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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