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Monday, December 27, 2010

Dropping the "I" Word for the "B" Word

Not long ago I was asked to visit with the director of Numbers USA, a group committed to ending all forms of immigration. The Director is a United Methodist and wanted to see if there was some room for agreement. There is not.

Numbers USA asserts that it is different from its sister group, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) which has been accused of being a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (and whose founder, John Tanton, also helps fund Numbers USA). Numbers claims it is against "immigrant bashing" and so in our discussion, I made a simple request that I felt (and feel) should be easily honored by a group that claims to be committed to treating immigrants humanely. I asked that Numbers USA no longer refer to immigrants as "illegal" but rather, as "undocumented" in its mailings and announcements. I did not ask them to change their policies (though I vehemently disagree with them and they are opposed to what the United Methodist Church stands for), but rather, I asked them to use a term that is used by all organizations I know that also are committed to treating immigrants with integrity.

The director recognized that the preferred name by immigrants themselves is undocumented, rather than "illegal." Yet, when I asked him to use the term undocumented rather than "illegal" he ultimately declined (though he said he needed 3 weeks and to check with his lawyers for some reason).

Why was he - why are so many - opposed to using the term, "undocumented" rather than "illegal?" In using a different term, there is no challenge to currently held beliefs about the issue. It is simply a term that is not pejorative or dehumanizing. Could it be that that is precisely the point? Names define and frame. Names have implicit messages and meanings. Could it be that we as a nation, and sadly, we as a church, prefer to marginalize and dehumanize by the names we use?

Jesus certainly knew the power of names when he gave Simon the name of Peter and announced that upon Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah Jesus' church would be built. (Matthew 16:15-19) Jesus recognized that so much can be said through naming - we define and frame that which we name. In a sense, the object or subject being named is owned by that name.

Thus, in calling someone an "illegal" we are defining the entirety of that person by one action they committed. It does not matter what else they do, how they might contribute in any capacity to the larger society, to their local community, to their church or faith community - they are "illegal" and none of that amounts to anything.

Moreover, we do not need to listen to their stories, to any extenuating circumstances or context that might shed light on why a border was crossed or a visa overstayed. Their illegalness marginalizes them and we are not constrained to listen. "If they just weren't 'illegal' we could listen," some say, proving their high respect of "law and order" while making countless excuses for those they know who also commit civil offenses (crossing the border or overstaying a visa is actually not a criminal offense even thought it has become something equivalent to an act of war for some).

Of course, we neglect to remind ourselves that it was precisely those who were marginalized whom Jesus listened to and redemptively responded. For instance, the Pharisees brought a woman who committed adultery (John 8:1-10) and Jesus redemptively responds to the woman rather than to the Pharisees. Now, it should be pointed out that the Pharisees were legally correct - the woman should have been stoned to death in order to maintain "law and order" (and so should the man though the Pharisees mysteriously forget to bring him before Jesus - funny how we subjectively treat some as "illegal" but not others).

But Jesus does not join with the Pharisees in their strict focus on "law and order." Jesus seems more interested in knowing the context and not so much in joining the Pharisees in defining the woman by this one act. Instead, Jesus provides an opportunity for her to walk in righteousness. He provides mercy and grace - something the Pharisees of his time (and ours) are short of.

(And an interesting side note that corresponds with this passage. Like the Pharisees who refuse to bring the man with whom the woman was committing adultery with before Jesus to be stoned, for those so opposed to illegal immigration and so committed to calling undocumented immigrants "illegals", why is it the same level of marginalization is not levelled against businesses that hire the undocumented or the U.S. government whose policies have exacerbated illegal immigration? That's for another post, but should at least be mentioned here.)

So, if I may, I would like to ask a favor for those so committed to calling people "illegal." Since you are committed to defining someone because of one action they have committed, please let the rest of us know if you have ever lied to someone else for then we can call you "Liar." Or if you have ever lusted after a woman in your heart, which according to Jesus is adultery (Matthew 5:28), we will call you "Adulterer." For the same manner you deny mercy and grace to others, so should it be denied you. The same manner you define and name others for one action they commit, so should you be defined and named for all the world to hear.

Or, if you want to share the same grace and mercy that God gave to you with others, we can drop the names altogether and just get to know one another personally. Isn't that a significant aspect of our mission as followers of Jesus? You are more than a "Liar" or "Adulterer." You are a child of God, loved and created in God's image with a fascinating story of how you have grown in God's love and grace.

So are your immigrants' sisters and brothers, regardless of their legal status.

For those of us who do not wish to be defined by one action without any context perhaps we should use terms that are not so socially and politically charged. Perhaps we can use a term, such as undocumented, that is not dehumanizing and marginalizing.

Or, if we want to go even further and see undocumented immigrants as God sees them - or who sees all people regardless of any immigration status - then we can use the term that God chooses. We can call one another "Beloved." Now that's a b-word I don't mind being called.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What Would the "Deserving" Affluent Look Like?

As Congress finally put the finishing touches on an unpredictably busy lame duck session on this past Wednesday, and as President Obama took his victory lap, gloating not only over the last few weeks but over the last two years in what is being called one of the most accomplished Congressional sessions in history, I still feel very let down this Christmas.

Why dare I stray from the liberal talking point of boasting of the legislative accomplishments of the Obama administration? Because even with the flurry of activity, this administration and this Congress has often failed to bring necessary relief for the most vulnerable and defenseless in our society.

In Jefferson Cowie's excellent book, "Stayin' Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class" Cowie asserts that in the 1970s there was a dramatic shift in the political focus that helped bring the Republicans into power under Ronald Reagan, and caused the Democrats to shift their focus as well under Clinton that continues under Obama. And that shift, to be brief, occurred with a focus away from the poor and marginalized groups and toward the welfare of the middle class.

Democrats, in their efforts to regain power from the Republicans (who had shifted themselves in the 1970s to cultural issues as they recognized their views on the economy did not benefit most of the middle class), began to talk less about poverty and about those on society's margins, and instead, focused on the "needs" of the middle class. In other words, the Republicans established the playing field of the debates between the two parties and the Democrats have happily followed along (as has the Church, but that is another posting).

And so who is the loser in the power plays between the current two-party competition for attention to the middle class? The poor and marginalized.

In addition, when talk about the poor and marginalized does occasionally spring up, it is a discussion trapped in the framework of "deserving" vs. "undeserving" poor.

One perfect example of this is the debate around the DREAM Act. During the debate in both the House and Senate, numerous members of Congress (as well as those of us who advocated for its passage) who spoke in favor of the bill, often said that DREAM Act students were brought into this country "through no fault of their own." In other words, they were "deserving" poor and were inherently distinct from the "non-deserving" poor, i.e. all other undocumented immigrants.

The Church will do well to avoid these frameworks and put forward our vision that all undocumented immigrants are made in the image of God and many of them were forced to cross the border illegally, or stay past the legal time on their visas, due to economic and foreign policies of the United States. In other words, the distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" immigrants is blurred, if not entirely invisible.

I find it utterly hypocritical that the public, and even more so, the Church, harshly insists on separating the "deserving" vulnerable from the "undeserving." And let us not ignore the fact that the requirements placed on the "deserving" poor are quite strenuous. In fact, I think a better framework would be "perfect" poor vs. "imperfect" poor.

Funny how these requirements are not made on the middle class. We do not talk about the "deserving" affluent vs. "undeserving" affluent.

