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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Best 6 Minutes of My Day

Last week I walked my oldest son to the bus stop for the last time in his life. Eli, who is 13 and graduated from the 8th grade, will start high school next year and has respectfully asked me to no longer walk him to the bus stop. There really is no reason to walk him now. I am sure he would have been fine with me no longer walking him to the bus stop years ago. But the truth is that walking him to the bus stop was one of the highlights of my day. And yes, I get a little weepy thinking I won’t have our little ritual every morning any longer.

You would be surprised at how much bonding can happen inside of a six minute walk every morning. Most mornings it was normally just the small talk about what he had planned that day in school, after school, which one of our favorite teams had played the night before and how they were doing that year (and being fans of the Cubs, Orioles, and Browns these past few years meant for some depressing conversations).

Other mornings I tried to check in to see how things were going with him, especially as he grew into junior high. A lot of times getting information from him was like pulling teeth. I tried to see if he liked girls and which ones, if he was ever having problems with friends, or if he was ever bullied or was bullying others. Remembering keenly my own junior and high school experience I knew that relationships were far more important questions than about homework.

But we did talk about school and the dreaded topics of homework and grades, although I am a parent who strongly believes the importance of homework and grades to be way overrated. The idea that someone can determine how much another knows and how intelligent they are based largely on rote memorization on obscure and seldom used information is like saying someone who gets an A on a theology paper is actually gifted for ministry. We have the really seminary-smart pastors of really boring and dying churches to prove it. Yes, I hope for decent grades from Eli simply because I know how stinkin’ smart he is, but I find the entire grading system to be too much of a performance-based, ass-kissing waste of time. I want to know his passions more than his report card.

Each day our six minutes together would always end the same way. As we got closer to his bus stop I would ask him two questions: tell me two things you know and tell me your verse. The two things he knows are always, “I’m loved and I’m called.” And the verse was something we decided on at the beginning of the year, a theme with the verse that represents that theme that each day Isaiah and Eli both recite.

The two things you know and the verse serve as a time of centering at the beginning of the day. What we tell Eli and Isaiah every year is that no matter what happens each day in school, no matter what grade you get, no matter who gets mad at you or ignores you or who calls you names or refuses to speak to you, the two most important things you can know are that you are loved – by God, by us, by your family and so many others – and that you are called. You are called by God to serve God and others, particularly those who are vulnerable. You were created for a purpose, you have a place on this earth for a Kingdom reason, and your calling is higher and more important than any damn grade you might get on any paper or test. The only way you can fail is to forget you are called – and you can make that up at any minute of the day by just remembering that you are, in fact, called by God.

I remember some of the morning conversations to be profound. As Eli has grown my parenting has had to change. I want so badly to teach Eli so many lessons but my teaching has had to go from me saying, “listen to this statement of truth,” to “share with me what you think.” I have had to go from making definitive statements about what I think and what I want him to know to asking questions about what he thinks and allowing him the safety and space to think aloud and to live into what he believes. Definitive statements are easy and make me feel comfortable and self-assured; they are, in fact, more about me and what I believe. Questions are hard to think of (good ones at least), and there have been many mornings when the six minutes are over and the conversation has to be done and so much is left unsaid, so much is still ambiguous. The issue is not talked through and there are questions left unanswered and things he said that must go unaddressed, at least for that moment in time. But isn’t life ambiguous? Isn’t life sometimes a series of provocative questions that have gone not fully answered, but yet, what is left is a pledge of unconditional love and support to walk through the ambiguity together? Life as one big definitive statement with no questions or even confusion is also life without wonderment or even imagination. It isn’t a life I want to live in at all.

I will always remember hearing Eli sharing his beliefs on the church and his frustration with anything that was not authentic and real. I can hear him talk about the importance of relationships and loyalty. I can hear him passionately talk about politics and the latest stupid things he saw Republicans do (that’s my boy!), and so many other things. I must admit I have always believed that our morning walks and conversations have been for the purpose of me shaping him, forming his thoughts, his values, his opinions, etc. But listening to Eli has had a profound formative influence on me. I told Eli this past Sunday that I have gone from being pretty much a struggling moderate in my views on gay marriage to being fully in support – largely because of him and his passion for the full rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Each morning when I am in town and not travelling for the last eight years has been, for many of those days, the highlight of my day. Hearing him talk, sometimes about the deepest and most profound thoughts, sometimes with half grunts and irritated short answers (sometimes I ask too many questions), but always with a willingness to connect with his dad, will be something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Eli makes me laugh (he really is funny), he makes me think, and my love for him makes me cry (even now as I write this on a plane headed back home). Eli is my passion. From the time we knew Marti was pregnant I knew I wanted him to be named Elisha because I wanted to be challenged to be a parent, as the prophet Elijah was in many ways for the prophet Elisha who had a mantle, a calling and purpose in life, that my son wanted to carry on. I do not know if I am an Elijah for my son, but I do know that Elisha makes me a better person, a better follower of Jesus.

