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Friday, December 23, 2011

My Own Charlie Brown Christmas (Max Lucado's Got Nothing On Me!)

In the early 90s I was a youth pastor in a small town in West Texas (give it up Denver City!). Although I visited my family who lived in and around Dallas regularly, I was somewhat detached from them. However, my sister had just given birth to my first nephew, William (though I was told he was not named for me, they just liked the name) and since it was Christmas, and since I worked for the church, I was asked to perform William’s baptism in a private ceremony in her home with just family being invited. I was surprised, but deeply honored as well. I was also scared out of my wits. Standing in front of my family – some of whom were either indifferent or even a little hostile to Christianity and with whom I constantly felt unease with – was more than a little intimidating. Even more, I knew I was supposed to conduct the ceremony as well as share a very brief devotional.

So, in the days leading up to the ceremony, I spent most of my time trying to figure out what I was going to share. I was not getting anywhere until one night just a week away from the ceremony, which was right before Christmas. Although I was single and had been out of college only a couple of years, I had developed a few traditions at Christmas time. Each year I went to local gas station and bought the ugliest, most misshapen Christmas tree I could find. I got it each year for our Seekers program at the church, the fifth and sixth grade group who were preparing to enter into youth group. Setting it up and decorating it was part of the lesson – God can take what is ugly and make it beautiful. It was a Charlie Brown Christmas. But this particular year, I got by far the ugliest tree I could find. Even with the kids’ decorations, it did very little to make it presentable.

So, one of the other traditions I had, was once the Charlie Brown Christmas tree was decorated, I would sit in my house with all of the lights off except for the Christmas tree, listen to Christmas music, drink Egg Nog with my dog nestled in my lap (her name was Ozzie, named after Lee Harvey Oswald after I saw the film JFK and was convinced that Oswald did not act alone), and reflect on the previous year. But this year, even with Ozzie in my lap, the Christmas music playing, and holding a big glass of Egg Nog, I was distracted. The tree was truly ugly to look at and I could not stop thinking about what I was going to share at the ceremony the next week. I dreaded being at the event and wished I had never been asked.

So, as I sat on the couch I glanced over at the TV, no doubt strongly considering turning it on and forgetting my attempt at Christmas reflection. But when I looked at the TV I could see the reflection of the Christmas tree on the TV screen. Seeing the reflection meant that I could not see the limbs that stuck out so badly on one side or the gaps that riddled the body of the tree. All I could see were the lights that lined the tree; that started widely around the base and wound up to the awkward top. In seeing only the outline of the lights without the tree itself made the tree actually look quite beautiful. Looking at the outline of the tree in the reflection on my TV and then back to the tree itself, it was like looking at two different trees. The outline through the reflection on my TV hid all of the deep flaws and defects of the tree and made it look beautiful.

And then it dawned on me, I had my baptism devotional. What the reflection on the TV screen did for my ugly Charlie Brown Christmas tree, Jesus does for us. And what Jesus does for us is the promise of baptism for my nephew William. Though William was a perfect baby (and he really was), we could be assured that, like all of us, he would have flaws and defects over time. Scars from his own doing and from the doing of others (though certainly not from his Uncle!), would blemish the perfection of the little baby we saw and loved.

And so, like all of us, William would need Jesus to cover him. To heal the scars of the sins of others and of his own. And like looking at my ugly Charlie Brown Christmas tree through the reflection on my TV, so we too can rest assured that God looks upon us through covering love of Jesus. We go from ugly, flawed and defected beings, to being perfected by the love and grace of Jesus.

And so I praise God this Christmas for the gift of his son who became the Messiah and who has covered my sin, who has covered your sin. Through his love and grace, and only through his love and grace, we are truly beautiful.

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Too Many Jesuses this Christmas

This week we celebrate the birth of the Christ, who came to us in the form of a defenseless baby. He was born, as we all know the story, in a barn for there was no room for them in the Inn. Jesus began his life homeless and as we see throughout much of the gospels, lived his life as a wandering rabbi. Although we don’t know specifically who showed compassion for the pregnant Mary and Joseph, it was their compassion that allowed them to have shelter for at least that night. Though Jesus came into the world to save it, he was dependent upon the compassion of others before his mission could ever begin.

Of course, the very reason why Mary and Joseph were forced to travel at this precarious time was due to the census mandated by Caesar Augustus. The reason for the census was for Rome to collect the taxes from their subjects. Caesar, of course, had no intention of sharing the revenues from what he collected with those most in need. His governance was solely for his own benefit.

In considering the historical context into which the homeless baby Jesus was born into, it is striking that last week on Capitol Hill some youth testified before Congress about their experiences with being homeless. Last week we found out that 1 in 2 people in the United States are classified as either poor or low-income. We also discovered that homelessness among youth in the United States has gone up 36%. In fact, the face of homelessness has been changing in the last 20+ years as children now represent 40% of the ever-increasing homeless population, which now stands at 3.5 million.

1 in 45 kids experiences homelessness, sometimes staying with friends or relatives, sometimes living in short-term shelters, or whatever form is convenient like someone’s car. It is unstable and creates tremendous amounts of stress on the family unit and on the children in particular. The stories in this news clip give just a taste of what these amazing kids are forced to endure every day.

The thing that strikes me, especially when reflecting on the passage of Jesus’ birth, is that this is an issue that clearly calls for individual compassion as well as corporate justice. This is an issue that can be addressed by people across the theological or political spectrums.

Knowing that 1 in 45 kids has experienced homelessness means that it is very likely that these children live in our neighborhoods, go to schools and church youth groups with our kids, and play on the same sports teams as our kids. With the increasing gentrification of our cities, entire areas of cities deemed as poor have often been broken up into pockets of poverty that have now spilled back out into the suburbs. Depending on the city of course, it is almost certain that many suburban areas are now host to these pockets of poverty and so it is equally certain, I believe, that homelessness is among us (and by “us” I primarily mean those of us living in suburbs surrounding cities). In addition, the gap between the rich and the poor only continues to widen as wealth is concentrated among a few and more and more people bear the burden of an economy that has been recessed for several years now. The result is that no longer is homelessness confined to the picture of an unkempt man with a long-beard standing on a street corner and holding a sign. Although largely invisible, homelessness looks like you and me.

Marti and I see it every day. We currently have a little boy staying with us whose mom doesn't drink or use drugs. She works full-time as a Teacher’s Assistant for minimum wage and then another 12-20 hours per week as a cashier at a grocery store. The father literally lives in a storage shed and is unemployed, unable to pay child support.

The county garnishes $300 each month from her school paycheck because in 2007 she was getting section 8 housing, her social worker quit, her new worker reviewed her chart after having the case for 11 months and discovered the previous worker forgot to make some updates to her case. Although it was the previous social worker’s fault, the mom was blamed for receiving too much in benefits for her housing and was given 30 days to vacate her apartment. At the time, they were just making it as a family and could have maintained that level of living standards. In addition to being kicked out, she was going to have to pay "back pay + interest" on the money she had received though it was clearly the fault of the social workers (the previous social worker who assigned her that much and the current social worker who took 11 months to find the error). At the same time, she was laid off from a full-time job that had provided enough pay for her family to barely live on.

So the system that is supposed to help the vulnerable led to her deeper into homelessness and did not offer her real assistance.

Since then, there have been further bureaucracies to wind through, more incompetence from people supposed to be helping her (though I want to say that most social workers are competent and extremely compassionate and deserve more than what they are paid), some not-so-great decisions on her part, and continued instability, especially for the children. The one thing that has been confirmed for us is that any distinction between “deserving” and “non-deserving” poor is a lie made up to keep us isolated and maintain our level of comfort. The truth is that we are all partly deserving and mostly undeserving.

We hope that stability is on the horizon, but for now, it is been a mix of an extremely long sleep-over for the youngest who is staying with us and an unending nightmare for the family as a whole.

The Church has a unique opportunity to manifest both individual mercy and prophetic justice. We can open our hearts to the homeless families living in our neighborhoods – and possibly attending our churches – and provide temporary shelter in our homes. Our eyes and ears can be more attentive to signs that people are experiencing homelessness.

We can also do justice as well. We can call our Representative and ask them to sponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act which would change the definition of “homeless person” for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to include children as well. Requiring HUD to start counting homeless youth as part of their statistics on homelessness is important since HUD gives these numbers to Congress and this helps to determine how much funding goes to services, including housing, which will help children and families find their way into stable housing.

Although I do not work directly on these issues and others know far more than me, it looks like the government has approved funding for 2012 for programs for homelessness at 170 million. Though homelessness has increased significantly, these funding numbers are the same as last year. In other words, they are not nearly enough. This image of Congress not responding sufficiently is a stark contrast to when the Super Committee failed to come up with a budget and the response by many in Congress who pledged to stop the immediate cuts to defense spending (many of whom receive large sums in election donations from defense contractors).

Like the homeless Mary, Joseph and Jesus dependent on the compassion of others for shelter, so too are the homeless families in our neighborhoods, our schools, our faith communities dependent on you and me for compassion. Like Caesar collecting taxes for his own benefit and ignoring the welfare of the most vulnerable of his subjects, so too is the United States Congress intent on protecting themselves and their friends and ignoring the plight of the most vulnerable.

I hope this Christmas we reflect on God’s salvific gift to us through the Christ child both historically and even now in lives of homeless children all around us. I hope the Church will respond both individually, opening up our homes and churches to find at least temporary shelter for children and families. And I hope we will respond with justice, urging our congressional leaders to pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act now (and you can call right now, 202-224-3121).

There is much we can do, and I know there is much already being done. We celebrate this week the birth of the Christ, the Messiah of the world. We have only one Messiah, but we have far too many homeless children, far too many Jesuses in our midst this Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Excuse Me Bono if I Don't Applaud

December 1 was World AIDS day and to mark this important event and the ongoing struggle to eradicate this disease there was a large gathering of AIDS activists at the White House. The gathering brought together people from both sides of the political aisle and sounded a hopeful note for continued progress on this issue. An interesting quote describing who was there came from Bono of U2. What was interesting in his quote was the fact that he chose not to mention the presence of faith groups, but in particular, he spoke of evangelicals, as the wife of Purpose Driven Life author, Rick Warren, was in attendance.

