Blog Pic

Blog Pic

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best and Worst Films of 2014

This year was a great one for films and there are several that will be ones I will see again. On the other hand, some films I will be happy if I never see even late night on cable. See if you agree with the lists I have made, and for the ones I have recommended that you haven’t seen, I hope you will!

Best Films of 2014
Draft Day
As a Cleveland Browns fan, this was a must-see and it lived up to my expectations both times I saw it! Kevin Costner might be the finest sports film actor of all time, able to combine the passion for sports with the personal emotional conflict that comes with unresolved relational turmoil. The story plot is certainly not the most original but for sports fans like me who have grown up watching the NFL draft religiously, seeing a little bit behind-the-scenes keeps you fully invested. Anything that shows the Cleveland Browns with hope is an automatic winner as far as I am concerned.

A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors so this became a must-see once I heard of his untimely death. Hoffman gives one of his usual incredible performances as he weighs the benefits of national loyalty with authentic justice. This qualifies as a suspense thriller, but not in the over-the-top-Hollywood way, but rather, as a steady and subtle emotional build-up where you are kept in the dark until the very end and then are left with thoughts and questions even as it is resolved. There just aren’t enough movies like this anymore and it is a shame. It is a shame as well that Hoffman has been taken from us; he will be missed greatly.

Guardians of the Galaxy
I find these films at best entertaining, mostly forgettable, and at times nauseating. The fact that a Marvel, superhero film makes one of my best-of-2014 is certainly an achievement. I admire good special effects, but I really do not need them when I see a film. Character development and story substance outdo special effects every time as far as I am concerned. I found myself actually liking and identifying with some aspects of the characters and while the story was not too original (seriously, how many times do we really need to save the world), it was enough. I might even go see the sequel, but my expectations will be lowered considerably.

The Equalizer
I hedged on this one quite a bit. But the fact that this film deals with real ethical questions of what does justice really mean without being too preachy gets it for me. I am not super high on this film, but Denzel does intensity like no one else. Still, I think it is time for him to get away from the action/violence genre for a bit as he is actually getting to be typecast for this kind of role. I miss him in the straight dramas.

Kill the Messenger
An excellent film that has not gotten the notoriety it deserves. It tells the story of Gary Webb, a journalist who uncovers the truth of US complicity in the South American drug trade during the 1980s. Webb experiences the great acclaim as well as the tremendous despair that goes with truth-telling, especially when the truth you are speaking involves an enormous institution that will do anything to cover its culpability in injustice. I was so moved by this film and by Jeremy Renner’s performance that I wrote a blogpost about the costs of truth-telling. Truly an excellent film and one I highly encourage you to see.

I am not usually all that impressed or enthused by war films. US society could do without war films for a while. Hell, the US could do without war for a while! But this is by far the best war film since Saving Private Ryan, the last time when a war film was as much about the relationships between those who fought as it was about killing the enemy. I recommend this, but I wouldn’t mind if we dropped these films for a while.

A peculiar film, but an excellent one that showcases the talents of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and especially the Director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Keaton plays an actor who seeks to rebuild his once-fabled career through producing a Broadway play while also trying to rebuild the relationships with his family. What was fascinating is that the film is shot much like a film, with long running takes that run through several scenes without many cuts. I found myself amazed but yet almost more distracted by how it was directed than at the story lines, which are multiple and complex. The film is shot as if you are watching a play and the skill involved is indeed fascinating to see. This is not really a feel-good movie, but it deserves the attention it has received and Inarritu should get an Oscar for his direction.

Dear White People
I love films where there seems to be good guys and bad guys, but the characters are much more complex and nuanced. This film deals with the complexity of race in a respectful and challenging way. I wish I could say that all white people should see this, just because I know white people will be extremely hesitant to see it. But advising only white people to see it as if they will be the ones to be ethically challenged and socially slammed sells this film way short. All people should see this and talk about it at length afterwards. I wish I had seen this in a group.

This is another peculiar film about a very peculiar guy played by Jake Gyllenhall who becomes somewhat of a Machiavellian free lance news cameraman for crime journalism in Los Angeles. He is willing to do anything to get ahead and as he does so he becomes more alive and real while those around him are diminished and objectified. This is a powerful film and Gyllenhall is masterful as a disturbed loner who makes you uncomfortable as you watch him. But you can’t help but watch him just the whole of society cannot help but watch the blood and violence he captures on film for the news channels.

This film is one of my favorites of the year. Jon Stewart wrote and directed this film and you can tell. It is at once harrowing and sweet, frightening yet funny. Rosewater is a true story of a journalist – yes another film about a journalist! – who is detained after returning to his home in Iran in 2009 to interview the political opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Gael Garcia Bernal is incredible in his portrayal of Maziar Bahari, as Bahari deals with not only the emotional and physical torture and torment of indefinite detainment, but also dealing with the expectations of his family. A powerful film, with incredible writing and Oscar-caliber acting.

Not only my favorite film of the year, but one of my all-time favorites. Historically spot on and yet, a film rooted in history but not obsessed with every fact and date. This was a brilliant narrative of one of the pivotal times in the civil rights movement. The movie did focus on Martin Luther King – who was absolutely brilliantly played – but also included important and less historically known figures such as Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, James Foreman, Fred Gray, to name a few. The powerful narrative of the overall movement – that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things – was evident in this film and should be a lesson to all of us, especially those of us in the church. This is a must-see.

Films in 2014 I would NOT Recommend
The Monuments Men
This was disappointing, what with the build up and the star-studded cast assembled for this film. But a cast does not a good film make. The dialog seemed silly at times and I was bored and checking my watching after 45 minutes – not a good sign for any movie.

Anchorman 2
Yes, I love Will Farrell and yes I laughed out loud numerous times. But his character actually started grating on me as well, which is always the problem with sequels. Still, Will Farrell is the funniest person in movies today so I don’t recommend it unless you just want something entirely mindless, you don’t get too offended too easily and maybe if you shut it off after an hour and a half, which should actually be the limit for all comedies.

I was tempted to put this on the recommended list just because of the freak-out so many had in response to this film, but I had to keep it here. I personally do not go to movies to get Sunday school lessons though sometimes I am surprised! But in the end, this is just another action film. Crowe’s portrayal of Noah as an insane religious fanatic just didn’t come across and frankly, it didn’t fit the story.

Captain America: Winter Soldier
Entertaining, but zero substance. Basic formula are hot guy, hot girl, save the world from some overwhelming force, but does anyone know why or for what reason? I have no idea either.

The Drop
The story of a local bar that serves as a front for laundering mob money gets robbed and the films examines the lives of those who work at the bar. The plot is intriguing and some of the characters, particularly James Gandolfini in his last film, as well as Noomi Rapace. But what did not work for me was Tom Hardy in the leading role, who seemed out of place and out of character. His slow, plodding portrayal made the “big switch” seem implausible and not much of a switch at all. This was a good film, but one that could and should have been much, much better.

Gone Girl
An interesting story and well done in terms of surprises, but by the time this film ended I was tired of everyone and I frankly didn’t care what to anyone. I like Ben Affleck, but I did not like this film.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This was Captain America: Winter Soldier part 2 as far as I am concerned. Another forgettable sequel with good special effects and little narrative or character development. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

St. Vincent
A sweet film and Bill Murray is funny as usual, but didn’t we see this already in Gran Torino? The ending was nice but a little too predictable.

John Wick
I love my dog, but I wouldn’t kill anyone over her, much less dozens of people in an endless orgy of violence that characterized practically every minute of this movie. I had a headache by the time this movie ended. Hopefully we will not have to see John Wick ever again.

Wish I had seen:
I wasn’t able to see every movie this year and here are the ones I wish I had: Boyhood, Million Dollar Arm, Cesar Chavez, Pride, The Theory of Everything, The Interview (not because I really liked this film, but just to piss off a dictator), The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Wild, Exodus, The Gambler, Unbroken, Big Eyes, and Cake.

