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Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Do I Tell My Son about Trayvon Martin?

When I first heard about the murder of Trayvon Martin and the seeming cover-up by the Sanford, Florida police of the alleged killer, I got angry. Lots of people got angry. It actually did not connect for me though until I saw and heard the grief expressed by his parents and by other parents in the African-American community. I heard numerous stories of African-American parents who have been telling their sons for years to take extra precaution when they are walking alone – to not put their hands in their pockets so no one thinks they have a gun, to answer all questions with extra respect, to never run away from someone with a badge, to always tell someone where they are going and to not walk in strange neighborhoods if they can help it, to always be sure of your surroundings and to avoid affluent neighborhoods or places where few black people live. It all sounds so exhausting.

As I heard all of the stories from parents with African-American sons I started becoming fearful for my son. I am white, but my youngest son, who is adopted, is considered Black. He is actually biracial. His birth mom is Anglo and his birth dad was actually born in the Caribbean. Isaiah is a beautiful caramel color and in the summer, because he loves to swim almost every day, his skin takes on a beautiful chocolate-caramel color.

Isaiah is the best kid in the world, he really is. People love him. He is a natural at almost anything he tries. He is amazing. He is a natural athlete, a natural leader in his class, and smart as a whip. His best feature though is that he loves so thoroughly and trusts so naturally. Isaiah is my joy. No matter where I am or what I am doing, when I think of him I cannot help but smile. If I am travelling and I think of him for long enough I cry because I miss him. I love to wrestle with him – even though he is ten, he is strong! – and I can feel my body physically missing him when I am away for longer than a few days.

So, as the murder of Trayvon has opened up and revealed the inherent racism that still runs so strong in our society, and as I hear of the constant vigilance that African-American males have to live under, even just to do something as simple as walk to a neighborhood store and buy some candy and something to drink, I realized that, as a father of a son who is perceived to be African-American, I don’t know what to tell Isaiah. I don’t know what to tell Isaiah because I am white and I can walk to the store, with a hoody on (which I often wear), buy all the candy I want, and walk in my neighborhood, or practically any neighborhood I want to walk in, and I never think about possibly being shot. It is a thought that never crosses my mind and I know it is because I am white and I live in a society that values white people.

But it will cross Isaiah’s mind. It has to if he wants to stay alive in our society where racism is still very much alive and where guns are so accessible, almost as easy as buying candy. It kills me to come to this realization and I am not sure I know what to tell him. I am a father and my job is to love my son unconditionally and to prepare him to be a man who loves and cares for others, to commit himself to the work of God’s Kingdom in this world. And though I thought I was able to prepare both of my sons for this reality, Trayvon’s murder has made me realize that I am woefully unprepared. And it scares me.

The fact that African-American males live under constant threat is not a new phenomenon to me. I have lived in numerous places that are predominantly populated by people of color, mostly in urban contexts. I have seen the police in places like Lexington, KY or Waco, TX approach black men differently than they do white men. I know that this practice, in some places, is actually taught. I was a Wesley Foundation Director at a small junior college in West Texas and one of my students, who was pursuing an associate’s degree in law enforcement, one day told me that his professor taught that in a traffic stop, they are to approach the vehicle much differently if the occupants are white females than if the occupants are black men. I was outraged that this was being taught, and so I wrote a letter to the professor, to the President of the school and I even contacted the local news media and I got zero responses from anyone. Systemic racism is not surprising to me. It is a historical fact and it still happens every day, no matter how much denial people, including the supposed “liberal” media, are steeped in.

But it is so different to see and acknowledge racism, to be outraged by it, as a white male with no deep attachment to it, than it is to see it and feel it as a father of an African-American young boy. It is nothing less than frightening to think about my beautiful son growing up in this culture where guns and racism are so rampant and create a lethal combination.