I must admit that I was a little frustrated that the work of mainline denominations was once again shorted as it usually is by the media and so-called activist leaders. My colleague, Linda Bales Todd, and my boss, Jim Winkler, were both in attendance and Linda especially has done incredible work towards eliminating this disease. For the past several years Linda has organized a conference for United Methodists, Lighten the Burden, which has educated and mobilized United Methodists to actively educate their congregations and communities and to advocate for greater funding for research and protection in the United States and throughout the world.

Yet, for Bono, it was evangelicals who deserved special attention. Why is that? By calling special attention to the presence of evangelicals in his list he made a powerful statement: when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable in society evangelicals usually do not care. So, when they do show up to the table, it deserves media fanfare. In other words, by the media making such a big deal of their engagement on this or any issue means that evangelicals caring for the most vulnerable is the exception, not the rule.

The power of that statement becomes incredibly poignant when we look at Scriptures and see even a cursory reading of the Bible shows Jesus to be focused on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable he meets. The fact that evangelicals are not counted as usual suspects when it comes to caring for people who are marginalized and vulnerable simply means evangelicals are by and large not faithful to the numerous mandates in Scripture calling God’s followers to love and defend the poor and the needy.

I remember when Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and the writer of the hugely popular book, Purpose Driven Life, first began to get involved in issues of poverty. Warren first arrived at Saddleback in 1979 and his initial engagement in social issues, from what I can remember, occurred in the late 90s. So, it took roughly 20 years between the exploding growth of Saddleback and Warren’s engagement in advocating for the most vulnerable. I know the important thing is that he is active now on issues like eradicating AIDS. Yes, I am thankful that he and some other evangelical leaders have shown up. Yet, since megachurches like Saddleback pride themselves on Scriptural fidelity I think it is fair to ask what exactly were they reading during those 20 years before their engagement in public witness? How did they miss the thousands of verses about poverty? How did they miss the pervasive themes in Scripture of providing hospitality to the sojourner and defending the cause of the most vulnerable?

Think of it this way. Let’s say I have been married for 20 years and during that time I cheat repeatedly on my wife. Then, suddenly, for whatever reason, I read of the importance of faithfulness to one’s spouse in Scripture and so I stop cheating. Should I expect to be invited to join a Presidential task force on marriage? Should I expect everyone to throw me a parade and for Bono and other media superstars to sing my praises because I now am taking my marriage vows seriously? No! Most folks would probably still think of me as slime and think of nominating my wife for sainthood, and rightly so!

Yet, we constantly make a big deal when evangelicals come out in support of issues like AIDS. Sorry if I don’t join in the parade for Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and all the other evangelicals who suddenly have come to the biblical understanding that injustice is something that needs to be addressed and advocated against. Excuse me for not getting too excited that they jump to the front of the media line simply because they have finally decided to obey the Scriptures they have been preaching from for 20 years. Sorry if among all the applause and slaps on the back you hear me asking, “Where the hell have you been?” When you are 5 hours late to a party, pardon me for not standing up and clapping when you enter the room. Some of us are too busy working because we have been here the whole time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Reflection on My Family and My Country

I remember when I was in college I always looked forward to coming home for Thanksgiving. I loved the thought of the warmth of being home for the holidays, the tremendous meal my mom would always cook for us, the football games we would watch, laying around the house, and occasionally, playing football with my brothers in the yard. The image, as I said, was something I held onto each fall.

However, the image was not reality. My mom was remarried when I was in college and her husband had kids from a previous marriage. As with all blended families, life was complicated. Me and my siblings could not stand his kids (and I am sure the feeling was reciprocated). So, when my mom proposed inviting them to the Thanksgiving meal, my siblings and I threw a fit.

What’s more, I wasn’t close with my siblings so life at home was usually tense from the first few hours after I arrived. My mom did always cook an amazing Thanksgiving spread (and still does), but the warmth and closeness I imagined at Thanksgiving was most often just that – something I imagined and not a reality. So, as a family, we didn’t want to invite anyone to join us, but we weren’t enjoying one another either.

I write this not to trash past family Thanksgivings, but because I think on it as a window to the current U.S. context, particularly in terms of how we view immigrants in this country. Like my dysfunctional family, we are a dysfunctional country. We can’t seem to stand each other, but we seem even more to not be able to welcome anyone from the outside either. In fact, what seems to unite us more than anything is our collective hatred towards or refusal to welcome outsiders.

I look at the current immigration debate and see my family debates around who to invite to Thanksgiving play out all over again. I didn’t have too much against my mom’s husband’s kids. I really just didn’t want to make the effort to be nice. I wanted to be isolated in what was comfortable to me. I wanted to be surrounded by the familiar, even if the familiar was not something I particularly enjoyed. I liked being isolated, cozy, and essentially lazy.

This is our current immigration policy. Like my family, we as a country are dysfunctional (Democrats and Republicans can’t stand each other even while both are responsible for breaking up immigrant families through raids to keep the numbers of immigrants in this country down) and isolated (we talk about reform as if it is just a matter of building bigger walls and sealing the border). We can’t seem to stand one another, but we definitely do not want to allow anyone new in.

I cannot help but think what would have happened if we had been more welcoming to my mom’s husband’s kids. Would it have changed us? Would we have perhaps started to get along better as a family if we had gotten out of our dysfunction and started to focus on others? I am not sure we would have all become Mother Theresa’s, but I do believe the anger and unrealized expectations we burdened one another with would have been lifted and replaced with at least a superficial concern for the welfare of others. And in a self-indulgent society, superficial concern for others can be a fairly large if beginning step.

And so, my prayer this Thanksgiving for our country and for all dysfunctional families suffering under the weight of unrealistic expectations and walls of resistance to those on the outside, is that the walls will come down (literally), that we will be challenged to love and care for others. And, as we open ourselves up to loving others, we will then discover our own liberation in the relationships among those newly arriving to the United States. We are dysfunctional and our dysfunction is destroying families. But hope comes when we love and serve others.

And I hope you and your family have a happy and open Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sounding Off on Christian Football Players

So, let me start by saying I am a HUGE Browns fan, and I love Jesus. I have no problem with most public displays of prayer or worship by Christians, or anyone of any faith for that matter. Worship is meant to be practiced in the mundane, ordinary, daily routines of life.

But I also have to say I am tiring of seeing football players kneeling for prayer after a score. I know, I know, they are probably thanking God for what they have achieved. But does that mean the cornerback who just got beat by the receiver who scored the touchdown should lay face down and repent and ask God for forgiveness? And what’s wrong with thanking God without the big show? Just run back to the sideline and thank God as you run (and chest-bump your teammates of course). I am sure God would be just as pleased with the 6 points without the self-aggrandizing show.

What is even worse though is the postgame interviews with players (especially quarterbacks) who have to start the interview with, “I first have to thank my personal Lord and savior Jesus Christ...” Maybe I am being a bit harsh, but do I really need to know that? I know I will hear the exception as soon as I state this, but how many people have converted to Christianity because of an after-game public testimonial by an athlete? I can’t help but think that all of the public testimonials and prayers after scoring are more for the benefit of the players than to God.

What exactly do players need to publicly thank God for after a game? Please don’t tell me that God had anything whatsoever to do with a quarterback completing 23 of 30 passes for 305 yards. If God is so focused on football, then why didn’t he go 30 for 30? Something tells me that God has better things to do than increase his quarterback rating. Colt McCoy, quarterback of my beloved Browns, is an avowed Christian but I would gladly trade his public testimonials for a better receiving core and a ground game! The Browns are 30th in the league in rushing! If God is so interested in football then surely God could heal Peyton Hillis’ hamstring. Lord knows we could use him.

The absolute worst however, has to be the postgame interviews where players or coaches talk about how their team “struggled through trials and adversities” to pull out a victory. Sorry guys, you aren’t experiencing any trials or tribulations. You are playing a very hard-fought, challenging game – emphasis on GAME. You want trials and tribulations? Then try living for a month on the wages your team pays the folks who sell hot dogs and beer, or who clean up the multi-million dollar stadiums (or billion dollar stadium, thank you Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones). Then come and talk about trials and tribulations.

The truth is that like too many Christians, Christian football players and coaches have overly-individualistic understandings and expressions of their faith. I remember when Tony Dungy and the Colts won the Super Bowl (and I was rooting for them), and afterward, when asked how it felt to be the first African American coach to win the Super Bowl, Dungy responded by saying that he took more pride in the being the first openly Christian coach to win the Super Bowl. Seriously Mr. Dungy? What was Tom Landry? A Buddhist?

So, I would be happy if the football players would get rid of the post-scoring prayers and the public testimonials after a big win (and why don’t they thank their “personal Lord and savior, Jesus Christ” after a loss since isn’t it in losing that endurance, character, faith and hope are built?).

Or better yet, when you win and the reporter interviews you, try starting off the interview with, “I first want to begin by saying we need to end mass incarceration in the United States and try building more schools than prisons,” or “I want to begin by asking everyone who is watching to call the President and urge him to stop deporting immigrants and breaking up families,” or “I want to start off by asking how the United States can assume global leadership when we actually execute our own citizens.” Yeah, try something like that for awhile. Then I will know your faith is real. Then I will know you care about the things God really does care about.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Kick-Butt Quotes

I love to read and every once in a while I read something that knocks me back on my heels, challenges me at my core, and gets me thinking for weeks, maybe months. I found it in Chris Hedges' Death of the Liberal Class. I will write more thoroughly when I can get my mind better wrapped around it. But here are a few of my favorite quotes to whet your appetite - why don't you pick your favorite!:

Law has become, perhaps, the last idealistic refuge of the liberal class. Liberals, while despairing of legislative bodies and the lack of genuine debate in political campaigns, retain a naive faith in law as an effective vehicle for reform. (p. 8)

In the name of tolerance - a word the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., never used - the liberal church and the synagogue refuse to denounce Christian heretics who acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of consumerism, nationalism, greed, imperial hubris, violence and bigotry. These institutions accept globalization and unfettered capitalism as natural law. (p. 10)

The greatest sin of the liberal class...has been its enthusiastic collusion with the power elite to silence, ban, and blacklist rebels, iconoclasts, communists, socialists, anarchists, radical union leaders, and pacifists who once could have given...the words and ideas with which to battle back against the abuses of the corporate elite. (p. 15)

Hope will come with the return of the language of class conflict and rebellion...we have to grasp, as Marx and Adam Smith did, that corporations are not concerned with the common good. They exploit, pollute, impoverish, repress, kill, and lie to make money. They throw poor families out of homes, let the uninsured die, wage useless wars to make profits, poison and pollute the ecosystem, slash social assistance programs, gut public education, plunder the US Treasury and crush all popular movements that seek justice for working men and women. They worship money and power. And, as Marx knew, unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force that consumes greater and greater numbers of human lives until it finally consumes itself. (p. 17)

Permanent war, which reduces all to speaking in the simplified language of nationalism, is a disease. (p. 20)

The best opportunities for radical social change exist among the poor, the homeless, the working class, and the destitute. As the numbers of the disenfranchised dramatically increase, our only hope is to connect ourselves with the daily injustices visited upon the weak and the outcast. (p. 156)

I love this last one because it is the call of Jesus for all believers who truly believe that the Kingdom of God belong to the poor.

