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Friday, April 27, 2012

General Conference Reflections, Day 3: Progressives and Economic Injustice

I will try (emphasize on try) to post some daily thoughts on General Conference. This in no way is intended to describe everything that is happening – this is just a reflection from y very limited perspective.


I have noticed in some of the discussions I have heard around General Conference these last few days that many progressives have become less and less comfortable with talking about economic justice. We talk generally about justice for the poor, but that is the extent of it much of the time. We have given more and more ground to those who want to preserve power for the affluent and powerful, as we say less and less about the necessary redistribution of resources that must happen if we are to experience justice. It seems progressives are almost embarrassed about the fact that the predominant way to achieve justice for the poor throughout Scripture is through establishing a more just and fair distribution of resources. Israel is continually accused of not doing this in the Old Testament, the New Testament church practiced this from the get-go, and Paul, our friendly neighborhood church planter, said he eagerly wanted to collect money for the poor and qualified justice to be when those who little do not have too little, while those who have much do not have too much.

Yet, we do not want to boldly demand the guarantee of the right to food, clothing, shelter, and health care to name a few, so we allow folks to whittle it down to the “right to pursue” food, clothing, shelter and health care. The “right to pursue” sounds more amenable and moderate, though we fail to think through the fact that many vulnerable people do not have the capability to pursue anything. That is why they are vulnerable! Securing such rights as food, clothing, shelter, and health care to name a few is specifically for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to pursue such rights, but yet, still must have them simply and solely because they are human beings, children of a God who loves the vulnerable in the world and wants to protect them.

Why are progressives becoming so slow to defend those who experience economic injustice? I want to suggest a couple of reasons.

One difficult reason that I might catch some heat over, but I feel like I need to name it anyway, is that we have traded economic struggles that progressives used to lead on for what Chris Hedges (Death of a Liberal Class) calls “identity politics.” No, let me say that one’s right to claim their own identity is indeed essential to the full living out and embrace of one’s own personhood. A person should be able to claim their own racial identity, sexual orientation and sexual identity. There is no question about this.

But I want to suggest that we have so focused on these issues in recent years that we have forgotten other issues such as economic injustice. The truth is we should learn to defend both of these groups of people. I absolutely believe we must and we can – but multiple passions are also hard to juggle at times and we have not done a good job juggling these I believe. This has been seen this week in that Church and Society B (where issues of sexuality will be discussed) is deemed by many at General Conference to be a far more important an assignment that Church and Society A (where economic justice issues are discussed). I have heard this commented on by several people. Thus, when economic justice issues are raised, oftentimes very few words of substance are heard from any of the progressives because we simply are not sure of what to say.

Another reason for progressives having a hard time with economic injustice is the simple fact that progressives rarely experience economic injustice personally and so have very little to identify with those who do. The words to express the outrage of being economically marginalized in the wealthiest society in the history of the world are lost and difficult to grasp for those who readily benefit from the wealth and power of this country. Too often progressives are lacking firsthand experience much of the time about the issues poor people face and can only identify those issues (such as raising the minimum wage a few years ago) when those issues are so obviously unjust that almost anyone can see the problem. Progressives are often too detached from those who suffer economic marginalization and we all know we care most about who we see and touch on a daily basis.

And so, we must do a much better job incarnating ourselves among the poor so that we hear their stories, and so that their words become our words, their struggles our struggles and their dreams our dreams. Until we do, the chasm between the rich and the poor – which has grown at an accelerated rate, not surprisingly, during the same time when progressives have been more drawn to identity politics – will only continue to widen. We must follow Jesus the Christ who was anointed by the Holy Spirit first and foremost to preach good news to the poor. And I pray we will learn this fast before General Conference ends and the long-held positions of the United Methodist Church in defense of the poor have become remembrances instead of current and living realities.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

General Conference Reflections, Day 2: Pentecost or Corporate Control?

I will try (emphasize on try) to post some daily thoughts on General Conference. This in no way is intended to describe everything that is happening – this is just a reflection from y very limited perspective.