Glad I didn’t see:
And then there are the movies I am exceedingly grateful I did not see. They definitely deserve a mention: Blended, Spider Man 2 (shouldn’t this be Spider Man 5?), Ninja Turtles, Left Behind (seriously Nicholas Cage?), Interstellar, Dumb & Dumber To (one was more than enough), The Hobbit (when will this series finally die?), American Sniper, and, of course, Saving Christmas (double UGH)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Captivity of Subdivisions

You know how when you hear a certain song you haven’t heard in a while, you can be taken back in time to when you first heard it, almost feeling the same feelings, thinking the same thoughts you felt and thought back then? I had a similar experience over Thanksgiving from, of all things, dead, brown grass. 

My family and I were back in Texas visiting relatives for the Thanksgiving holidays when my boys said they wanted to see where I went to high school. I was a little surprised – they usually hate it when I talk about how much I love REO Speedwagon or talk about the glory days in college. So, we were on the west side of Plano and started making our way east to Plano East Senior High, a place where I left no impact or mark. As we drove we passed neighborhood after neighborhood with house after house with yard after yard filled with the dead, brown grass that took me back to all of the times I came back to see my family from college or seminary. And the neighborhoods, houses, and yards all looked exactly alike to me. And just with the song or smell of certain foods that takes you back in time, the sight of the yard after yard with dead, brown grass took me back to each time I returned for the holidays – and the feeling I had was a total dread. 

No offense meant to my fellow Planoites, but I hated Plano when I was growing up there. And after I left, I dreaded going “home” to visit family. It just always felt so stifling, like the sameness was the strangling grip of uniformity that demanded certain attitudes, beliefs, even a certain lifestyle. It was hegemonic in many ways. 

When I was growing up in Plano I couldn’t wait to leave. I used to dream of living in the North or Midwest or Northwest – anywhere but Plano. You see, the neighborhoods and houses in Plano were actually a sign of progress and affluence in the 70s and 80s when the low taxes and zero regulations on businesses meant that lots of corporate headquarters relocated to North Texas, Plano in particular. Plano exploded with the insurgence of so many newly planted “Texans” and as the corporate ladder-climbers moved in, so did my family. 

Neighborhoods were popping as fast as builders could cheaply build them. Stores followed the neighborhoods as did churches, and it was a economically booming time. The arrogance of the recently-planted Texans was quite high considering almost none of the friends I had in high school were actually Texans – meaning born in Texas (and for the record, I am a TENNESSEAN and proud of it!). 

I even remember a song that I clung to in high school because it captured the suffocation that I was feeling. The song is Subdivisions by Rush and it followed their huge album, Moving Pictures. The opening verses in particular captured my thoughts:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

Alone is what I felt through most of my time in Plano. And driving through it with my boys I felt at first the same dread and yes, the loneliness. I felt every time I came back. But I also felt contentment especially as I thought of my two amazing, beautiful boys travelling with me now who make me so proud and happy. I felt the kind of contentment and gratefulness you feel when you have passed through a set of trials and have come through them largely unscathed. 

I always am amazed when I hear testimonies of people who have gone through truly sizable obstacles: things like addiction, abuse, violence, poverty. I went through none of those so it hard for me to identify, though I am amazed when I hear their stories. I merely had to endure boredom and a strangling, hegemonic sense of conformity. Yet, it’s the boredom and the stifling hegemony that creates or exacerbates the marginalization of those who are captive to addiction, violence, poverty and the rest. It is societal conformity and our slavish obedience to it that keeps us from looking compassionately upon those who fall outside those tightly controlled boundaries. Conformity means detachment and is only smashed when we truly relate with those who are unwilling or unable to conform. 

So, let’s remember and hold up the dreamers and misfits that Geddy Lee sings of above. It is the Church alone, I believe, who can provide the alternative community to the captivity of subdivisions. It is the Church that can foster creativity and imagination. And it is the Church that can welcome and provide hospitality for all who feel burdened by the “geometric order…detached and subdivided in the mass production zone.” In Christ and his community of believers we truly are welcomed for who we are. There is glory in our differences and uniqueness for it reflects the perfect imagination of our Creator. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

How to Wage and Win the War on Christmas!

Because nothing is as important to the Christmas season as winning the culture wars, here are a few helpful hints. Enjoy!

1) Shoplift stores that refuse to wish you Merry Christmas

2) Plant a nativity scene at a local ACLU office and when they take it down claim they are persecuting you

3) With all of the bowl games happening, every player who scores a touchdown must celebrate by Tebowing or be penalized 15 yards

4) When you eat out, tip Christians 12.5% and non-Christians 4%. To discern whether your waiter is a Christian or not, make jokes about people of other religions and when your waiter laughs with you, you know they are one of you

5) Unless it costs more than $100 refuse to accept a gift unless it carries a note saying Merry Christmas

6) When you refuse to help someone because they are undocumented make sure you wish them Merry Christmas

7) When you refuse to give money to the homeless because they should get a job and buy their own house make sure you wish them Merry Christmas

8) When you donate the ugly sweater you have never worn or the can of kidney beans you bought three years ago to the local food pantry and clothing closet, be sure you wish them Merry Christmas (before you get a receipt so you can deduct it from your taxes)

9) While you ignore the person standing on the corner asking for money make sure your CD is playing Amy Grant’s “Tennessee Christmas” loud enough so that they can hear through your rolled up windows

10) Begin using militaristic language for other holidays. Remember, we can fight all year long

11) Whatever you do, do NOT reflect on Jesus as a refugee or as a poor baby in a barn so that people don’t get the wrong idea. Jesus must be made in our image

12) When someone asks you why you are fighting the war do not fall into the elitist, liberal conspiracy of using “reason.” Reason is for wimps and just boils down to words arranged in a certain order to convey an idea that is supposed to be “logical” so as to make a "point." Don’t fall for that one. Instead, respond emotionally. Sing the national anthem to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and then start crying as you remember the time when Lee Greenwood signed your #8 NASCAR shirt at the Lubbock Speedway. It will also help if you wear a Christmas sweater in red, white, and blue.

13) If you have a live nativity outside your church, make sure your shepherds are armed with rifles and have them shoot warning shots anytime a car drives by with an Obama/Biden sticker. Actions (and gunshots) speak louder than words

14) Try to avoid anyone who disagrees with you, but when you have to be around "those people" who refuse to say, “Merry Christmas” just scowl and remember how persecuted you are.

15) Make those who refuse to say Merry Christmas watch Kirk Cameron’s film, Saving Christmas. Why should the CIA be the only ones allowed to torture?


Friday, December 12, 2014

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities - Week 3

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities
Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4

Week 3: Micah 4:4

But they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. 

After the mountain of the house of the Lord is raised up and the nations stream to it to learn of the Lord’s ways of peace, and after judgments are rendered between nations, and after great effort is poured into transforming weapons into instruments to provide for the welfare of all, and after the culture that produced warring nations is transformed, now we see in verse 4 the promise for Micah’s vision of God’s Kingdom dream fulfilled. That fulfillment is genuine security and peace for all people.

Underlying so much of warfare is the need for nations to protect themselves: to secure their borders, to guard against real or perceived enemies, to defend their economic or foreign policy interests. Even wars for territorial expansion or to exploit another nation’s resources are framed as protecting one’s own interests. In light of this, it is intriguing, to say the least, that economic security is given to all people by God only after the weapons of warfare are beaten – transformed through the participatory effort of the nations who come to God to learn of God’s ways – into instruments that will provide for the well-being of all people. 