There are many more! But I will cap it for now. I will return to this important book and I encourage you to read it for yourself. And don't forget, post your favorite quote below!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Time to Weep No More: Time to Divest from Private Prisons

The prophet Jeremiah is often the most intriguing of prophets for me, yet the hardest to read. He is always so depressed! To Jeremiah, his whole society is ruined, including the religious leaders of his day, sick with greed, ignoring the plight of the poor and the true worship of Yahweh. At one point, he says: "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:13-14).


Jeremiah was called the weeping prophet for good reason. There was much to weep over. And there still is.


Sadly, The United Methodist Church owns stock in two private prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.


But the time for weeping is over. We must act and do so NOW. I urge you to first sign the petition urging immediate divestment and second, to share the petition with your church, friends, family and other networks via email, Facebook and Twitter.


The explosion of the prison system in the United States has created a booming prison industry. Michelle Alexander, in her excellent book, The New Jim Crow, reports a whole range of profit-making industries that accompany the mass incarceration of mainly people of color. This includes the private-prison corporations CCA and GEO Group.


Some of the other profit-making businesses Alexander cites include:



  • Phone companies that "gouge families of prisoners by charging them exorbitant rates" so they can talk with their families. This is particularly harmful, because maintaining contact with their families can greatly lessen recidivism.

  • Gun manufacturers due to the weaponry required to warehouse 2.3 million people in prisons.

  • Contractors hired to build prisons that warehouse mostly people of color, and are often built far away from the prisoners' homes. Some politicians get prisons built in rural communities to create jobs and improve their reelection chances.

  • Health care providers providing "abysmal" care to prisoners.

  • U.S. military use of "prison labor to provide military gear to soldiers in Iraq."

The explosion in the prison population in the United States is clearly maintained due to a lot of financial interests. As United Methodists, I am sure you share my outrage that we make money from this blatant profiteering from the incarceration of mass numbers of people, especially people of color.

I have hope that as we raise our voices, by signing the petition and sharing it , that our denominational leaders will hear us and immediately divest. Our earnings from this injustice should be given to organizations working with folks coming out of prison.

But it is up to you and me. Let's weep no more. Let's act now!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Remarks at a Press Call on the UMC Divesting from Private Prisons

You can sign the petition and urge the United Methodist Church to immediately divest from private prisons here.


The United Methodist Church has long advocated for a profoundly different justice system than the one we currently have; one characterized by restorative justice aimed at bringing healing for victims and restoration for the accused. Our Book of Discipline states that, we advocate for “the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.” So, some of the many disturbing and destructive features of our current system include:



  • mass incarceration of people of color and those who are poor,


  • the housing together of adults and juveniles in prisons,


  • a one-size-fits-all approach to justice through an increase in mandatory minimums and the removal of judiciary discretion,


  • and the general belief that justice is achieved through the same failed get-tough approach, locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible.

As United Methodists, we strongly oppose all of these approaches to criminal justice and advocate strongly against them here in Washington DC and locally in our statehouses across the country. Contradicting our call for restorative justice, just months ago we learned that the United Methodist Church owns stock in two private prison corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, and both of these corporations are engaging in and advocating for the policies I listed above; the very same policies that so many United Methodists who know and care for those directly impacted by the criminal justice system are working against.

But it isn’t just the criminal justice system that private prison corporations are dramatically impacting. Detaining immigrants has become big business, and as seen in the intimate role that former private prison lobbyists played in the creation and passage of the anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, SB 1070 as advisors to Governor Brewer, they are determined to ensure that business continues booming.

At the same time, the United Methodist Church believes that, “Any legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system must affirm the worth, dignity and inherent value and rights of migrants, and must also include elimination of privately-operated detention centers.”

As we can see, we have a problem in the United Methodist Church. We are saying one thing and doing something entirely different. We are condemning the use of private prisons, but making money off private prisons at the same time – quite a bit of money. We currently hold about $735,944.67 in CCA and $215,506.36 in GEO Group, for a total of $951,451.03. That’s a lot of potluck dinners. More importantly, as of May 16, we have gained about $241,376.33.

Now, there are a couple of ways we could go about resolving this. One is we could do nothing, be quiet, make some money and try and make ourselves feel better about redemptively using the money for greater ends. This one will only leave us complicit in perpetuating our current dysfunctional and abusive system. Another is that we can go to a backroom somewhere, reshuffle the deck of mutual funds, pretend it didn’t happen, and quietly divest and go on.

But we are hoping that the larger church, particularly church leadership, will see this as an opportunity and not an embarrassment. This is an opportunity for us to show that corporate confession and repentance – or, naming the injustice, ceasing to engage, and turning from it and walking in a new direction – are real and powerful and can help to create models for society to follow in addressing the destruction of private prisons.

We want our church to not just divest, but to go further and to take the money earned from our investment in private prisons and give those funds to ministries who work with people who are coming out of prison as an important way to lessen the number of people re-incarcerated.

Therefore, we have started a petition to divest from CCA and GEO Group and to redemptively use the money earned for those directly impacted by the criminal justice system.

It reads:
We, as United Methodists, believe that profiting from private prisons and owning stock in private prison corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America is incompatible with biblical teaching. Therefore, we call for The United Methodist Church to:
1. Immediately divest from all investment in private prison corporations, including Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, and
2. Take all money earned to date of divestment from ownership of the stock in Geo Group and CCA, and give it to organizations dedicated to helping those coming out of prison to reenter society.

The United Methodist Church states that the Church itself “is transformed…by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change” and so that is what we seek with our petition and our call for immediate divestment. The Church must be transformed from profiting from the corporations that benefit from mass incarceration, particularly the incarceration of people of color. Our transformation will come as we immediately divest and then redemptively use our earnings from such unjust investments. As followers of Jesus, we want to be part of the transformation of the world. But, as we see in discovering that the Church is profiting from the incarceration of human beings, we are just as in need of transformation as the world we seek to transform. Thus, if we do want to transform the world, let that transformation first be found in us through divesting immediately of these stocks.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Unholy Profits: Why the UMC Must Divest from Private Prisons

"I will not revoke the punishment because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals - they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth." (Amos 2:6-7)
In his book, "The Expanding Prison," David Cayley writes, "The Bible...is a virtual catalog of crimes" and thus, the story of God's mission to his world is to heal those victimized by crime, and to restore those responsible into right relationship with those they have hurt. Sadly, the United Methodist Church currently is not joining in God's mission of restoration, but is, instead, profiting from the mass incarceration of people, particularly people of color.

The United Methodist Church owns stock in two private prisons companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Private prisons is one of the fastest growing industries in the country today. They represent fast rising stocks so the investment is a smart one if your sole basis for making investment decisions is economic benefit. As the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reports, these two companies combined for a 2.9 billion dollar profit in 2010. But they were not the only ones to profit - their stockholders did as well. And among those who own stock in CCA and GEO Group is the United Methodist Church, which has earned roughly $250,000. 250 grand will certainly buy a boat load of stained glass windows and youth trips to Six Flags.

Now, CCA and GEO Group are assuredly not any different from other companies making such huge profits. They are determined to make even more money from incarcerating people through passing legislation that continues to incarcerate mass numbers of people in the U.S. prison system. A prison system that has now ballooned to over 2.3 million people. This means paid lobbyists. JPI reports that both CCA and GEO Group and other private prison companies have lobbied for and even in some cases, actually helped draft such legislation called "three strikes and you're out" and "truth in sentencing." Both of these policies have been part of the "tough on crime" approach to criminal justice that has become so politically popular. Such policies, along with the War on Drugs, are the reasons why the prison population has exploded.

I will discuss in future posts other reasons for divestment, but the reason why their lobbying work of state and federal legislatures is so important is that once you "win" a contract to house inmates, you then must advocate for policies which will help you fill up that prison. This means mass incarceration. The effect is that though the United States represents only 5% of the world's population, we house 25% of the world's incarcerated population.

The intimacy between lobbying and horrendous legislation is seen in the state of Arizona where Governor Brewer's closest aids were former lobbyists with CCA as she signed SB 1070 into law, which has had devastating impacts on immigrant families and their communities. So, though CCA has spent $900,000 each year on federal legislation since 2003, their return (combining with GEO Group in 2011 for a 2.9 billion profit) is quite worth it.

Another example is in Florida, where Governor Scott has pushed hard for privatization in many areas of the administration of social services. In just the first three months of 2011, GEO Group spent between $120,000 and $200,000 on lobbying efforts. The prize for their "hard work?" The Florida state legislature voted to privatize each one of it's prisons in South Florida - about one-fifth the total size of the state's prison population.

The last example comes from National Public Radio who tells the story of the largest juvenile detention facility in the country built in Walnut Grove, Mississippi by GEO Group. It was so big that they had a hard time filling it up with "clients." So, because they were losing money, their lobbyists advocated the Mississippi state legislature for the top age of youths being housed in this detention facility to be raised from 18 to 22. Housing children aged 13 (the age of my oldest son, Eli) with men 22 years old has had devastating impacts on the children, though it has been quite profitable for GEO Group, raking in more than 3.4 million dollars since the age was raised.

But raising the age has resulted in physical and sexual assaults against the younger and more vulnerable inmates. Further, in the lust for greater profits, even while the population at Walnut Grove increased, the number of guards were decreased to a ratio of 1 for every 60 inmates. If the youth weren't damaged before they arrived at Walnut Grove, they certainly will be once they leave. Thankfully, Walnut Grove is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, but it has not yet been shut down. And GEO Group profits from this - as does the United Methodist Church.

