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Monday, December 28, 2015

Racial Profiling and Public Safety

Today I am thinking about Tamir Rice and yet another family of color dealing with a lack of justice for their dead son.

Last night I saw racial profiling happen before my very eyes. I am having a hard time uploading my video onto my blog, but last night (December 28) I was in my car port smoking a cigar when I saw a young man who was Latino walking home after parking his car on our block. There are low income apartments a block or so away from us and a lot of folks park on our street because the apartments have expensive parking charges.

As he was walking home a police car pulled up in front of our house and the police officer started talking to the young man. The young man walked over to the car and the police officer immediately started taking his bag and his phone from him and then had him get spread eagle on the front hood of the car and he handcuffed him. This seemed to be a pretty quick response to me so I walked toward them, though remaining on my sidewalk at a safe distance, and I started taping the incident.

The police office got in his car to run the young man’s information and when he noticed me taping him he turned on his spotlight in my face, making it difficult for me to tape him. He asked me who I was and what I was doing and I told him I didn’t have to answer any questions. He called for backup and two officers shortly arrived.

One of the officers came over to me to ask me who I was and what I was doing and I told him I did not have to answer any questions, though he kept trying. I remained respectful towards him though I maintained my right not to answer any questions.

After at least 15-20 minutes, with the young man handcuffed the entire time, the officer finally found out what the young man had been telling him all along – that he had done nothing wrong and was just walking home. So, he was released. The young man thanked me for taping the incident and walked home.

Yet, I feel sure this incident will scar this young man for quite some time. All because he parked on our street and was trying to walk home, he was handcuffed for 20 minutes, had his bag and his phone taken from him, and he was treated like a criminal. He will be much less trusting of law enforcement even though the majority of law enforcement persons, in my opinion, are certainly worthy of our trust and respect.

However, the young man, his family, and his community will be less likely to want to cooperate with law enforcement. This is the damage done by racial profiling. This is why racial profiling is not just immoral and unethical; it is damaging to public safety therefore, damaging to all of us including those of us who will never be racially profiled because we are members of the dominant culture. When relationships with law enforcement are hurt, the entire community – all of society actually – are hurt as well.

This is also why Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and the other presidential candidates calling for the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants make for good sound-bites and loud cheers at big rallies, but they actually work against public safety. Public safety is certainly among the top of concerns for people in the United States these days, but it is remarkable to me how some of the politicians who seem to be the most focused on this – namely Trump and Cruz among others – call for policies that will do more to undermine public safety than preserve it. They are unthinking politicians and they are calling for horrible and senseless policies.

You cannot attain public safety without public trust, and so when you racially profile people – or in Trump’s idiotic call for religiously profiling Muslims to prevent them from entering the U.S. and to look at mosques “more closely” – you alienate some of the very people with whom trust must and should be built.

This is why most law enforcement persons are adamantly against racial profiling and the policies like forcing local law enforcement to act as immigration agents that promote racial profiling. Enforcing the law and maintaining public safety are not mutually exclusive. Instead they are interdependent on one another. The police needs an engaged citizenry willing to pray for their safety and hold them accountable. A truly safe and secure public needs this too.

It is time those of us who proclaim to follow the Prince of Peace to do both – to pray AND hold the police accountable for racially profiling our neighbors and members of our communities. And when our political “leaders” holler and scream about public safety, but in reality, are using those words as a very thin veil for racial and ethnic demonization, then we should clearly and loudly, if necessary, point that out too. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What's Missing in the Church's Response to Syrian Refugees

I have been both encouraged and deeply concerned by the Church’s response to the issue of welcoming in Syrian refugees in recent weeks. In response to the demonization of Syrian refugees for the purpose of scoring cheap political points by so-called political “leaders”, numerous church leaders, Bishops, and other clergy have issued statements that correctly state that the essence of our faith is to welcome and love the sojourner. 

I have read many statements that remind us, especially as have entered into Advent, that Jesus was forced to flee for his safety when he was a baby; that Jesus was a refugee himself. Resounding throughout Scripture is God’s call to welcome those in need. Thus, as followers of Jesus it should be in our DNA to welcome our sisters and brothers from Syria, particularly when refugees entering into the U.S. are the most scrutinized people allowed in. This is not an issue of public safety, but one of faithfulness. 

The demonization of refugees and immigrants is nothing new, sad to say. The Trumps, Cruz’s, Carson’s, and other “leaders” of the world always have and always will step on the backs of the most voiceless and powerless to increase their political popularity. It is sickening to watch because while they mask their statements with language of security, it is merely thinly veiled hateful rhetoric aimed at immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. The voice of the Church must be antithetical to these voices of hate and with one major missing ingredient, I am thankful for what I have heard. 

The truth is however, the messages of loving and welcoming the sojourner emanating from the offices of church leaders are missing the vital element of advocating for justice, rendering those messages weak and largely ineffective. Except for a rare few, most statements have not included any mention of the need for followers of Jesus to advocate to our political leaders to support policies that allow in Syrian refugees. 

President Obama has stated that he plans on allowing in 10,000 Syrian refugees but this is peanuts in comparison to what other countries are doing – countries without anywhere near the level of capacity of the United States. We should be taking in a minimum of 60,000 Syrians this year alone. There are four million Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland for fear of death and persecution. There have been over 250,000 Syrian deaths. In response to a terrorist in Paris who posed as refugee, the US House of Representatives, in their infinite wisdom (laugh here), passed a bill which would essentially grind the refugee process to a halt and add nothing to public safety. I pray the Senate will choose authentic wisdom over hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric and reject this legislation outright. But they desperately need to be told this by their constituents. Our church leaders should be mobilizing folks to do so and we just haven’t. 

The Church must recognize the context and speak truth no matter how uncomfortable it might make a few people. Church leaders simply have not done this, by and large. If Congress shuts down the refugee system and if we follow the shameful and racist historical examples from our past like refusing entry to Jews fleeing the Holocaust during World War II or internment camps for Japanese citizens, then there will not be any Syrian refugees to love and welcome. Without an effective mobilization of our church members to engage in political advocacy on behalf of the Syrian refugees who are awaiting entry, all of the messages of love and welcome are just spiritual fluff. They make us feel good, righteous even. But the messages are rendered meaningless if no one is allowed in. 