But perhaps we should use these terms. What if, in the insane extension of tax cuts for the affluent (and yes, if you make even in the neighborhood of $250,000, you are affluent!), we also established some stringent requirements so that we can distinguish between the "deserving" affluent and the "undeserving" affluent. What if, in order to receive the extended tax cuts, "deserving" affluent were those who had a member of their immediate families serving in the military. In doing so, they could receive 50% of their tax cuts. The rest of the tax cuts could be earned through a combination of:

-maintaining either a one-parent household or a stable marriage;
-holding stable employment (and changing jobs would prevent tax cuts from being received until the current job had been maintained for at least 6 consecutive months);
-those who receive tax cuts would be subject to surprise visits by social workers employed by the newly created government bureaucracy, the Earned Tax-Cut Incentive Agency (ETCIA). ETCIA workers would verify that the recipients' marriage was stable, that they were being responsible on their job and were not committing any infractions identified by their employer which would immediately stop payments on any tax-cuts, that they were not using any alcohol or non-prescription drugs, that they were participating in their community and could provide several references to support their citizenship in good standing.

We would dare not apply these standards to the affluent in this country because we assume that all affluent people are "deserving!" But yet, if you are poor, or on the margins, you are mandated to not be "deserving," but "perfect." Hypocrisy.

So, while President Obama and others celebrate the number of achievements made by the 111th Congress, I must continue to lament the frameworks used that preference the affluent and condemn the poor and marginalized. My prayer for the new year is that the Church lead the way in seeing the poor and affluent as all children of God, while joining with God's Kingdom preference for the poor.

Until then, I pray we all have a Merry Christmas.

Monday, September 6, 2010

An Invitation to Evangelical, White Males

A while back I attended a conference in Memphis where a white, evangelical, male, who is also a Texas Judge, made a remarkable statement. He said that as a white, evangelical man, “I am the most discriminated-against person on the face of this earth!” As a well-paid employee of the U.S. criminal justice system who sits in judgment of others – a criminal justice system in a nation that comprises under 6% of the world’s population, yet houses over 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, with an enormously high African-American population – I was astounded at the thought of what could be so repressive and so challenging for this white male in such a unique position of power to feel so powerless and victimized.

As he talked, it seems he felt threatened by the changing culture in which we live. He made it abundantly clear that he was uncomfortable with what he called, “changing sexual standards,” “alternative lifestyles,” and an “influx of cultures into the United States.” While he never pointed to any specific actions which constituted discrimination against him, he conveyed that his greatest frustration is that the things he previously enjoyed and took for granted, he no longer was able to.

After leaving I almost felt sorry for the white, evangelical, male, judge from Texas because indeed, the world has changed. Change is difficult and even at times threatening. As a fellow white, evangelical, male from Texas (although I am not a Judge), I share with him that change threatens my ability to control events in the world, which have such an enormous impact on me and my family. And in an increasingly globalized world where white men (particularly white evangelical males from the South) are an ever-decreasing minority, there is real fear.

Yet, when I reflect on the Scriptures, I also realize that nowhere in Jesus’ teachings does Jesus ask his disciples to attempt to hold on to their positions of control or dominance. In fact, quite the opposite is true. When arguing broke out among the disciples as to who was the greatest among them Jesus admonished the disciples and insisted that the new society he was building among the disciples be distinctively different from the society they had formally known. He said, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

This overturning of societal status and rank represents a transvaluation that occurs when Christ’s reign is realized or incarnated in society. As Christians who are calling the world to recognize Christ’s reign over the world, this is a transvaluation we should not only be aware of, but one we should model. However, the truth is that this kind of ordering of society is threatening to those of us who have benefitted from the old rule, from the old ordering of society. The wonderful promise of a new world in which those who have been marginalized will be brought in, those demonized will be honored, and those crushed down will be lifted up carries with it the reality that what Dr. Stephen Charles Mott calls the principle of redress be realized as well.

As Dr. Mott states in his book, Biblical Ethics and Social Change, “the goal of redress is to return people to a normal level of advantage and satisfaction in the community, particularly with respect to the capacity to earn a living and to have a reasonably happy life” (1982:68). Redress is a necessary aspect of justice which “implies that each member of the community will in fact be strong enough to maintain his or her position in relation to the other members” (1982:67). Redress requires that as the marginalized are brought in, those who dominated access to resources must give way and share that access. Redress requires that those who have been unfairly demonized for their place in society must be honored and that those of us who have received all of the honor and accolades, must assume a new seat in humility and perhaps obscurity. Redress requires that those crushed down will be healed and lifted up and the powers and mechanisms which were used to crush them be transformed into structures that ensure equal and just redistribution of resources. Redress ultimately holds that those of us with access to resources advocate and work to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied.

Redress thus holds promise for the poor and oppressed as well as demands upon the affluent and powerful. This is indeed threatening for white, evangelical, males (and non-evangelical males for that matter) who have benefitted from the current social, economic and political order. But yet, it is perhaps in the current ordering of society that lay our greatest form of captivity. In the current ordering of society I too often miss the power of serving with and under women in positions of power and leadership. As a white male I too often miss the discovery of learning about my brothers and sisters of other ethnicities and races. As a white male of privilege I too often miss the amazement of the creativity and strength of the poor to survive in a society in which everything is stacked against them.

As my white, evangelical, male friend who is a Judge in Texas well knows, repentance is difficult. Outside the grace of Jesus and regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible. But let us not mistake holding on to power and excluding others we deem as being different and perhaps even threatening as a way of supposedly bringing reform and renewal to the Church. I grow exceedingly suspicious of hearing about a call to reform and renew the church from fellow white, evangelical males who do not also carry the message of personal repentance of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, radical individualism, materialism, and other forms of exclusion.

Reform and renewal cannot be taken seriously until those openly calling for such actions first repent of our own forms of sin. For white, evangelical, males, reform and renewal must begin with our recognition that the values we have been raised with and even taught – values of power, dominance, attaining great wealth and honor – are to be intentionally transformed. If the Kingdom of God calls for a transvaluation of all that we hold dear – and it does – then the values we adopt must include humility, service of others, working for the justice of others ahead of ourselves, an intentional inclusion of others, and selflessness.

I pray for reform and renewal of the church, but unless it carries with it the transvaluation of all of our allegiances such as maintaining a mass accumulation of wealth and power, then reform and renewal is at best, merely empty rhetoric, and at worst, a means to further bring divisiveness, exclusion and dominance.

So, to my white, evangelical, male friend who is a Judge in Texas, I hope you are listening. Jesus extends to you, to me, and to all of us white males (evangelical or not) who are struggling with changing cultures and a globalizing world, a glorious invitation: repent and become a participant in his Kingdom-dream of seeing the first become last, and the last first. It may not sound like all we wanted or heard about previously, but being last in the Kingdom of God surely beats the heck of not being there at all.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Tired of Being Tolerant

It seems amazing to me that there is a national and ongoing discussion about the exact nature of President Obama's religious beliefs. This is even more amazing given the fact that there was such a political stir created by then-Candidate Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, of the United Church of Christ. The UCC is a Christian church of course, but that does not seem to matter and those who attacked the President for sitting under so-called "radical" Christian sermons (such as reparations to African Americans - oooh, so radical), now attack him for not being a Christian at all, but a secret Muslim.