Growing profits in the private prison industry have made the market the determiner for effective criminal justice policy. Healing for victims of crime, and appropriate accountability and restoration for the accused are no longer parts of any equation in creating criminal justice policy. For corporations determined to increase their profits, concepts like healing, accountability, and restoration are fantasies. They are irrelevant church words, since the church is not having any transformative effect on this business. What is being transformed however, is the church through it's unholy investment in such an industry. For when the market drives policies; when more people in prison means more money; when people are so disposable and warehoused, it is the market that determines our morality and not the other way around. Having the Church profit from such sin is antithetical to the very essence of the counter-cultural gospel which Jesus incarnated in his life and ministry. And it is what he calls us to incarnate in our lives as well.

What we as United Methodists have to ask ourselves, is do we want to profit from such an industry? Do we want to make money from the abuse of children? Do we want to make money from incarcerating people for incredibly long periods of time and under often-times horrendous conditions? As followers of Jesus we should be advocating for a criminal justice system that brings healing to the victims of crime, and appropriate accountability and restoration to those accused. It is clear that this is not consistent with the aims or practices of such corporations as CCA and GEO Group. Therefore, we have no reason to delay one single minute longer. We should divest now and take that $250,000 we have made and give it to ministries aiding those who are leaving prison.

If you agree and are as outraged as I am about this United Methodist investment, then I encourage you to sign the petition that calls for immediate divestment. I also encourage you to share this with as many people - as many United Methodists especially - as you can. For the sake of righteousness and justice, we much immediately divest now or risk losing who we are and who and what we are called to be and do. Make your voice heard!!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lessons for Liberals from Braveheart? Yes, Braveheart

When the film Braveheart first came out in the mid-90s, I thought it was an excellent film. Of course, this was before Mel Gibson went on his drunken, woman-beating, anti-Semitic, racist tirades. This was also before the film became the favorite of hard right evangelical writers, like John Eldredge. In his book, Wild at Heart, Eldredge adopted the film as the paradigm for manhood in the midst of what he thought was an emasculating society because the film’s protagonist, William Wallace, fought violently to avenge his murdered wife and was uncompromising with noble elites.


When the film came out, Marti and I were in seminary and happened to attend several churches where, coincidentally, the pastor made reference to the film; one of whom actually bragged that he was given a sword like William Wallace’s by his wife. Although Eldredge and the pastors who modeled their manhood after the film’s depiction of Wallace, neither Eldredge, nor any of the pastors literally followed Wallace into battle and actually served in the armed forces. Their manhood, I presume, is meant to be figurative.


But in regards to the film, I remained a silent fan of it, but I hated to mention it to anyone I knew because I quite frankly did not want to be thought of in the same light as Eldredge, or the other war-loving-sword-yielding-wild-at-heart-manly-man pastors.


But I saw this film again recently and I have decided that liberals can enjoy this film as well. Here are just a couple of themes from Braveheart I think a liberal could really dig:



  • William Wallace’s uncompromising attitude towards the nobles of his day in achieving freedom for Scotland made me think of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. With President Obama and Democratic leadership seemingly ready to compromise even before the legislative battles begin (just as the nobles in the film do), we need more William Wallace’s reminding us that compromise that allows the smallest and richest minority to hold on to their wealth at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is obscene and should not be tolerated. As Wallace refused to negotiate in order to gain lands and titles – power – so too I pray the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the thousands of other protesters will, like Wallace, hold on to their vision of fairness and justice for the 99% until justice and freedom is achieved. We know from the past that allowing the nobles (Democratic leadership) to make endless deals will maintain the current economic and political order. Those marginalized will remain marginalized. So, I am rooting for the real Bravehearts – the protesters.



  • The Edward Longshanks character is someone who reflects the worst in our current society. Longshanks’ son is gay and because of his own deep insecurity and homophobia he, in one scene, kills his son’s lover. Whether it is accepting his son’s sexual orientation or allowing the Scottish movement for independence, Longshanks will go to any lengths to stomp out any movement for freedom – any movement which does not submit to his oppressive rule. Longshanks’ Kingship is an abuse of power and he even uses torture to enforce capitulation by his subjects. But obedience cannot be forced. Ironically, it is Longshanks’ brutality which shows the inevitable triumph of freedom movements and the failure of British authority. The use of brutality such as torture is a sure sign that that society is doomed to failure for they know their rule is not welcomed as one which can uphold fairness and reason. Rigid and brutal enforcement of law or doctrine actually shows the weakness of that law or doctrine.

Though thoroughly historically inaccurate, in the end, Braveheart is a well-made film and one from which liberals – heck, all of us – can glean lessons for justice and morality in our world. I don’t want Wallace’s sword and I certainly do not want to follow him into battle – we have had enough of that. But I do pray we have more Bravehearts who will risk what they have for those who have nothing – that we will all challenge the current social, political and economic order until justice and freedom for all people are made real. I’ll take that instead of a sword any day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I Don't Cry for You Anita

Just a few days ago Anita Perry, wife of Texas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry, was speaking at a luncheon in South Carolina and began to cry as she told her audience it had been a tough month for her husband's campaign. She complained that her husband had been brutalized by the insults of his political rivals. Perry, who began his campaign just over a month ago, came in as the front runner and has seen his poll numbers sink as his performance in the debates has been sufficiently underwhelming.

But I have been struck by the talk now about whether she has become a sympathetic figure. I certainly hope not.

Let's consider her husband's governorship. During his time as Governor there have been 234 people murdered by the state of Texas and, according to Amnesty International, this accounts for 40% of all US executions carried out since Perry assumed the Governorship in February of 2000.

Further, 4 of those executed were juveniles when they committed the offense (and could have been more, though this was thankfully put to an end by the Supreme Court in 2005). And 9 of the 234 were suffering from mental illness.

And we can never forget that at least one - Cameron Todd Willingham - was most likely innocent. But Perry intentionally sidetracked the investigation into Willingham's innocence, ensuring his execution would go on as scheduled.

Does Anita Perry want us to cry for her and her husband who has been "brutalized" because he is a bad debater? Sorry Anita, I have no tears for you. My tears are washed up from crying for the Cameron Todd Willingham's, and the other possibly innocent people your husband has helped to kill.

Is Anita Perry a sympathetic figure? I am afraid not. My sympathy is all used up for the 234 families whose loved ones were put to death, and for the 234 families of those who were killed and who were told by Governor Perry and the state of Texas that the only healing for them is through revenge and retribution.

In Luke 19:41, as Jesus triumphally enters Jerusalem, he stops as he sees Jerusalem fir the first time and he weeps. He weeps because of his impending crucifixion, and he weeps as the prophets wept, because they did not recognize when God was speaking to them.

I am sure Jesus is weeping now because his followers still do not recognize the message of the prophets; do not recognize the message God is bringing. I am sure Jesus weeps when he sees the obsession of the state of Texas, with their Christian Governor, with the death penalty. I am sure that Jesus weeps when our leaders weep for themselves and refuse to see their own hand in the injustices committed against others.

Jesus wept then and he weeps now at so much injustice in our world. But I seriously doubt he weeps for you Anita or your husband. Maybe Rick just needs to learn to debate better. Maybe you need to realize what being "brutalized" really means such as those murdered by the state of Texas, and not just politically insulted by talking heads. And maybe he should take his faith more serious and find better ways to hold those who commit crimes accountable rather than killing them.

I do not cry for you Anita. There are too many others to cry for.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reclaiming the 80s and Rebelling Against the Reagan Revolution

You know how in Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, the narrative will skip over several generations to get to the next important event or person in the story? For instance, before Judges 13 when Samson came on the scene (hey, Samson’s hair would have fit perfectly in the 80s), the last part of chapter 12 shows numerous leaders where virtually no information beyond their names is given. We only know in 13:1 that the people of Israel “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and so very little is known of that time.

As someone who essentially grew up in the 80s – graduating high school in 1985 and college in 1990 – I have always thought of my generation as one of the ones you have to skip over to get to the next event or person, the next really good part of the story.

So, in reading The Other Eighties by Bradford Martin, I have to say I feel a little renewed about my lost generation. Martin focuses on some of the movements in the 80s – those not upholding the dubious “Reagan Revolution” that sadly filled the decade with a focus on self-indulgence. In his study – which I cannot recommend strongly enough, especially to those like me who were alive, but never quite at home in the 80s – Martin’s main point is that the voices of dissent were quite active and even influential on such issues as AIDS funding, opposing the nuclear arms race, the feminist movement, and others.

As are most things in life, my memories of the 80s are mixed with positive and negative feelings. Because it was the decade of my “coming of age” so to speak, I remember fondly the films and songs, the hair styles and dress styles that were so “unique” to it. I still love the music of REO Speedwagon and I continue to be impacted by the powerful films such as The Mission, Platoon, The Verdict, and Glory.

But I have always felt a certain amount of bitterness and regret as well. It was in college especially when I dedicated my life to Jesus and ultimately felt called to a life of ministry. This was partly a response to the amazing friends I had in college whose love of Jesus was the most authentic expression of Christianity I had seen to that point in life. But my dedication to Jesus was also a result of my political engagement that really came to full expression in college as well.

Due to a favorite teacher in high school who was deeply conservative, I flirted with political conservatism in high school. But when I went to college and renewed my relationship with Jesus, and as I read and studied Scripture, I came to the conclusion rather quickly that there was no way I could be faithful as a follower of Jesus and hold to the values of the Republican Party at that time (much less, now – but that’s another post). Now, I don’t have to tell you that this conclusion was not one that a whole heck of a lot of people were discovering in mid-19080s Abilene, TX.

(On a side note, I did try and be a Democrat for awhile, but I gave that up by the 1990s, and felt fully confirmed in this decision, as I saw Bill Clinton as more of a Republican than a liberal. The man took time away from campaigning to rush back to Arkansas to put a mentally ill man to death for God’s sake!)