Micah’s dream clearly conveys the idea that genuine peace and security cannot be attained through violence and war. That’s the reason the nations of the world come to the recognition that God’s ways are higher than their ways! It is only after the weapons have been transformed by those who once wielded them in anger and hatred with dreams of domination, or perhaps in the attempt to satiate territorial expansion or the accumulation of riches. All contexts are different of course, but all of these motivations have been used historically in regards to violence committed against others on the international level and even on the individual level. Violence, in so many ways, is fueled by fear and self-protection.

God’s response is to first be lifted up above all other mountains so that God can be acknowledged. The recognition by nations of their inability to be free of war and violence is a statement of confession and the need for God’s intervention. This is followed by a journey to the presence of God. Confession alone is not enough. The judgments God renders between nations who had experienced violence and warfare are accepted by those nations. The act of repentance from past violence is engaged in through the participation of beating the weapons into instruments that provide for the welfare of all people. Repentance brings the dreams so often associated with conquest and domination – dreams of peace, safety and economic security – into reality through the strength and transformative power of God and not through hoarding instruments of violence. 

As we discussed last week, Micah’s dream will not be realized through God removing all weaponry from the nations. But the motivations behind the use of potential weapons are transformed as the cultures that train those who live within them for war will no longer perpetuate learned violent behavior. Also transformed are the weapons, as they will be fashioned to be used for the benefit of all people and not for violence. Both will be addressed for God’s dream of peace and security to be realized. 

Humankind has learned how to dominate and do violence, but only God can truly fulfill the dreams and aspirations of humanity. Humankind can kill and destroy, but only God can redeem, transform, and fulfill. Humanity has historically created violent realities that put many innocent lives in peril, but God creates Kingdom dreams and invites all of us to actively participate in the difficult work of manifesting God’s Kingdom dreams even in the midst of the violent realities all around us. 

This is not mere utopianism or some fly-by-night dream concocted by an obscure prophet long forgotten to be dismissed the minute we put down the Bible. This isn’t mere hyperbole for preachers who want to make noise and not for those who want to walk it out. It is exactly the opposite. These four verses are sealed with the promise based on God’s character: “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” God intends to bring it about because this is who God is and what God has promised. If we indeed believe in who God is, in what God says, then we can count on Micah’s dream coming to pass. The only question we have to ask is if we want to participate in making these Kingdom dreams real and if the one day Micah speaks of longingly might be today. 

Belief in the reality of God’s promise coming to pass means that we live to see the promise of God’s Kingdom made real in our lives and in our world today. To refuse to work toward that dream, to continue to hoard weapons of violence to create fear and intimidation in others and to make self-preservation our greatest focus is actually a statement of unbelief in the power of God to make God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. 

Contextual Reflection
Gun violence happens for a number of reasons and one prominent reason is self-preservation: to protect one’s property, to protect one’s life or one’s family, or to protect one’s “way of life.” Securing what has been entrusted to us seems to not only be natural, but also a means of good stewardship. In Micah’s vision of God’s Kingdom, however, security is achieved not through arming oneself and overpowering or intimidating one’s enemy, but rather, in acknowledging that our ways of arming ourselves, attempting to overpower or intimidate our real or perceived enemies, is going to end in our own destruction. Our confession, as the nations will be one day, is that God’s ways are not our ways. Our weapons will not bring us the security we desire. That will only come with the reality of God’s Kingdom in our world. 

Micah’s vision is first and foremost about our own salvation, and out of our acknowledgement that our attempts to provide for our own self-protection we are invited to participate with God in the salvation and liberation of the world. Micah’s vision is in the process of being fulfilled through the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. It is Jesus who promised at the beginning of his ministry that he was the one prophesied about by Micah’s contemporary, Isaiah, to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:19) Our willingness to participate in the peace and security characteristic of God’s Kingdom is dependent on our recognition that we are powerless to bring about our own security, peace, and fulfillment in life. No matter if we own every type of gun there is or if we don’t have access to guns at all, we are all in need of recognizing our utter inability to manufacture our own salvation. 

One must wonder what it will be like for the first nation to see the mountain of the house of the Lord lifted up and to acknowledge their current path will lead only to destruction. Then to journey to the mountain of the house of the Lord and to submit to God’s judgment on disputes with other nations and to begin the real work of transforming weapons into instruments that provide for the benefit of all people. Who will be the first nation, or people, to gaze upon the mountain of the house of the Lord and be willing to acknowledge that our attempts to protect and secure our own prosperity are in vain? Who will be the first to repent?

If repentance from attempting to bring about our own self-preservation through violence is to start anywhere, it should start with the church. Our theological understanding of confessing our own inability to bring about our own salvation and then our willingness to participate in the transformation that accompanies God’s manifestation of the Kingdom in the world necessitates specific actions we can take. 

First, corporate repentance must include, and perhaps may even have to begin with, individual repentance. Just as God desires changing cultures from violence to peace so that they “learn war no more,” so also God desires the same transformation of us as individuals. God wants to transform our anger into compassion, our indifference to the suffering of others into love, our covetousness into mutuality, our pride into humility, our obsession with self-preservation into whole-hearted love of God and people. 

Take a moment and recommit all of who you are to the Lord. Invite the Holy Spirit to convict you of any sin and to cleanse you. Our world will be more peaceful as we resemble more of Christ. There can be no social holiness without individual holiness. 

Reflecting on these three weeks, there seem to be some specific areas of public policy that stand out as obvious next steps from this Bible study. As stated previously, this passage does not represent the removal of weapons from nations. Weapons are transformed, but so is the culture in which those weapons were to be used for the violent realization of self-preservation. Both are necessary. Weapons used as instruments that provide for the welfare of all people are present in all cultures in such activities as hunting. The danger is when these instruments are fashioned into instruments that serve no purpose related to providing for the welfare of all people and are just made for the purpose of violence and self-preservation.

One specific step of action that we can take in the direction of realizing God’s Kingdom, as discussed in the first week of this study, is for churches to advocate for their governments to sign and ratify the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. This treaty focuses on the illegal trade across international boundaries of small arms and light weapons and presents a grave threat to peace in unstable regions of the world. Since most people killed by small arms are civilians this treaty can save lives. 118 nations have signed the treaty and 31 nations have ratified it.  After seeing if your country has signed or ratified you and your congregation can write letters urging your government to either sign or ratify.  

Another area of action supported by Micah’s dream is to make ownership of guns part of a responsible process. Simple steps can ensure that the cultural obsession with self-preservation even through the use of violence is not legitimized. Universal background checks as well as handgun-purchaser licensing have proven to better create public safety through making it harder for those with a high risk of violent behavior to attain guns. These steps also help to stop the illegal trafficking of guns. 

In studies in the United States, it has been shown that states with handgun purchaser licensing laws are also much less likely to export crime guns to other states (45 percent to 76 percent lower crime gun export rates).  Further, guns associated with crime recovered by police in states with handgun licensing and registration laws were much less likely to have been originally purchased within the state. This indicates that these laws make it harder for people with a high risk of violence to get guns. 

Micah’s vision of God’s Kingdom shows that self-protection is a matter of belief in the power of God and cannot be attained through fear and intimidation. For those in the United States, this means repealing the “Stand Your Ground” laws in states where they have been adopted.  Stand Your Ground laws allow for anyone in any place to use deadly force if they reasonably believe that they are in danger of bodily harm.  If the nations in Micah’s vision applied the Stand Your Ground reasoning then none would have ventured to the mountain of the house of the Lord, none would have repented, none would have participated in their salvation through transforming their weapons into instruments to care for the welfare of others, and none would have experienced genuine security. “Stand your Ground,” or using deadly force if we simply feel threatened in any way, seems to be a repudiation of belief in the power of God to be the one to bring about genuine security and peace. The Church must be on the forefront of the efforts to repeal Stand Your Ground laws if only because we are driven by the vision given to us by God through Micah. 