So what do you get when you combine the extraordinary short-term memory of the American public with a total rejection of anything that looks like, smells like, or even faintly resembles logic or common sense by the crazy-ass conservative right? One-fifth of the American public believes he is Muslim and one-third of Republicans believe the same. Does it even make sense to discuss this? Of course not, but making sense is not the point. Having legitimacy is not the point. Crazy-ass conservatives do not need to try and lift up competing ideas or raise new credible leaders - they just need to constantly erode confidence in the Democratic President. Just make him seem a little less "like us," more "foreign" and perhaps even a little un-American.

Just make the President someone to fear. Because that is how you win elections and winning elections - not good governance - is the point of creating mass fear of people or groups of people. Having legitimacy or common sense consistency in your arguments is not worth the time for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or even Sarah Palin (remember the death panels during the health care debate?).

This has always been the case. Former President George H. W. Bush was down close to 20 points in the polls when they found the issue that would define the 1988 election. It wasn't about foreign policy, or economic issues, or the need for health care. The campaign issue that decided the 1988 election was a black man, Willie Horton furloughed in Governor Michael Dukasis' home state in Massachusetts and who then brutally raped and killed a woman while making her husband watch. Dukakis tried to refute the political ground gained by Vice-President Bush by arguing that his state was not the only state which practiced furloughs, nor even the most lenient one. In fact, it was a Republican Governor in Massachusetts that started the program. (See "Running on Race" by Jeremy Mayer, for an excellent analysis)

But what Dukakis failed to understand was that this had nothing to do with facts or policies. He was sunk before he even began refuting what even the creator of the ads, Lee Atwater, said were blatantly fear-mongering and racist just before he died.

For today, look no further than immigration. While no one in their right mind truly believes that the U.S. can legally or morally deport 12-14 million undocumented immigrants, and while the Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano has said that the border is as secure as it ever has been or likely will be even while billions have been and continue to be poured into the wiling hands of corporations like Whackenhut, Haliburton, CCA and Boeing, and while no one once again in their right mind believes that undocumented immigrants can or do access social security benefits, and while facts clearly show that crime is lowest in immigrant communities - in spite of all of this, immigrants are demonized and scapegoated for so many of the ills that plague in American society. Truth be damned.

To get attention in our 24 hour (or less oftentimes) news cycle, you just need to make headlines and that can be done through fear; common sense or legitimacy in your argument hardly matters anymore. Fear draws attention and immediately causes people to withdraw and close up their views, rarely to open them up once again for further reflection. If that can be done upon the immediate introduction of an issue or a person, then finding the full contextual truth is so much more problematic. This was the case with Willie Horton, this is the case with immigrants and this is the case with so many complex issues that deserve more than soundbites and 1 and a half minute news stories.

So, did Jesus ever deal with this kind of fear-mongering and illegitimacy in our arguments, and how did he respond? I believe he did. At the end of Matthew 21 when the scribes and Pharisees are testing Jesus to catch him in a lie and to discredit him, but in verse 46, though they wanted to arrest Jesus, it says "they feared the crowds because they regarded him as a prophet."

I find this passage interesting mainly because it is so late in Matthew's gospel and there still seems to be much public support for Jesus. This of course is in contrast to just a few chapters later, Matthew 27:15-23, when the public once again is asked to defend either Jesus or Barabbas from certain death and they opt for Barabbas and against Jesus.

What happened for the switch in public opinion?

How did the public go from defending Jesus against their very own religious leaders to demanding his crucifixion? I am sure a number of factors were at play, but two very clear reasons include the continued eroding of public support for Jesus by religious leaders who knew they did not need to lift up their own leadership, but rather, just tear him down. In other words, they played the typical political game of tearing the other person down if you can't match them.

The other was a simple abuse of power. They reached out and convinced the Romans, through their connections, to make Jesus the scapegoat so that the power of the religious leaders could be kept in tact.

These two things: direct attack of a public figure in order to lower public confidence and the abuse of power in order to finally put that figure out of the picture - were employed then and continue to be used today.

Minus the actual physical killing, these two strategies are mainstays in politics today (and in years past as well). This is not a defense of President Obama as much as it is an identification of what folks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and so many others are actively doing to him, to ACORN, to Van Jones, and almost to Shirley Sherrod. And I know I will get comments that say it goes both ways, I admit there is limited use of this by liberals, but it is limited. These strategies have been used time and time again by crazy-ass conservatives and have become perfected to an art and without any shame whatsoever.

So how should we as people of faith respond? Interestingly, Jesus did not defend himself when he was brought before the Romans, but he still refused to give the religious leaders who organized his death legitimacy at all. At the end of chapter 21 Jesus' actions and attitudes takes a very different turn in regards to the tactics of the religious leaders. He points out what they truly were: hypocrites. And he describes their very vile influence on the people they supposedly lead.

Too often we see Jesus' refusal to defend himself as a form of tolerance for hypocrites who want nothing more than to preserve their own power at any cost and the dissolution of a movement characterized by love, peace and justice - a movement they could not control. Jesus was not tolerant of such blatant hypocrisy and he readily and at times brutally pointed out their illegitimacy as so-called religious leaders. (See especially Matthew 23)

So, what may be the lesson we can learn? I believe we give those who only attack and seek to destroy far too much credibility. In Matthew 22, after Jesus is defended by the crowds and he understands that the strategy being employed by the religious leaders was to attack him and use their positions of power to ultimately destroy him, he begins to call them out for who they really are.

He calls them hypocrites, tells them they know "neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (22:29 and which totally discredits them as so-called religious leaders), and then shuts them up for good by putting them on the spot with his own question (22:41-45). In chapter 23 Jesus takes off the gloves and articulates clearly the total lack of any credibility the religious leaders have. While Jesus spent his life patiently and lovingly answering sincere questions and welcoming genuine searches for truth, he also absolutely refuses to give any legitimacy to those whose goals and means for those goals are nefarious and destructive to him or his many followers.

Jesus rightly points out that those who use fear to drive their own agendas are without faith and therefore without credibility. We must do the same. Jesus has abounding tolerance for those who have been pegged by society as sinful or ostracized in some way. But he has no tolerance for hypocrisy or those who only want to attack and destroy. We worship far too often at the altar of tolerance when we should boldly call people out and name them for what they are: hypocrites, liars, destroyers, and those who deserve no credibility.

And how do we discern those who deserve credibility from those who do not? When the goal of their questions or statements or actions are for deeper understanding and broader solutions then they always deserve legitimacy. But when people question, make statements, or engage in actions where the goal is the demonization of people, or the attack of people, then they do not deserve our time.

It is time for us to stop being liberal when it comes to tolerance, and to start being faithful. The 15 minutes of fame for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin is long been over and it is time for us to give our attention to those who are indeed credible.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Day of Prayer, Protest, and Purpose

Today was a day of so many mixed emotions as we prayed and protested in Phoenix. There clearly was joy on the part of so many of the protesters who were celebrating the partial injunction against what is perceived by so many to be a potentially racist law and certainly prohibitive law against the work of the church in serving immigrants.

Joy was felt in the early morning (yes, 4:30 am is when the first march started!) as we marched to a downtown church for an interfaith service. Muslims, Jews, and Christians sang, prayed, preached and exhorted one another to continue to stand strong until SB 1070 is entirely repealed, and just and humane immigration reform is enacted. The worship service was the most powerful part of the day as it set the tone of the day for the majority of those who came from near and far to protest an unjust law and a broken system.