Although it took another 20 years for me to fully understand and cling to my calling, I knew I was called to be an activist. The hard part – again, being at college in the mid-80s and in Abilene, Texas – was living that calling out. The godsend for me was the establishment of a chapter of Amnesty International on my campus. If I hadn’t been involved in Amnesty I likely would never have found the path my life is on now. I loved my friends who so passionately followed Jesus, but none of them were activist in their political leanings, and if they leaned politically at all, it certainly wasn’t in my direction.

And that is precisely what I never could understand. I still cannot understand the political fence-sitting when there is so much injustice, oppression, and poverty in the world and when so much of that injustice, oppression, and poverty is human-made. I would be the first to admit though, that my political engagement was (and is) a mixture of an authentic desire to see the Kingdom manifest in this broken world, as well as a love of raising hell and stirring the pot.

For instance, I remember collecting signatures to eliminate the McMurry cheerleading squad and to use the money to create more minority scholarships for students. It seemed so logical. No one I knew liked the cheerleaders – the mascot even called me a dick one time (even before I started the petition) – and we all knew that there was a very small contingent of minority students on campus so this felt like we could solve two problems at once. Of course, when I presented it to the student government for discussion I was practically thrown out of the room. You would have thought I was proposing to run over their grandmothers there was so much outrage.

But besides getting rid of the cheerleaders, I was shocked to find so many of my McMurry classmates so content with doing nothing. And this was the primary impact that the “Reagan Revolution” had on my generation. The “Revolution” (and God how I hate to use that word with that man’s name) was more about putting a generation to sleep than activating it – getting us to live comfortably with the discomfort and utter pain our spending and obsession with national security caused millions of others throughout the world through the economic and foreign policies that favored the affluent few over the poor and oppressed masses.

It was in Amnesty that my voice for justice first was given shape and grounding – not the church. I worked with incredibly dedicated people – some of whose voices and words remain with me to this day. We fought against apartheid in South Africa, against the death penalty in Texas, and on behalf of prisoners of conscience throughout the world. The thing that surprised me so much was that the main core group of Amnesty activists during my time were people who openly opposed Christianity and professed to be either agnostic or atheistic in their beliefs.

But yet, as much as I felt welcomed at the many prayer meetings I went to (and led), the Bible studies I attended, the worship services I was present at, and the accountability groups I belonged to, I felt welcomed and valued at our Amnesty meetings. Even more than that, I felt like I had a purpose for being there – a purpose greater than myself. A purpose that could have impact on the wider world. Being part of Amnesty was exhilarating and I never could understand why my Christian friends never caught that same exhilaration. I still don’t.

Up until I read Bradford Martin’s book, I had always looked upon my college time with Amnesty as valuable mostly for the experience it has given me later in life. But I realized as I read Martin’s book, that we actually made a difference during the 80s as well, remarkably so. Yes, the Reagan Revolution was not as complete as many in the media believe it to be so – praises be to God!

When I look back I see that apartheid did end in the early 90s. The death penalty, though still very much alive and kicking in Texas (thanks to supposed Christian Governors “W” and The Rick), has been used much less often and there is a growing movement of abolitionists in the state. Our little group of Amnesty activists in Abilene, TX in the 80s had a small – probably very small – part to play in that. But we had a part to play! To be able to stand before Jesus and know that I can answer the question as to where I was when a White South African government was toppled by the strength of love and justice gives me such indescribable joy.

Yes, the place for justice-oriented ministries still gets kicked to the curbside by many if not most Christians today (and by entire denominations including my own all too often), but younger Christians are growing less comfortable with the bifurcation between discipleship and justice that was so rampant when I was in college.

I am thankful I went to McMurry, I am more thankful that McMurry had a campus chapter of Amnesty International, but I am most thankful that God did not skip over my generation to get to the next. His Kingdom was alive and well then and is now. We made a difference then and we can now. So, let’s make this generation count; God knows we need it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How I Destroyed the United Methodist Church

This post was written just a couple of months before the United Methodist Church General Conference in the year, 2020.

As I prepare for the final General Conference of the United Methodist Church, I cannot but reflect on why the United Methodist Church has died. What happened? So far, from the fringe United Methodist groups on the right, I have only heard that I am to blame, or more specifically, my agency, the General Board of Church and Society. One thing I know for sure, you don’t get more peaceful or wise as you near death, you get mean and angry. The voices of blame have only increased in their vitriol and rage.

But as usual, the anger and accusations of blame do not bring about illumination. They just are more examples of bad behavior in a badly behaving society. The frustrations at the impending end of the United Methodist Church have not been eased – the announcement of the dissolution has only exacerbated tensions. All sides are claiming that the other is responsible for the closure, and everyone has a reason for it:
• Too few churches have been planted,
• We have lost sight of orthodoxy,
• We have continued to discriminate against LGBT members by denying them ordination and the right to marry,
• We have done too much mercy and not enough evangelism,
• We have done too much mercy and not enough justice,
• We have done too much justice and not enough discipleship,

The list just goes on and on! The unfortunate part of any analysis as to why the United Methodist Church is ending is that at some point all of the statements have some kernel of truth. We really have not done enough justice, we really have not done enough mercy, we really have not done enough evangelism! But is that why the UMC is now officially dead?

As I reflect I feel overwhelmed by all of the voices of analysis. Instead, I prefer to think about the stories as I think they shed more light than the endless number of opinions.

I think about my friend in Texas who was a campus minister and who has a passion for men coming out of prison. His love for these men is deep and transformative and he longed to start a church with them – to walk with them as they deal with the lack of resources to reenter society, to help strengthen their marriages and friendships for when they return so that they could have a strong support network, and to love and care for the children of those incarcerated so that generational incarceration will end. But sadly, his conference did not share his passion or his vision. They did not see how his vision for a church among the recently released would become economically self-sustainable so there was no support for his vision. My friend now pastors a thriving church among the marginalized and especially among those impacted by the criminal justice system. It just isn’t a United Methodist Church.

I think about my friend in the Midwest who may be the most gifted person for ministry that I have met. She literally oozes love and compassion, patience and friendship, and those to whom she pastors know they are receiving God’s grace and love through her words and actions. I have experienced this firsthand. But sadly, she now pastors outside of the United Methodist Church because solely she is a lesbian and the UMC has deemed gays and lesbians unfit to be communicators of God’s love and grace.

I think about the many United Methodists who wanted to build a movement to fix the broken immigration system. These are people, largely outside of official denominational structures, but who are (were) United Methodists and wanted to manifest their love for immigrants into action. Church leadership was resistant to thinking outside the box and insisted that existing committees and boards within conferences and local churches were meant to be locus of all organizing activity.

The problem is that it is specifically those who are incarnated among immigrant communities who are most passionate about this issue and all too often the actions of boards and committees consisted of email lists and educational events. Email lists and educational events do not give way to building movements however. They give way to more email lists and more educational events. The suffering of immigrants continue, the boards and committees, filled with people detached from that suffering, have done next to nothing, and thus, yet another social issue has arisen with the United Methodist Church saying a lot about it, but doing little to nothing to solve it. And the immigrants and those incarnated among them have gone on to other churches and groups whose actions have matched their rhetoric.

I think about these people – and so many more – whose dreams were so clearly born of the work of manifesting God’s Kingdom on earth. But yet, those dreams came true outside of the United Methodist Church. At the same time, church leaders deemed it necessary to repeatedly restructure the church – each time of restructuring guaranteed to be the key to growth and vitality for the church.

The seven Pathways, the Four Foci, the Call to Action – which was far more about following corporate models for organization than any biblically-based missional engagement – litter past General Conferences with well-intended but terrible mistakes. The result of all of this restructuring? A lot of spinning wheels but little if any ground gained. There is greater confusion in the church and more entrenched battles for institutional control, while the dreams for greater mission continue to walk out of our doors. Rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic will keep you busy, but it won’t keep the boat afloat.

As I write this and as I prepare for the last General Conference, I write as a confession more than an analysis or commentary. I confess I became distracted, I lost my focus. I became too engrossed in the grand debate between left and right and I missed the way forward; the way of deeper missional engagement. My friends with Kingdom dreams were not just left by the rest of the church, my friends were left by me.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot my calling to come alongside the Body of Christ, to empower and to exhort, to equip and unleash, into God’s incarnational mission alongside those oppressed and marginalized. And in getting swept away by the endless debate between left and right I failed to see that those I debated hardly if ever engaged in the ministries of evangelism or biblical fidelity they so eagerly criticized for others not having. We were two entrenched sides howling at the moon.

Sadly, while I threw stones I watched so many others in the church walk away. It is a sad and lonely feeling to look back at your past and see what you could have done and didn’t do. Being filled with regrets is something I have heard others say, but it doesn’t quite capture the biting emptiness I feel. It is more of a feeling of unfaithfulness. I have been unfaithful to the church – to the Body of Christ.

If we had been faithful, we would have thrown off structural adjustments as the assured way to growth and vitality and would have focused every last bit of our resources on missional engagement: incarnationally standing by the most vulnerable in society and working for justice and shared liberation. If we had been faithful as a Church, then those of us in leadership positions would have led by venturing out into mission instead of spending our time and resources bureaucratically protecting our institutional turf. For those outside of church bureaucracies and who cast themselves as holding those bureaucracies in check, faithfulness would have meant actually practicing what they preached as well as loving and exhorting rather than demonizing and dividing.

But more than anything, if I had been faithful, I would not have allowed myself to be distracted or enticed by the endless debate that ultimately obstructed my calling to build missional movements among those crushed by the broken systems in our society. If I had been faithful, I would have spent my time building leaders who build leaders who build leaders who build leaders so that our movements are long-term and sustainable. If I had been faithful. Kind of pathetic, huh?

I used to think faithfulness to the United Methodist Church was essentially refusing to leave; standing side by side with United Methodist churches through thick and thin. But in looking at my friends who have left the UMC to pursue Kingdom dreams, I realize what faithfulness really is. Faithfulness means I should have walked away with them to help them realize their Kingdom dreams. I spent far too much of my time distracted by the endless debate with the fringe right groups, silent about the institutional protection of those in power, and paralyzed by the purging of true leaders with Kingdom dreams. I spent far too little of my time building long-term, sustainable movements among United Methodists who are incarnated among people directly impacted by broken systems.

Through distractions, silence and paralysis, I spent far too little of my time building long-term, sustainable movements among United Methodists who are incarnated among people directly impacted by broken systems. Thus, I helped destroy the United Methodist Church.