So, what do I tell Isaiah? I must tell him that though there are people who are committed to stamping out racism, though there are people who love him for the beautiful child of God that he is, though he has unbelievable gifts to share with the world, though all of this is absolutely true, our society is still sick with violence and racist hatred. And the violence and hatred is fueled not only by an innate sinfulness in all of us, it is fueled by larger and more sinister forces than individual sin. If only it were individual sin. That would be so much easier because then our approach could be limited to a message of individualistic salvation.

But no, societal violence and racist hatred is entrenched in the systems and structures which run and support our society. There are those who are blind to systematic violence and racism – who see it solely as individual sin – and there are those who financially benefit from the violence and racism that permeates our society. In fact, those that benefit systematically from violence and racism actually need those who refuse to see structural sin – who only see it individually – in order for their profits to continue to increase.

So, what do I tell Isaiah? I must explain to my ten year old that the organization responsible for writing the Stand Your Ground bill for Florida, a bill that gives a license to people to shoot and kill anyone who they perceive to mean them harm, is the National Rifle Association. And the NRA profits from the fact that the state has seen the number of justifiable homicides triple since its passage in 2005. You see, when people feel fearful, they buy guns for protection. When they are allowed to use those guns to shoot people they perceive as dangerous (and those are often people of color), then fear is ratcheted up even higher so that more people feel the need the buy more guns. On and on it goes. Because of the massive amount of money the NRA pours into elections, and the massive lobbying they do of state legislatures like Florida’s, lawmakers have been happy to throw reason and public safety out the window so that their cash cow, the mighty and powerful NRA, can give them an “A” rating and they can get reelected. This is how the game is played and the NRA plays it well.

What do I tell Isaiah? I must tell my son that the world is dangerous for all people, but even more so for him. Simply because he is black. The forces that benefit from violence and racism seem more powerful right now than the forces of love. I know theologically that love wins in the end. But right now that feels too theoretical. Love did not win out for Trayvon. Violence and racism won. So, in the face of such evil and yes, forces like these (and no, I am not calling individual people evil) are in fact evil because they are working to destroy that which God so deeply and passionately loves. Profiting from racism and violence is evil and like all evil, it must be stopped, though it promises to not go quietly.

So, what should I tell Isaiah, my beautiful boy, my son, my joy? I must continue to protect him, I must warn and advise him. But I must also invite him to join with me in fighting against violence and hatred and to love people (which he does so amazingly and unconditionally). I must invite him to join with me and so many others in shining the light on groups like the National Rifle Association who benefit from the violence and racist hatred and resulting fear that is so present in our society and only creates a “need” for more gun sales. I must invite Isaiah to shine the light on groups like the NRA, especially when so many weak-kneed political “leaders” are cowed into silent submission. I must give Isaiah the opportunities to love those who are harmed or killed by the overabundance of guns in our society and those who are continually marginalized and hurt by racism. And I must invite Isaiah to join me and, hopefully, a growing movement in the Church to shine the light on injustice and the collusion of politics, fear, and profits which characterizes the work of the NRA and the politicians in their hip pockets.

I think I know what I must tell Isaiah. I must tell him that I love him, that God loves him unconditionally and together, along with so many others within the Church and outside of it, we can change the world through love and light. Maybe it won’t be such a bad conversation after all.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kick-Butt Quotes from Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is one of my favorite historians. This is a collection of a few of his quotes from a book that is a collection of some of his writings on race. The book is simply called, "On Race."

“All true reformers are incendiaries.” (p. 143)

“It is to the interest of the people in power to divide the rest of the population in order to rule them. To set the poor against the middle class, white against black, native born against immigrants, Christians against other religions. It serves the interest of the establishment to keep people ignorant of their own history.” (p. 228)

“The outcome of any social struggle is almost always some form of compromise. But [the abolitionists] were also aware of that which every intelligent radical knows: that to compromise in advance is to vitiate at the outset that power for progress which only the radical propels into the debate…an advanced position ensures a compromise on more favorable terms than would be the case where the timorous reformer compromises at the start.” (p. 139)

“At issue are a number of claims advanced by liberal-minded people who profess purposes similar to the radical reformers, but urge more moderate methods. To argue a case too heatedly, they point out, provokes the opponent to retaliation. To urge measures too extreme alienates possible allies. To ask for too much too soon results in getting nothing. To use vituperative language arouses emotions to a pitch which precludes rational consideration.” (p. 124)