The problem is that spiritual fluff is simply easier to message. We offend less people. But love without justice is body without a skeleton. It’s virtually worthless. Symbolic perhaps, but Syrian refugees don’t need platitudes or empty symbols. They need safe havens and our loving rhetoric is simply not enough. The bifurcation within the Church between justice and mercy has been talked about ad nauseam. Loving people without advocating for their entry is yet another example of it. But yet, this is also an opportunity for us to finally begin to live it out the love we proclaim so easily. Yes, Jesus was a refugee. Yes, we are called to love and welcome the sojourner. But here is how we can do it: we need to call our Congressional representatives and our Governors daily and demand they allow our refugee system to function properly and to allow in at least 60,000 Syrian refugees. We need to tell them that our churches stand ready to provide the support our refugee sisters and brothers need so quit demonizing them and let them in!

I am hoping our Church leaders will begin to incorporate the steps for how justice can be accomplished into the many statements that are being released. If we can live out this kind of justice then the love we speak of so often can finally be a reality and not just more empty rhetoric. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Welcoming ALL Sojourners Means Syrian Refugees Too

The following is a statement submitted to the Senate and House hearings on allowing in Syrian refugees. Sadly, too many of our political leaders are playing political football with refugee lives and responding in fear rather than in morality. Call your Senators and Representative (202-224-3121) and urge them to support Syrian refugees. 

The General Board of Church and Society grieves for the victims of violence in Paris, Beirut, and other places around the world recently. We continue to pray for the day when no more tears will be shed as war will give way to peace. Christians are reminded of the coming season of Advent and anticipate the coming of our Lord. We recall the Savior of the world began his life as a refugee.

Vulnerable people are increasingly facing crises in our world today. Perhaps the most vulnerable people are refugees. This is evident today as we see approximately four million refugees from Syria, with three quarters of them being women and children. The solutions to this crisis are complex, but one solution is the safe resettlement of refugees. Currently, more than three million Syrian refugees have resettled in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. U.S. participation in the resettlement of refugees is vital and demonstrates global leadership while providing relief for the countries in the region to which refugees immediately flee.

The United States presently has resettled only 2,000 Syrian refugees. We feel strongly the United States should significantly increase this number and show authentic global leadership. Refugees are the single most scrutinized and vetted individuals to travel to the United States: undergoing more than seven security checks by intelligence agencies including biometric tests, medical screenings, forensic testing of documents, iris scans to confirm the identity of Syrian refugees throughout the process, investigations by the National Counterterrorism Center, and in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials. It takes individuals longer than 1,000 days to be processed before entering.

States and governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens, including protecting the human rights of all people in their boundaries. However, the calls for stopping Syrians from entering the country are reminiscent of shameful times in this country’s history when we surrendered to our fears and refused to serve people who truly were experiencing violence and persecution. Protecting and upholding human dignity and freedom for those fleeing terror, persecution, and economic deprivation, is not only the common responsibility of everyone including state and religious bodies, it is our highest calling.  

The United Methodist Church has consistently supported humanitarian responses to crises. Christian witness should reflect the special care that Christ offers migrants, refugees and the vulnerable.  As United Methodists, we know that fearful responses are not reflective of Christian life and witness.  Instead, Christ calls us to a love for humankind and compassion for all of people regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. Therefore, we oppose all efforts to curtail the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the United States as well as the efforts of some to impose a religious litmus test that will discriminate against Muslim refugees. To conflate refugees with terrorists is inexcusable when the millions of people leaving Syria are fleeing that same violence and terror.

Rather than submit to fear, we pray that public officials will give pause to thoughtful deliberation and choose wisdom over political rhetoric. Our hope is that Congress shows true leadership in this time of great tragedy. United Methodists serve refugees across the world and will continue to welcome refugees to our communities. Our prayer is that this will include refugees from Syria. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Plan for the Alliance for US Prosperity

On an interfaith trip to Honduras and Guatemala in August led by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity that included religious leaders from across the United States. Talking with the people there, we learned that violence pervades much of the region and is so daunting that they find it challenging, though not impossible, to dream of a country where all have opportunities for success. We heard from strong people of faith that much of the violence that has caused thousands of migrants to flee to the North is imported from the North; and oftentimes, specifically the United States. To that end, we heard one consistent message throughout our journey: much of the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity,” designed by governments in the region and the Inter-American Development Bank and promoted by the Obama Administration, is a plan to prosper a few at the expense of the many. As the House and Senate return from August recess and take up the appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year, Congress can choose to throw money at failed policies that have caused this mess, or drastically change the focus of U.S. policies that impact the region.

The U.S. Congress can and should do better.

Earlier this year, Vice-President Biden traveled to the region to meet with leaders of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to “discuss steps to stimulate economic growth, reduce inequality, promote educational opportunities, target criminal networks responsible for human trafficking, and help create governance and institutions that are transparent and accountable.” That certainly sounds good, but the brave faith leaders we met with are not just skeptical about the effective implementation of the plan; they are convinced it simply will not benefit peoples’ lives. Families have been decimated by internal rural-to-urban migration and the lack of employment in cities. The lack of employment, along with targeted violence that haunts the urban sectors have forced family members – including small children – to begin the long and extremely dangerous journey north in order to survive.

The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity proposes a number of steps to reign in corruption in the countries that make up the Northern Triangle. However, a large part of the plan hinges on leaders already engaged in corruption to suddenly police themselves and increase accountability and transparency. If Congress is truly serious about aiding the people in these countries and addressing root causes of migration, then any policy proposals must address land reform, creating a more equitable distribution. The militarization of society that continues to drive displacement must be scaled-back and there must be a reform of the tax collection systems so that resources can be more equitably distributed. This is what we heard from the faith leaders who were there.

How could a plan designed to strengthen weakened economies that are so dependent on agriculture fail to mention the need for greater ownership of the land by the people who work the land? Could it be that ensuring more citizens in the Northern Triangle have land of their own on which to farm and make a living would take away from the insidious influence of extractive industries which enrich multi-national companies from countries like the United States, Canada and China? Tragically, people are literally dying to save their land from extractive industries that are displacing families and stealing the natural resources that belong to the people.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy associated with increasing funding through the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity is that much of it would actually increase the violence in this region and benefit greedy US defense contractors. Increasing the number of police, specifically in Honduras, to 6,000, while also militarizing them with the latest gear from US defense contractors will only result in more violence committed against the citizens of these countries and create more of a rush to flee to the North. Why are we blithely out-sourcing the militarization of police forces in other countries that have struggled with this problem for years when President Obama has issued an order here in the United States banning the Pentagon from issuing certain military weapons to local police departments?