I do not know where I will get my six minutes a day with Eli next year or the years after, but I will be looking. I do not know if those six minutes were as transformative for Eli as they have been for me. But each day for six minutes I got to connect with my son, my Elisha, my passion. Man, I miss it already. Thanks Eli for letting your nerdy dad walk with you way past the time other kids did. Those really were the best six minutes of my day.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Testimony about Solitary Confinement Before Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights

Written Testimony of
Bill Mefford
Director of Civil and Human Rights
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Before the
Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement
June 19, 2012

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society concerning the harmful use of solitary confinement in our nation’s federal prisons, jails, and detention centers. We are encouraged that this committee has chosen to focus a hearing solely on reassessing the use of solitary confinement, the first hearing of its kind. This comes at a time when a growing number of states across the nation are also reassessing this practice and implementing policies to limit its use. We believe that this committee will find that solitary confinement is a moral failure as well as an unnecessary financial burden on the federal and state governments.

The United Methodist Church is the third largest denomination in the United States and has over 11 million members worldwide. The General Board of Church and Society is tasked with bringing “the whole of human life, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God. It shall show the members of the Church and society that the reconciliation that God effected through Christ involves personal, social, and civic righteousness.”

Across the United States inmates and detainees are being confined in a small cell for 22-24 hours per day for weeks, months, even years at a time. The United States leads the world in its use of solitary confinement, a dubious distinction. Some estimates claim that at least 80,000 people in the U.S. criminal justice system are held in solitary confinement. The 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons issued a report, Confronting Confinement, stated that from 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40% compared to 28%.

There have been numerous studies that have shown the harmful psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. Some of these effects include hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, and even suicidal ideation. The 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons noted that among the dozens of studies on the use of solitary confinement conducted since the 1970s, there was not a single study of non-voluntary solitary confinement lasting more than 10 days that did not document negative psychiatric symptoms in its subjects.

The United Methodist Church believes that every person is created in the image of God. Considering the severe harm done to individuals through the use of solitary confinement its use must be condemned. Scriptures are clear that we must regard the inherent value of each person as sacred. Jesus is so protective of the sacredness of each person that he identifies with those who are incarcerated and the failure of his followers to acknowledge and protect their sacredness when he states, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). The early Church was instructed to continue Jesus’ high regard for the sacredness of each individual as it is written, “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

The United Methodist Church has long held the importance of recognizing and protecting the sacred worth of each individual, especially among those who are incarcerated. We work and 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.” (2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline) Solitary confinement is not restorative, but rather is retributive and does not recognize or protect the sacred worth of each individual.

According to Article I of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which states in part, “the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” The United Methodist Church stands unequivocally against the use of torture. “Mistreatment or torture, and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment of persons by governments for any purpose violates Christian teaching and must be condemned and/or opposed by Christians and churches wherever and whenever it occurs.” (2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline) Solitary confinement is a form of torture and must be ended.

Moreover, solitary confinement is a financial drain on society. Super-max prisons are much more expensive to build than other housing facilities. Additionally, the daily cost per inmate in a solitary confinement unit far exceeds the costs of housing an inmate in lower security facility. The 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that housing inmates in solitary confinement can double the normal cost of incarceration since solitary confinement units require individual cells and significantly more staff. Some experts believe that this can run as much as $50,000 more annually compared to general population housing.

Further, solitary confinement has a negative impact on the re-entry of returning citizens to their communities and thus, can be a detriment to public safety. Inmates who have been held in solitary confinement are significantly more likely to recommit crimes than those who have been held in the general prison population. For example, the 2006 Commission on safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons cited a Washington state study of over 8,000 former prisoners. The study found that people who were released directly from solitary confinement had a much higher rate of recidivism than individuals who spent some time in the general prison population before returning to the community. Public safety is best enhanced when those who are currently incarcerated are given access to educational classes and social programs to prepare them for a successful re-entry to society and with their families.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, the United Methodist Church believes strongly that the United States should do everything it can to reverse our nation’s harmful and expensive reliance on solitary confinement. This is a profound moral issue and we have a moral obligation to uphold the sacred worth of each person currently incarcerated. To that end, we would strongly support your leadership in sponsoring legislation that would dramatically limit or end entirely the use and length of solitary confinement. We implore you to immediately take steps to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Your hearing today is a very important effort in doing that, and we thank you for the opportunity to contribute to it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

United Methodist Response to President Obama's Decision for Temporary Relief for DREAM Act Students

Below is a statement issued Friday, June 15 by the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration. The Task Force is made up of all the boards and agencies of the United Methodist Church.