There was also anger, most of it righeous and just, and some of it out of control. The anger was felt during the morning's worship service. There was anger eloquently expressed by Bishop Carcano; anger at elected leaders in Arizona who have made immigrants the scapegoats for all the problems that Arizona faces. She said, "In essence, what (SB 1070) ultimately does is that it lets our political leaders off the hook for not having the wherewithal to figure out how to resolve the enormous problems we face in this state, or the basic common sense to know that immigrants are not the problem, but rather part of the solution with much to contribute to the well being of this state and this country. And let us not be deceived, SB 1070 was about political expediency –how many votes can an anti-immigrant bill bring? And I would ask those political leaders who supported SB 1070 for votes, are those tainted votes worth the integrity of your leadership?"

Bishop Carcano did not stop with the failed leadership by Governor Brewer and the other failed leadership in Arizona. She rightly placed responsibility upon the shoulders of President Obama as well.

She went on to say, "President Barack Obama needs to know that we will no longer forgive his lack of leadership in this country’s need for immigration reform. The belated and clumsy effort of the Department of Justice against SB 1070 is not enough. We need to let President Obama know in no uncertain terms that we will no longer accept his easy answer that there is a lack of political will in DC and therefore there is nothing he can do about immigration reform as much as he wants to do something. President Obama needs to be reminded that he was elected to lead and not to blame, and we need to be the ones to remind him of that fact."

Once again, some of the most vulnerable in our society are being tossed around like a political football by irresponsible political leaders who are looking to win elections rather than lead. Sadly, unless people of faith stand up and demand responsible political leadership, this kind of oppressive policy will continue to be brought up in states and federally simply because of its expediency.

The day did have those whose anger was expressed in chaotic ways unfortunately. This is bound to happen though when those in leadership positions fail to provide the necessary leadership to find solutions, instead of blaming vulnerable people. Governor Brewer, Sheriff Arpaio, State Senator Pearce, Senators McCain and Kyl and President Obama, all must be shamed into action. And so many more as well.

And the media was once again compliant in focusing mainly on those who screamed things that made no sense and acted in ways that often tried to bait the police to act forcefully. Of course, why the police chose to come out in full riot gear and put themselves in a position to antagonize protesters was a disgrace. There were certainly better ways to act on both sides. It was apparent that a few of the protesters and the police in full were determined to have conflict.

But the overall tenor of the day by the protesters, particularly among the people of faith, has to be described as faithful determination. People are determined not to allow immigrants to continue to be oppressed. More states can (and probably will) follow Arizona's lead in repressing newly-arrived immigrants through policies which racially profile and deny people of their basic human rights. More politicians will (and certainly will) use this issue to demonize and blame immigrants for all that ails society.

But people of faith - including United Methodists - will commit ourselves to not rest until basic civil and human rights of immigrants are fully protected. We will do all we can to build support among our spheres of influence - to build bridges of compassion and understanding between immigrants and US citizens, to recruit more people in our churches to advocate with us, and to demand just and sane leadership by those elected to office. Or we will get new leaders to lead us.

We will not stop until just and humane reform is enacted. No matter how long it takes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Politics of National Security

Since arriving in Tucson yesterday, I have noticed 5 different billboards touting Senator McCain, who is promising to secure the borders if re-elected. McCain is in the run of his life to keep his Senate seat and trying to ward off his Republican primary challenger, JD Hayworth. Hayworth is rabidly anti-immigrant and actually lost his House seat several years ago to Harry Mitchell, precisely because his constituents saw him as rabidly anti-immigrant.

But times have changed and so has Senator McCain. I remember the summer of 2006 when McCain and Kennedy were sponsoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill, largely in response to yet another anti-immigrant bill, HR 4437. HR 4437 was the bill, passed by the House in December of 2005, that gave rise to the mass marches throughout the country. I recall being part of a faith symposium in the summer of 2006 on immigration, hosted by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition. We had theologians, pastors, and immigrants all testify to the importance of faith in the immigration debate. We had Senators Brownback and Kennedy speak, as well as Senator McCain.

McCain spoke at a luncheon in the United Methodist building to a mostly progressive religious crowd and he sounded so "pro-immigrant" several who attended spoke out loud that they could themselves voting, for the first time in their lives, for a Republican who was saying the things he was saying.

Boy, times sure do change. And so has Senator McCain. Exit stage left McCain the Maverick. Enter stage right (hard right) McCain the politician.

Saying things like "secure the borders" will win you elections, but yelling those kinds of statements at the top of your lungs does not provide the leadership necessary for workable and humane solutions.

At a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stated, "Every marker, every milepost that has been laid down by the Congress in terms of number of agents, deployment of technology, construction of fencing and the like has either already been completed or is within a hair's breadth of being completed. And one of the questions I think we need to talk about is whether securing the border is ever going to be reached before the Congress...or whether that goalpost is just going to keep moving."

Everyone likes to say let's secure the border before we really try and pass comprehensive immigration reform. What none of the politicians who say this (and now supposed faith "leaders" too unfortunately) will tell you is that we HAVE been doing enforcement-first for the last 10-15 years. We have spent billions of dollars, have built fences that do not make a lick of sense, have deployed enormous of military personnel and weaponry and our system remains broken. Building fences and militarizing the border does not fix a broken immigration system.

And the Democrats are certainly not that different on this than the Republicans. The Obama administration has submitted a request to the House for an additional $500 million to continue the same failed policies of the last 10-15 years. Do you smell change in the air or is that the same stale and broken promises of the last administration? Where is candidate Obama who promised, that he, "wouldn't continue the same failed policies of the last 8 years"? He hasn't continued them - he has made them worse!

As usual, what we need form Washington DC is leadership and neither party seems inclined to give it. We need someone to forget the best way to get elected and to tell the American public the truth: the borders are as secured as they can be, and we need to begin to focus on real solutions.

Those solutions include:

* Providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented that require a payment of a reasonable fine, learning English (and providing enough resources to teach all who want to learn English), learning US civics, and payment of back taxes. Making the pathway punitive (which so many seem to want to do once again to win elections) satisfies some weird political need to punish, but once again, it is not workable and if too punitive, will actually defeat the goal of bringing people out of the shadows and finding out who exactly is in the country.

* Reunify families who have been separated by migration patterns and detention and deportation. The stories of family separation are heartbreaking and are endless. We have seen more deportations under the short period of the Obama administration than the entire duration of the Bush administration - so much for hope if you are undocumented.
The family backlogs are long and tremendously costly to families in so many ways. Eliminating the backlogs must be a priority of any reform legislation so that we can stay true to our commitment to healthy and strong families. Any strong society has as its basis strong families, so to cut back on the family immigration system only hurts all of us as a society.

* Secure the rights of all workers, US citizen and newly arrived immigrant alike. Giving the rights to workers to collectively bargain, organize and advocate for higher pay and better working conditions helps all workers. Pitting immigrant workers against US citizen workers is the best way to ensure that no worker rights are bettered at all - which is the aim of some politicians and anti-immigrant groups.

* A real solution-oriented discussion on the root causes for the global movements of people we are currently seeing. Working for economic justice for the poor and protection of human rights for the vulnerable and dispossessed throughout the world will achieve as much stability and long-term solutions for everyone as the three points above.