“In a society where the word ‘extreme’ has a bad connotation, in a literate community enamored of the Aristotelian golden mean, we often hurl that word unjustifiably at some proposal which is extreme only in a context of limited alternatives.” (p. 129)

“We accept these labels (‘extreme’ and ‘moderate’) because they afford us a test simple enough to avoid mental strain. Also, it is easy and comfortable – especially for intellectuals who do not share the piercing problems of the hungry or helplessly diseased of the world (who, in other words, face no extreme problems) – to presume always that the ‘moderate’ solution is the best.” (p. 130)

“While more modest evils might be dislodged by a few sharp words, the elimination of slavery clearly required more drastic action. The abolitionists did not deceive themselves that they were gentle and temperate; they quite consciously measured their words to the enormity of the evil.” (p. 130)

“The politician is so preoccupied with evaluation of the existing forces that he leaves out of the account his own power, which is expended on reading public opinion rather than on changing it. Where presidents have been more than reflectors of a static consensus, the exertion of their force into the balance of power has usually been in pursuit of nationalistic goals rather than reformist ones.” (p. 147)

“To his friend Samuel May, who urged him to keep more cool, saying, ‘Why are you all on fire?,’ [William] Garrison replied, ‘Brother May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.’” (p. 142)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Remarks to House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science

These are my remarks at a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science this morning. We are opposed to increases in funding for the Bureau of Prisons and are suggesting some legislative and administrative ways that reduce the federal prison population and save money.

Thank you Chairman Wolf and Ranking Member Fattah for providing me the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church and numerous civil rights, legal, religious and criminal justice organizations concerned about the increasing budget expenditures for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). President Barack Obama’s FY 2013 budget request for the federal prison system totals $6.9 billion, an increase of $278 million over the FY 2012 enacted budget for the Bureau. The organizations I represent today are unified in our opposition to appropriating any new funds for the expansion of federal prison capacity or contracting new private prison beds as is now being proposed by the Obama Administration. We believe that numerous administrative and legislative options are available that could more effectively address the federal prison population crisis and save taxpayers money.

Currently, a record 217,000 people are confined within BOP-operated facilities or in privately managed or community-based institutions and jails. Over the last 30 years the size of the federal prison system has increased nearly 800 percent, largely due to the overrepresentation of those convicted of drug offenses, many of whom are low-level and non-violent. BOP Director Charles Samuels testified before this Committee earlier this month and singled out the excessive sentences and increasing prosecutions for drug offenses as the primary contributor to the exploding prison growth. Overcrowding plagues the federal system and we cannot build ourselves out of this crisis.

We urge this Committee to use its influence with those members of Congress who oversee the authorization of federal sentencing policy to implement modest reforms, modeled by many state lawmakers. Congress has an integral part to play to change the course of unrestrained incarceration, with its associated human and fiscal costs. In addition to administrative recommendations listed further below, Congress can and must take legislative action to address the prison over-crowding crisis.

Briefly, some of these legislative proposals include:
1. Expanding time credits for good behavior from the current 47 days per year implemented by BOP to the mandated 54 days per year,
2. Home confinement for elderly prisoners who no longer pose a threat to the community,
3. End mandatory minimum sentences in drug sentencing.

It is critical that the crisis of the unsustainable federal prison population be addressed. In 2012, the Senate Appropriations Committee called on the Justice Department and BOP to maximize cost savings and sentence reduction opportunities where they have a neutral or positive impact on public safety. Before this Committee endorses the BOP’s request to Congress for FY 2013, the agency should be asked to demonstrate that it has maximized cost savings and sentence reduction opportunities. The Bureau has not done so in the current budget justification.