In the end, we learned that the greatest threat of violence is extreme poverty, something that too many citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are forced to live in. The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity should be named the Alliance for US Prosperity. It is an intentional strategy intent on creating even more prosperity for the very few affluent of the Northern Triangle whose livelihood is united with the political and economic interests of the United States. The people of Central America we talked with do not want the Plan for US Prosperity. They have dreams for their countries to be places where justice and equality can be attained by all of the citizens of their countries. Their dreams are focused not on securing the prosperity of foreign countries or mining companies or multinational corporations. They want honest leadership, health and education infrastructures that work effectively, police that do not abuse their power, and access to land so that all people have the same opportunities for success. Thus, Congress would do well to ensure any funding in the foreign operations appropriations bill will nurture the budding movements for democratic engagement and land reform. It is time for the United States to be on the right side of history in our relationships with the people of Central America.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Violence in Honduras: Imported from the North

I just returned from a ten-day long sojourn through Guatemala, Honduras, and Chiapas, Mexico as part of an interfaith delegation made up of leaders from across the United States, led by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity to learn about the root causes of migration. For this post I want to focus on the connection of violence in Honduras, a beautiful country with beautiful people.

One thing we learned while in Honduras is that violence pervades much of Honduras and often is so intimidating that Hondurans find it challenging to dream of a country free from violence. The exportation of the “American Dream” to Honduras serves as a mythical and largely unattainable actualization of the individual without strengthening the whole, making the family unit expendable. The American Dream has become the Honduran nightmare as Northern imports have overwhelmed Honduras through:
  • images of a Western-based affluent lifestyle that are mostly inaccessible, but which lure Hondurans to migrate dangerously to the North,
  • the strengthening of gangs whose members are often intimidated into joining because there are no viable employment opportunities,
  • violence through the presence of US-made guns that allow the powerful and strong to prey upon the weak and vulnerable in order to horde resources for the few at the expense of the many, and
  • the rape of the land through the extraction of natural and human resources by international corporations from the North and other developed countries that force people from their land and, in the end, leads to the disintegration of the family.
Our delegation learned that the family unit has been decimated in many instances because of the internal migration from rural to urban places due to mining and mountain top renewal. When families arrive in the cities they find a lack of employment opportunities which then forces family members to migrate again. During this second migration many Hondurans sojourn to the North to find jobs to support their families who stay behind. Some of those who do not make it often fall victim to human trafficking. Some who do make it to the U.S. are arrested and deported due to a broken immigration system that benefits U.S. corporations with cheap labor while providing no worker protections until migrants are arrested, detained, and deported. And those who do make it and find fairly livable employment live constantly under state-sponsored terror initiated by the US government through detainment in for-profit prisons until they are deported back to Honduras. Hondurans are dehumanized into economic units that benefit the North and strip Honduras bare of its greatest resources.

The rise of violence through gangs (which have been imported from the North back to Honduras due to deportations from prisons where migrants were forced to join gangs for their survival) has now forced even children as young as 7 years old who fear being recruited into a life of violence to migrate to the North for their own continued existence. When and if the children arrive in the United States they are often shipped around from detention center to detention center and denied due process before they are dispatched back to Honduras where an unknown fate awaits them.

Something that has stood out to me and others in our time in Honduras is that people of faith in Honduras are alive and well! In faith, Hondurans are creating communities of love to support and provide for one another even as members of their families are forced to flee and the family unit is being undermined and disintegrated.

We have seen examples of the faith community creating family-like structures:
  • Mothers of the Disappeared have created family-like systems of love and support as they grieve the loss of their loved ones and refuse to accept that their loss has been in vain.
  • Los Indignados is a family-creating organization intent on bringing together all those who are tired of the corruption and impunity by the Honduran government – another exportation from the North – and they are moving in protest weekly throughout the country.
  • St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Progreso is creating families as they regularly remember the Lord’s Supper, instituted by Jesus as a way for the Body of Christ to create new communities of love to provide systems of support that are also celebratory of the stages of life.
These communities of faith are constructing distinctive realities of love and solidarity in the midst of enormous destructive forces.  They provide the hope for a safe and secure Honduras and point prophetically to the forms of violence the faith communities of the North impose when our congregations choose complicity through apathy and ignoring the needs of our sisters and brothers in Honduras.

While crucial infrastructure has been sacrificed by governmental corruption and ridiculous expenditures such as militarizing the police (which benefits greedy Northern-based defense contractors and the US government), Honduran faith communities are doing all they can to fill the gaps – but their capacity is not enough! Brave and courageous women and men of God, old and young alike – the Esthers of Honduras – are risking their lives to point out the Hamans of Honduras in order to create livable and joyous communities of faith for the future of Honduras.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Communion in Honduras

Sunday night we visited St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Progreso, Honduras where Father Melo, who has been the host for our interfaith delegation, serves as priest. It was a beautiful service and the happiness of the faces of the congregation shown bright the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I am not usually happy about going to church. I served for years in United Methodist churches and I am presently a member of Culmore United Methodist Church in Falls Church, VA, which I love. But honestly, in my own personal spiritual journey, going to church has been a struggle. It just seems all too often a responsibility than a joy, more a routine than an opportunity for revelation.

But I was excited to attend St. Theresa’s tonight. Maybe it is because in a country where I am constantly dependent on others for language translation (yes, like a dope, I do not know Spanish well enough without translation), I wanted to be in the familiar context of a people journeying towards God, even in the place where life can be enormously challenging. For whatever reason, I wanted to worship Sunday night. I wanted to feel God’s presence and witness the Body of Christ offering themselves in worship to Jesus our Savior.

I was not let down. It was powerful. The people were welcoming and the worship was lively and invitational. There were several members of our group who graciously offered to translate the service as it was happening, but I sat away from the translators. I wanted to experience worship in the mystery of it and just take in the presence of the Spirit. I could pick up some words here and there and that was enough. But I experienced the joy of life’s celebrations as we celebrated the birthday of a little boy and the baptism of a young man who decided to come to Christ and join the church.

The baptism of the young man was very moving for me. We have spent all of our trip hearing the stories of people who are marginalized or oppressed in some way. We have heard about the extraction of resources by international companies and how people are being assassinated who attempt to bring this rape of their country to the light. We have heard the stories from an ethnic group, the Garifuna, who have historically been marginalized because they are darker-skinned and now, they face enormous pressure from the tourism industry who want to displace them yet again in order to build hotels and resorts for wealthy tourists. And we have heard the stories of mothers whose sons and daughters have disappeared – sometimes for decades – as they journeyed north to pursue their dream to live free from violence and poverty.