There are many steps to take. Some not mentioned here, but discussed earlier in this study are eliminating domestic violence and making health care available for all who struggle with mental illness.  Any or all of the steps described will help transform a world awash with weapons of violence. For as we recognize that God’s ways are higher than our ways and then we partner with making God’s Kingdom a reality in our lives, in our communities, in our congregations, and in our nations as envisioned by Micah, we remember that there can be no individual holiness without social holiness. 

The children in the physical education class outside at the middle school next door are playing Frisbee today. I have this great view of the kids there from my office window and its fun to see what they’re up to. But I can’t help wondering, will the chain of gun violence that has plagued our country find a link to where my son and his friends spend their weekdays? 

No parent should have to worry about the safety of their child at school. And yet every day I look out that window and imagine the horrific scenario that could take place; that has taken place in schools all over the United States. My eyes well up and I get a lump in my throat if I imagine what it would be like to respond to an act of violence as a pastor, as a neighbor, as a mother. I imagine the teachers and students being moved to our church building for refuge and possible safety. I imagine sirens, and responders, and chaos. I have to ask myself: would I be a source of strength and help? Or would I lapse into panic mode at the first young, scared face I see?

That’s why in December of 2013, on the anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I joined and began advocating with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.  I could no longer be a silent observer in this culture of gun violence. I want to make sure that the above scene won’t happen anywhere, and like every mother, I have the passion and ability to change the way things are. 

Many people say that pastors are in the “life-saving” business. I hope that is the case as I help to educate others about the common sense strategies that we can take (like mandatory universal background checks) in order to ensure the safety of our children. There is a time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3). Now is the time for action. 

The Rev. Michelle M. Reed is a United Methodist pastor in Wichita, Kansas and the Event Coordinator for Moms Demand Action in Kansas. 

Questions to Discuss:
1) What are the ways you and your nation are obsessed with self-preservation? Has this led to any engagement in violence in any form? 

2) What would it look like in your nation for all to “sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid?”

3) Which of the public policies listed here (sign and ratify the arms Trade Treaty, universal background checks, handgun-purchaser licensing, repealing Stand your Ground laws, preventing suicide and addressing issues of mental illness, or addressing domestic violence) are ones that you and your congregation can be involved in? What are some specific actions you can take? Consider creating an action plan with a timeline.  

4) The Rev. Michelle Reed joined Moms Demand Action to take action. Are there local groups such as this in your area that you can join? How can we create teams in our congregations to join with these groups?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities - Week 2

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities
Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4

Week 2: Micah 4:3

God shall judge between many people,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; 
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, 
neither shall they learn war anymore

The third verse of chapter 4 contains some of the most remarkable and beautiful imagery among any of the prophets. In verses 1-2 we saw that many nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house and in this verse we see why: They will be unable to deal adequately with their international disputes. Making Jerusalem the site for handling difficult decisions was not a new concept to the people of Israel. In Deuteronomy 17:8-11 God instructs the new nation of Israel to bring any case to the priests and judge in Jerusalem, “if a judicial decision is too difficult to make for you between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another.” (v. 8) It is interesting to note that in cases of death, they qualify as needing greater judgment. 

What is at first interesting in this verse in Micah is that the nations streaming to God’s presence are characterized as “strong.” This not only describes the nations, but also can be attributed to the character of God. Nothing in this passage indicates this arbitration will occur only among monotheistic nations, or nations already in peaceful coexistence with Israel. This is for all nations, regardless of their belief systems or prior relationship to one another. God is the final judge and the nations will voluntarily journey to God out of their desire to live in peace, without violence and bloodshed. 

This is a common prophetic theme. Micah’s contemporary, Isaiah, speaks of nations being drawn together as the sign of the coming Messiah which will be seen when, “the wolf shall live with the lamb.” (11:6-10) There will be no death or destruction, violence or war because “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (v. 9) As seen last week, the knowledge that will be sought after is to walk in the ways and paths of the Lord. 

One intriguing aspect of this verse is that God will arbitrate between strong nations which will still be armed at the time. The transformation of weapons into instruments of harvesting food occurs after the judgments are made, according to Micah. The prophet envisions God’s judgments as so good and fair that nations will inevitably not just turn in their weapons of warfare, they will engage in the difficult work of beating those weapons into agricultural instruments that provide for the welfare of all people. 

The entirety of the transformation Micah dreams of will be complete and stunning. To think of all the work that went into creating the weapons, it will also require a great deal of human effort into transforming those weapons into peaceful instruments. God does not collect or hide the weapons away from the people for use at some later time. God also does not transform the weapons magically on God’s own. Once the judgments are handed down, the nations themselves – the text states specifically, “They shall beat their swords” – will transform the weapons, once violently used to cause bloodshed, into instruments which will benefit all people.

It is intriguing to contemplate the fact that plowshares and pruning hooks can be used as weapons as well, though obviously not as effectively as swords or spears. The ability and purpose of these instruments is transformed from sheer violence to instruments of agricultural use. Yet, even as plowshares or pruning hooks, they could still be used for violent ends. It is vitally important to emphasize that God will not remove all forms of weaponry from the nations as if they are small children who cannot be trusted. The nations will retain the weapons, participate in the transformation of them into instruments of production, and then as we will discuss more in-depth next week, use them to provide for the welfare of all people. That the transformation occurs through both culture change and through a refashioning of weaponry is something that cannot be stressed enough. 

While the transformation of violent weapons is most noteworthy, perhaps even more transformative is the culture change of the warring nations. The disputes, many of which might be generational passed down from parent to child, often rooted in racism, ethnic hatred, nationalism, and sexism will be reconciled and there will no longer be a need for “learning war.” A new culture, a new way of peaceful co-existence, of reconciliation between enemies will be established. Violent weapons will be unnecessary because there will be worldview change among the nations. This is a picture of corporate conversion. 

Contextual Reflection
Sometimes a line is created between those who claim that gun violence can only be prevented through inward transformation of those who commit acts of gun violence. Others claim that the answers lie solely in the rigorous enforcement of current laws and in enacting new laws with more regulations. Micah shows us this line to be spurious. One side seems to want to internalize and spiritualize away a serious challenge to social peace, while the other side seems to want to dismiss the power of God in favor of human and governmental action. 

The transformation God longs to bring about, however, incorporates the individual internal conversion as well as corporate transformation of a society bent on bloodshed and exploitation of those who are vulnerable. Wesley’s belief that there is no holiness without social holiness seems right in line with Micah’s dream of God’s Kingdom. The reason why a line that separates internal conversion and societal transformation is fraudulent is that no challenge facing any society can be solved in a one-dimensional approach. That certainly includes preventing gun violence. 

Many factors lead to acts of gun violence and the type of gun violence is entirely contextual. One of the most prominent forms of gun violence is suicide. Worldwide, there are over one million suicides every year, which amounts to more than 3,000 per day.  While not all of these are caused by firearms of course, it is equally certain that access to firearms makes suicide more attainable for many who attempt it. Indeed, firearms are the most frequent method for suicides in countries where firearms are common in private households.  

At the same time, suicides will not cease solely through making firearms harder to access. The United Methodist Church believes that suicides can be prevented in part through providing “social interconnections, social support and life skills,”  something local churches seem particularly gifted to help provide. Therefore, to prevent firearms from being a primary method of suicides, we must seek to love those in crucial times who might be inclined to attempt suicides, providing social and spiritual support and unconditional love. And we must also seek to make firearms difficult to obtain for those who are struggling with mental illness for their safety and those around them. 

Micah’s dream of God’s Kingdom is certainly one where there is peace, but there will be work for that peace to be maintained. God will settle disputes between nations and while that brings to mind powerful nations warring with one another, history reminds us that oftentimes nations declare war on those unable to defend themselves. As we recall from last week, Micah is writing this as the Assyrian Empire is becoming more globally prominent and dangerous. 