My only solace is that God graciously reminds me that his Kingdom does not begin and end with the United Methodist Church. My focus on building movements therefore is not an idea of the past but a commitment to the future. Let the Kingdom of God come on earth as it is in Heaven with or without the United Methodist Church. Just let us be faithful.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Will Real Men Stand Up (Or Better Yet, Kneel Down)?

The first time I heard about Promise Keepers, a movement for Christian men led by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, was when I was a Youth Pastor in a small town in West Texas in the early 90s. I was fully absorbed in the evangelical culture at the time and was intrigued by the Promise Keepers, at least until I attended an event in Lubbock. I was, frankly, more than a little put off by the assumptions made.

As I sat there listening to speaker after speaker talk about what "us guys" want in a relationship with God, with other guys, and especially, with women, I kept wondering who he was talking about. It certainly wasn't me. There was laughter from the crowd though, at all of the snide remarks and very clean innuendos and so I could see it resonated with at least a majority of those present.

But it didn't resonate with me, and I wondered if there might have been a few others like me. I didn't stay the entire time - I was ready to go after the first 10 minutes to be honest.

One memory I have from this event was that the Promise Keepers believed that church had become too woman-oriented and the main reason why men did not go to church is because church is too feminine. As a Youth Pastor in a small church, I could easily attest to the fact that men scarcely attended church services or events. If men did show up, all but a small minority usually were there to watch their kids perform in some church play, or they did manual labor of some kind. Things such as mission trips or worship services or Bible studies were usually reserved for women and the very few men "called" to focus on those things.

As the 90s continued, I kept hearing a growing critique from conservative friends and the groups they were part of, of the Church and of US culture in general, as being too feminine. Men were being emasculated in the media, on TV and in the movies, and especially in church, so the critique went. I remember it became overt for me when a close friend of mine recommended that a small group I am apart of that meets annually for accountability, read a book called, "Wild at Heart" by John Eldredge.

To put it mildly, "Wild at Heart" and the "Wild" franchise Eldredge has started (with other books following this hugely successful one, of course with "Wild" in each title), is focused on feeding a testosterone-heavy spirituality where real men meet a real manly Jesus who teaches them to win their ladies through reclaiming their God-given manhood, and reclaim their rightful leadership in the home and in US society.

It has been some time since I read it (and no, I did not keep a copy), but I do recall that at first, I just thought it was an incredibly stupid book, written by someone with disturbingly deep feelings of insecurity about his own manhood. The writer repeatedly stressed the differences between men and women and how men naturally are more drawn to competition, war (he repeatedly talked admiringly of guns and the valor of battle, though I do not believe he has ever personally been involved in any real battles), and romancing one's "woman" through "winning" her and showing her what a true man is.

With so much talk about competition and war, I kept asking myself as I painfully made my way through his book , "isn't this why we as men need individually to be redeemed? Corporately, isn't such a current emphasis on competition and war why society is so distant from the Kingdom that God calls into reality through the person of Jesus?"

When the group finally got together to discuss the book, my thoughts of the book as simply stupid gave way to seeing the actual danger inherent in this kind of chest-pumping, iron-fisted, male-dominance-once-lost-now-found individualistic spirituality and social ethic. For this was not just about personal discovery by men (something I strongly wish would happen far more often without all of the guns and patriarchy).

There was and is a distinct and very powerful social and ethical component to what the Promise Keepers and people like Eldredge espouse. We (men) are supposed to reclaim our God-given manhood because we have allowed society and those in the church (liberals mainly) to steal that masculinity away. Men have steadily, especially since the 60s, been emasculated.

The proof of male emasculation in a corporate sense is the presence of chaos in the world and a lack of order. More precisely, men have not assumed their place of leadership and in failing to do so, divorces are up, youth rebellion against their parents goes largely unabated, men have given in to temptations, and on and on it goes. Society is falling apart and US culture is going to hell, mainly because men have not taken leadership of their homes and in the public square.

Before I get to marital relationships between men and women, I think it is fair to ask Eldredge, if men have not assumed their rightful place in leadership, then who the heck has been running the country and all of the corporations all these years? I see mostly if not entirely, men. Men (who, like Eldredge never experienced the actual reality of battle) sent us into baseless invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Men ran Enron, Goldman Sachs, and the other corporations that have wrecked the economy and forced thousands of people out of work (which largely came as a result of men [Reagan and Clinton] deregulating these corporations and industries) so that the other men could run them into the ground.

So, we need more men taking their rightful place in charge of corporations and government? Where has Eldredge been?

The lack of appropriate leadership among men is certainly something I can agree on, but arguing that what we need is a greater emphasis on competition and war seems laughable if it wasn't so dangerous. I believe we must challenge this kind of thinking, this kind of theology, and these kinds of social and relational arrangements.

Now, in regards to marriage, I must say from the outset that I do not find overwhelming biblical support for one side over the other when it comes to whether marriage, or male/female relationships should be ordered by patriarchy or in a more egalitarian fashion. But the fact that one side cannot entirely dismiss the other biblically actually makes my point here.

The order for relationships as taught in Scripture within the family, I believe, is contextual. In other words, there is no ONE absolute way for men to act or be in relationship with other men, women, or with God. We must therefore be pluralistic when it comes to teaching what the family order should look like.

And those of us parents who have sons must be careful to teach our sons to be counter-cultural. When the culture (and sadly, the church) teaches our sons to gain their value through defeating others in competition, we must teach our sons to opt for cooperation and shared participation. When the culture and church teaches our sons to assume their position in society and the family as automatically being the head, we must teach our sons that any leadership role comes first and only through humbly serving others.

Wars will not be averted through proving our manhood is greater than the manhood of others we oppose. Order in society or in our homes will not be achieved through forced submission of women under masculine leadership. That is not order - that is repression! As God’s Kingdom breaks into human history the result is always freedom – liberation – from oppression and the opportunity for the fullness of who God has created us to be to be fully expressed.

I want my sons to be men who are secure in who they are and someone others can look up to. But I can’t abide that that must happen through defeating and trampling on others to reach that position. I want my sons to serve, to show compassion and empathy, to come alongside the hurting and vulnerable, and simply, I want my sons to love. More than anything, I want my sons to be like the poor and humble Jesus who has shown all of us what a real man is. I want that for me as well.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Saving Bullies

A while back I reached out to the creators of a website called, "Save the UMC." The website was started following the passage of the comprehensive health care bill when Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked the United Methodist Church for it's support. If you recall, tea party activists were in a full-scale uproar over the federal government providing health care for people. The focus of their rage was largely on the expense, though the health care proposal could have been paid for multiple times by the costs of the two invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, I don't remember any tea party outrage at all when those countries were invaded.

I told the Save the UMC creators who I am - that I am a two-time alum of Asbury Seminary and so I have a background well rooted in evangelicalism. I shared that I strongly believe that when focused on deepening and expanding God's Kingdom reality in the world, liberals and conservatives and everyone in between should find much room to work alongside each other. I work with some conservative groups in Washington DC on a few issues so I know it can be done. My outreach to them was sincere and I told them I would be willing to travel anywhere at anytime to sit down and talk about what saving the UMC meant and how we could partner, more importantly, to serve the ends of God's Kingdom. I genuinely was excited about the prospects.

Their response? No, not interested.

Even now, I am still flabbergasted by their refusal to meet with me. How could a group proclaim so loudly about the need to save the UMC, but when faced with the opportunity to actually build bridges that might result in that very thing, then say no? Far more important than saving an institution, how could a group profess to be focused on the higher calling of seeking first the Kingdom of God refuse the opportunity of at least sharing with and listening to another who professes to be after that very same end?

It reminds me in many ways of the duplicity of the so-called tea party movement that unfortunately has a stranglehold on politics today. While we all remember the screaming tea partyers angrily confronting members of Congress last summer about health care, I do not seem to recall the same screaming matches between these same tea partyers and their members of Congress when George Bush and the Republican Congress led us into trillion dollar invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. So much for outrage at government waste as the money for government contractors has provided for the greatest feeding trough and corporate welfare for corporations like Halliburton Boeing in recent memory. I wish some of the tea partyers would scream at members of Congress about that, but no, not a peep.

Further, if tea partyers truly are concerned about big government intrusion into private lives, then why hasn't the so-called tea party movement been protesting the anti-immigrant legislation ravaging states like Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia where people are being stopped at random and forced to prove their citizenship; where faith communities will be prevented from many of their ministries among immigrant communities because they won't be allowed to transport immigrants in their own vehicles? Isn't that government intrusion at its worst? No outrage from the tea partyers though, not a peep.

The hypocrisy for both the so-called tea party movement and Save the UMC is astonishing. Could it be that both tea partyers and Save the UMC are not interested in the principles they so loudly profess, but rather, are simply people who are angry and confused at the cultural changes swirling about them and have decided that all that is wrong in the world and in their lives can be laid at the feet of the government or at general boards of the United Methodist Church respectively? In other words, are these "movements" (and I seriously question the validity of using that term here at all for these groups) really more interested in assigning blame than casting forth a vision to live into? We know who these groups hate, but what exactly are they for?

The truth is that neither the so-called tea party movement nor Save the UMC is a new phenomenon. I suggest that they have been around for a long, long time. In his book, "Wars, Guns, and Votes," Paul Collier, a scholar attempting to explain why poor countries also are more violent, asserts that in "ethnically diverse societies...voting for the extremist parties offers the strongest identity fix." (2009, p. 57) In a different context that the author intended, I believe his argument works well here. In an increasingly urbanized and globalized world, tribalism often offers the greatest comfort to those who feel their identity is not just being challenged, but swallowed up and lost.

I believe this can easily be applied to these groups today. Unfortunately, while this kind of retrenchment into tribalism offers comfort, it also creates greater exclusivity, isolation, and detachment. Difference - for those who are retrenched - is not something to value, but something to avoid. Difference or diversity is to be mocked and is even viewed as hostile because it undermines who you are and what you believe. You need your tribe and all other views or identity groups must be pushed out if not even possibly eliminated in extreme cases.

So, how should those who truly are focused on working for and participating in the expansion of God's Kingdom in this world (and not just professing it) respond to groups like the Save the UMC? When we look to the gospels we see that groups like Save the UMC are merely modern iterations of the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus' time. In the final analysis, the creators of Save the UMC are actually bullies intent on kicking out who are perceived as different from their rigidly defined doctrines. But we must remember that bullies are sometimes the most vulnerable and in the greatest need of redemption, are they not?