So, witnessing Jesus’ redemptive love and the church welcoming in another brother to the Body in the midst of hearing from people who are directly impacted by overwhelming forces of injustice is a sign that the Church is alive and growing and will provide times of joy even in the midst of pain and suffering. The gates of hell will not overcome the Church.

The most powerful time of worship for me was communion. Many Catholic churches do not practice an open table for communion (heck, too many churches of all denominations prevent people both from taking communion as well as administering communion and I’d love to see a completely open table!), but Father Melo’s sermon was about sharing and he said he especially wanted our delegation, which is interfaith, to receive freely the Lord’s Supper.

After I went forward and received the elements I went back to my seat and thanked God for bringing me to these amazing people. I thought about how communion is both a time to connect with Jesus, to remember how he instituted this practice for his followers so that we could remember his sacrificial love for all the world.

But communion is more than just for our personal renewal. It is innately community building. Communion brings us all together, no matter how old or young, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, women or men, straight or gay, no matter our race or ethnicity, our title or our lack of titles; no matter who we are or what we have done, the Lord’s Supper binds us into one community. Communion creates the world God dreams for us to live into.

An inherent aspect of the injustices of this world work to separate, marginalize, and isolate those directly impacted by injustice from those of us who benefit from those injustices. Our delegation has heard the stories of isolation time and time again from so many of the people we have listened to. And I have struggled with how to respond to this reality, not wanting to respond in the typical Northern, Anglo, male way of wanting to “fix their problems.” Listening and learning can be hard in that it takes discipline to not immediately rush out and do something that is as much about soothing my conscience as it is bringing about real justice and shalom.

But tonight, after I received communion, I sat in my seat and I praised God that God has brought me to the people of Honduras – a people who belong to God in the land God has created and given to them. And because of God’s love for us all my heart is with them. Because of God’s grace, I received God’s gift of being present in Honduras. And so I praise God for Honduras and for Hondurans, a powerful people hungry for justice and eager to love. Let’s God’s Kingdom come.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Prayer for Conservatives (and Liberals!)

I admit, it has been a hard month or so for conservatives. The Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality and Obamacare have sent shockwaves through conservative circles. There is anger and confusion over what to do and how to respond. And though many people outside of those conservative circles have celebrated these momentous decisions, there is a part of me that has some measured concern over how conservatives will respond.

You see, I am one who believes we all benefit when people live up to the best of who they are. I disagree with many conservatives over important issues, but I want conservatives to be the best conservatives they can be. Heck, I disagree with a lot of liberals over some important issues and I want liberals to be the best liberals they can be. I don’t think we are stronger when liberals make conservatives into liberals or the other way around. We all should be more focused on being transformed into the likeness of Christ and less on the conversion from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

I believe when conservatives talk about the importance of individual accountability and responsibility and the danger of over-reaching and overly bureaucratic government programs we all benefit from those well-grounded and articulate ideas. I, for one, am hoping for a presidential race where these concerns are put forth in persuasive ways that create real and constructive debates and not just sound bites and the resulting political and social entrenchment that we are stuck in.

So, while I am probably one of the last people many conservatives will listen to, I am frankly concerned that the response for many conservatives to recent events, especially the SCOTUS decisions I mentioned above, is increasingly turning into self-elected martyrdom.

I can feel it already. “Protecting my rights” is being trumpeted long and loud – indeed, it is already happening in some places – by big-name personalities with persecution-complexes who have long profited from the industry of fear-mongering that characterizes political punditry these days. You almost get the sense that some people love being persecuted; they love to feel like the world is out to get them simply because the world has no desire to look like them or see the world as they do. Hey, diversity is tough under any circumstances, but when the boundaries of your worldview are so rigidly fixed on who belongs and who doesn’t belong and then you find out that the rest of the world is saying those you deem don’t belong actually do belong, it can be devastating.

When your worldview comes under attack, you are usually given a choice: fight back or struggle through the difficult work of transformation. It seems clear to me that many conservatives are opting for the fight back approach. Thus, the emphasis on “protecting my rights.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe that individual rights are sacred. The problem is that, as far as I have seen or heard, no one is really treading on those rights. No one is telling pastors they have to perform gay weddings – they don’t. In fact, while everyone now has a legal right to be married, no one – straight or gay – has a right to demand that pastors perform their weddings. If anyone attempted to supersede that right, I would be the first to protest. But that ain’t happening and is not likely to happen anytime soon. But some, unfortunately, are trying to market their persecution complex and sadly, there seems to be a plethora of buyers.

What makes this whole enterprise especially fruitless for the rest of us is that it undermines one of the best arguments conservatives have: individual responsibility and accountability. When we wrongfully claim persecution by others then we can easily dismiss our own need to be individually responsible or accountable for our actions. We can do anything because we are “persecuted.” We also rob those who truly are persecuted for following Jesus the concern and action that should be rightfully focused on their context. Everyone loses with the persecution-complex.

So, my prayer for conservatives is that, in the midst of the legitimate confusion and even anger that they feel, they will choose to love. While some will attempt to say that opting to love is to compromise their values, I would simply argue that to love is what each of us is called to regardless of whether our political perspectives carry the day or not. Some may disagree with this, but I want to suggest loving people does not necessarily mean accepting and supporting marriage equality. I have loved a lot of people who I vehemently disagree with and my love for them did not change their views or behavior nor did their love for me change mine. Loving people does mean to hope and work for the best for people. This means people can disagree with me; they can hold diametrically opposite views from me, but I don’t need them to agree with me for me to pray that God would grant them the most meaningful life possible.

I would pray in all of these disagreements that this would be our prayer for those on the other side. This is my prayer for conservatives and even for liberals. Let’s choose to love.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The "Christian" Book Industry

I remember when I worked at an urban ministry one of the responsibilities I had was to teach and facilitate an Urban Ministry Institute, a year-long school/internship for those who felt called to urban ministry but who did not want to go to seminary. We focused on the theological, biblical, anthropological and societal aspects of urban ministry and in one class each year we visited the local Christian bookstore. I told the students to meander throughout the store and take in the messages about Christianity the bookstore was making. Look at the book sections – at how they are arranged and under which headings. Look at the t-shirts and specialty items and knick-knacks, and look at the paintings that they sell.