Tuesday’s most dramatic moment came in the evening with the presentation on the Call to Action by Adam Hamilton, pastor of a megachurch in the suburbs of Kansas City. It took place in the massive convention center where we are meeting for General Conference here in Tampa and it was one of the slickest presentations that I have ever seen. It was perfectly timed between in-person presentations with adjoining videos and music, building to a crescendo meant to urge us to leave the quite pathetic present of the United Methodist Church in favor of a glorious future where our churches are filled, our clergy are young and everyone lives with meaning and purpose. One thing I could not help noticing is that the presentation was designed to have speakers from every major voting block attending General Conference in it. Smart. It felt like a video you will see at the Democratic or Republican conventions. It was expertly done.


But I was most troubled (and I have to admit, I was troubled by a lot of things in this presentation) by the pictures Rev. Hamilton showed of boats in the water to signify where we are as a church and where we should go. One picture showed several boats going in random directions, each making a big splash of water but not seeming to go anywhere. It was comical. The other picture was of a sleek crew boat, which requires many people to row in the same direction, with the same exact speed and in perfect timing. The water was hardly disturbed with the boat smoothly gliding ahead. The image of course is the need for all to have the same mission rather than be disjointed and scattered.

But it felt to me much more than that. It felt dangerous. With the huge screens and the music building and carrying us all along, I felt stifled just watching it, because as one who tends to disturb the waters (calm waters usually means a lack of justice), as one who tends to not immediately jump in the boat along with everyone else, as one who resists the message of “grab an oar and row!”, as one who tends to prefer the energy that seems like chaos, but is in reality, creativity unleashed, I felt marginalized by Rev. Hamilton’s vision, not inspired. I felt imprisoned, not unleashed.

As I have reflected on this image tonight I see there are some incredibly troubling biblical images that come to mind that frankly make Hamilton’s crafted Call to Action dangerous to the life and mission, and yes, vitality of the church.

As I strained to think about all of the biblical stories that might fit into Hamilton’s vision – a picture of everyone in the same boat going into the same direction, rowing with perfect timing, the corporate whole replacing the uniqueness of the individual – the only story that kept coming to me was the story of the Egyptian subjugation of Israel under the leadership of the Pharaoh. There is no other picture I can think of that shows a body working with such conformity and precision. No, I do not think Hamilton is trying to enslave the church, but I do think the analogy does fit. Forcing everyone into the same sleek crew boat, all rowing in one direction with precise timing and speed, will naturally stifle and repress the gifts that actually, everywhere else in the Bible, create meaningful and necessary tension, conflict, and missional motion. Though the Body of Christ is equipped and meant to move quite differently with various responsibilities and purposes, this image of the sleek crew boat puts that body into a straight jacket.

The power of this presentation – the amount of money it took to put it all together, the number of people – including Episcopal leadership – that had to come together to pull this off made this more than powerful. It was stifling in and of itself – for those of us who do not fit into that sleek crew boat designed not to include the dramatic variances of the gifts of the Body, but instead, designed to be a one-size-fits-all church structure. It was overwhelming because it felt to many of us who sat in the hall that this had been pre-decided. The fix was in – we are going to fit into that boat or we will get left on the side, we will get left behind. Moving in the same direction and rowing in the same exact fashion to make the boat go, is all that seemed to matter through the sheer size, cost, time, and magnitude of the presentation.

And at the same time, the biblical image of Pentecost kept coming to my mind. Pentecost seemed to people standing and watching from the sidelines, like the random boats in the first picture, splashing around, chaotic looking, but yet filled with motion and even excitement. People could not help but gather to watch and perhaps even jump in and participate. Pentecost was like that. The Holy Spirit fills the disciples and they speak in tongues they likely do not understand themselves. It is an uncontrolled public witness – uncontrolled by human agendas – as well as a transformative movement of God. The Church is birthed here! Should not this image be the one we want to follow simply for that reason alone?

There is no doubt about which picture I resonated with and which one I felt the freedom to be who God has called me to be. It honestly feels like choosing between someone’s corporate controlled image of a smooth, efficient machine and the somewhat chaotic, yet entirely creative, dynamic movement-making frenzy produced by the Holy Spirit’s uncontrolled presence in the lives of a group of believers willing to risk it all for the Kingdom. I’ll take the latter any day of the week.