In addition to Congressional action, there are immediate administrative actions that can be taken to help save money, maintain public safety, and reduce the size of the federal prison population. These recommendations include:

1. Expansion of BOPs’ Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (RDAP). Though Congress mandated that the BOP make available substance abuse treatment for prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses in BOP custody with an incentive of a reduction of incarceration of up to one year, this has not yet been realized. According to a recent GAO report, from 2009-2011 only 19% of those who qualified for a 12-month sentence reduction after completing the program received the maximum sentence reduction. We support BOP’s recent 2013 budget request to “enhance” RDAP, but we also urge that BOP prioritize RDAP slots for those prisoners who are eligible for a sentence reduction. We know that $25 million could be saved each year if low-level undocumented immigrants were made eligible as well.

2. Expand the BOP’s implementation of compassionate release. In addition to those who are terminally ill, compassionate release should be considered for inmates with medical conditions who have served at least 67% of their sentence, or when it involves the “death or incapacitation of the inmate’s only family member capable of caring for the inmate’s minor child.”

3. Expand the use of residential re-entry centers or home confinement for up to the last 12 months of sentences in order for inmates to prepare to return to society. Utilizing residential re-entry centers and home detention more effectively will both save money and promote successful reentry and public safety. We urge the Committee to request the status of the annual reports obliged by the Second Chance Act and to ask the BOP why its use of halfway houses and home detention has been so sparing.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. We look forward to working with the Committee during the ongoing FY 2013 appropriations process to advance these important principles.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Avoiding the Easy Middle: A Book Review of Hijacked

To say politics is divisive these days is like saying water is wet. Congress is operating with less than a 10% approval rating and the only question is, who exactly makes up that 10% that approves? Legislation, even as universally supported as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), is so often held hostage to the partisan divide so that nothing gets done. And there is so much that needs to be done!

What is far more troubling however, is the fact that this divisiveness has leaked into the Church. Well, more than leaked. The dam has burst forth and we are drowning in it. Mike Slaughter and Chuck Gutenson explore the political rancor and partisanship within the Church in their book, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide. Perhaps most helpful in the book is their reminder of where the Church must be positioned when it comes to political engagement. We must remain politically engaged, but without allowing the gospel to be co-opted by any political party. Unfortunately, too often people respond to divisiveness within the church by claiming that the focus of the Church is solely spiritual and individualistic. We are told too much of the time that the problem of divisiveness will be solved when we focus on evangelism and worship, you know, the real focus of Jesus’ ministry.

But that view is as ideologically and culturally trapped as is promoting the platforms of any political party. The problem with staying politically engaged without being co-opted is that it takes work. Slaughter and Gutenson rightly remind us that “The Church must stand in prophetic tension with Constantinian political systems and never underwrite or accommodate itself to a partisan political world order, including American democracy.” (p. 22, italics mine)

The Church is at times co-opted by partisanship, or at least poor theology. And yes, it has happened on both sides of the political spectrum. I have seen it firsthand.

In 2004, I was a student at Asbury Seminary and my oldest son was in first grade. It was in the midst of the presidential campaign and one day Eli came home and told us that one of his first grade classmates said that if John Kerry became President we could no longer worship God! Of course, Dubya won, so apparently we can all safely continue to attend church.

A couple of years ago, the General Board of Church and Society, where I work, released a statement calling on the Chinese government to allow evangelical pastors to be able to attend the Lausanne Conference in South Africa. They were prevented from going as part of China’s ongoing assault on religious freedom, particularly Christians. Though I thought religious freedom was something that the left and right could safely agree on, we received numerous angry emails and calls from liberals in the church. They said we were endangering the long-time relationship with China’s national church by speaking in favor of evangelical pastors who were not recognized by the Chinese government. I was astounded by how nonsensical that was. They were so worried about keeping good relations with a state-sponsored national church that we would allow brothers and sisters in Christ to be persecuted?

Slaughter and Gutenson are correct, theological entrapment on either side is a betrayal to the heart of the gospel and God’s calling on us to love and defend the most vulnerable. Examples can be found on the both the left and the right of a hijacked theology. However, it is also true that, at least in recent years, the theological right have been far more hijacked by the Republican Party than the left has to the Democratic Party. Blaming both sides for the partisanship equally may make us sound diplomatic, but it simply does not ring true.