Now, the students had just finished 3 straight weeks of 9 hours a week reading and discussing the hundreds of passages in Scripture about poverty and justice. So, by the time we got to the trip to the Christian bookstore the students were utterly stunned and horrified at what they saw.

See for yourself. Go to your local Christian bookstore and see the enormous section of books located in the “Christian Living” section – which is Christian for “self-help.” Sometimes they have sections for prayer or spiritual warfare and then some sections for Bible study. But despite hundreds of passages on poverty and justice, in more than 20 years of visiting Christian bookstores throughout the United States, I have never found a Christian bookstore with a section on poverty or social justice. In fact, the only section I find even remotely dealing with these issues is called “Current Affairs” and it is almost always stocked with books about the apocalypse! Do they know something we don’t?

And this doesn’t even begin to cover all of the knick-knacks that are fused with bible verses and American flags. The paintings carry not-so-subtle messages that the U.S. is God’s new chosen nation and although one third of the Psalms are “city-Psalms” all of the pictures of God’s refuge and care take place in serene rural settings.

All of this to say, the Christian book industry earns book publishers hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but, if Christian bookstores are any sign, they are a terrible illustration of what biblical fidelity should really mean.

The Christian book industry is simply more industry than Christian. Let’s face it, books about poverty and injustice are typically not big sellers. In fact, I seriously have to question whether it is even possible or appropriate for that matter for there to be a “popular” prophetic writer. (Can you imagine Amos on a book tour, walking through US malls pitching his book?) But sadly, the industry has figured out how to market even prophetic books with some catchy titles, clever graphics, and a cool cover. I know some of those who write under this growing segment of the industry and I know some who are genuine and faithful people. I am not calling the character of all of those who write in this genre into question, but it is quite possible to write and publish in this field and know little about it in any experiential way.

Quite a number of years ago I was at a conference for college students and a popular writer and speaker was there talking about the “revolution” that Jesus came to start. I was not a little surprised when the revolution of which he spoke never once was talked about in any political or economic aspects and was entirely contained in personal relationships. Jesus’ revolution, to the speaker, was located entirely in our personal relationship with Jesus and in our personal relationships with those around us. The catch phrase for the talks that the speaker used incessantly was, “We are called to change the world” – let’s all say it together – “one person at a time.”

Please puke now if you’ve heard this before.

Beyond this catch-phrase not making any sense and certainly lacking a solid biblically, prophetic basis, this is what happens when you take a genuinely prophetic voice and force-fit them into industry standards that dictate that marketable messages must be individualistic and hyper-spiritualized. Mentioning corporate sin and repentance, describing systemic racism or oppression, or critiquing the current economic or political order that marginalizes those at the bottom is verboten. Scripture be damned!

Personally, I rarely – and I mean rarely – read Christian books. And the primary reason is because the books are so dominated by an industry that is ruled tyrannically by an individualistic, hyper-spiritualized version of pseudo-Christianity so that I can scarcely identify the biblical faith any more in its faithfulness-by-formula pages. I do see some possible healthy movement in the growing monastic movement and in some missional books, though I still have been hesitant to read too many Christian books.

So, should we give up on all Christian books? I don’t think so, but I do think we should quit the Christian book industry. For those who read a lot of Christian books I challenge you to stop buying and reading Christian books for a year. Read history, missiology, sociology, anthropology, current affairs, literature – read mystery novels! Yes, definitely exercise your mind, but give up all the starch in your reading diet. For those like me who do not read Christian books – don’t start! Instead, let’s make a concerted effort to see that voices who genuinely live out a Christ-shaped prophetic lifestyle are lifted up, whether through blogs, conference speaking gigs, or through social media. We are allowing market-driven focus groups to determine who the voices are we listen to! I feel like we have to fight a hegemonic, industry market-driven version of Christianity that is drowning out the small, still voices that are all around us if we will but look past the Vegas-style light and sound show and really look for those who are living out Christ’s love in hard-to-reach areas with hard-to-love people. They’re all around us if we will just choose to listen and learn.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What the Angel Might Say to Joseph if He were Fleeing Egypt Today...

In Matthew 2:13-18 an angel appears to Joseph and tells him to flee with his family, including baby Jesus, from King Herod. Here is my take on what an angel might say to Joseph today if Joseph thought about fleeing to the United States. Just a hint, as you read this the angel has a southern accent.

After all the community big-whigs and religious elites had left an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Dude, you gotta go. Seriously. Herod is gonna be pissed and when he gets pissed, man, he lops off heads. What can I say, the dude is nuts.”

“So, here’s the deal, you gotta get out of this place. I’m not talking about checking out Zillow and finding a corner lot with a fence and a swing on an oak tree in the backyard. You ain’t got time for that foolishness. I mean, you gotta leave like NOW. Just go.

“Now Joe, I see you sweatin' already. You don’t wanna go just anywhere. Herod is nuts, but unfortunately, his government is not the only one that done some crazy stuff. You gotta be careful these days.

“I say that because I have seen some of your dreams and heard some of your conversations with Mary; talking about how nice it would be to eventually settle down in the United States. Maybe you can get a small business loan and set up a nice carpentry business in the DC area (and since DC is one of the few places in the US that never felt the crunch of the shrinking housing market, that ain’t a bad idea). Mary could easily use her new skills as a speaker/writer (the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 was…well…magnificent!) I could totally see her doing some incredible work at local poetry slams. And what about baby Jesus? Oh yeah, he was made for the massive media markets in the US.

“That’s all fine and good, but the US is not the place of milk and honey you have heard about. You definitely do NOT want to apply for asylum there my friend. Listen Joe, when Uncle Sam says come, then you know it is time to STAY AWAY.

“I know you think you have an incredible case for asylum. I mean, you have a lunatic King who is going to murder all of the infants in and around Bethlehem because he is afraid of a baby. Yeah, being dumb and having a ton of power and time on your hands is NOT a good combination – we've seen too much of that already.

“You would think the US would be perfect for you and your family; a textbook case of the land of opportunity opening its doors to those who flee violence and religious persecution – just what the United States has long and loud claimed that it stands for. I mean, good grief, you got every politician with a mouth clamoring on about ‘family values.’ But their rhetoric rarely matches their actions or their policies – and I am talking about BOTH sides of the aisle.

“Joe, you might want to sit down for this, but in spite of the history of the US and in spite of the rhetoric of the US, the US detains families. No, I’m not kidding! Pick your jaw up Joe, I am being for real. They detain families. No joke.

