders in the church, while the war raged on and precious lives were lost. I said extremely hard things and challenged the members of our group. That war was a moral travesty to the United States and the entire world and support for it – either active or through silent complicity – was sinful. I believed it then and I believe it now.

My fellow members in the group felt judged by me and there were hurt feelings. The truth is, I still don’t regret anything I said or did. If you want to speak prophetically, it is easy to do it when the people to whom you are speaking will either never hear you or will never care what you say because you are so far away from them in status or geographically. Speaking to those you love? Man, it is hard and it hurts. On both ends. I cried many times for the pain that was felt in the relationships that I knew also brought me the greatest amount of joy and encouragement in my life. I felt a greater sense of disappointment and discouragement than I ever have in my life because of the distance between me and the guys in the group.

But we stuck it out. They stuck with me. They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. We still differ on some things, and some of those things are fairly substantive, but our differences do not overwhelm our commitment to one another. Sure, there have been times when it seemed easier to just get out, to just go on, perhaps with people who might agree with me on more issues. But I just kept coming back to this thought: They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. There is just something about this truth that would not let me go these last 17 years.

It won’t let me go now. I need this group now more than ever. I need them to remain faithful to my wife and my family. I need them to remain faithful to my calling to ministry. I need them to remain faithful even to myself. I still hold strong opinions regarding social and political issues. Those values and opinions are dear to me. Those opinions and values shape me and deeply shape my worldview. But those issues and my active engagement in them do not define me in total. I am also shaped very much by the relationships in my life and it has been one of God's greatest gifts to me to be shaped by the men in my accountability group.

I just love these guys. They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them.

I tire of the blogs that end with "this is what the United Methodist Church needs" so forgive me as I trespass my own rule, but may I suggest that small accountability groups is something that United Methodists might want to do amidst all of the talk about splitting? Heck, aren’t Wesley’s classes what we came out of? It isn’t just about loving people. We throw that term around far too often and it means very little most of the time. This is about accountability, this is about life together, this is about knowing people. And when you know them; in spite of what you know about them, loving them.

I am talking about being the Body of Christ y’all. If we as United Methodists can’t do this or just simply do not want to do this, then maybe splitting up ain’t such a bad idea. If we can’t love people or if we can only love people who agree with us then we aren’t much of a church in the first place. Regardless of what happens to the institution though I can tell you what I will be doing in 2016. I will be meeting with my annual accountability group somewhere in Texas. You know why? Cuz they know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. And man, it’s beautiful. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Death by Hierarchy

I have a friend (no, seriously, I do!) who, several years ago, worked in an urban ministry organization that went through the change of hiring a new Executive Director (ED). The new ED did what all new heads of organizations get to do: he re-structured the entire organization.

Now, my friend was originally excited for the new boss. She and her colleagues were ready for new ideas. She loved her work – especially the people in the neighborhood that she worked directly with.

She, like many of her colleagues, thought at the time that a re-structuring was in order. However, the ED’s new structure quickly countered her hopes for a fresh beginning. She discovered that new structures do not necessarily bring about new ideas or visions. She learned firsthand that you cannot always restructure yourself into renewal.

Before the arrival of the new ED, the urban ministry seemed to thrive in the midst of chaos. It was exciting, but also tiring. When the ED’s new structure was implemented it benefitted a few in the office, but relegated my friend and her colleagues to the lower rungs of the ladder. Those who were promoted were given new titles and higher salaries, which naturally generated some hurt feelings. What once a community of colleagues took on a corporate culture.

While staff meetings previously had included a time for collective sharing and dreaming, the new staff hierarchy assigned decision-making power solely to the senior staff. Ideas could be submitted, but decisions were owned by senior staff and implemented by the rest of the staff. I never knew the toll it takes on a person when you take away their creative input until I saw it in my friend. Communication no longer ebbed and flowed organically among staff as they sought to discover new and innovative ways to serve their community. The ED’s new structure emphasized more tightly controlled means of communication. Ideas and requests flew up the chain while decisions and responses sailed down.