All of these are important.

Practical, workable and humane solutions. This is what we need and this is why we are here in Arizona supporting the faith community's stance against SB 1070 and hoping (and organizing) against 1070's in other parts of the country.

My main hope and prayer is that our elected leaders - including President Obama and Senator McCain - will stop playing politics and lead. It is not too late even today.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Racism Alive and Well to My 8 Year Old Son

While on vacation in Texas, visiting with family and friends, we watched a video of a two-man comedy routine of life in a fictional small town in Texas. I know from having lived a number of years in rural Texas that there is much to make light of, but something in their show triggered something in my family that has truly bothered us, particularly my youngest son, Isaiah.

Isaiah is 8 years old and for those who know him, he is always the life of the party. He loves to laugh and can make anyone who meets him laugh as well. I call him my joy because that is exactly what he is and has always been to Marti and me; pure, unadulterated joy. Isaiah is also adopted and is bi-racial. His birth mom is white and his birth dad was born in the Caribbean. Isaiah is a beautiful light brown (darker brown now having been in the sun) with the most amazing brown eyes. He is gorgeous.

And so, as the two-man show tried to make fun of the subtle but very real racist attitudes in rural Texas, Isaiah and the rest of us were very quiet, not laughing at all. In talking with him afterwards, he shared he was hurt and angry at what he heard. He didn't understand why white people didn't like black people.

Marti and I tried to explain to him that there has been this unexplainable hate among white people for black people - well, for all non-white people - for centuries. Unfortunately, we told him, this hatred has become less apparent in some ways, more subtle, but no less sickening and no less harmful.

I honestly hate talking about racism - I have always thought it made more sense to try and build authentic bridges between people of different races, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, sexual orientations, rather than just talk about it. Talk can be the cheapest and easiest, and to me, least effective way to address racism.

In working on issues like immigration and criminal justice reform, I see the systematic effects of racism every day. One small example in the current immigration system - which is truly broken - is that we as a nation give far more visas to European immigrants than African and Latin American ones.

Another broken example is in the current sentencing policies in our broken criminal justice system, which penalizes black people more often with much longer sentences than white people. This policy has grown worse, not better, with the passage of time. In 1986, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher. In 2005, African Americans constituted more than 80 percent of those sentenced to federal prison for crack cocaine offenses, even though two-thirds of crack cocaine users are non-black.

Moreover, these kinds of systematic racism are invisible to most whites. In an excellent book, Divided by Faith, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, they found that most white evangelicals believed that racism largely no longer existed. The only white evangelicals who did believe that racism is still persistent, according to their study (and my experience would concur), were whites who were immersed in primarily African-American neighborhoods, work, school, and/or worship contexts.

In other words, to whites who lives in primarily white worlds - white schools, white neighborhoods, white churches, white workplaces - racism is unpleasant, un-thought about, and un-talked about reality. It does not exist. Short-term mission trips do not change the perceptions of whites about racism. Long, well-articulated Bible studies do not change white perceptions. One's geographical context changes the perceptions of the existence of racism.

But how many times do all-white churches actually talk about where they are located and if that location actually inhibits their ability to better engage in mission and ministry that is free of racism? Better yet, how many whites decide to no longer attend all-white churches (which are by and large located in all-white neighborhoods) and instead, attend a church where they are in the minority?

Until whites begin to do these things racism will continue to not exist.

But it does to exist to Isaiah now.

It literally broke me and Marti's hearts to have to tell an 8 year old that racism is alive and well. We share his anger some, but we will never truly know the full sharp edge of his anger or his hurt - something that breaks our hearts even more.

But as we closed our discussion time with him down, I told him he could use his anger - we could all use our anger - to better address societal racism and help bring about the total elimination of racism from our planet. When I asked him if could think of something specific we could do about this he said one thing, "You should do your job."

That's damn straight. I told him I would. And I think we all should regardless if we are the Director of Civil and Human Rights or not.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Freeing Ourselves from the Industry of Quiet Times

I am at the beach this week with my family. It honestly feels so good to get away from the constant onslaught of emails and the ever-present feeling that there is so much to do, the need is so great, and my ability to affect change is so small and incremental. I have not necessarily felt burned out recently, but I definitely have been looking for a break from the grind.

At the same time, I have never been one for retreats. In fact, I think the church "retreats" far too much. I get tired of the constant emphasis on retreating by Christians. I always hear the tired reasoning, "Well Jesus went away for times of prayer..." I can almost hear the whining now.

Yes, Jesus went away for times of prayer - 3 times by my count in all of the gospels. It is likely that he went away more often, but I am coming to reject the ever-present image of Jesus as a monastic, spending his days in constant prayer and solitary meditation. I think this idea was fed especially by Stanley Jaffre's 1977 made for TV "Jesus of Nazareth" in which a mostly sedate Jesus spent half the film with his eyes closed listening for the voice of God.

I do believe Jesus spent time in prayer. I also believe we are called to do the same - something that is admittedly challenging for me. That is, unless you count the times I walk around the monuments in downtown DC late at night smoking a cigar. I definitely count those as times of prayer for me - I doubt I can come closer to God in any context by myself through any other thing that I do.

But I believe we have placed such great emphasis on these kinds of "quiet times" that having these individualistic too-often-used-for-navel-gazing-and-self-pity times has become far more a means of defining how mature a Christian you are than say, feeding the hungry, welcoming the sojourner, or defending the vulnerable from oppression or exploitation. All of these actions were engaged in by Jesus far more often than were his quiet times. But yet, I hear far, far more often the question, "is your political engagement interfering with your time with the Lord," and I feel like we should be asking, "is all of your focus on solitary prayer and personal relationship with Jesus interfering with your call from Jesus to do mercy and justice in his world for the vulnerable that he loves?"

Man, Asbury Seminary would have been so much better for me if I had heard the latter question daily rather than the former. But that's another blog.

But could one reason for this tremendous emphasis on solitary prayer among American Christians be because we are so market-driven and there is undoubtedly an enormous market for solitary "spiritual disciplines." I am hesitant to even call the times of individualistic quiet times "spiritual disciplines" because how much discipline does it take to focus on yourself in a culture that values the self above all else?

But with so much money poured into the business of quiet times - a multi-million dollar enterprise - it is no wonder that so much emphasis is placed on this as a means of determining faithfulness by our churches and seminaries. I cannot help but wonder if all the money spent on the books about improving our quiet times, CD's which enhance our prayer times, journals to take us through our prayer times, and even cruises with Max Lucado (can God 'whisper your name' while you do the limbo?) or Richard Foster (remember "Life of Simplicity" Mr. Foster?), was instead spent to fund AIDS research, or to bring relief to children coming out of forced conscription, or to help families split up by ICE raids and who have been given no way in which to support themselves while they await deportation.

Could it be that we would experience God's love and presence so much more if we just quit spending money entirely on things that were so focused on our spirituality and instead spent all that money for the benefit of those who cannot even live?

I honestly think we would be a people living in such intimacy with Jesus we would not demand all of these books and resources, and our missional engagement would be so effective.

I am enjoying my time with my family at the beach and even my times at night, walking along the beach, talking God, and smoking nice cheap cigars. I can even hear God whisper my name, though I never spent $25.99 for the latest Lucado book on CD.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An Historic and Unpleasant Coalition of Groups

One recent difference in the movement for just and humane immigration reform has been the emergence of predominantly Anglo Evangelical groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE are now joining mainline denominations like the United Methodist Church who have long stood for immigrants’ rights, as support for just and humane reform spans the theological spectrum. The reforms sought include a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, family reunification and protection of workers’ rights.