United Methodists across the country are celebrating President Obama’s decision today to direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop deporting undocumented immigrant youth and allow them to obtain work permits if they arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have no criminal record, have been in the United States for at least five consecutive years, graduated from a U.S. high school or hold a GED, or served in the military.

The young people affected by this policy are known as “DREAMers” after the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAM Act-eligible students. The DREAM Act passed the Senate in 2010, but came up five votes shy of overcoming a procedural filibuster which prevented its passage. Although most Republicans voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, there has been recent openness by a few of the leaders in the party. The decision announced today by the President shows a bold step forward and many United Methodists across the country stand ready to support this important and long-awaited decision.

In the past three years, United Methodist congregations have, in many ways, led faith communities in advocating for just and humane immigration reform, including the DREAM Act. Just a few weeks ago, the United Methodist Immigration Reform Grassroots Journal was released, which illustrates United Methodists grassroots work in support of just and humane reform.

United Methodists have engaged in over 570 events of public witness over the last three years, including public prayer vigils, meetings with members of Congress, and 250 DREAM Sabbath services in the fall of 2011 alone. This means an average of almost 200 public witness events each year, or one event every 42 hours.

In addition to the direct services that hundreds of United Methodist churches provide immigrant communities such as Justice for Our Neighbors, legal clinics for low-income immigrants, United Methodists are advocating for legislative reform that upholds the dignity and defends the basic civil and human rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters. United Methodist boards and agencies have come together to work in a unified effort to defend and support the rights of immigrants through the Interagency Task Force on Immigration, led by Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Phoenix area and Bishop Julius Trimble of the Des Moines area.

In response to the decision made by President Obama today, Bishop Carcaño and Bishop Trimble both commented on the fact that in states like Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Arizona, Texas and many others across the nation, United Methodists have publicly testified to the need for reform because United Methodists witness the impact of a broken immigration system every day. Seeing families torn apart through raids and long waits due to family backlogs, and seeing how that impacts our congregations who readily serve immigrant communities, has compelled United Methodists to make their voices heard.

While today’s decision protects DREAM Act students from further deportations, this does not yet provide the long-term solution needed to guarantee DREAMers full citizenship in a timely manner. Bishop Carcaño stated, “Congress must step up, as President Obama has done, and provide the necessary leadership to pass the DREAM Act and ensure that justice is done for DREAM Act eligible students. These are students who serve in our communities and congregations. These are not just leaders for tomorrow, they are our leaders today and they deserve every right that every citizen of the United States enjoys. This is a much-needed first step and one that we will celebrate until we see the DREAM Act signed into law.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Time to Leave Constantine Behind

A group of evangelical leaders are coming out with a statement this week urging Congress to get moving on a solution to the broken immigration system. I am glad they are on board. Support for general reforms among the religious community now spans the theological spectrum, left to right. Religious leaders from virtually all faith backgrounds agree that something must be done to reform the U.S. immigration system. This, of course, is a positive development.

But, as they say, the devil is in the details and so I was fascinated to read the following list of principles signed on to by evangelical leaders. They include:

  • Respects the God-given dignity of every person
  • Protects the unity of the immediate family
  • Respects the rule of law
  • Guarantees secure national borders
  • Ensures fairness to taxpayers
  • Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
Perhaps with a quick read this seems like a fairly sensible list of principles. But what leaps off the page to me is the “guarantee” of secure borders. Though the issue of immigration does indeed carry with it economic and national security implications, what has been lost in the national discussion is that this issue is first and foremost a human rights issue. This is about people. Immigrants are people who have left their countries of origin for multitudes of reasons, but most often, with the simple goal of providing for their families. Defending and supporting their rights should be the highest priority for faith communities, and it is, thankfully, for many people of faith regardless of their theological or political background. Once again, I am glad to see this.

But in too many statements such as this one, the faith community loses the power of our voice when we make the primacy of this issue wrongly focused on economic and national security, rather than on people. United Methodist policy, I believe, rightly captures the necessary balance between the sovereignty of nations and the mission of the church. There is and should be a tension between those two emphases. United Methodist policy states that “all nations have a right to secure their borders, but the primary concern of Christians is the welfare of the immigrant.”