I remember being shocked when I ran into my friend at a conference a few years ago just a few months after the ED’s new structure had been implemented. I literally could see her depression on her face. Whereas she previously had been fully engaged in the life and vision and direction of the urban ministry, it was painfully obvious that she had become cynical and derisive. She still was passionate about the people in her community, but she felt invalidated, detached and alone in the place she once had felt so a part of.

Hierarchy had brought those who sat at the top greater efficiency and control, but efficiency and control do not always result in faithfulness ad effectiveness. In fact, I believe they rarely do. It is my strong contention that hierarchical structures in the church do not reflect Jesus’ Kingdom as much as “flatter” or more egalitarian structures.

Most of the renewal movements in the Church throughout history have reflected aspects of the New Testament church. It is in the birth of the Church that we see worship at its most vital, missional outreach at its most effective, and communal love at its greatest sense of harmony. That is, until a dispute erupts over the distribution of food.

It is in Acts 6 when the Hellenist Jews complained that their widows were being ignored in favor of the Hebrew Jews. This was, in fact, a cultural divide between Jews who spoke Greek and were acculturated in the wide reaches of the Roman Empire. In contrast, Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic and came from Israel. This dispute over food was not a minor problem over structure or the need for better organization. It was a clash of cultures.

But the disciples instead saw the problem as one of structure and organization. Look at how they respond: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (6:2) Of course, in one sense they are right; they cannot do everything. But I cannot help but feel when I read this that they view this problem as less important than their work of preaching and teaching. Their work is viewed as more significant than that of “waiting on tables.” In this early moment in the life of the Church, they have created a hierarchy of responsibility within the Body of Christ. What makes this so problematic is the fact that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born, Peter stands up and recites the prophet Joel:

In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

When the day of Pentecost comes and the Spirit is poured out, the hierarchies of the world are flattened. Valleys become hills and hills become valleys. The last will be first and the first will be last. It turns out that God prefers a more flattened structure where all people, men and women, sons and daughters, old and young, slaves and free, are to speak the words of God to God’s people.

I am saddened by what I see in the local churches and agencies of the United Methodist Church today. We seem bent on making the hills more hilly and the valleys more…valleyer? Instead of reflecting the New Testament church’s emphasis on the prophetic priesthood of all believers, we are a corporation filled with employees seeking upward advancement and the titles and recognition that go along with rising mobility. As we develop new structures and fool ourselves into believing God’s anointing will bless our misguided efforts, we too easily forget that those relegated to the bottoms of our little individual fiefdoms will be lost. Many of our pastors and deacons will leave the ministry and while there will be various reasons that account for their departure, one of the reasons I hear often is that they didn’t feel like their ministry mattered to the life of the institution.

God damn us for opting for the life of the institution and the preservation of a hierarchical structure over the gifts and callings of even the “least” of our sisters and brothers in fulfilling their callings and living out their gifts. Hierarchies work for those who are at the top, or those who buy into the ethic of climbing to the top, but hierarchies are not effective when the task is about loving God and loving others. Any structure that relegates large numbers of voices to the bottom and innately values some and invalidates others will never be effective. That is why Paul compares us to a Body with equally important parts, and not just a big head that mandates unthinking, subservient appendages to engage in mostly insignificant tasks for the pleasure and the benefit of the head.

I pray we recover the bottom-up ministry of Jesus and leave the top-down, title-filled, power-hungry hierarchies to the corporations where they belong. If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers then let’s allow everyone a turn at speaking. Let’s get rid of the titles and the corporate-based salary structure that ignores legitimate need among our pastors and instead rewards institutional ass-kissing. Institutional hierarchies are efficient for those at the top, but they are not effective in helping us love God and love people. Flattened structures may be a little chaotic at times, but it was in those chaotic moments when everything seemed out of control that Pentecost happened once and can happen once again. I say let it come. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Danger of Incarnation to National Security

In March of this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials conducted an operation called, “Operation Cross Check.” Operation Cross Check detained over 2000 immigrants for the purpose of removing them from the United States. These people were deemed the highest priority for removal by ICE – they were supposedly the worst of the worst. Here is some of what ICE and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials had to say:
  • This nationwide operation led to the apprehension of more than 2,000 convicted criminal aliens who pose the greatest risk to our public safety. Today, communities around the country are safer because of the great work of the men and women of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas 
  • [Those apprehended in Operation Cross Check] meet our highest priorities to ensure public safety and national security. By focusing on those who pose the greatest risk to our communities, we are marshaling our limited resources in the most responsible manner - ICE Director Sarah SaldaƱa
Boy, do I feel safer since these ICE and DHS officials are out there getting the really horrible people bent on mayhem off of our streets. What they claim might have some veracity except for the fact that they are largely lying.