Groups like the NAE are slowly awakening to the realization what we as United Methodists have known for years: the issue of immigration is fundamentally a human rights issue. The unjust treatment of immigrants and their families has driven tens of thousands of people of faith to become politically engaged. They are doing so through prayer vigils, Neighbor-to-Neighbor meetings with members of Congress, Breaking-Bread-and-Barrier events and signing Holiday Postcards to Congress. The growing concern for issues that do not directly affect evangelicals has been long in coming, but is certainly welcome.

The recent emergence of Anglo evangelicals into the faith movement for just and humane immigration reform has made them targets of anti-immigrant anger by an interesting partnership. Two factions have formed a tacit alliance to shut out immigrants from entering the United States. These factions are anti-immigrant groups and what I like to call, fundamentalist elites. They oppose just, humane immigration reform, and instead opt for enforcement-only strategies that have only fostered terror in immigrant communities.

Anti-immigrant groups and fundamentalist elites maintain goals that fit nicely together.

The anti-immigrant groups, such as Numbers USA and FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), want to pit ethnic groups and low-skilled workers against one another. Their goal is much more to protect the economic status quo, create a harsh backlash against immigrants, and guarantee continued marginalization for all ethnic groups and low-skiled workers.

Fundamentalist elites, such as groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy and the Traditional Values Coalition, claim to be biblical literalists. They clearly have not read scripture though, as they fail to see the thousands of verses pertaining to God’s passion to defend the vulnerable and to show hospitality for sojourners.

Unfortunately, these two types of groups emanate from long and sad line of U.S. history featuring anti-immigrant sentiment. The Know-Nothing Party of the 1800s brought together Americans violently opposed to Irish and German immigrants. The Red Scare of 1919 was directed towards Eastern European groups, to name a just a couple of occurrences. Much of the impetus for these movements came from fundamentalist Christians who were anti-Catholic. They viewed the arrival of immigrants as an intrusion, and an attack on their rigid view of America “under God” as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation.

Fundamentalists were once tied to evangelicals, but began to separate in the early twentieth century in part because of fundamentalists’ reactions to the arrival of immigrants. Evangelicals are typically noted for their literal interpretation of scripture, maintaining a “born-again” experience, and engagement in the practice of personal evangelism, according to Christian Smith’s description in Christian America?

Fundamentalists hold to these values as well. But they view increased global migration as an attack on America and God’s plan to redeem the world through using the United States as an instrument of righteousness in the world. While evangelicals have tended to see increased migration as a missional opportunity, fundamentalists have reacted with fear. This fear has often led to a position of protectionism and exclusion.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, see their mission to redeem individuals in the world through a lens of welcome and incarnation among those being marginalized and oppressed. This has often led to paternalism and even cultural colonialism at times, but remains a far cry from the exclusion and protectionism embraced by fundamentalist elites. Fundamentalist elites are the latest embodiment of the religious zealots who have embraced a triumphalistic missional approach to political engagement, and who demand that others abide by their rigid, doctrinaire ideologies.

While fundamentalists used to be what George Marsden called a loose “federation of co-belligerents united by their fierce opposition to modernist attempts to bring Christianity into line with modern thought.” I describe this new embodiment as “fundamentalist elites” because they have become highly organized, interconnected, affluent, and much more focused on gaining political influence.

Fundamentalists used to be more egalitarian in nature, and on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. However, these latest iterations are extremely hierarchical, even patriarchal oftentimes, and extremely well-funded. In fact, they have become separated from the people they pretend to represent, hence their status as elites.

And they are elitist in the worst sense of the word. They often target mainline denominations and now other groups like the NAE, that refuses to hold their rigid doctrines of exclusion and bigotry. These elitist organizations are no longer grassroots-oriented. They receive their funding from clandestine sources that have a historical, deep-rooted suspicion towards immigrants in the United States. For instance, in a recent panel on climate change in the Senate, the former head of the IRD, Jim Tonkowich, refused to admit where funding for his organization came from.

Thus, they have become natural companions to nativist groups.

One of these nativist groups is Numbers USA. This is a kinder, gentler anti-immigrant organization with extraordinarily close ties to a known racist, John Tanton, who wants to eliminate immigration entirely.
The leader of Numbers USA is Roy Beck, a United Methodist. He has repeatedly attempted to intimidate religious groups from faithfully following scripture in defending immigrants and their families.

Fortunately, he has repeatedly failed.

Numbers USA and other nativists such as FAIR try to wedge groups against one another, such as American-born workers and immigrants. They claim to fight for American-born workers, but there is not a single piece of legislation that Numbers USA advocates for that is intended to benefit these workers. The truth is that they do not care for American-born workers, nor for immigrants. And they want to eliminate immigration altogether.

Groups like Numbers USA continue to be unsuccessful because they fail to understand that biblical justice is not achieved by pitting immigrants against low-skilled citizen workers. Biblical justice is best achieved when all groups work together to secure and protect human rights for themselves and others at the same time. As United Methodists and followers of Jesus, this is what we are committed to.

Numbers USA’s most recent attempt to bully religious groups stems from its fear of the unprecedented grassroots political advocacy happening throughout the United States by faith communities, including many United Methodists. Even though he well knows that the Social Creed of the United Methodist Church was created in 1908 largely around issues of fair treatment in the workplace, Beck has even absurdly claimed that mainline religious leaders have declared “war” on the unemployed in the United States. He encouraged his followers to flood religious offices with calls opposing the view that reform should be about immigrants and their families.

I received two calls from this latest attack by Numbers USA. Both callers asked a precisely worded question of why the General Board of Church & Society was “against American workers and in favor of illegals?” I began to explain how this agency representing The United Methodist Church’s official policies advocates for the right to unionize, to collectively bargain, for the development of jobs through appropriate green technology, and the right to a livable wage for all workers. We have historically advocated for the rights of workers.

As I tried to share this, both callers began to argue with me about what United Methodists advocate for on behalf of U.S. workers. The callers said they don’t believe U.S. workers should have a livable wage or should be able to unionize or collectively bargain for higher wages or for safer working conditions. Both argued vehemently against these workers’ rights, even though they had originally called to “defend” U.S. workers.

Why this hypocrisy? Because Numbers USA and its adherents do not care for workers, regardless of their legal status. Numbers USA does not believe low-skilled workers should be given a livable wage. And, we should perish any thought of preserving and defending human rights of low-paid workers, immigrant or otherwise.

IRD regularly calls for their membership to flood my office with calls and I regularly field their call for massive resistance against what we have been called by General Conference to advocate for, by answering at the most, one or two calls or emails. While Numbers USA can usually generate more action than this, the IRD, a perfect example of a fundamentalist elitist organization, simply does not have any grassroots groups organized. They write attacking articles, but are unable to generate any real pressure. They are elitist and detached in the worst sense of the word.