Slaughter and Gutenson offer some helpful ideas in furthering much needed dialog between conservatives and liberals. They are right, we easily become ensconced not only in our positions, but even in the way we come to our political and theological positions. In the end, we create for ourselves a comfortable bubble where our beliefs are rarely challenged. And again, this takes work to leave our bubbles.

As an unashamed liberal who attended Asbury Theological Seminary for eight years of my life pursuing two different degrees, and while there, focusing much of my work on adapting a liberation theology for the affluent and powerful, I can say I am stronger for the many, many struggles and battles I had to endure. I was a square peg in a round hole. There were times – many times – when transferring to a school more familiar to my political positions would have been so much easier. Asbury felt stifling at times, but I know I am stronger for having endured and for learning even from those I vehemently disagree with.

But does inviting voices from all sides of the political spectrum mean that we are faithful in our political engagement? How faithful are we to God’s call on us to love and defend the most vulnerable among us, if the net gain of our political engagement is simply avoiding divisiveness? I absolutely agree, we need to have diverse news sources, we need to dialog with people who are different from us. Seminaries (are you listening Asbury?) need to diversify their faculty so that students are exposed to a multitude of theological and political stances and beliefs. All good.

But our bubbles will not be effectively burst just from exposure to people who disagree with us. There is something far more important that we must do, if we want to be missional, if we want to be faithful. We need mostly to listen to the voices of those most directly impacted by broken systems and policies. If the end of our political engagement is simply avoiding extremes, then all I would need to do if I was on one end of those extremes is simply go farther in my direction so that those committed to finding the middle will be brought closer to my side because the middle would have been stretched closer to my side. I have seen this done.

As we follow Jesus, our calling is to not go to the left or the right, or even to find a soft, comfortable spot in the middle – which is where church leaders most often try to stand. That is obviously the easiest thing to do. Our calling is to be out in front, loving and serving people, particularly the most vulnerable. We are called to defend those who are being oppressed, lift up those who are being crushed, and welcome those being marginalized. And to do that – the only way to do that effectively, is to hear directly from those negatively impacted by our broken systems and policies; to do as Jesus did and incarnate ourselves among the poor, oppressed and marginalized.

Take the issue of immigration. Messaging experts will tell you that to avoid the left and the right extremes, to find that soft middle, then you need to say things like, “We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. We must obviously strengthen our nation’s security and not forget that we are immigrants.” Sounds good right? Give a nod to each side, don’t offend too many people, you’ll be fine. Heck, you can run for office with that line (and they do).

Yet, if you talk with undocumented immigrants, you will come to the conclusion that having deported more immigrants in a year and a half than President Bush did in his entire 8 years in office, the Obama administration is engaged in nothing less than state-sponsored terror against immigrant communities. And by making this issue a national security issue, we are continuing the corporate-welfare spending spree that benefits only corporations like Haliburton, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America instead of those Jesus is incarnated among: immigrants. If we truly listen to immigrants, we will hear stories of families ripped apart, immigrants victimized by unscrupulous scams and con-artist immigration attorneys. We will hear stories of families who have been kept a part by a family immigration system that does not work and who have up to a 20+ year wait for some families to reunite.

So, speaking to the middle on this issue, while safe, misses finding real solutions because you never deal with the real problems. Placing ourselves in the soft middle on this issue, in the end, only adds to the suffering that immigrants must endure. Landing in the middle is comfortable, but it is also immoral. Political engagement that is missional means that we must take sides. To fail to do so is a form of theological hijacking. It is the worst kind, in fact.

So, yes, we must find those places to learn from one another. We must learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable as Dr. King used to say. But, more importantly, we must hear directly from our brothers and sisters who are being marginalized and crushed. Their words must become ours. Their stories must narrate our lives to such an extent that we cannot hold in our outrage at the injustices committed against them. As Jesus incarnated himself among the most vulnerable, so must we. That is the only kind of political engagement that keeps the gospel free from co-option. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have any use for a movement of people of faith who truly defend the poor and vulnerable, who work for justice for the oppressed, and who hold accountable those who benefit from the marginalization of so many. We must engage politically, even if (or when) we get called a Communist, must less a Democrat or Republican.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Do Redecorated Chapels Reflect Kingdom Values?