The Mennonite Central Committee has published a powerful and devastating critique called “Worst of the Worst?” In it, they highlight the blatant falsehoods of the quotes of the officials above. Almost half of those picked up had misdemeanor convictions and of those who had felony convictions, half were immigration-related violations. These are hardly the most dangerous people in our communities.

The Mennonites then highlighted several people who were among the 2000 people swept up by ICE, among them, a Mennonite Pastor named Max Villatoro. Pastor Max had “a records tampering conviction from 1999, related to his trying to obtain a state identification card. He was also convicted of DUI in 1998. Sixteen years later, Villatoro is now pastor of a church, husband and father of four U.S. citizen children, and works to help those struggling with substance abuse and addiction.”

Man, am I glad that ICE has kept this man far away from my community. If they had dared allowed him to stay, many more people might escape the clutches of addiction and might experience the presence of the Kingdom of God anew in their lives.

Yes, I am being sarcastic. But this angers me so much. In the process of “upholding the law” ICE has managed to separate families and weaken our communities, making it that might harder for impacted families and communities to succeed. This is the perfect image of a system that is absolutely broken and in desperate need for repair.

And the ICE officials who issued the above quotes are hoping that you and I will not know the difference. They are counting on us not knowing people directly impacted. Just reading what they said makes it seem like they are watching out for us – that they are genuinely interested in our safety. They are banking on our detachment from the people whose lives Operation Cross Check completely devastated through their sweep. They are counting on the accepted belief – an almost hegemonic belief that is – that law enforcement crackdowns on behavior deemed “illegal” are always a good thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have served in urban and impoverished contexts and I believe that the police can serve as a very positive and powerful resource in those communities. But I also know firsthand, that law enforcement crackdowns or sweeps or operations almost always carry destructive results for the most vulnerable people in impacted communities. And whether it be immigration sweeps, or drug busts in urban neighborhoods, or any kind of enforcement operation; these actions are the least effective at really stopping the illegal behavior. But the actions continue because the officials who run them (who are far more at fault than the ICE agents or local police who have to carry them out), are counting on me and you knowing very few if any of those directly impacted. Because if we knew them, we would not allow them to continue.

Think about it. If we really were interested in stopping illegal behavior and preventing those in positions to commit illegal behavior from doing so again, then why, after the economic collapse in 2008, didn’t a bunch of police vans and trucks pull up to Wall Street and then pile in a couple thousand of the hedge fund managers and CEOs and CFOs of the stock-trading corporations that devastated our economy? Talk about amnesty! The hedge fund managers are still in those same jobs (and are back lobbying Congress to let them do what they did before again!) precisely because those of us in the predominant culture know those people. We are those people.

And in this lies the promise and danger of incarnational relationships among those directly impacted by broken systems. The story of Pastor Max is out – it can’t be hidden among the statistics that ICE and DHS officials want to throw at us and pacify us with. The actions of ICE and DHS are not entirely for the benefit of society and now we know that this is true. The good Mennonites who put this important study together have refused to allow his story and others like his to be swept away under the guise of “national security interests.”

There are literally millions of other stories of people whose lives have been crushed by the false claims of “public safety” or “national security.” These are peoples’ lives at stake. These are people from our communities with families who are devastated by dysfunctional and unjust systems; systems that are innately racist and classist. It is those systems that will not stop until people incarnated among those directly impacted stand up and ensure that those stories do not remain hidden. The Mennonites have shown us the way. Shall we follow?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Justice System that Mo'ne and Jesus Would Love

When Mo’ne Davis starred last summer as a pitcher with an 80 mile-an-hour fastball in the Little League World series, I was, like everyone else, impressed. As impressive as her play on the field has been the grace and ease with which she has handled her fame off the field. She is poised in her interviews and genuinely low key. And now we can credit her with one more attribute: graciousness.