In the end, this partnership of anti-immigrant groups and fundamentalist elites has been a continued historical and unfortunate occurrence. They seem to belong together. Neither nativist groups nor fundamentalist elites understand that strength is attained through embracing change and diversity and building on that reality. The power of whites joining with other whites to defend "our society" is fading into a distant and unpleasant memory. Neither understands that fullness of life is discovered through relationships among people different and distinct from one another. Both project attitudes and advocate for defensive, protectionist policies that are self-defeatist in nature. Their stances are antithetical to the mission of the followers of Christ, who called his people to welcome all people, love all people and work for justice for all.

Other resources on fundamentalism you should read are
Christian America? By Christian Smith
Revivalism & Social Reform by Timothy Smith
The Great Reversal by David Moberg
More information about Numbers USA and nativist is online at

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Reflection: My Struggle with Patriotism

I remember the 1976 Winter Olympics and walking into our TV room where my dad was watching the USA play hockey against the USSR. As an eight year old more interested in cheering for the winners than in Cold War politics, I announced that I was for the Soviet Union. My dad immediately roared at me, incredulously asking how I could be for the Soviet Union against my own country. It was frightening to me to see my dad’s anger over who I rooted for in a hockey game. So, like any eight year old boy who wanted to please my dad, I immediately back tracked and proclaimed my allegiance for my country’s hockey team. But I was left more than a little curious that cheering for another country in a sporting event against the one I happened to live in could cause such a hostile response from my dad.

That was the first of many, I am afraid, run-ins with something called patriotism. I have to admit I simply have never really understood patriotism, a seemingly unquestioned loyalty to one’s country of origin. I have been attracted to loyalty though and have cherished it as an important value in life. I have witnessed this loyalty by international friends in seminary and since who are quite proud of their country – and even more their culture, which are not always the same thing. Seeing their cultural pride, I have wondered why I do not have this same thing. I have felt as if at times I am somewhat cultureless, though I know that is an impossibility. I think I am part Scottish, part Irish, but no one knows for sure and I honestly have never really cared to ask. I grew up in suburbs, as detached and isolated as my family could afford. I have found much to critique and little to cherish in this context.

Growing up suburban, I have always felt a little adrift, somewhat cultureless, with very little loyalty to where I lived. In fact, where I lived implicitly carried little loyalty if loyalty is dependent on shared experiences with bonded relationships. Suburbs were built for the purposes of seclusion and unaccountable autonomy. Since my experience growing up in the Dallas suburb of Plano was one characterized by almost total exclusion and relationships which were mostly simplex (meaning missing multiple roles or opportunities for deeper social knowledge of one another) and which were utilitarian in nature, I have never felt a strong loyalty to place; neither Texas nor the United States. In fact, because I felt mostly ostracized from suburban Dallas society and I responded by marginalizing myself, any demands that others made on me based solely on geographical location never resonated with me. They still don’t.

I moved to Texas as a sixth grader just as the 80s were beginning, found this incredible emphasis on status, on what I wore, what I owned, and who I hung out with. It was what every teen deals with, but in north Dallas, it was peer pressure and materialism on steroids. So, when these same people who so easily acclimated to a system that degraded and marginalized so many people, demanded that I give my allegiance to this alternative reality called Texas, I thought they were nuts. It just did not register at all.

So, I come to days like Memorial Day with little understanding and what appears to most others, a complete lack of respect and patriotism. I have an appreciation for peoples’ passions whatever they are for. And I can certainly understand why others get angry with me when they feel that I am somewhat obtuse to having loyalty to this country, and even overly critical. I do not feel it necessary to offer apologies, but I can understand why some people have been angry with me.

But I also have to say that I remain baffled as to why some feel this intense loyalty to the country that they have continued to die in wars that have been shown to be unnecessary and misleading as to the cause. I respect the loyalties of others, especially following 9/11 when peoples’ patriotism led them to sign up to fight for their country. In fact, I have repeatedly challenged all of the armchair warriors who so strongly supported the mistaken invasions of Afghanistan and especially Iraq to show that support by signing up and going to fight (and no one took up this challenge seriously unfortunately).

However, I honestly cannot understand why people have continued to travel to Iraq in particular when they frame it as “fighting for their country,” when it has been so clearly shown that this war (and both wars in my opinion) had nothing whatsoever to do with national security or “preserving our freedom” as so many people so glibly say. This is where patriotism, difficult enough for me to understand anyways, becomes totally unintelligible to me. This is where patriotism seems more of a death wish than a respected value. This is where the most patriotic thing seems to be to walk away, to entirely refuse to fight at all; to lay down one’s arms and refuse any orders to continue the needless killing and destruction.

So, on this Memorial Day I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for those families whose loved ones have been killed while employed by the military. I will continue to advocate for our allegiances to be first and foremost devoted to God’s Kingdom; a Kingdom characterized by peace, love and justice. But when patriotism makes its demand upon us, when we are called to defend our country against its enemies, especially when those enemies are rightly named for who they really are – poverty, oppression, and injustice – I will join in that call anytime, any day. Sign me up.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction

This past week brought an important development in the quest for peace with the agreement at the Nuclear Security Summit. Led by President Obama, 47 governments agreed to safeguard nuclear material used in bombs, civilian nuclear reactors and power plants. This represents a major step towards the hopeful complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

I could not help but think back on when I was a child and how I was brought up to fear the Soviet Union because of their large stockpile of nuclear weapons and their designs to rule the world. The truth is that as a child I was indeed afraid of the end of the world. I watched the news and hoped for American victory over the Soviets and was scared out of my skin after watching The Day After on TV. I was afraid of the incredible destruction that could happen with the mere push of a button. There was also War Games, one of my favorite movies from the early 80s, that showed the fallibility of even the greatest machines humans could build. But yet, in looking back, while War Games pointed towards a peaceful world maintained by a steady balance of powers, it did not point towards peace through destroying those weapons of war entirely. The best way to win the game, according the movie is to not play the game, but it does not question the very essence of the game itself. But hey, it was the 80s and this was the best we could hope for then.

So, while we celebrate a step towards the better control and management of nuclear weapons, I cannot help but notice President Obama's lack of leadership on an issue concerning weapons that are far more deadly: the transfer of small arms and light weapons. Small arms and light weapons (SALW) range from sub-machine guns or light machine guns to portable antiaircraft or antitank guns. Basically, these are weapons that can be carried and fired by individuals, even at times, by children. In fact, their easy access and easy use make the presence of children in violent conflicts more likely.

SALW are weapons of mass destruction more deadly than nuclear weapons. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of people die each year from SALW and the majority of these are civilians. Moreover, oppressive governments and some rebel groups use SALW as a means to commit human atrocities such as rape, forced displacement and even genocide.

Again, according to Amnesty, "the proliferation of SALW has fueled close to 50 conflicts around the world since 1990. Human rights researchers, for example, have argued that the proliferation of SALW to the Hutu government and Tutsi exiles between 1990 and 1993 expanded the conflict and increased human rights abuses in Rwanda. More recently, a shipment of arms and ammunition to the abusive armed group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), encouraged them to initiate a final attack on Monrovia, Liberia in July 2003. During this attack more than 2,000 people were injured, most of them civilians."

Many times these transfers are legal, but totally irresponsible and entirely preventable. For example, in 2003, although the United States had an arms embargo placed against the Sudanese government, Saudi Arabia, China, and even Switzerland transferred SALW to Sudan, which then used these and other weapons against the people of Darfur. This has happened with U.S. transfers as well, including places such as Afghanistan.