After the presentation Tuesday night I could not wait to get out of the hall, just to breathe. I must admit, I am afraid for the future of the United Methodist Church if Hamilton’s vision, the Call to Action, is adopted. The sleek crew boat and the incredibly powerful and expensive presentation, endorsed by all the powers that be seems quite attractive. Clean, efficiency is always attractive. But I do not see life coming out of that model. I do not see the New Testament Church birthed out of the Call to Action. I see centralized-control and a sleek new model that makes us feel good, asks us to do very little and meets our every whim and desire. But that ain’t the church I want to be a part of. I will take frenzy over precision, motion over calmness, and the control of the Holy Spirit over the control of a small group of church elites – a cabal if you will – any day of the week.

So, I am praying for Pentecost. I hope you will pray for Pentecost too.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

General Conference Reflections, Day 1: Feelin' a Little United Methodist

I will try (emphasize on try) to post some daily thoughts on General Conference. This in no way is intended to describe everything that is happening – this is just a reflection from my very limited perspective.


I remember reading in seminary the early days when circuit riding Methodist pastors would come together once a year for conference (soon to be called annual conference). The pastors, whose work often led them into risky and dangerous situations, and whose commitment to preaching the gospel was unquestionable, were filled with such joy when they gathered together. From their meeting with one another, they encouraged one another, worshipped with one another, prayed together and refreshed themselves from the sense of a common sense of mission and unity. They needed that time together in order to survive the incredible obstacles and trials they faced daily.

Now, this is the point where most folks reading this would expect me to start talking about how far we have fallen from this original ideal. I have heard it all too often. I should now talk about how General Conference is just all wheeling and dealing and self-promotion. Sure, that happens, but today I actually felt a little encouragement! I saw people I hadn’t expected on seeing, people whose commitment to the gospel is unquestionable. I heard stories of peoples’ work that truly gave me a sense of joy and encouragement because it was about lifting up the Kingdom of God and not just someone’s pride or resume.

In fact, it was hearing these stories from a few folks that made me actually think of the original Methodist movement – the original pastors whose ability to endure life-risking ministry as well as the long months of solitude as they rode through the long stretches of wilderness to witness to the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus depended so greatly on them coming together once a year to be filled up.

At least for today, I felt more than a little responsibility to honor their sacrifice and try to cut down (a little at least) on my cynicism and sarcasm. I felt like trying to find people to listen to, to hear what they were working on and how they were doing. To offer an encouraging word and tell them I appreciate their ministry (and I do).

Yeah, I know tomorrow (Wednesday) is coming, and we will likely be knee-deep in the silly self-promotion, self-preservation, and the development of strategies for one side to stick it to the other side. Wednesday will be here, and maybe all the stuff that makes me dread General Conference like the bubonic plague will be here as well. But Tuesday was a good day! Tuesday I remembered for at least a few minutes what the Methodist ministers of years ago endured and it made me strive for something better, higher. It made me want to be holy (yikes!). Today, Tuesday, I am a United Methodist, and stinkin’ glad I am. And maybe Wednesday, in the spirit of my Methodist ancestors, I’ll be a United Methodist too. Hey, I believe miracles can and do still happen – even at General Conference.

Monday, April 16, 2012

An Institutional Addiction

I remember when I was in seminary having a really strange conversation with another student. I remember him telling me that he saw the need for change in the United Methodist Church so much that his plan was to “sell-out,” to use his words, so that he could get himself in a position to implement the change he believed was needed to make the UMC faithful again (apparently, the assumption was that we aren’t faithful). When pushed as to whether “selling out” meant that he might have to say or do things he didn’t believe in so that he could attain the position of Bishop (which is what he said he wanted), he said he would, knowing full well what his goal was. Once he became a Bishop, he could then radically change the United Methodist Church. He just needed to be in a position of power and influence first. He needed a title.

I was so incredulous at his boldness. But I also knew what he meant. The fact is that we all love titles. We respect titles. I realized this years later when I came to hold the title I now have, Director of Civil and Human Rights of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. Pretty stinkin’ impressive, huh?

What amazes me though is the legitimacy that this title gives me. The truth is that before I was the Director of Civil and Human Rights I was a stay-at-home dad, writing my dissertation, working at three part-time jobs (as a Missions Pastor, doing intakes for an inner-city pharmacy for poor people, and delivering the Lexington Herald-Leader every morning), and I was very active in the anti-war and other justice movements in Lexington, KY. I also was a hippie, I had long hair and an earring – man, I was so cool then! (OK, I was cool in my own mind.) Life was hectic, and I hated getting up so blasted early every morning, but I also loved it. I was doing exactly what I wanted to. I was a Kingdom activist! But admittedly, not a lot of people willingly listened to me – I had to make them listen (and I did!). I had to earn the right to be heard or to be able to speak to situations. I earned it by showing up, by caring for people and acting out of my passion, by building relationships and being faithful in moving people into missional engagement. I earned it.