Domestic violence can be viewed as the abuse of power by one partner over and against the other partner. When domestic violence incidents involve the use of firearms the results are devastating. “Gender inequality, tolerance and cultural acceptance of the use of violence against women, and common notions of masculinity that embrace firearms possession (which may be supported by both men and women) all combine to create a climate that places women at risk of Intimate Partner Violence involving firearms.”  Thus any approach to reducing or eliminating altogether the use of firearms among intimate partners must involve making firearms inaccessible to those with intimate partner violence in their past as well as addressing cultural attitudes that define masculinity and the value of women. 

Micah’s dream of God’s Kingdom supports both advocacy for legislation that makes attaining firearms difficult for those struggling with mental illness as well as those with backgrounds in intimate partner violence, and it supports the need for individual and corporate conversion. When we pray as the nations did in Micah’s dream, “Lord teach us your ways so that we might walk in your paths,” this involves an invitation to a lifetime of working out our transformation individually and societally. We need to be transformed individually by the Holy Spirit and we need to work in accordance with God’s Kingdom dream, as articulated by Micah, for the corporate transformation of the world from violence to authentic peace. 

The Narrative 
I wanted to hold my mom’s hand, to hug her. I just got a call from my mom who was in the hospital because her husband, John*, had shot her. 

Our previous conversation hadn’t ended well. A year before, I’d learned that her husband had been arrested for strangling her and threatening her with guns. They had since reconciled and were living together. I’d yelled at my mom, told her that she was being stupid and reckless. I’d pleaded with her and threatened to stop speaking to her. Nothing worked. 

And now my mother had become the victim of a crime that is the leading cause of injury to women. While mass shootings garner headlines, paralyze us with fear, and fuel debate on gun issues, many more people are likely to be affected by domestic violence. Statistics show that one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. 

Between January 1, 1997, and June 30, 2010, in Washington state alone, there were 463 homicides committed by domestic-violence abusers, with more than half of the victims killed with firearms, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV). In the cases where the victim had children, 55 percent of the children were present at the scene of the homicide; 16 children were killed.

Domestic violence also plays a role in mass shootings. A study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns  of every identifiable mass shooting (shootings in which four or more people are murdered) between January 2009 and January 2013, 57 percent of the incidents involved the killing of a family member, or a current or former intimate partner of the shooter.

My mother’s gun attack was both the culmination of years of fear and denial and the beginning of a powerful transformation for our family. I was 7 when my mom began dating John. After a brief courtship, they were married. Suddenly, our home felt like a strange dictatorship. The rules were unpredictable and changed with John’s whims. 

A common myth about domestic violence is that it’s only prevalent among those who are uneducated and living in poverty. John was extremely intelligent: He read books on abstract mathematics and had a master’s degree in engineering. My mom held an MBA and earned two more masters’ degrees during their marriage. From the outside, we probably seemed perfectly normal. We lived in an upscale neighborhood. We attended church.

John collected guns and liked to conduct target practice on the television with the laser sights on his gun. He would pull out his gun when President Bill Clinton was on, cursing as he fired his unloaded weapon, the sight on Clinton’s head. The “click, click, click” of the gun was always a warning that he was in a bad mood.

Through the years, John became more controlling and violent. We all learned to tiptoe around him, to try our best to go unseen and unnoticed. He found ways of justifying any physical abuse, but years of abuse warps people. Abusers know this. They start off charming and loving, but slowly peel away the self-worth of their victims like the layers of an onion. That’s how they get them to stay. 

My mother’s experience isn’t uncommon, and the toxic mixture of domestic violence and firearms made her particularly vulnerable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of a physical assault by a partner each year. When guns are a part of the equation, the risk of homicide skyrockets to more than five times higher than in instances where there are no weapons.  The WSCADV put together a list of 11 recommendations after reviewing 13 years of domestic-violence fatalities. One of those recommendations is to “maximize the use of existing legal means to restrict abusers’ access to firearms.” WSCADV cites numerous cases where the state’s failure to do this resulted in homicide. 

I learned after the shooting that my mother nearly bled to death after John shot her through the foot with a .45-caliber bullet, blowing off some of her heel and leaving her with a permanent limp. They were struggling over the gun when it went off. According to my mom, he attacked her, punched her, choked her and pinned her to the ground, then reached for the gun. She tried to knock it out of his hand when it went off. He’d left her bleeding on the ground while she begged for him to dial 911. 

Months of surgeries followed and recent MRI scans have revealed that she has some brain damage, likely from lack of oxygen to the brain due to traumatic blood loss. The brain damage has affected her ability to effectively do her job and to remember things.

Police seized 24 guns and hundreds of rounds of ammo from my mom’s and John’s home after the shooting. Unless new legislation passes in our state, my mother may have no legal recourse for ensuring that John doesn’t get his guns back.

My mom went on to testify in front of the Washington state legislature in support of Substitute House Bill 1840 which would ban people under full protection orders from buying or owning weapons while that order is in place. A New York Times investigation by Michael Luo,  “identified scores of gun-related crimes committed by people subject to recently issued civil protection orders, including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping. In at least five instances over the last decade, women were shot to death less than a month after obtaining protection orders. . . . There were dozens of gun-related assaults.”

If state history is any indication, though, things aren’t looking too promising for SHB 1840. The bill failed in 2004 after strong lobbying against it by the gun lobby. Unfortunately, it failed again in 2010. But gun-safety and victims-rights advocates are pressing for change on multiple fronts.

Initiative 594 which will be voted on by the people of Washington state in the fall of 2014 would require anyone buying a gun in Washington State to pass the same background check, no matter where they buy the gun and no matter from whom they buy it. Currently, loopholes allow firearms to be sold between private sellers and at gun shows without criminal background checks.

Having grown up in Idaho, I understand that many of the people opposing gun reform are genuinely concerned about protecting their personal freedoms. My conservative hometown just outside of Boise is full of people who take their Second Amendment rights very seriously: responsible gun owners, hunters and gun enthusiasts. I stand behind their right to bear arms. Gun-responsibility legislation will not affect the rights of law-abiding citizens. It will only ensure stricter protocols to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.

I want to know that my mother doesn’t have to worry about her ex-husband getting his guns back. I want to send my son off to school, confident the loopholes that allow people to buy guns legally from private sellers and gun shows without background checks have been closed. I want domestic-violence victims who seek protection orders to find comfort in the knowledge that guns could be removed from the equation. I want to know that I live in a state and country that don’t stand idly by while gun violence takes more lives.

Rory Graves is a mother to three young children and ParentMap’s social media coordinator. She lives in the Seattle, Washington area with her husband and kids. (*Some names have been changed to protect those affected by domestic violence).

Questions to Discuss:
1) Do you see any evidence today of the vision Micah shares where nations are recognizing that their ways of violence are not sustainable and are beginning to recognize God’s ways are higher and better than our ways? 

2) It is noted in this study that the culture change of nations no longer “learning war” is perhaps greater than the effort of beating weapons of violence into instruments that provide for the welfare of all people. What specific cultural characteristics of your nation need to change to “not learn way anymore?” How are you and your church participating now in this change?

3) What ministries is your church currently engaged in to prevent suicide and/or domestic violence? What might some ministries your church be that can engage in to prevent these tragedies?

4) How could the church have been more active in the family of Rory Graves before the terrible shooting of her mother by her step-father? 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities - Week 1

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities
Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4

Micah 4:1-2 
In days to come,
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Though little is known about the prophet Micah, the words and images of his prophecy are quite memorable, especially the first few verses of chapter 4, the subject of this study. Micah’s prophecy alternates throughout the book from condemnation to opportunities for repentance. In order to know the repentance Micah illustrates in chapter 4 then, we must recall the condemnation of chapter 3. 