It is clear that the transfer of small arms and light weapons is not on the agenda of the Obama administration. There is fear in Washington DC that focusing on this could somehow bring on the wrath of the most powerful lobby group in Washington DC – the NRA. While there is so much screaming and yelling about powerful outside interests mucking up necessary legislation and general good governance in Washington, I do not hear that same screaming and yelling about groups like the NRA – which have done more to co-opt the U.S. political system than almost any group I know of.

It is sickening that one group can bully so-called congressional leaders to the extent that a Member of Congress in a moderate state or district will not dare to vote for a bill that limits access to weaponry, or places common sense regulatory power over such weapons as assault weapons – even if in placing those limits can bring about the saving of lives and the increase in global security. And when those in leadership positions in the Church write or speak against the immense power of the NRA we get dozens of messages from congregants pledging that they will leave the church before they belong to something that speaks ill of their beloved NRA. The fact that they will choose to keep their membership in the NRA over their membership with their church never fails to draw me back to the prophets who continually accused Israel of misplacing their allegiances.

But our faithfulness to the prince of peace means that we must speak out and urge President Obama to go further than just a focus on securing nuclear weapons. I applaud this important move, but we now have weapons – which the United States has shipped legally – scattered throughout the world killing civilians and continuing to wreak havoc and chaos. We have weapons that have been used as a means of rape and brutality, that have been used by children and have now scarred those children for life. These weapons have prolonged civil wars and have done far more to prevent our world from attaining peace than any other weapon we have built.

We must urge the President to turn his focus to dramatically curbing the transfer of small arms and light weapons to any country involved directly or indirectly with war or violence. We should call him (202-456-1111) and ask him to sign the Arms Trade Treaty and urge Congress to support the treaty.

Peace is too important and the role of the United States in the world too important to allow the bullying tactics of narrow-minded groups like the NRA to steer us from taking necessary and humane steps and preventing the continued use and transfer of weapons of mass destruction.

Please call President Obama today (202-456-1111) and urge him to sign the treaty and do what he can to stop the legal transfer of small arms and light weapons to troubled spots in the world. The number to call is (202-456-1111). For more information go to

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Welcome to Jeremiah Weeping

It was in 1988, when I was a Junior in college, that I first voted and actively participated in a political campaign. While it sounds funny now to say in light of the charisma of President Obama, I found Michael Dukakis to be inspiring and someone I honestly believed in. I was committed. I was (am) an unabashed liberal and I thought Governor Dukakis was morally right in not backing down when he was demonized by George H.W. Bush for being a liberal, or apologizing when Bush and his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, used race to scare people of Dukakis through the Willie Horton ads. I believed that people would surely see through these political tricks, discuss the actual issues before the country and the world, and vote for who I believed was the next great President of the United States, Michael Dukakis.

I also spent time in prayer and was sure that voting for Dukakis was not just a decision made in reason and sound thought, but was something I was spiritually certain of. I was not sure who God wanted for President (I never am), but I was sure who I prayerfully felt would be the best President. Dukasis' concern for the poor and those on the margins seemed to match up with what I saw as a prominent concern of Jesus and a pervasive theme in Scripture. I was certain that my Christian friends would see the same things I saw and many would join me in campaigning for Dukakis for President.

I could not have been more wrong.

In short, the campaign was a brutal one between me and many of my friends. In fact, none of my evangelical friends joined me at all. Moreover, they were incredulous that I could vote for someone like Dukakis. Their feelings were reciprocated. What followed was retrenchment on both sides and for several of my friends, the retrenchment led to a mean-spirited campaign and lasting bitterness. We were college students and we let our feelings override our friendships, but even in my most passionate moments of defending Dukakis, I could not understand the disdain that so many held for Dukakis and the values I held and for which I tried (poorly at times) to articulate.

In the end, when Dukakis lost the election, I remember that being one of the loneliest and saddest days in my life up to that point. I remember walking out of the women's dorm as it was apparent that Bush would win and hearing "friends" calling out of the windows and mocking me for the time and effort I had spent on Dukakis' campaign the last few months. I had given it everything I had and while losing was bitter enough, hearing the mocking calls from my friends that night (and for several more days from some), made me feel I was alone on an island.

I can honestly say it was a scarring moment in my life, but one that served as a wake-up call in many ways.

I learned that night and from that period in my life, that passionate commitment to a cause can bring great vitality to my life, but it - by itself - does not necessarily transform others to share in that same level of passion or commitment. I learned that that same passion, when unrestrained, can be destructive - great passion needs great love. But even more, I learned that just because Scripture talks about God's love of the poor, and there are those who proclaim long and loud their love of Scripture, that does NOT mean that Christians who love Scripture also love the poor. Love of Scripture, in other words, often does not trump love of security, love of comfort, love of self. And I learned that championing the causes of poverty and justice can and does lead to heartache - heartache because of the existence of poverty and injustice, and heartache for the lack of awareness and even more, concern for poverty and injustice.

I learned so much, but it hurt deeply. I remember crying that night and just laying in my bed still for hours. It felt almost incapacitating.

Since then, there have been similar times to this one - far too many unfortunately. Times when I was so filled with a mixture of anger and sadness that was so overwhelming. I wanted to give up, to no longer care about these things because it just hurt so damn much. Ad so, I feel like I resonate with the words of Jeremiah, in 20:8-9:

"Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; The word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day. I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it."

Jeremiah's rebuke of the religious leaders of his day is well known. These were religious leaders who were clearly more interested in maintaining the power of the state than in proclaiming the word of the Lord to his people. Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, is one of the most depressing figures in all of Scripture. It is hard for me to read him sometimes. He constantly wants out. He does not want to see what he sees, think what he thinks, say what he has to say. But he has to - it is in his bones and he cannot help but let it out.

And I debated calling this blog Jeremiah Weeping - just too depressing.

But I look at the world today and I see two endless wars that should have never been started, a societal hegemony of mindlessly supporting war-making industries that cost billions to maintain while screaming insanely about attempting to provide health care for 30 million people, the continuance of the death penalty in spite of its ineffectiveness to deter crime and it's lack of moral support, the preoccupation with national security as opposed to the welfare of immigrants and their families, genocide which has been unchecked, the recruitment of children as soldiers in wars that rage on for decades without barely a hint of acknowledgement, the ballooning of the prison population while "tough on crime" policies continue unabated, and so many more issues that they are hard to keep track of.

And, in an age when information is so easy to obtain, I see a Church more committed to building new facilities and developing new ministries to feed their own flock rater than sacrificially utilizing our resources to gain access to those resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. I see a Church focused almost solely on verbal proclamation rather than living incarnationally among the poor and vulnerable. I see a Church anesthetized by constant messages about Jesus only being our personal Savior and wanting to soothe and love us - wanting to make you a "better you" - rather than focused on bringing all of us into greater intimacy with himself through loving the most vulnerable in society and by changing the world by advocating on their behalf.

And I so think there is much to be sad about. There is much to be angry about. But, more than anything, there is so much to do.

And so I hope this can be a place to challenge values perpetuated by the Church that have become so accepted by Christians, but yet, which are often biblically suspect. I hope this can be a place where we see both the larger picture of structural injustice as well as the more personal picture of how such injustices affect real people. I hope, more than anything, that we can move together - wherever you may be - towards holy action that changes the world and brings glory to God.

I hope we will weep with Jeremiah, but I hope we will also walk with Jesus and bring change and transformation to a hurting world.

I'm ready to go!