Of course, everything changed when I became, ahem, the Director of Civil and Human Rights (for one thing, I got a hair cut!). Literally overnight, people who had once wanted very little to do with me were calling and emailing and “wanting to get together.” I went from having to show my passion to earn the right to be heard to simply having to flash my fancy business card. It was weird, it still is. I am still the hell-raiser who used to have to deliver the morning paper to make ends meet, but because I have this title, I get asked what I think about stuff.

What does it say about the structures of our Church when a person’s title means that he or she has something to say that has more meaning and carries greater significance than those who do not have the titles? Do we really believe that someone who has a title automatically carries the wisdom and passion needed to carry out the associating roles? What would happen if we dropped the titles entirely? Seriously. What if I was no longer the Director of Civil and Human Rights and I was Bill, the dude who used to deliver the morning paper in Lexington, KY. Or even more, what if I was the dude who is really passionate about building multi-generational movements among United Methodists to end mass incarceration, or to abolish the death penalty, or to enact just and humane immigration reform such as the DREAM Act? What if I had to show my passion to get heard? What if I had to build relationships and be faithful in what I said and did, in order to get heard?

Let’s be honest, titles help us navigate society, or in the case of the Church, they help us navigate the structures of the Church. But I will be the first person to say that all too often – and I mean really often – titles become something we collect along the way for our own enjoyment or our own ego, and those who hold the titles simply fail to fulfill the necessary and associated roles. The roles are the things, the actions, responsibilities, that are supposed to be done by people who hold titles like the Director of Civil and Human Rights. But if you are more about collecting the titles, or if you are in a position of leadership and all you need to make the bureaucracy continue to function smoothly is someone to occupy the position – to hold the title for a certain amount of time – then you become somewhat cavalier about the carrying out of the roles. In fact, the roles can, in fact, get in the way of the bureaucracy running smoothly. Pretty soon, we become more focused on the title, making sure it is filled, rather than ensuring that someone is actually carrying out the roles associated with the title. It’s the way structures and bureaucracies tend to work.

I think for my denomination, the United Methodist Church, that we are addicted to structures. We are addicted to titles, more than we are committed to living out the roles that were meant to be associated with those titles. Back to my earlier question, what would really happen if we dropped the titles and just found the people who would carry out the roles? What would happen if we quit mandating that someone be the Director of Justice Ministries for “such and such” conference, and instead, looked for the person who was so passionate about justice, and was passionate about building teams among those in their conference who also cared passionately about justice ministries, and we supported their work? You know what I think would happen? I think we would be talking about building movements in conferences to defend and support vulnerable people rather than top-down, staff-driven programs that get the attention of people with titles and portfolios, but all too often, fail to generate much excitement or movement among those people who do not know the people who have titles and frankly, who don’t care.

As with all addictions, I think we need to honestly admit that we have an addiction to titles, structures and bureaucracies. I think we can’t imagine life without titles, structures and bureaucracies. It’s hard for us to think about what to do unless we have titles. That is a sure sign of addiction. All the while, those in the Church who aren’t suffering from this addiction are doing the work of justice and would love the support from the rest of us spinning our own wheels.

We know we are addicted because though we as United Methodists know we have not been as effective as we should be, we continue to do the same thing over and over. We continue to look to titles, structures and bureaucracies to accomplish what we have never accomplished with titles, structures or bureaucracies. And then, realizing that we are not effective, we decide we need to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic and we tweak the titles, or the structures or the bureaucracies (and we call is the Call to Action!). But we never free ourselves from it and look to the only thing that has ever achieved anything of Kingdom significance – building movements based on incarnational relationships with people who are directly impacted by oppressive systems.

