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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. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Anger Without Weeping

Recently I preached a sermon in my home church on a parable from Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. I was struck by the sheer anger and violence in the parable, particularly in contrast to its companion parable in Luke 14:16-24. In looking at the context in which the parable is located in Matthew’s gospel, the anger seething in Jesus’ story is matched by the simmering antagonism between Jesus and the religious leaders. The Pharisees and scribes are plotting to catch Jesus in a mistake so that they can discredit him before the crowds and Jesus embarrasses the religious leaders by answering every question they throw at him with authority.

Moving into Matthew 23 the animosity is palpable and Jesus, still addressing the crowds and his disciples at the beginning of the chapter, flatly tells them to pay attention to the teaching of religious leaders but not their lives. They are hypocrites; their status is hollow and their influence and authority should be stripped.

If that is not harsh enough, in v. 13 Jesus turns directly to the religious leaders and begins a series of accusations that is stunning and devastating. I urge you to not just read it, but get to a private place and scream it. Yell it as loud as you can so that you can be emotionally faithful to the text. Jesus didn’t use his “church voice” when he delivered this rant and we would do well to follow his lead to truly understand the anger he has for leaders who are frauds and who, according to Jesus, are obstacles for people to draw near to God. I did this as I prepared for my sermon. I screamed Jesus’ diatribe and honestly, it was exhausting. Screaming such a long rant is draining. But I felt his anger too. Faces of leaders I have known who say one thing and do another flashed before me and I felt a similar rage for people who use positions for their own ends rather than for the purposes of God’s Kingdom.

But once my own rant was over I looked at the last couple of verses of Matthew 23 and what I found was even more surprising than the rage-driven tirade Jesus delivers. The verses read as follows:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills its prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:37-38)

The love and passion and weeping tenderness in these words matches Jesus’ rage just a verse earlier. Jesus mourns for Jerusalem – all of Jerusalem, including her religious leaders – because they have rejected God’s great gift of love and grace and mercy. Jesus grieves for the love he has for them but which has been scorned by his people and distorted by the religious leaders.

This struck me as I looked at the whole context of these two chapters because I could see the direct connection Jesus is making between anger and grief. Our anger at those who perpetuate injustice and who abuse their positions of influence for their own gain and protection, or for the marginalization of vulnerable people must – if that anger is to be righteous – be based in our own love and passion and mourning for those same people we direct our anger at. We don’t get to rage at people unless we weep for them.

This is the toughest thing for me. I look at those who perpetuate injustice and I feel rage, but not always grief and certainly not the kind of lovers’ lament Jesus shows for his people. But I need to have that kind of grief. Man, I need Jesus on this one.

What is interesting is that both the anger and lament are more intense for those we hold in high esteem. And higher esteem usually comes from intimacy – or at least intimacy betrayed. Jesus respects the teaching of the religious leaders, but he is enraged by their blatant hypocrisy. He was raised to love and respect his religious leaders so his rage barely masks his grief at how those leaders have betrayed not just him, but who they are supposed to be.

I have known pastors who have done amazing things – led incredible ministries, preached powerful sermons, ministered among the poor – yet they have also abused their position and have driven people away from the Church while snuffing out their love and passion for God because of the way they were treated. They, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, are neither who they claimed to be nor who they should be as pastors of God’s people.

I have had close friends I deeply respect who proclaim a passion for Jesus while they openly espouse overtly racist stereotypes and advocate for policies that betray the love, mercy and justice we qas God’s people are called to reflect in our lives.

I have been enraged at these pastors and with my friends. But have I wept for them? Have I used my anger to batter them, to guilt and shame them, to “prophetically” blast them all the while I have ignored Jesus and the prophets’ call to grieve and mourn for them as well as the damage they have caused other people, particularly those who are vulnerable? When I am honest with myself my track record on this is not the greatest.

And I am afraid the larger church is not much good at this either. When I saw the responses among United Methodists to last year’s “defrocking” of Rev. Frank Schaefer when he officiated the wedding for his gay son and his partner, and then more responses to last week’s “refrocking” when Rev. Schaefer was reinstated as clergy – responses characterized by joy among those who “won” and anger by those who “lost” – I realize that we as United Methodists are good at prophetic-styled anger when we are distanced from one another, issuing press statements that blast the other side. But we are lousy at having our rage rooted in Godly sorrow for those who stand against everything we stand for. I find both sides falling far short of matching their rage with weeping. And all of us lose out as a result.

Perhaps the reason why the church is unable to move forward is that we haven’t really learned to love those who infuriate us. And perhaps if we do learn to weep not just for ourselves or for those who agree with us, then our anger might be heard or could possibly even be transformative.


I know I need Jesus on this one. I think we all do.