What is troubling about religious leaders advocating for a “guarantee” of secure borders is that it dangerously fuses what should be the concerns of the State with the mission of the church. Proclaiming that States have the right to secure their borders and signing on to a statement guaranteeing that those borders will be secured – something that seems ridiculously impossible – is the difference between a Church that seeks the welfare of the people that it is incarnated among and a Church that seeks the welfare of the state within which it is located. It is the difference between the New Testament Church and the Constantinian Church.

Rodney Clapp, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon have all written about the Constantiniazation of the Church, or how the interests and purposes of the Church have become intertwined with those of the State since the fourth century (Clapp 1996:17, 23-27, 38-39, 45-46; Hauerwas and Willimon 1989:17, 30, 42, 72). They call this Constantinianism because it was in 313 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine first made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Establishing Christianity as the official religion of the empire effectively transformed Christianity from a counter-cultural movement into a state-sponsored institution. And we are still struggling with the effects of this sponsorship.

Clapp makes the comparison that as sports stars are sponsors of products like shoes or soft drinks and so become linked to those products to the point of seeing one brings images of the other, so too the Church has become the official sponsor of Western civilization. What is particularly important for this discussion is the statement Clapp makes regarding sponsorship. He states that, “etymologically, the word [sponsor] springs from the Latin word, ‘sponsus’ which has to do with guaranteeing and taking responsibility for the achievement of a desired outcome” (1996:24, italics mine).

And this is precisely what this particular principle in the evangelical statement has done, although I should be quick to state that the problem of engaging the world through a Constantinian missiological framework is most certainly not limited to evangelicals – this is found in every expression of Western Christianity . But with this particular principle, as official sponsors of the United States, these evangelical leaders have made themselves responsible for the achievement of securing national borders to the extent that they will never be illegally crossed. The crucial question we as followers of Jesus should be asking is this: is the guarantee of secure borders something that really belongs to the mission of the Church? Is this something that Jesus held out as important for his followers to engage in? Did he model this for us in some way in the gospels? I believe the answer to all of these questions is a definitive no. Therefore this statement is frankly a theologically dangerous one to make.

What shifted within the first few generations in the life of the Church was that the concerns of the State went from being important to followers of Jesus to being central and defining to the institutional church. Since we are long past the early life of the Church I am afraid followers of Jesus have no other way of seeing the role of the State as other than central and defining to the life and mission of the Church.

Therefore, statements with principles like this by religious leaders will not be critiqued, they will be celebrated. We will see this happen all this week as this statement is rolled out, as this statement is supported by hundreds of thousands of dollars from big-time funders, and as this statement, most importantly, is embraced by political leaders who will thank religious leaders who hold the interests of the State so dear to their hearts. And that, I believe, is the real tragedy. We do not have a prophetic voice because we, the Church, are the primary sponsors of the national security interests of the United States of America.

And I ask the question again so it will not be forgotten. Should this be central and definitive to the mission of the Church? I strongly suggest the answer should be a very firm no.

Sadly, the Western Church has moved from its origins in the New Testament from that of a marginal movement challenging society’s predominant values primarily through its counter cultural practice of love and hospitality towards society’s most vulnerable, to a State-approved institution whose task is to preserve the political and economic status quo and to give it legitimacy by adopting the values of the State (such as national security and economic prosperity) as its own. The church’s fall into Constantinianism has shielded the state from a necessary prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness; a wilderness void of press releases, void of statement rollouts and void of big-time funders. The church fails to be prophetic because it shares in the preservation of the State. Should the State fall the Constantinian church will fall.

However, we know from Scripture, that nations come and go, but our success and failure – our faithfulness – is not dependent on the welfare of the State. Our faithfulness is dependent on the presence of the Kingdom of God; on whether the Kingdom is manifest in our speech and our actions. And since the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, our speech and actions should be focused not on guaranteeing the security of the borders of the State, but rather, on defending and supporting the rights of the most vulnerable in society. This is why immigration, for the New Testament Church, must be first and last, a human rights issue.

The good news is that we can still regain theessence of the New Testament Church and lose our captivity to Constantinianism. It will take some work – Constantine still has a fairly firm hold on us, on our ideas, our speech, our practices, our worship, and especially on our mission. To get free of Constantine, we will risk some of the same things Jesus risked, including his willingness to be viewed as a radical with questionable intentions, instead of being viewed as a solid, someone-we-can-count-on moderate. Moreover, to liberate ourselves from Constantine we must receive and be prepared to live out the same missional calling Jesus named for himself when he said at the outset of his ministry, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). The Year of the Jubilee seems like a good time to leave Constantine behind.