Here’s a question that I almost never hear asked. Can a church be prophetic – meaning, witness to the reality of God’s Kingdom justice and love in the world – if we spend vast amounts of money and time on things and in ways that do not reflect God’s Kingdom, but rather, reflect the values of a world bent on materialism, self-indulgence, war, violence and madness? Most folks I think would join with me and say no. What we spend money on reflects who we are and what we value. And that is a scary thought for the church.

In an article I discovered recently from Christianity Today that was first published in 2001, the writer sent out questionnaires about how churches spend their money. The writer had a 23% response rate and there was nothing scientific in who responded or why. But I still find it to be a decent snapshot of how churches spent their money in 2001. Among the churches that that responded to the survey, their budgets were significantly weighed down by expenditures on such things as facility upkeep. Of those who responded, one in five dollars was spent on building upkeep or a word I prefer to use, redecoration. Whether it comes in the form of fixing broken doors or broken air conditioners, re-carpeting the sanctuary, repainting the youth room, adding a Family Life Center, or redecorating a Chapel, this all comes down to maintaining buildings that are built in our image for the glory of ourselves. Scripture bears this out.

Our church buildings are for our own vanity, our own indulgence, our own pleasure. God simply takes no delight in them and he never has. In 2 Samuel 7, King David said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (7:2) King David wanted to build a great temple for God’s presence, symbolized by the ark, but God wanted none of it. God spoke to David through Nathan (and this wasn’t the last time either) saying, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (7:4-6)

Some interesting things to point out here include the fact that David only wants to build a house for God when he looks around at his own wealth. His motivation is to ensure that he does not feel the piercing guilt of a God housed in a tent while he lives in a spacious palace. Like David, we tend to build or redecorate our chapels and sanctuaries that reflect our own insecurity and embarrassment of our own wealth. We need our God to reflect our values, even if that means building God something that God declares he does not need and has never asked for. It doesn’t matter what God needs or requires. This is more about us. We need God to be housed in a palace to make sure our palaces do not seem out of place. We need God to be comfortable for the sole reason of ensuring our comfort. Damn the call on our lives to incarnate ourselves among the uncomfortable and the suffering. Our building maintenance – our redecoration – demands that we shut down that calling and focus on what we want. And that, my friends, is the essence of idolatry.

Another interesting note in this passage is that God specifically links his dynamic movement – his freedom from the captivity of a confining house he once lived in – with the liberation of an oppressed people from the hand of their oppressor. God repeatedly, throughout the Old Testament, warns his people to remember their liberation from oppression. Only by remembering that they were delivered by God from oppression were they able to live in faithfulness into the future. And now, while David wants to build him a house because he wants to feel more secure about his wealth and self-indulgence, God reminds David that “tabernacling” with the people Israel best reflects God’s character and mission, rather than being housed in a great temple. Being free to move about, to be fluid and not static, to be dynamic and not sedate, to be organic and not stagnant – that best describes who God is and how God acts. Our wealth weights us down, our buildings weigh us down and prevent our missional engagement. We build massive structures more for our protection than for God’s mission.

But yet David wants God to be made more in his image and not he made, or remade into God’s image. Again, this is essentially idolatry; to place oneself, one’s security, one’s luxury, ahead of the interests and will of God. Think about it, our Savior was born in a barn – a barn stinking with wet hay and manure – while we are spending one in five of our dollars on making sure we never worship in anything resembling a stinking barn. One in five. We make sure we worship in only the finest, the best and we blame it on “honoring God” – the same God who was born in shit and hay. We worship in buildings that resemble our values, not God’s.