Our addiction has left us weak and impotent, but man, those titles, structures and bureaucracies make us feel good, don’t they? They are quick, they are efficient, but they also leave us feeling shallow and empty. I just cannot help but think that if we spent the same amount of time investing in people, hearing the stories of the vulnerable, listening to and sharing our passions with those who have similar passions, rather than fighting for titles that give us security within those structures, we might actually win justice for those who need it so desperately. Who knows, we might even be relevant again. But it all starts with honesty and the confession that we are addicted to titles, structures and bureaucracies. Confession is hard, but freedom is so good yet so scary too. I pray we will have the courage to confess and begin the walk towards freedom.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Connecticut Abolishes the Death Penalty: One Step Forward, Two Miles Back

I have been actively engaged in the death penalty abolition movement since college. I attended a small United Methodist school in Texas in the mid 80s. There was plenty to protest with Texas leading the way in putting its citizens to death. At the time, the reality of abolition seemed like a distant dream with little hope of ever coming to full fruition.

Thankfully, there's been a lot to celebrate in recent years with states like New Jersey, New Mexico, and New Jersey repealing capital punishment. Maryland came very close as well. And now, with a bill to repeal the death penalty having passed the State Senate, it seems very likely that Connecticut is poised to become the next in hopefully a long line of states to repeal this barbaric practice. You would think I could not be happier. And part of me is. I am nothing but astonished that the United States is considered a moral leader in the world while we practice killing our citizens in a system that is so blatantly racist and classist. Abolition is long overdue.

But I am deeply concerned as well. Unfortunately, as the Huffington Post reports, Connecticut’s death penalty repeal legislation contained amendments needed to pass the Senate that make life for those currently on death row virtually unbearable. For those who will certainly have their death sentences changed to life without parole, they will be forced to live in death row-like conditions, including solitary confinement for perhaps the rest of their lives.

According to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), Quaker leaders first instituted solitary confinement at Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in the late 18th century, believing that total isolation and silence would lead to penitence, which is how the term penitentiary was first coined. Not surprisingly, this didn’t work. Prisoners suffered serious mental health problems and severe psychological harm associated with solitary confinement.

The Quakers repented of their practice of mandating solitary confinement and stopped its practice. However, the United State instituted solitary confinement – keeping prisoners locked down for 23 hours per day – in 1983 in Illinois' Marion prison and have not looked back since. Repentance seems nowhere in sight.

Solitary confinement, like the death penalty, doesn’t work. According to NRCAT, a study in Washington State found that recidivism for inmates coming out of solitary confinement was significantly higher, 64 percent compared with 41 percent, than those coming out of the general population. Moreover, a 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that housing a prisoner in solitary confinement can cost as much as $50,000 more annually compared to housing someone in the general prison population, largely because solitary confinement units require significantly more staffing.

You would think greater costs and increased crime rates would limit the use of solitary confinement and could even possibly end the practice entirely. In other words, you would like to believe that our criminal justice policies are based on evidence-based practices, common sense, and at least an inkling of morality. You would be wrong. Solitary confinement has significantly increased in the United States though it is ineffective and immoral. I hate to think about the precedent being set in Connecticut through trading the barbaric practice of state-sponsored murder for the adoption of state-sponsored torture. I certainly hope that future states considering death penalty abolition do not follow Connecticut’s lead.

And this is the heart of the problem. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, has become the incarceration nation. Thanks to decades of misguided “tough-on-crime” policies and the demonization of politicians and activists who work toward a fair and just criminal justice system, we are now afraid of “coddling” prisoners to such an extent that we create punitive policies for the sake of being harsh rather than to maintain public safety or achieve real justice.

As a follower of Jesus, I am called to achieve genuine justice. We should be reminded that justice is achieved in Scripture through creating avenues for fair and equal access to justice for those who are marginalized or are wrongfully accused. Justice was intended to hold those responsible for committing crimes directly to those they offended and then fully restore them to society. God intends justice to be a healing balm to all of society not a means of carrying out retribution for the sake of our own enjoyment (Exodus 23:6-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17 and 16:19-20). The United Methodist Church states that while “most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive…and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability” the Church calls 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.” (2008 Book of Discipline, 164-H)

What a far cry we are from such a true understanding of justice! With God's designs for justice in mind, how disgusting is it to hear so many politicians invoke their Christian faith while endorsing policies that are considered torture while doing nothing to maintain public safety or restore those who have committed crimes back to society?

I will celebrate another state abolishing their death penalty. Those celebrations are so rare. But the victory is indeed bitter sweet. I am increasingly disturbed that in order to take one step forward in our criminal justice system there are still too many people who believe we have to go two miles backward in our treatment of those who are incarcerated. When will doing the right thing simply be enough?