After it was announced that Disney was planning on making a film about her, a baseball player from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania sent out an offensive tweet that was followed by an apology and the deletion of his Twitter account. The university responded by immediately removing him from the team.

What Mo’ne did next should serve as an example to those of us in the church. She sent an email to the president of the university and asked that the player be reinstated on the team. When asked about it in an interview she said, "Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. I know he didn't mean it in that type of way, and I know a lot of people get tired of like seeing me on TV but just think about what you're doing before you actually do it. I know right now he's really hurt and I know how hard he worked just to get where he is right now."

She not only advocated for his reinstatement, she empathized with him and humanized him to the many people who were angered and offended by his tweet. Because of Mo’ne, the baseball player is no longer a sexist jerk who cruelly mocked a teenage girl. He is a young man who has worked hard to become one of the leading hitters on his college team. He is someone who made a mistake and has paid dearly for it for, as she claims, he is hurt even more than she is. And he is a young man who deserves a second chance because, as we all should be reminded, everyone makes mistakes. 

When I read Mo’ne’s comments I am reminded of how I wish our approach to crime could reflect more of Mo’ne’s comments that our current insatiable thirst for retribution. Fortunately, more and more people are seeing the length of some of the sentences that are being handed down, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses, as unnecessary and unduly punitive. And it may even surprise a few folks who share this view: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul and former Speaker Newt Gingrich to name a few.

But we still have the problem of demonizing certain people and claiming that they are beyond redemption or restoration. I see death row inmates in this class as well as people who have committed sexual crimes. We rightly find these crimes repugnant and devastating to the victims and their families. Approaching criminal justice from a restorative justice lens means first and foremost working for healing for the victims of crime.

At the same time, I think we have a tendency to define a person by the worst thing they have done. We see the detestable actions they have committed and they become those actions incarnate. Yet, Jesus, throughout the Gospels, repeatedly reaches out and makes an example of faith those deemed deviant by the rest of society, particularly those within the confines of his faith. Jesus humanizes them and makes it impossible for his followers to combine faith in him with demonization of those on the margins.

Our criminal justice system would be radically different – and far more effective, if we manifested this same kind of emphasis on restoration, even and perhaps especially on those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. All people are made in the image of God. All of us have sinned and fallen short. Those are truths whose ethical impact could very well transform our criminal justice system if we took them seriously.

The invitation is ours to extend to the most hardened of criminals, the most unreachable of people. Jesus is already there and bids us to join him to humanize those who would be demonized by the rest of society and locked away forever or even put to death. Whether it is a baseball player in Pennsylvania or someone who has committed an unspeakable crime, may we follow first the example of Jesus and even that of Mo’ne Davis and may we recognize the imago dei within them beyond the deed or deeds they have committed and then may we seek to restore them to a place of contribution once again. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

When Justice Isn't Justice At All

I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the very passion that drives us to work on justice issues is the same passion that hinders movement on related justice issues as we achieve the narrow agenda we are so focused on.

This came home to me in December 2010 when we came within a couple of votes in the Senate of passing the DREAM Act. I kept hearing DC advocates (though not from the DREAMers themselves) speak in favor of passage of the DREAM Act by referring to the students as “people who came to America though no fault of their own.” While this was believed, at the time, to appeal to moderates and maybe even a few of the hardliners who usually denounced undocumented immigration, in the end, statements like this have been hurtful to the larger goal of gaining citizenship for all immigrants. In validating the myth that some immigrants deserve protection of their rights while others do not, non-student immigrants have often been further marginalized from the goal of gaining citizenship because they are deemed to be at “fault” or less worthy than DREAMers. I believe we could have effectively advocated for passage of the DREAM Act while refusing to cast aspersions on non-DREAMers if we had simply been more mindful of unintended messages we were conveying.

For those of us committed to specific issues of justice – or with groups of people directly impacted by injustices – we would do well to ask how our work and especially our messages are impacting other connected issues to the one we are so passionate about.

Case in point, watch this video by Everytown for Gun Safety focused on state legislation in Nevada.