So, to answer the beginning question: can a church be prophetic – witness to the reality of God’s Kingdom justice and love in the world – if we spend money and time on things (such as building maintenance or redecoration) that do not reflect God’s Kingdom, but rather, reflect the values of a world bent on materialism, self-indulgence, war, violence and madness? The answer is emphatically no.

This is not a liberal or a conservative problem. This is a sin problem. Liberals and conservatives spend far too much of our money – one in five church dollars according to this survey in 2001 – to make sure we create a God in our image through redecorating our chapels and our churches. While we could spend money on providing shelter to the homeless, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, we spend it on buildings that say far more about who we are than about who God is. We could spend money on projects to mobilize United Methodists to end mass incarceration, to welcome immigrants to our communities and advocate for just immigration reform, to promote peace with justice ministries, and to defend the vulnerable. But we don’t. We want new carpeting, we want new paint, we want new stained glass windows. We want more stuff for our palaces – I mean our chapels and churches. But if we asked God if he needed all the stuff we spend all this wasted money on, something tells me he would look around and wonder why we didn’t use all that money, all that time to care for the things he really cares about: people, especially people who are hurting.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Doing Good a Good Read

Unfortunately, holiness is not an often-used term in many of the circles of current-day political activists. But perhaps it should be. And as Dr. Christopher Momany’s book, Doing Good, shows us, it actually once was a common word among those who witnessed to God’s Kingdom justice in the face of oppression.

Reading Dr. Momany’s book brought me back to my days at Asbury Seminary where holiness was something not just taught in classes, but regularly discussed among students. But all too often the concept of holiness gets lost in misperceptions and misunderstandings. For me, even though holiness was commonly spoken of on Asbury’s campus, the concept of holiness remained aloof to me, held captive to an idea of perfection that seemed centered on either navel-gazing or in an other-worldly focus. Holiness thus easily slid into legalism, a list of rules to decide whether we were living righteously or not. Of course, when faced with such rigid legalism I naturally resisted against such rigidity, but my resistance was not against holiness itself as much as it was an attempt to escape the Pharisaical clenches of what I felt to be an abnormal focus on law and a complete absence of love, grace, and justice for the vulnerable.

Dr. Momany corrects this and many other misperceptions and reminds us of the real intent of holiness. He correctly writes that, “Living the way of holiness is not an exercise in isolation. It is, at its essence, an expression of relationship. Holiness embodies a perpetual dialog with God. By knowing God, we come to know ourselves. We also come to know and love others.” (pp. 38-39) The “perpetual dialog” we have with God is of course given to us in grace, but yet it is also our calling into mission.

The “perpetual dialog” is also not meant to be private, though yet it is also at the same time intensely personal. Holiness leads us to greater knowledge of ourselves, but yet it does not remain trapped in our temptation to be individualistic. The “perpetual dialog” (a phrase I love by the way) is a conversation that inherently calls us to welcome others into this dialog, not as a means of colonialism or forcing others into our language or culture. Instead, it is a celebration of God’s love and yearning to be in intimate relationship with his people.

And this is where those of us who are politically engaged too often come tragically short in our understanding and practice of holiness. We are right to remind the Church that John Wesley said that there is no holiness without social holiness. There must be public witness. The Church is simply not faithful with a public engagement. That is absolutely true and I believe it intensely.

But isn’t the opposite true? Isn’t it true that social holiness entails personal holiness? Yes, God is as concerned with oppression as God is with personal morality (and I honestly believe more so). But God is still concerned with personal morality. Just because some (too many) in the Church have turned their back on social holiness and even at times become complicit with the structures and systems of injustice, that does not give those of us passionate about social holiness the license to ignore God’s call on us to manifest personal holiness. Dr. Momany reminds us that for John Wesley, the law “was much more than an impersonal standard of righteousness. Wesley understood the law as a revelation of God’s essence, God’s innermost being.” (p. 18)

And we will do well to strive to be holy as God is holy. To be holy is to care for all the people of the world, to defend the poor and vulnerable, to incarnate ourselves among the marginalized. To be holy is to hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal morality – not in order to judge or condemn others, but to shine the light of God’s holiness as a light of love and hospitality, a light that draws others to us. Dr. Momany’s book is a welcome reminder of God’s call on all those who follow Jesus to live passionately dedicated to both social and personal holiness.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