“And you know why they detain families? Cuz it makes private prison corporations a LOT of money and because apparently, people like Donald Trump, Steve King and others are actually afraid of families from other countries. Yeah, I know, who wants to trade one Herod you are fleeing for a dozen Herods in your new country? Man, not me.

“But for real, the United States has a law in place that they HAVE to have 34,000 beds filled at any time and the private prison corporations make mucho dinero from this very odd policy. You only thought they would build prisons as they had need, but no, the United States builds prisons to create the need to fill them! Odd and inhumane, but very prosperous.

“And it’s not like you get detained at the Hilton either. Nuh-uh. The US has over 200 detention centers with 3 specifically focused on detaining families: Berks, PA, Dilley, TX, and Karnes, TX. Yeah, I have never heard of those places either. Might as well be in Butt-Crack, Nowhere. 

The detention facilities in the US….how shall I say this delicately…..well….they basically suck. The Detention Watch Network (Jesus is gonna like this group when he grows up) reports that in 2014, Artesia (New Mexico) was a large-scale facility that was infamously known as a 'deportation mill' and was the subject of a lawsuit and multiple reports of abuse and lack of due process, which led to its closure in December 2014. And, in the infinite wisdom of leaders in the Department of Homeland Security (did you catch my sarcasm?) many families ‘freed from Artesia’ were simply transferred to a larger facility in Dilley, TX also run by a private prison corporation (I told you this whole thing was about money!).

“Family detention facilities have been plagued by reports of subpar conditions such as physical and sexual abuse, inadequate medical and mental health care, children losing weight, inappropriate disciplinary tactics including threats to separate families if children misbehave, and fundamentally broken due process with little or no access to attorneys.

“Further, detention is psychologically damaging and completely inappropriate for children. Numerous studies demonstrate that detention poses a serious threat to individuals’ psychological health and further aggravates isolation, depression, and mental health problems associated with past trauma. These impacts are even more severe for young children whose development can be severely compromised.

“For my money, I suggest you go to Canada. Something tells me they need carpenters there as much as the US and they seem to actually welcome immigrants.

“But, whatever you do, just don’t go near the United States. It ain’t safe for people of color in general (and I can clearly see you, Mary and Jesus sure ain’t white), but it is definitely not safe for people seeking safety. Weird, I know. But I am just being honest. 

"Now, something tells me that Jesus, with his future being about pronouncing freedom to the captives, will have LOTS to say to the leaders of the United States; especially those leaders who claim to follow him but who benefit from mass incarceration. But if baby Jesus were MY baby? Oh no. Hell no. I wouldn’t let the United States anywhere near baby Jesus.

“But hang tight though, it could be a safe place again. If only they would put an end to the policy of family detention….

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Responding to Charleston

I attended the American Society of Missiologists meeting this weekend and it was so refreshing to hear the voices of missiologists as they reflected on various ways in which the church is missionally engaging the world. One speaker in particular raised important questions for me as I also reflected on the gun massacre/terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

One question in particular was premised on the idea that if culture consists of patterned ideas of thinking and behaving, then is the public behavior committed by social actors predictable – meaning are we just typically behaving in the ways in which our place and position in culture has prescribed for us? And if so, is social change sparked in part by social actors who opt to break out of that predictable behavior? I look at a couple of historical examples to help highlight this.

One historical social actor who broke out of her prescribed public behavior was Rosa Parks. She, like other African Americans of her time, was expected to sit in the back of the bus and even relent those seats as more whites got on. Her refusal to stand up and give her seat to a white man, her refusal to obey the orders to move from both the bus driver and the police who subsequently were called to intervene, and then her willingness to be dragged off the bus and arrested, sparked a one day boycott of the buses by all African Americans in Montgomery. This led to what became an almost year-long boycott and the eventual eradication of segregation on buses in Montgomery. The rest, as they say, is history, and good history at that.

Another more recent example is in 2010 when DREAM Act students engaged in a campaign called “Undocumented and Unafraid” whereby the DREAMers went “public” with their immigration status and refused to be cowed into silence or marginalization. This campaign transformed the immigration reform movement entirely, and brought about the near passage of the DREAM Act. It failed the Senate by just four votes, but the change in the public conversation about immigration has not been the same since these brave young people risked their own place in US society and put themselves out front.

In both of these examples – and there are many more we can look to – it would be a terrible mistake to believe that the unpredictable behavior – refusing to move or publicly claiming undocumented status – occurred suddenly or out of the blue. These actions were not unplanned though they were unpredictable to the predominant culture.

Rosa Parks was trained by the Highlander Center, which had helped build the labor movement and was often accused of being communist. Rosa Parks had actually refused to move on the bus previously and so this behavior was nothing new to her. She was trained as a radical activist along with others she worked with through the local chapter of the NAACP and she regularly put that training into action. There was nothing accidental about what she did. She was prepared. It simply was unknown to the whites in Montgomery. The same is true of the DREAMers who had been organizing for years, were trained as leaders long before their message ultimately captured the heart of the movement and catapulted so many of them into national leadership.

So, all of this brings me to the gun massacre/terrorist attack at Emanuel AME Church last week. As has been rightly said by many folks including President Obama; we have been here before. This all seems too familiar. And that is the problem.

A horrific shooting with innocent victims will be followed by sadness and outrage. We feel tremendous compassion for those who have been killed and for their families who will now have to endure a lifetime of heartache and inconceivable loss. And, at the same time, we feel tremendous outrage that these shootings continue, largely unabated; with absolutely no policy change in sight. We feel powerless and defeated which spurs, for a short time at least, more anger and outrage. We are not always sure who to direct it towards, so, almost without exception, about this time someone associated with the NRA or another guns-without-restrictions person makes some incredibly thoughtless and stupid remark.

Case in point for the Emanuel AME gun massacre/terrorist attack, the head of the Texas NRA blaming Emanuel Pastor and state legislator Rev. Clementa Pinckney for his own death by not adopting the policies of guns-without-restrictions. Also stepping into the spotlight of stupidity, Governor Rick Perry who called the gun massacre/terrorist attack an “accident.”

This fuels more outrage and we finally have someone to direct our anger at – for the immediate time. But outrage simply does not last. And being angry at these people actually changes nothing; it is merely cathartic. And the NRA and those in favor of guns-without-restrictions know they just have to wait. And so they do. The outrage burns itself out. We understandably get tired – you cannot live every day on outrage. And so we get distracted by something else: another issue, another story, or just with our own lives.