In chapter 3 Micah vividly describes a desperate situation for the people of God. The political and religious leaders are corrupt and are actively involved in the oppression of the poor. They “hate the good and love the evil.” (v. 2) Micah accuses them of being cannibalistic towards people (v. 2), they declare war against the hungry (v. 5), and their desire for personal gain and accumulation of wealth has caused bloodshed and widespread corruption. Justice in the courts is skewed towards the affluent and religious teaching can be bought. 

As a result of such fraud, God chooses to remain hidden and unapproachable. “Then they will cry to the Lord, but God will not answer them; God will hide God’s face from them at that time, because they have acted wickedly.” (3:4)

The prophet Micah is shown to us in the light of the corrupt political and religious leaders. “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” (v. 8) The contrast is especially striking between Micah, who tells the truth of their transgressions to those in power, and the religious leaders who “cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing in their mouths.” (v. 5) 

Thus, when we come to chapter 4 we are given the imagery that in the “days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” (v. 1) The fact that Micah says the mountain of the Lord is to be raised in the future shows how the conduct of the religious and political leaders described in chapter 3 has lowered the Lord’s mountain to being indistinguishable from the other mountains. What God’s people do impacts how God is seen by others! 

The mention of the last days is a prophetic reoccurrence pointing to a Messianic age. Micah lives in a worrisome time for Israel. Powerful nations like Assyria lurk in the shadows ready to invade the Kingdom of Judah.  The failure of leadership, according to Micah, means “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.” (3:12) The “days to come” that Micah mentions at the beginning of chapter 4 is not directed towards a specific time, but rather, the phrase is meant to convey a future time of God’s own choosing. It will be a time that humanity cannot bring about because their efforts have actually brought Jerusalem to ruins. Only God can raise Zion to a level that will cause nations to stream to it. Yet, we will see that God’s people definitely have a role to play.

The promise in the midst of impending danger and violence is with universal recognition of the transcendence of God, when “the mountain of the Lord’s house…is raised up above the hills.” (4:1) In Micah’s vision, Israel and Judah’s salvation is not separate from that of the rest of the world; they are interconnected. All peoples, with no distinctions made for some nations above others, stream to God’s presence so “God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” (4:2) 

Thus, the greatness of God will be recognized even when God’s people fail miserably to reflect that greatness. It will be the universal recognition of not only God’s greatness, but even more specifically that the ways and paths they have been walking have not been filled with meaning or fulfillment, and have instead led to violence and war. There will be a universal hunger for something more, something higher than what they have been mired in. Micah’s vision foretells of a deep desire for more leadership with greater honesty and integrity. 

This hunger will not be just for mere instruction. There will be a hunger for the “ways” of the Lord; an alternative way of living and relating than what they have known. The nature and being of God is something that all peoples desire, that they need and are unable to engineer from within themselves. There is a need for transformation from their ways to God’s ways. The need is so strong that they are drawn to journey to God’s presence in Zion. 

Contextual Reflection
Reflecting on gun violence from this passage there are definitely some connections that can be made. The desire to stop the impact of gun violence is felt among all people from many nations. On April 2, 2013 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty. While the treaty offers no specific definitions, small arms most often include assault rifles, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank guns, among other weapons. 

This treaty focuses on the illegal trade across international boundaries of small arms and light weapons, which easily go undetected in international trade and present a grave threat to peace in unstable regions of the world. The treaty regulates “the international trade in conventional arms…[and] will foster peace and security by thwarting uncontrolled destabilizing arms flows to conflict regions. It will prevent human-rights abusers and violators of the law of war from being supplied with arms. And it will help keep warlords, pirates, and gangs from acquiring these deadly tools.”  Most tragic, civilians make up the overwhelming number of those killed by illegal small arms more than actual war participants.

The Arms Trade Treaty is barred from regulating any trade of small arms within nations. It only applies to international trade. The focus instead is to prevent arms being traded to already dangerous situations. In adopting the treaty, the 118 nations that signed it and the 31 nations that have already ratified it  are stating that gun violence is a universal problem devastating lives and creating tremendous instability in nations and entire regions in the world. Adherence to the treaty will greatly minimize the benefits flowing to nations that prosper from the arms trade as well. 

Because small arms are easy to trade and easy to use, particularly in areas where there is instability, small arms often go hand in hand with human rights abuses, making human rights violations more possible. “Small arms facilitate a vast spectrum of human rights violations, including killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed groups. More human rights abuses are committed with small arms than with any other weapon.” 

Further, small arms greatly hinder the process of development in many countries. Small arms are the greatest hindrance to food security and nations encumbered with violence from small arms face the greatest obstacles to delivering social services to those who need them the most.  

“Armed violence can trigger forced displacement, erode social capital, and destroy infrastructure. It can impede investment in reconstruction and reconciliation. Armed violence can undermine public institutions, facilitate corruption, and be conducive to a climate of impunity. Armed violence contributes to and is sustained by transnational crime, including the trafficking of persons, drugs, and arms. When associated with interpersonal and gender-based violence, it unravels the fabric of families and communities and leaves lasting psychological and physical scars on survivors. Armed violence is not only a cause of underdevelopment, but also a consequence of it. Risk factors associated with armed violence and underdevelopment includes weak institutions, systemic economic and horizontal inequalities, exclusion of minority groups, unequal gender relations, limited education opportunities, persistent unemployment, organized crime, and availability of illicit firearms and drugs.” 

The Narrative
One of the results of the proliferation of small arms globally has been the forced conscription of children into armed forces, otherwise known as child soldiers. While factors differ from context to context, some of the reasons why children are recruited as soldiers include: 
  • Technological improvements in small arms have made it easier for children to operate small arms effectively
  • Greater access to small arms: In 2005 there were an estimated  500 million small arms worldwide, one for every 12 people, 
  • Larger number of children preyed upon for forced conscription due to generational disconnections that occur as a result of globalization, war, and disease,
  • Socioeconomic problems that impact all people, but which affect children most of all and include lack of education, lack of access to health care, malnourishment, social marginalization, and catastrophes which include famines, disease outbreaks, and AIDS, and
  • Global conflicts that are increasingly about resource exploitation more than territorial expansion. This includes the indirect influence and intervention by powerful countries on a country’s political, economic, even cultural affairs, so that resource exploitation as well as exporting commercial goods, including arms trading becomes easily acceptable. 
Illustrative of much of this is the story of Ishmael Beah  who grew up in war-torn Sierra Leone, which experienced a brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002. Partly fueling the civil war and the atrocities was control over rich diamond mines. It was during the chaos that Beah was brainwashed, drugged and forced to participate in human rights atrocities and killing. 

Though the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was most noted for these brutalities, 12 year old Beah was actually conscripted by a splinter group of army soldiers when he went to a nearby town to see a talent show. He never saw his family again. Beah was taken in, given shelter, and trained to kill by the soldiers. His family was later killed by RUF forces. All the while Beah witnessed numerous incidents of violence.

"Somebody being shot in front of you, or you yourself shooting somebody became just like drinking a glass of water. Children who refused to fight, kill or showed any weakness were ruthlessly dealt with.
"Emotions weren't allowed," Beah shared. "For example a nine-year-old boy cried because he missed his mother and he was shot." 

Beah felt the contradiction between being afraid for his life to run away and the acceptance he felt in his division of child soldiers. Beah fought for two years before eventually being rescued by UNICEF. He was taken to a rehab center in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, where he spent eight months learning about what happened to him and readjusting to life after the war.

In his early months at the center Beah says, "We were very angry. We were very destructive. We destroyed the center where we were staying at [and] we burned some things up. We beat up the staff members. They came back, we beat them up some more." 

With time and the patience of a nurse named Esther Beah was eventually able to reconnect to his lost childhood and remember the person he once was. His progress was so impressive that in 1996 he was selected to go to the United Nations and speak on the plight of child soldiers.