32 Faith Organizations Urge Governors to Decline CCA Prison Privatization Offer

Below is a letter signed by 32 faith organizations that this morning was sent to the Governors of 48 states in response to a letter sent by Harley Lappin, former Director of Bureau of Prisons, and current Chief Corrections Officer of Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the U.S. Lappin’s letter stated that CCA had $250 million dollars set aside to buy prisons in states and the main requirements on states that entered into this agreement entail that states agree to contracts that last at least 20 years and that during the entirety of the contract, that the prisons remain 90% full. This kind of agreement will only continue to fuel mass incarceration of people of color.

Dear Governor:

We the undersigned faith organizations represent different traditions from across the religious and political spectrum. Our organizations advocate for a criminal justice system that brings healing for victims of crime, restoration for those who commit crimes, and to maintain public safety.

We write in reference to a letter you recently received from Harley Lappin, Chief Corrections Officer at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), announcing the Corrections Investment Initiative – the corporation’s plan to spend up to $250 million buying prisons from state, local, and federal government entities, and then managing the facilities. The letter from Mr. Lappin states that CCA is only interested in buying prisons if the state selling the prison agrees to pay CCA to operate the prison for 20 years – at minimum. Mr. Lappin further notes that any prison to be sold must have at least 1,000 beds, and that the state must agree to keep the prison at least 90% full during the length of the contract.

The undersigned faith organizations urge you to decline this dangerous and costly invitation.

CCA’s initiative would be costly to taxpayers in your state. CCA would be buying not only a physical structure but a guarantee that your state will fill a large prison and continuously pay the corporation taxpayer money to operate the institution for at least two decades. Your state will incur long-term costs associated with increasing incarceration rates, while CCA’s profits will only continue to increase as well.

CCA’s initiative would be costly to the moral strength of your state. The requirement to ensure that the prison remains 90% full for at least two decades would pose a tremendous obstacle to more cost-effective criminal justice policies. The United States imprisons far more people than any other nation in the world. The millions of people who are directly impacted by this explosive rate of incarceration included families and communities of the incarcerated. Families and communities can be strengthened through evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and reentry policies that quicken the reintegration of those coming out of prison into their home communities.

The current incarceration rate has been spurred over the last four decades by criminal laws that impose steep sentences. Mass incarceration deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has not had the impact on public safety that equals the financial and moral costs that are being paid. In addition, the crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of people burdens government budgets with rising debt and only exacerbates the current fiscal crisis confronting states across the nation.

Despite the increasing costs to states and the nation as a whole that results from mass incarceration, CCA continues to reap enormous profits. We believe the profits CCA receives are not worth the costs paid by the states and by the people who will be incarcerated and their families who will be impacted by the requirement to keep prisons filled rather than the greater need for the criminal justice system to truly be just and fair.

We urge you to reject the initiative sent to you from CCA. Criminal justice policies do not need to rely on the privatization of correctional services, but rather, should be evidence-based policies and practices that are proven to reduce recidivism and can lead to a reduction in the prison population. Mr. Lappin’s proposal is an invitation to deepening state debt, increased costs to people of color who are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration as well as their families and communities, and decreased public safety.


African American Ministers in Action
African American Ministers Leadership Council
African Methodist Episcopal Church – Social Action Commission
American Baptist Home Mission Societies
American Friends Service Committee
Church of the Brethren
Disciples Home Missions-Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada
Disciples Justice Action Network
Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, NY
Franciscan Action Network
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Healing Communities
Holy Family Institute
Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, USA – JPIC
Irish Apostolate USA
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers
Mennonite Central Committee, U.S. Washington Office
Muslim Public Affairs Council
National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, OSF
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Office of Peace and Justice, Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters
PICO National Network
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness
Social Justice Committee, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, KS
Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell, NJ
The Episcopal Church
Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
United Church of Christ/Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society