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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.