I think a clear case can be made that compares the Pharisees with groups like Save the UMC. Interestingly, both the Pharisees and groups like Save the UMC are highly doctrinaire to the point that those who fail to hold to their unbending understandings of sacred texts are viewed as being outside God's grace. But, as Jesus pointed out in the gospels, and as seen above, neither the Pharisees nor Save the UMC actually are interested in living out those principles. The principles are used for means of distinguishing who they are from who they are not, not for invitations. If it was in any way invitational, then I might be meeting with the creators of Save the UMC right now.

Further, both the Pharisees and groups like Save the UMC live in contexts that are increasingly globalized and multicultural. While multiculturalism came to distinguish the New Testament Church (though much of Acts can be read through the lens of the disciples consistently resisting, but then giving in to the Holy Spirit's constant pull into deeper missional and cross-cultural relationships), the Pharisees felt deeply threatened especially by the encroachment by the Romans. Similarly, Save the UMC feels especially threatened by theological pluralism.

All this to say is that while Jesus, throughout the gospels, offers invitations for the Pharisees and religious leaders to repent and join his mission, he ultimately calls them out and exposes them for who they are: hypocrites (Matthew 23). Even then, a few religious leaders came to follow Jesus as Christ. Jesus lived an invitational life, but also was not afraid to be brutally - and I mean brutally honest.

So, I have no choice. As flabbergasted as I was and still am at their refusal to meet, I still offer the folks at Save the UMC the invitation to sit and talk and find ways to work together for the expansion of God's Kingdom. I believe good could come out of that kind of discussion. But I also recognize that groups like the Save the UMC and the so-called tea party movement are various iterations of the same historic resistance to cultural change. And unfortunately that resistance can be hostile and exclusivist as it is even now. They are both simply bullies who demand what they want and threaten to kick out anyone who disagrees even slightly. So, yes, we continue to missionally offer invitations to Save the UMC, but we also must recognize who they really are: bullies who desperately need redemption and liberation that can only be found in Christ.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Call to Action NOT Call to Mission

I remember being graded for my first sermon in my preaching class at Asbury Seminary. It was unnerving to say the least, but yet I felt good about what I wanted to say. I felt so good about what I wanted to say, that I had my sermon planned out even before I found a Scriptural passage to preach from. One of the primary lessons our preaching professor taught us was that the power of our sermons were found in the lessons gleaned exegetically from the biblical text itself, even more so than our delivery or tricks of the trade we might pick up. Still, I felt so confident in the points in my sermon that I started with them and then found a text to support them. I thought I had covered up for my exegetical transgressions, but somehow my professor immediately identified it and I was nailed. I quickly learned that planning out a sermon before exegeting the biblical text from which the sermon is to be based reduces the transformative power of a sermon to mere human persuasion that can be easily discarded.

Sadly, the lesson I learned in seminary long ago is one yet to be learned by those who wrote the Call to Action. While containing some good ideas (and others decidedly not good at all such as charging fees for ministries like justice), the Call to Action contains almost no theological or biblical basis. It is a poor sermon with almost no chance at transformation.

And this is why I am somewhat stunned by the silence of the leaders in our church for their total lack of critique of the Call to Action's complete failure to have any accompanying biblical or theological basis for its recommendations. For followers of Jesus who came into the world to transform the world, any call to action must be inherently missional. Even naming something a “Call to Action” innately means that that action has meaning and purpose. For Christians, that purpose must be first and foremost shaped by Scripture for it to be missional in nature. How can something be missional if there is no adjoining biblical or theological basis? The Call to Action does have purpose, but there seems to be no apparent attempt for that purpose to be biblically shaped or formed.

Even more, as an Asbury Seminary alum twice over, I am alarmed that so many individuals and groups in the church who constantly complain about a perceived neglect of the authority of Scripture in United Methodist churches and among church leadership, have offered no critique to a call to action that neglects a responsible biblical exegesis as its foundation. Why is that? Could it be that these individuals and organizations have a greater dislike of boards and agencies that the Call to Action seems to be focused on minimizing and want to see their dissolution, more than they care about actual biblical fidelity in the Church?

I have heard from several people that the one thing they agree with from the Call to Action is the call for reducing the size of boards and agencies. I have even heard from prominent people in the church who question whether agencies such as the one I work at should exist at all if we are not first and foremost engaged in the work of the Kingdom of God. My response to whether agencies and boards in the United Methodist Church should exist unless they are essentially missional? I totally and wholeheartedly agree. When an institution exists to protect its own existence, then that institution has ceased to be missional and deserves to be downsized and probably even eliminated. We exist not to protect ourselves. We exist by God’s grace to join in God’s mission to transform the world.

The Call to Action has resonated among so many, despite its complete lack of biblical or theological basis because, many people reason, at least it is doing something. But doing anything is not better than doing nothing. Doing the right thing should be what we hold ourselves and our leaders to, but in the blind haste by some to do anything we are in danger of recklessness principally because this call to action has not been shaped by Scripture. Moreover, we are in danger of action without missional purpose. And wouldn’t engagement in action without missional purpose bring us right back to where we are right now? Again, doing anything is not better than doing nothing. We must be missional and for that to occur, we must take seriously the task of shaping any kind of call to action by the narratives of Scripture.

Biblical missiology does not just happen, but the Call to Action and those who actively and silently endorse it seem to believe it does. I would hope that those individuals and organizations who call the church back to biblical fidelity would follow through on their call to the Church to return to adherence to Scripture as the basis for all of our action. The Bible is replete with stories and teachings that speak to where we are as a Church right now. Yet, we are acting as if the Bible is irrelevant to the challenges the United Methodist Church faces.

I once again restate my full agreement with those who believe that any group, agency, board, or even local church for that matter that is not entirely focused on God’s mission to transform the world should be either downsized or eliminated entirely. If we actually allow Scripture to have real authority in our lives and in the life of the United Methodist Church, then even a cursory reading of Scripture would easily teach us that working for justice is right at the heart of Christian faithfulness.

If General Conference takes seriously the pervasive biblical call for the church to engage in justice on behalf of the vulnerable, then the work of those who mobilize United Methodists on issues of justice will not only be preserved, but will be dramatically expanded. And if we eliminate all that does not lead us into transformative mission, then the Call to Action might well be the first thing to go. We need sermons with more than popular suggestions. We need sermons that transform us and send us out into the world to witness to God’s love, justice, grace and mercy. And those sermons always begin with the biblical text. The Call to Action was a good first try, but it fails to lead us into transforming the world. I suggest we toss it out and begin first with God’s Scripture instead. From there, we can better hear and follow God’s missional call to transform the world.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here for Just and Humane Immigration Reform

Before we look to how we must respond to the current situation facing our immigrant sisters and brothers, let us look briefly at where we are in the struggle to pass just and humane immigration reform. Looking at the role of the faith community, and specifically the United Methodist Church, there has been increasing strength and movement to support immigrants and their families, and to advocate for justice on their behalf. The creation of the Rapid Response Team, under the direction of Bishop CarcaƱo and the Interagency Task Force on Immigration, started in July of 2009 with two annual conferences. Annual conferences join as they create task forces that are charged with mobilizing their conference to advocate for just and humane immigration reform.

The most effective method of organizing has been to bring together all churches and ministries within an annual conference that have incarnational relationships among immigrant communities. Often times, these incarnational relationships are achieved through churches serving immigrant communities, but the difference has been these relationships are mutual and reciprocal in nature. From this position of incarnation, United Methodists advocate for:

* A pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants;
* The reunification of families separated by migration and detention; and
* The protection of rights of all workers.

In the year and a half the Rapid Response Team has been coordinating the work of United Methodists incarnated among immigrant communities, there have been close to three hundred events in over 40 states to show lawmakers and we now have 30 participating conferences. The strength and movement of United Methodists continues to grow and we will continue to struggle against retributive and harsh legislation until the rights of immigrants are respected and protected.

Unfortunately, the movement of United Methodists in mission has not been matched by positive movement by the federal government. The Administration and Congress is largely beset with poor leadership and a lack of commitment to respecting and protecting the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters. They failed to pass what has been called “comprehensive immigration reform” and then failed again in trying get the DREAM Act passed, which would have benefitted children who came to the U.S. early on in their lives. These failures have been bipartisan in nature – neither Democrats nor Republicans have appropriately led on this issue.

Moreover, the Obama Administration has been one of the harshest administrations on immigrant rights in recent memory. In less than two years, President Obama deported more immigrants than President Bush did in 8 years.

In addition, programs like Secure Communities and what is called 287g (because this is the section of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act from which it originates), continue to grow exponentially. In both of these programs, the Department of Homeland Security recruit local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. These programs have resulted in hundreds of thousands of detentions and deportations. These programs also dramatically lessen the trust among immigrant communities in local law enforcement and there is little to no oversight once local law enforcement is trained. Sadly, these programs are being expanded even though President Obama still maintains the (meaningless) rhetoric of supporting immigration reform.

What we are up against is formidable. The question now is, what is it we must do? I believe we must do two things.

I. We must deepen our love and commitment to the purpose of defending the basic human rights of immigrants and their families. We must obliterate the notion that we can do this through the passage of one piece of legislation. The world has changed – is changing – and there is not one bill that can fix the U.S. immigration system once and for all so we can just walk away. Comprehensive immigration reform has made us lazy in many respects and we can’t afford to be so. Comprehensive immigration reform will not fix what is challenging immigrant communities. In its current constructs, it does not go far enough. Yes, undocumented people need a pathway to legal status, and yes, immigrant families definitely need to be reunited through eliminating backlogs. Those must be high up on our list – they must be our priorities.
But if we are serious in our defense of the basic human rights of immigrants we must also:
1. Redefine this issue as a human rights issue first and foremost and not a border or national security issue. Since 1996 we have spent $139 billion on border security and it has largely been a grab bag for corporate welfare. Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, details just a little bit of one of the fastest growing industries in the US: the private prison industry. It has been pointed out that several advisors to Governor Brewer were very recently lobbyists for the private prison industry and have close ties to that industry.