And nothing changes.

And then there is another shooting. And the cycle continues. It is sadly, maddeningly predictable.

But what if, as suggested this past weekend, we decide to break this predictable cycle and act unpredictably? What if we choose some part of the cycle described above that illustrates the patterned behavior and change it radically, like Rosa Parks or the DREAM Act students?

I can’t get this idea out of my mind. Social change will only happen if we choose boldly and radically to utterly alter our predictable behavior. So, the question naturally is, which part of the above cycle should we break? To break it will not be easy – let’s not kid ourselves. We have to be bold, we have to risk, and we HAVE to be committed. But if we truly are tired of this cycle and we really want change, I believe we have no other choice.

As I said before, we cannot sustain outrage – it’s just not possible. The only place to break our predictability and allow even the possibility for social change to break through is to choose to not get distracted. During the inevitable upcoming silence – the time when the outrage over the Charleston gun massacre/terrorist attack dies down, the media will go on to other stories and we are tempted with distractions, we instead choose to adopt practices that will build a movement so that the next time a gun massacre/terrorist attack occurs – and we can rest assured that it most certainly will – we will be prepared to respond powerfully with a new agenda that will create change and alter the national conversation in a significant way. We will be prepared because we have been preparing.

I would like to offer several practices that we should adopt immediately, even as the outrage will begin to fade away. Adopting these practices will build us individually and most importantly, corporately so that we will respond not with bewilderment and empty outrage, but with purpose, power and specific objectives in mind.

So, here are some steps that we should take if we are serious about ending gun violence:
  • Since gun violence is steeped in racism – consider not only this event, but the fact that so many people were (rightly) outraged by the gun massacre/terrorist attack at Newtown and yet so few have similar outrage when people of color are regularly killed by firearms every day in our urban centers throughout the country – those of us who are Anglo MUST enter into solidaristic or incarnational relationships with people of other races. This is more than inviting one person of color into our homes or congregations. This is instead us going to theirs. And it would not be a bad thing to first consider joining or creating solidaristic relationships with our brothers and sisters in AME churches. It all starts here. 
  • Similar to the first one, we must have one on one conversations with people who have passion to end gun violence. And we should start cross-racially. There is absolutely no way we are going to even see the smallest of reductions in gun violence if we attempt individualistic activism. We should sit with someone once a week and share our passion, listen to their passion, and discuss ways we can educate others and instill this same kind of passion in others.
  • Building on the first two, we must engage in rigorous study. Pervasive gun violence is seen as unsolvable often because the only voices providing possible solutions are the ones funded by or representing those who benefit from the guns-without-restrictions status quo. We can start with Gunfight by Adam Winkler which puts the contemporary debate in proper historical context. It is an excellent resource and should be read with a group of people you have created a team with. We also desperately need to be able to talk about this issue theologically so I suggest you and your team go through the three week Bible study, Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities. There are many other resources, but this is a good place to start.
  • And we must weigh in with our elected leaders. Regular calls by you and your team (remember, don’t do anything alone) asking them what they have done to appropriately address the epidemic of gun violence will let them know that there is pressure they must answer to for their irresponsible leadership. This should be done by phone calls every few weeks or so and then at least once or twice a year, bringing your new team together to meet with your elected leader or their staff in their district office.
  • And be in touch with me! We must build a coordinated movement among people of faith and I want to make sure all who are moving towards a more peaceful society are acting in concert and connected. I can help provide resources that could help in all of these ways. Just ask me!
There is only one way out of the same predictable cycle of outrage, silence and inaction: we must quit being silent and inactive. The choice is ours and how we choose will largely determine how many more people have to die. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Best of Intentions

Dear Jesus,

I am writing this to better explain my actions as of late. I think there has been some misunderstanding and I have unfairly been mischaracterized as some kind of “bad person” when you can ask around – I am anything but that! So, please permit me to not just share what I have done, but what I meant when I engaged in specific actions. I think you will see I always acted with the best of intentions.

I understand, since you are like, the Savior of the world and all, you don’t like racism. I don’t like racism either! I even stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh for two whole weeks when he said Indians, um, Native Americans, have nothing to complain about being victims of a holocaust because now they run casinos. You can ask all of my white friends – they know I am not a racist! I admit I have laughed at racist jokes; I mean, they are funny and I love to laugh. But I want you to know, I don’t laugh at jokes about Indians, um, Native Americans. That’s where I draw the line. You know I am 3/15 Cherokee right? I mean, those people are MY PEOPLE. I always cry when I see that old commercial of the Indian, um, Native American man, standing on the side of the road and crying at the littering – something I have tried really hard to mostly stop doing. So, I know I am not Martin Luther King, but I am also not riding around minority neighborhoods in a white hood! I only use that in my own neighborhood and only for Halloween when everyone knows it is a joke. I am not perfect, but I have had the best of intentions.

Speaking of minority neighborhoods, I did serve on the missions task force at my church that brought in an Angel Tree every Christmas for church people to give gifts to children of people who are in prison. I know you said you wanted us to visit those in prison, but seriously? Scripture says a lot of things that there really is no realistic way of doing. Prisons are probably just much more dangerous than in your time. So, visiting people in prison? Yeah, I don’t think so. I mean, their children are so much more cute, especially the ones I see on the posters for Angel Tree Christmas! I think it is easier for people to help poor children rather than visit directly the dangerous criminals who belong in our prisons. We need to keep our streets safe and I know this especially, my streets in my gated community are the safest I know! So, I think the best thing for me to do, besides keeping my own street safe and secluded, is to continue to buy toys for those cute kids on the posters. I am not perfect, but I know I have the best of intentions.

You know more than anyone, we have to do what is best for our children. That is why, even after moving out to the farthest suburb I could find, and even after finding the best schools in our area, I just had to home school my kids. I had heard so many terrible things about the neighborhood schools – there were more than three fights in one school year on the brand new playgrounds, there was cussing in the school hallways, and one of the girls from our church who goes to the high school even got pregnant. Never mind it was on the church youth ski trip – you know she learned that behavior from her school! Look at what happens when they remove God from the schools – girls get pregnant on their church ski trips! Me and my closest friends from church – all of whom are homeschooling – have adopted your saying, “Let the children come to me,” into our motto, “Let our children stay with us.” I just know I have a responsibility to love those nearest me and thanks to the gated community we live in in a suburb miles from the nearest town or city, those nearest me also happen to look like me so loving them is so wonderful for me. Thank you Jesus, for giving me such great intentions.