It was during this trip that Beah met a UNICEF worker who eventually adopted him and brought him to the United States in 1998. Beah ultimately graduated college in 2004 with a degree in Political Science from Oberlin College in Ohio. He is now a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, a law graduate and a best-selling author. 

Beah remains passionate about the plight of child soldiers in Africa. He speaks to former child soldiers to reassure them that they can come out of the experience that they are trapped in. "What I'm saying to them is that everybody has the capacity to find their own talent with the right opportunities to do something more with their lives, and everybody can walk their own path."

Questions to Discuss:
1) How are the “ways of the Lord” different from the ways of the nations today?

2) Are there specific “ways of the Lord’ that you see are needed in your nation today? 

3) How is the trading of small arms impacting your nation or your region of the world? Has this been aided through the indirect influence or intervention by more powerful nations? How so?

4) Looking specifically at some of the impacts and consequences of the small arms trade (weak institutions, systemic economic and horizontal inequalities, exclusion of minority groups, unequal gender relations, limited education opportunities, persistent unemployment, organized crime, and availability of illicit firearms and drugs), are some of these characteristics present in your nation or region of the world?

5) Looking at Ishamel Beah’s story, how can the Church minister to both Beah individually after he has been rescued from being a child soldier and also work to prevent the conscription of children as soldiers? 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Kick-Butt Quotes from A.J. Muste

A.J. Muste was a 20th century pacifist, dedicating his life to peacemaking long before it became fashionable in the 1960s and afterwards (and before becoming once again equivalent to being a traitor during our misguided invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq). What always strikes me about so many historical figures is how their quotes and statements become timeless and applicable to current contexts. What many do not know is that Muste was also ordained in the Presbyterian Church, though he later questioned his earlier passion for his faith. As someone who wrestles with the philosophy of pacifism, but even more the practical application of pacifism in our everyday lives, I was challenged by much of what he said. Here are some quotes from a book published back when he was still alive, 1982, called Peace Agitator, by Nat Hentoff.

If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all. (p. 12)

The fact that [people] may resent nonviolent action and may attack and crucify those who engage in it is not automatically proof that the spirit of nonviolence has been betrayed, that the ‘highest’ in the other has not been appealed to. (p. 21)

Reconciliation is not synonymous with smoothing things over in the conventional sense. Reconciliation, in every relationship, requires bringing the deep causes of conflict to the surface and that may be very painful. It is when the deep differences have been faced and the pain of that experienced, that healing and reconciliation may be experienced. (p. 22)

Norman Vincent Peale is someone for whom it is very difficult for me to have respect. I don’t question his subjective sincerity, but…he has no conception, it seems to me, of the tragic aspects of life and the possibilities of evil in all of us. Nor does he seem aware of the social implications of the gospel. As a result, he can go on Sunday after Sunday, preaching, ‘Have faith in yourself, think cheerfully, and the world will be cheerful.’ This is simply an incantation of the superficial. (p. 23)

Certainly the temptation to pride and self-righteousness is real and pervasive. But the temptation to adapt the Gospel’s demand to circumstances and to abandon the hard effort to mold one’s own life and world according to that imperious demand is no less subtle and pervasive. (p. 41)

It was also on the Left…that one found people who were truly ‘religious’ in the sense that they were virtually completely committed. They were better living their lives on the cause they embraced. Often they gave up ordinary comforts, security, life itself, with a burning devotion which few Christians display toward the Christ whom they profess as Lord. (p. 75)

If people tell me there is no clearly defined nonviolent way to deal with a situation, then I answer that we have got to experiment and find one. God knows we have experimented long enough with other methods. (p. 93)

Revolutionists cannot be solitary. (p. 97)

The Christian position does not mean to justify or condone the capitalist system. Quite the contrary. It provides the one measure by which the capitalist system stands thoroughly and effectively condemned. It stands condemned because it makes the Christian relation in its full sense, the relation of brotherhood between human beings, impossible.  (p. 99)

Nonviolent resistance is effective because it undermines the morale of the enemy and removes his will to conquer. (p. 139)

I find myself chiding church people for not getting out into the street. When they tell me that there are too many beards among the demonstrators and that the impression is of a beatnik picnic, I tell them that if they want the image changed, they can join the line. It’s difficult to find converts, however, in the church. The church has become so middle-class and respectable that most of its members have a huge block against being part of direct-action projects. (p. 155)

One has to be both a resister and reconciler to be an effective pacifist. You have to be sure that when you’re reconciling, you’re also resisting any tendency to gloss things over; and when you’re primarily resisting, you have to be careful not to hate, not to win victories over human beings. You want to change people, but you don’t want to defeat them. (p. 159)

There are many people who regard themselves as Christian but are not pacifists and who are therefore not in that respect living an entirely Christian existence. (p. 188)

Disarmament cannot be achieved nor can the problem of war be resolved without being accompanied by profound changes in the economic order and in the structure of society. (p. 230)

We are not engaged in seeking power, in taking over the institutions and the instruments of power, not even in order to use them for our own supposedly noble ends. We are truly committed to organizing life on the basis of love and not power…It is a new kind of society, not a change in government that we seek. (p. 231-232)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Executive Action: One Step Towards Justice, Many Steps Left to Walk

President Obama’s announcement of extending executive action to potentially 5 million undocumented immigrants is certainly a victory for all who have been struggling for justice for immigrants for years. The leaders in this movement are certainly first and foremost immigrants themselves, and in support of immigrants are people of faith incarnated among immigrant communities. I feel proud to be a United Methodist as I know thousands of my fellow church members have been leading the faith community’s fight for justice for immigrants in recent years through prayer vigils, teach-in’s, direct services, meetings with members of Congress (called Neighbor to Neighbor meetings), and even through civil disobedience to the point of arrest. This is a victory that should be celebrated by all who care for immigrants and who care for justice.

But I am also quickly reminded of the fact that many of our immigrant brothers and sisters will be left out of this decision. Recent arrivals since January 1 of 2010, farm workers, the parents of DREAMers who have qualified for DACA, those suspected of being in “gangs” (a definition that is very ambiguous and could potentially lead to continued racial profiling), and those with significant misdemeanor and multiple misdemeanor convictions will disqualify lots of people who should be included. In other words, because we don’t have a real or permanent solution due to Congressional inaction, we still will have millions of people face the same suffering and oppression they faced prior to President Obama’s announcement.

I cannot help but remember one person for whom this is not a victory; an amazing man living in Ohio who happens to be undocumented. He is a United Methodist and he has been in the US for years. When he first arrived he regularly suffered from substance abuse and was guilty of multiple DUI’s. But several years ago he came to Christ, deals daily with his addictions, and now is a leader among young people in his community whom he counsels about the danger of substance abuse and who he helps point to the life-saving grace in Jesus. He is a spiritual leader in his church and a faithful husband and father. He will be ineligible for President Obama’s executive action.

The saddest thing about where our immigration system is today is that even with the President’s announcement, it is trapped in politics. Because of his past actions he will be demonized by those who proclaim they favor only legal immigration but who, in truth, favor NO immigration at all. He is left out of the conversation entirely by political pundits who want to talk only about immigrants who have been perfect; not like my friend in Ohio who has been human but has been saved by God’s goodness and mercy. Yes, I am happy about the 5 million immigrants who will be helped. But I am saddened at the millions more like my friend in Ohio who are facing the same government-sponsored reign of terror today that they did before the announcement.