Of course, I sympathize with the need for more responsible gun ownership and the need to stand against far too many states that are being driven by the gun manufacturers-lobby that wants guns to be openly carried in every public space, including houses of worship. But in pushing back against this reckless agenda, I must ask, aren’t there better ways to make our point for public safety and responsible gun ownership other than demonizing returning citizens and those who suffer from mental illness?

I shudder to think how this 30 second ad will continue to perpetuate negative and quite frankly, false myths about the “dangerously” mentally ill and “criminals.” Why, in this ad, is “dangerous” not applied to the weapons and instead, attached to the person? And why can’t we talk about making our societies safer as a part of an over-arching call for all of us to live into a vision that addresses justice for everyone – including those suffering from mental illness and returning citizens?

If we want to talk about creating a vision that people can live into rather creating fear that people must flee from, then I think the best model I know of is in Micah 4:1-4. Micah gives a stunning description of the final days when nations will stream to the “mountain of the Lord” to have their conflicts settled peacefully. A beautiful picture of what conflict resolution looks like appears as nations then will be given the responsibility to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (v. 3) And as nations transform their weapons into instruments that provide for the well-being of all people, the deeper attitudes, behaviors, perspectives, and values – their worldviews – will be transformed as well: “neither shall they learn war any more.”

Once the violence of their hands and their hearts are washed clean and transformed, their hopes for security and abundance will be realized.

                But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
                And no one shall make them afraid.

While Micah’s vision ends in peace and enough resources for all people – and I stress all – to live securely in abundance, I was saddened to see this ad by Everytown because it ends in fear and the demonization of people already on society’s margins. Micah’s vision calls us to work not only for safer communities, but safety is directly linked to world peace, poverty, hunger, the sanctity of work, and so many other issues.

While ads like these make us want to take action out of fear, Micah and many of the other prophets, including Jesus, have a more powerful and more effective motivation for change: a vision of love and justice for all people. Those of us with passion for specific issues would do well to learn that our issue will advance only as far as we advance all causes for justice, for if we can only do justice for one group at the expense of another then perhaps what we are doing isn’t justice at all. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lent is a Time to Set the Captives Free

As we are now in a time of Lent leading us to Easter Sunday it is right for us to reflect not only on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but his life and ministry as well. As we do, we recall that Jesus’ ministry began with the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah quoted in part, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Freedom from captivity was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry and for those of us who claim to be recipients of Jesus’ grace we would do well to make this a vital part of our ministry as well. We too are called to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed. This call has never been timelier as we live in the most incarcerated nation on the face of the earth.

The United States is first in the world in mass incarceration and one of the main drivers of this systemic sin is the disastrous War on Drugs, 40 years of failed policies that have done little to nothing to curb drug dependence and have instead broken up families, destroyed communities and cost billions of dollars.

Fortunately, just as we receive hope on Easter Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection, there are hopeful steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity to mass incarceration. Even in the current state of polarization that our Congress seems trapped in, there are numerous bills that have brought Democrats and Republicans together. One crucial bill introduced last week by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Lee (R-UT) is the Smarter Sentencing Act. The legislation is an incremental step towards justice reform that would address the costly overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half the mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and by authorizing judicial review of cases sentenced under the old 100 to 1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity for possible resentencing.

I chair the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, working to end mass incarceration on Capitol Hill. Our coalition is made up over 40 faith organizations representing millions of people from across the theological and political spectrum and one of our primary goals this year is to see sentencing reforms like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act enacted. We are meeting with numerous House and Senate offices and we have activated our grassroots folks. The time for dramatically reducing the size of our prison population has come.

Throughout the U.S. congregations dedicate countless hours to aiding, ministering alongside, and advocating for people negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. We are gravely concerned that overly punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago, have disproportionately and unfairly incarcerated people of color for low-level and nonviolent offenses.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has previously testified before the Judiciary Committee that Black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory minimum sentences and existing opportunities for relief from them are less often available to African American defendants. Passage of sentencing reform measures like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore fairness in our justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity. Therefore, my prayer this Easter is for the hearts of Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner to soften and to make the passage of sending reform a priority for this year. Could the Holy Spirit even anoint Congressional leaders, “to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free”? What an amazing Easter this could be.