As the prophets did with those who made profits at the expense of the vulnerable, we should name names. Here is who is benefitting at the expense of our immigrant brothers and sisters:

* SBInet was designed to be a “virtual fence” along the border by utilizing infrared sensors, motion detectors, etc. and was launched in 2005 with a completion date of 2009, but currently, only a 28-mile long prototype has been completed near Tucson, AZ, which itself has gotten very mixed reviews. The lead contractor on SBInet – which has had enormous cost overruns – is Boeing, Co., which has thus far earned $615 million from the project. In 2009, this project needed to be corrected and so $100 million of stimulus funds were used. Guess who was awarded this contract? Yes, Boeing again.

* In 2006, the Halliburton subsidiary company Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) was awarded a $385 million contingency contract by the Department of Homeland Security to build “temporary immigration detention centers” mainly in the Southwestern United States.

* In 2009, defense giant Northrop-Grumman was awarded a $33.7 million contract to design and deploy full surveillance systems at 40 official entry points on the Southwest border, and will include “not only surveillance, but video analytics, IT communications and data archiving capabilities.”

* In 2009, Lockheed-Martin was awarded a contract worth $821 million for maintenance, repair and overhaul of the CBP’s P-3 Orion fleet, a plane that was originally developed and deployed in the early 1960’s as an anti-submarine aircraft but which has evolved into a maritime surveillance aircraft.

* In 2009, ICE awarded a contract to the Winchester Ammunition Company to supply a maximum of 200 million 40 caliber rounds over five years, the dollar amount of this contract was undisclosed.

All of these groups have benefitted through the continued mistaken belief that the focus of immigration reform should be border security.

Though the highest expert on border security in this country, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, has testified that the border is as secure as it has ever been, we must realize this will never satisfy border security zealots in the Congress. For some, there will never be enough focus on border security: there will never be enough military, there will never be enough drones or sensors or personnel or guns, etc. And, as we see above, we cannot forget that there are immense interests, powers that want this kind of messaging to remain hegemonic. No one challenges the basic premise of secure borders even when it is shown that without a measured and appropriate change in our immigration policy that will allow undocumented people to attain legal status and families to be reunited, this effort will only result in more deaths of immigrants in the desert. We must ask our elected leaders what they mean when they say we must secure our borders first – no one knows what that means and they should.

2. Secondly, in defending the rights of immigrants, we must urge the President to no longer expand and in fact, scale down 287g and Secure Communities. They have become means of terror in immigrant communities and public safety and trust in governmental institutions is at an all-time low and continues to sink.

3. We must press the US government for better trade policies so that the economies in sending countries can be strengthened and there is less need for immigration, for families to be separated in the first place.

4. We must insist on foreign policies which do not hold US interests so high that we make unstable the economies of other nations. We need greater transparency of what in the past has been held as national security interests and we must realize that a stronger Latin America or Africa does not have to mean a weaker United States. In fact, if a strong US implies a weak world, that is a definition of strength that the Church cannot condone or submit to.

All of this points to a 10, 15, 20 year commitment to this issue, but it is more than that. This is a commitment to people most directly affected by this issue: immigrants and their families. Thus, the only force that can sustain this length of commitment, with as many challenges to true protection of human rights that this entails, is incarnational presence among immigrants and their families. Their hopes, their fears, their concerns, their joys, their passions must become our own. It is only from the position of incarnation that our commitment can last and be strengthened and it is only from a position of incarnation can we truly be persuasive; not just for the passage of legislation – which we certainly need and must have – but in order to change a culture and society that is in danger to losing its soul to its own pursuit of security. If maintaining security has come to mean detachment and rampant individualism, then authentic community must means a community based on people from all different ethnic, racial, socio-economic backgrounds, coming together, led by the Holy Spirit, modeling the life of Jesus and loving one another to the point where when one member suffers, we all suffer.

And today we have members suffering, but too many of us are numb with the anesthetic of comfort and routine. Incarnation obliterates both. Incarnation is the way of Jesus and it is not something we can easily pick up and put down. Once we choose to live incarnationally, we have no taste for anything else – we are ruined for church and life as usual. Incarnation among immigrant communities is our calling and is the only thing that will result in a society more welcoming and just for immigrants and their families.

II. The second task we have before us is from the position of incarnation, we must utilize our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. This is the essence of justice and advocacy. This is hard for middle-class white people and perhaps for church people as a whole. Loving people, caring for their needs, even sacrificially at times, is something church folks know how to do. Advocating for others is a foreign concept and often thought, best left for the experts. Incarnation without advocacy though is sentimentality at best, or perhaps not incarnation at all. If someone we share life with is suffering and we have opportunities to help stop that suffering and we refuse to take advantage of them to do so, then are we really living incarnated?
But even more than that, there seems to be somewhat of a disdain for those who engage in advocacy efforts precisely because advocates create, or perhaps uncover, conflict.

“One cannot be neutral about the question of power in human society. It is what is behind oppression; it is what has to be used to overcome oppression. Christians cannot do their theological work away from, apart from, the struggle for power” (Wogaman 2000:84). Advocacy represents one way of both understanding and addressing implicit conflict in the political realm.

Conflict avoidance is a middle-class value, and one that is all too pervasive in our churches. “It is an occupational characteristic of white-collar people, whose lives are spent in situations where promotions and even holding a job depend upon ‘getting along’ with others. The sanctification of ‘getting along’ is . . . particularly pronounced in the white collar world” (Winter 1961:59). The failure of Christians to recognize and engage in the work of advocacy as a way to avoid conflicts often results in continued oppression. John Howard Yoder writes that “to process conflict is not merely a palliative strategy for tolerable survival or psychic hygiene, but a mode of truth-finding and community-building” (1992:13). Therefore, conflict not only can heal the broken past, but also can build new worlds for the future that are characterized by justice and equality.

For far too long we have been the pleasant faith communities, committed to immigrants, sure, but all too willing to accept the current political status quo. We have too easily accepted a society where immigrant families are split up at the whim of government agents. Immigrants are daily dehumanized by media – even the so-called liberal media – and by elected leaders. We have too easily accepted a church where loyalties to the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom in which God identifies personally with the most vulnerable in society – are not only equaled, but in many cases surpassed by loyalties to the United States. We have too often opted for maintaining our position in the church hierarchy rather than meet these misplaced loyalties head-on. We allow loyalties to the US and this bizarre understanding of security to supersede our commitment to immigrants and their basic human rights so that we do not rock the boat. But let me warn you, we have idolatry in the church.

And it is so strange that we should have such idolatry in the church, since clinging to orthodox doctrine has become so vitally important to so many. I have to confess, I am probably orthodox in my Christian beliefs, though I don’t know for sure because there are so many answers to the question of what is Christian orthodoxy. But I believe the words, the stories, the transformative power of Scripture. I believe it must be the norm for us. But what I see in Scripture so clearly is that classical doctrine without a relentless pursuit of missiological public engagement from the position of incarnation among society’s most scorned and vulnerable is simply pharisaical. It is a banging gong or clanging cymbal. I am tired of the endless number of groups – groups like Good News or the Confessing Movement t name just a couple, calling the church to orthodox beliefs, but then largely ignoring the absolutely necessary accompanying missiological and incarnational engagement. I have heard their calls for a return to orthodox belief all my life, and it has all too often been absent the concern for justice for immigrants and their families. Until justice – one of the most classic of our Christian beliefs, accompanies that call for orthodoxy, then their sounds are merely banging gongs and clanging cymbals. And please stop, it is hurting my ears.

And so today, when I ask where we are, when I look at all that we have done and where we are politically, there is only one place I can be: I am angry. I am mad as hell. I am angry:

* Because too many people, especially Congress and the Administration take the church for granted and ignore the cries of our immigrant brothers and sisters. Families are broken apart daily, children are left wondering why the government hates them so much, workers who have sweated to build this country are thrown away like a worn out shirt. Where is the justice in this?

* I am angry because the church has allowed our voice to be silenced too often. We all too often have looked for balance instead of righteousness and justice. We have tried too hard to be careful not to offend, instead of confronting directly those who carelessly mimic the racism and hate and then bring that into the church.

* I am angry because I watched DREAM Act students for weeks on end lobby the Congress in December – people like Senator Hagan in NC and McCain in AZ and Collins and Snowe in Maine – only to see their hard work, their dreams crushed by a soulless Senate.

* I am angry because we have done almost everything we should have done these last couple of years and still here we are; no solutions in sight, and the repression continues.

And so, I believe we must be angry. We cannot allow our anger to be out of control or reckless. We also cannot keep waiting for happy endings, ignoring the realities around us and the voices of prophets that we so often skip over.
Practically, we must:

1. Continue to build, we must build teams in our conferences among United Methodists, with other faith partners, with business, with unusual allies – all the while holding true to defend the human rights of immigrants and their families. Too often we organize around our own comfort zones. We must reach out and leave our comfort zones, yet while refusing to back down from what we know and believe.

2. We must be more intentional about reaching out to press. Our message is not getting out. This is still a border security issue. We must ensure every time we talk to the press we say this is first and foremost a human rights issue. Immigration is about immigrants and their families and the United Methodist Church is committed to fight for the human rights of immigrants until we have a system in place that uphold those rights and recognizes their basic integrity as children of God.

3. We must target our allies, those who vote with us, and make them champions – congratulate them on voting with us, but also push them to look for ways to make immigration a priority issue. We saw too many Democrats speak in favor of DREAM without knowing anything about the bill.

4. We must call out and shame those who refuse to defend the rights of immigrants and their families. We must write op-ed’s denouncing their cowardly and mistaken statements and votes. We must speak straightforwardly with their staffs – respectfully, always keeping open the invitation for redemption, but also directly pointing out where they are wrong. And we should start with those wh dashed the hopes of DREAM Act students: Senator Hagan (D-NC), Senator Snowe (R-ME), Senator Collins (R-ME) and Senator McCain (R-AZ) to name a few.

5. We must go deeper in our relationships with immigrants and their families. We must resist the temptations of colonialism and paternalism and ensure our relationships are mutual and reciprocal in nature. This is their movement.

6. We must stay in communication with one another, strengthen one another for the long haul and not give up. We must plan and work together. We must pray together, and we must encourage, encourage, encourage one another. We must get angry, not mourn, and organize, organize, organize. We must never, never give up.