I am saddened at the fact that communities across the United States will continue to lose the presence and leadership of people like my friend in Ohio. Think of how many people who will not have someone like him to point them to sobriety, who will not have someone like him to point them to Jesus because there are too many Ted Cruz’ and Jeff Sessions in the world howling at the moon about how the President’s action was unconstitutional (yet they can never explain the lack of constitutional support because it actually is constitutional). Our communities are losing people like my friend in Ohio because of the lack of real champions to speak on their behalf (think of those in favor of immigration reform who rarely talk about immigrants, they talk instead about the benefits of economic prosperity and increased border security that will come with reform). The truth is that immigrants are not the only ones who lose out when we don’t embrace more open immigration policies: me and you and thousands of congregations and communities lose out as well.

And so, with this victory of executive action, I have to see this as a step – an important step, a significant step, but merely one step in the long journey towards God’s justice manifest on earth. I don’t want to take away what has been achieved: we have taken a President who is far more comfortable deporting immigrants than securing their futures. We have resisted a restrictionist Congress with very few (and I mean VERY FEW) good leaders on this issue. Those opposed to immigration have won victory after victory (think of the expanded wall on the southern border, expanded border patrol, billions of dollars spent on corporate welfare for defense contractors, and so many other horrid policies put in place in recent years), and we have few victories to reflect on. We have been burdened with a President who should have done this well over a year ago and refused, who has deported over 2 million immigrants, who has been far harder on immigrant families than was necessary all for political advancements that actually never materialized. This hasn’t been an uphill climb; this has been an up-mountain trek of Himalayan proportions.

But this is still a big victory and I praise God for it. God knows it took a hell of a lot of work. This victory shows organizing works. This victory shows that the locus of all missional, organizing, and justice work is done at the local church level – NOT at the national level. This happened because United Methodists and all people of faith incarnated themselves among immigrant communities, invited other church members to join them, built teams throughout their conferences and states, and publicly advocated through creative and worshipful means for immigrants to be treated with dignity and fairness. Running through my mind are the amazing United Methodists from California to Maine, from Florida to Washington State, including Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio, North and South Carolina, Alabama, New York, Massachusetts, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Iowa – and these are only the states that I have seen personally work their butts off for a victory like this! I know of United Methodists in other states I haven’t named who have done the same!

So much work and yes so much still to do. Victories don’t mean for us to relax; victories open doors that we have to walk through so that more doors can open. Victories bring the potential for more victories only if we take advantage of them and work even harder, organize even more!

Now, most important is that we push back on those who will oppose this. They will oppose executive action not because they have a better idea for reform. They will oppose because they have no ideas at all. They do not favor “legal” immigration as they so often claim. They favor NO immigration. We have to speak out against the hate that will most assuredly spew forth and remind people that this isn’t justice; this is a step towards justice.

And we have to do all we can to make sure as many immigrants as possible walk through the door that has been opened. We have to raise money, sharpen our expertise, and most importantly, we need to convey to immigrant communities the truth of what has been issued by the President. This is when the years we have been incarnating ourselves among immigrant communities will pay off. This is when our hard work and organizing pays off. There will be those who prey upon the unsuspecting with false information looking to take advantage and we must be ready to call them out and provide real assistance. I urge folks to work with their local Justice for Our Neighbors legal clinic – a ministry of the United Methodist Church – and if one is not near them, then I urge you and your church to give to support their crucial work at this time.

Let’s feel good about what we have accomplished. And then let’s get to work. An important step has been taken, but the journey is far from over and there are more who need this kind of justice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Don't Mourn: Organize, Organize, Organize!

As I think about the results from the elections last week I keep thinking of the line from the film, The American President, where, at a press conference Michael Douglas (who plays the President) regretfully states: “I have been too busy trying to keep my job rather than trying to do my job.” Of course, staying true to Aaron Sorkin-form, it ends with a resurgent passion to the liberal values that the President had once adhered to.

I keep thinking of that line – focusing on keeping the job rather than doing the job – when I think of the Democrats’ dramatic losses this mid-term. Of course, it is natural in any 6th year of a presidency for that party to suffer losses. But what makes it tougher for the Democrats this time around seems to be the belief held by many, including me that Democrats lost because they don’t really believe in what are doing or have done. Far too many Dem’s continued to try to figure out how to message the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) even though it passed four years ago! Instead of embracing the fact that they passed a piece of legislation that has put millions into affordable health care who did not have it previously, they acted like politicians – dodging responsibility while at the same time trying to take credit. People are not inspired by that. It is not the best law, but it is good legislation that should be celebrated and not shunned.

Another factor in the losses is the fact that Democratic turnout was incredibly low. Could it be that when supposed “leaders” refused to take bold action and try instead to be politically manipulative in their messaging then your base will not be enthused to come out in support? Case in point, President Obama, who has a horrible record on immigration due to his more than two million deportations, had promised long-overdue administrative action staying the reckless and inhumane policy of deportations for most of those who are undocumented by the end of the summer. But instead of taking action – instead of doing his job, President Obama delayed taking action and tried to keep the jobs of Democratic senators, most of whom were hopelessly behind in the polls and all of whom ended up losing. It is likely that as many 60,000 more people were deported by the President’s inaction.

And so what is keeping him from acting now? There is one more Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, whose runoff is December 7 and who will almost assuredly lose, before President Obama will actually decide to do his job.

Yep, pathetic.

But to be honest, I wasn’t really sad or bummed out on Election Day. Quite frankly, I don’t really have a lot of faith in the Democratic Party to begin with so my hopes are not raised or lowered dramatically by election results. Besides, there were a number of wins for people who care about justice more than politics.

I would suggest that many steps forward were taken in these mid-terms and we have good reason to be happy. There might be more initiatives I am not aware of, but here is what I counted:
·         Marijuana legalization in Alaska, DC, and Oregon,
·         Minimum wage raises won in Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, South Dakota, and Nebraska,
·         Personhood amendments lost in Colorado and somewhere else (I am not sure where), and
·         Most important to me is that an initiative in Washington State on universal background checks on gun purchases won 60%-40%.

No initiative on gun violence prevention has ever won by popular vote. This is huge and is due to incredible work by the people of Washington State! I spent some time in Washington earlier this year and was thoroughly impressed by the organizing taking place there by the faith community – with, I am proud to say, the United Methodist Church out in front! Most importantly, this initiative will save lives. People will be alive because gun ownership will entail a slightly more responsible process while negating any hassle for those who choose to own guns. This is good legislation which is why it won so handily.

This happened in Washington State and all of these other victories were won because people got off their duff and organized. They reached out, had intentional conversations with folks about their passion for the issue, invited them to join teams and attend events, invited them to build teams and they built networks working together to accomplish tangible change. That’s organizing!! The people in Washington State and the other places that saw steps towards greater justice taken did not wait for elected leaders to make decisions for them. They did it themselves and it should inspire the rest of us.

Why should we all be inspired by these victories? These things and more can happen in your state too. We only have to dream, have intentional conversations with people who share our passion, build networks of those who hold that passion, and work for tangible results. We have to organize, organize, organize.

For those of us in the general church as well as for those in local churches, we have to stop worrying about how to keep our job and start actually doing our job. Let’s let go of our worries and fear of being seen as too political or as too liberal or as not liberal enough – whatever! Let’s let go of the traditions and rituals that keep us bound to yesterday’s practices and let’s dream alongside of those directly impacted by broken systems of what can be and then let’s muster all of our resources – not 25%, or the last few minutes we might be able to squeeze out of a busy week dedicated to the same old dead-end, going-nowhere, empty, sacred cow responsibilities we all too often throw ourselves into and let’s use everything we have to see universal background checks or minimum wage raises or ending solitary confinement or banning the box, etc. – whatever needs to happen actually happen!!

Even though I was there only a week, I had such tremendous joy for what happened in Washington State last week. And I had a renewed sense of determination. Nothing gets done by accident – we either make it happen or it doesn’t. So, let’s stop whining, bitching, griping, complaining, criticizing, or carping. Don’t mourn, organize, organize, organize. The only thing that can really stop us is ourselves.