Now, you must be aware of all the money I have raised to eradicate malaria. Even after taking out the necessary administrative expenses such as dinners, staff salaries, and a slick public relations campaign I have raised enough money for thousands of nets for those people in the parts of the world that have to deal with mosquitoes (Louisiana?). I had thought about focusing on eradicating AIDS but they didn’t have as slick a public relations campaign. Plus, didn’t some people kind of get the disease because of their own behavior? So, malaria seemed to be a safer bet; the more sympathy we can generate the more funds we raise! Now, I know there was a New York Times article that showed that many of the nets were actually being used as fishing nets by people for whom hunger is a greater threat than malaria. And the problem is that the mesh for preventing mosquitoes is much tighter than traditional fishing nets and so the use of malaria nets for fishing is actually causing great damage to an already precarious source of food for millions of people. In addition, the insecticides placed on the malaria nets has also proved damaging when used for fishing to other life in the lakes. But Jesus you know how good this campaign to eradicate malaria makes us feel! Maybe there are some things that are happening that are negative, but isn’t the smile on the faces of the people in my church when they give $10 worth it? Please don’t hold me responsible for the bad things happening with this. You know me, I only had the best of intentions.

So, as I write all of this I am a little baffled. As you can see, I am far from perfect, but I have a good heart and I do my absolute best, within reasonable limits. So, why did you send me to hell? I would like a second chance if possible.

Please respond as soon as you can – it is a little stifling down here. But the one good thing is, I am surrounded by so many people I know. All of us with the best of intentions.


The North American Church

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Nausea is Just Beginning

I can feel it coming; the dread, the anxiety, the deep and dark disillusionment, the feeling that all hope for progress and the advancement of the Kingdom is lost amidst bureaucratic wrangling and incessant infighting. Yep, I am talking about General Conference.

I know some folks really get into General Conference because of their love for the United Methodist Church. I know some people are passionate about the stances the church takes on various social issues as well as issues of polity. I know some people are passionate about the direction of the United Methodist Church and feel strongly about where the institution needs to be headed.

I have great respect for those people. I just am not one of those people.

I have been to two General Conferences and for me, that is two too many. When I served in local churches and as a Wesley Foundation Director I felt the same way about Annual Conference. I spent just enough time at Annual Conference for people to know I was there, but that was about it. I used to figure out when the breaks in between sessions were and I would show up and walk through the halls and smile and wave to people – just so folks would think I was there when in fact, I was not.

I know, I know, some will say I am shirking my responsibility. Maybe I am. But I honestly hate the constant fighting. It all feels useless. The same fights with the same people fighting the same battles and no one ever seems to win. And if one side does win, then hell has no fury like the side who loses. And that side will shout and scream and email about it all the live, long day. In fact, I kind of think some folks prefer to lose so that they can shout and scream about how they are persecuted and forlorn.

Yep, I am pretty jaded. And I don’t want to oversimplify the fights or to minimize the passion of folks on either side. I also do not mean to say I do not have an opinion on many of the struggles the United Methodist Church faces when in fact, I do. I just do not believe we will get to a place of greater effectiveness through institutional decisions or positions that are taken. We certainly haven’t yet.

But here is the bottom line for me. I believe that the locus of change and transformation occurs in local churches in local communities. When the local church is missionally engaged in loving people and working/advocating for the transformation of that community to achieve tangible change for and alongside people who are experiencing oppression and marginalization, then THAT is where the Kingdom of God is present and at work. And, I believe, that is where we as followers of Jesus should focus our energy.

To me, General Conference represents the exact opposite of this. It is the locus of all the fighting between those who run the institution and those who want to run the institution. One side is interested in preserving power while the other is obsessed with stripping that power away until they take over, and then they will do anything to preserve the power they took from those who once did anything to preserve it. General Conference gives lip service to the importance of local churches, but with all of the resources that organizations both within and outside the United Methodist Church that are poured into it, it is clear to me that far too many of our leaders believe change will come to the church from the top down. I vehemently disagree.

I was reminded of General Conference being just a year away (ugh) this past Sunday as my pastor shared some of the resolutions that are being brought to the Virginia Conference. The resolutions center on – what else – homosexuality and finding new and creative ways to exclude gay people and “purify” the leadership of the church. Nothing says “renewal” and growth like exclusion and purification – just look at how the GOP has grown in recent years as they have tossed out the moderates!

The resolutions were generated by Good News, an ironically named group of people within the UMC whose brand of good news for the church in recent years has been to whine about the impending doom our beloved institution faces. Thanks guys for reminding us, as if we didn’t all know. What else is ironic is a conservative group sending resolutions to other annual conferences to pass; aren’t conservatives the ones who so often are yelling about the agendas of outside groups meddling into the affairs of local churches and conferences? But let us remember this is General Conference – consistency and authenticity be damned!

Yeah, I know, liberals aren’t a heck of a lot better. Liberals don’t have blind spots, we have blind decades. But let us remember, whatever side you are on, the goal is control.

And to me that goes to the heart of the problem – we have sides who want to have control and who lack a vision for inclusion of the other side and what they value.

Now, let me be straight. I don’t really have a solution. If I had a solution then I would have to go to General Conference and try and work with both sides to move them closer to what I perceived as the solution. I have to go to General Conference anyway because of my work, but I honestly have no desire to offer up some kind of solution. I am not that smart and I am not that arrogant.

The main thing I have learned the last few years is this: I just want to do Kingdom work. And for my money, the locus of the Kingdom – the place where God and God’s people are at work loving those who are unloved and defending the cause of the poor and vulnerable – just ain’t General Conference. It is local churches where the action is.

So, General Conference will come (ugh) and thankfully go. Maybe some things will change, and some things won’t. The sad thing is that we are guaranteed that virtually no one will leave satisfied.

But I can tell you this. The week before General Conference and the week after General Conference I will tell you where I will be. I will be coming alongside local churches who are loving people and working for tangible change. That’s just where the Kingdom of God is.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"I Wish My Dreams Were in Your Politics"

On this past Saturday (May 2) I marched with 500 people to protest the family detention center in Dilley, TX. Yes, our government detains families; women and children, many of whom are fleeing unbelievable violence and poverty in their home countries. Many of those held in these family detention centers are asylum seekers. An asylum seeker is someone who fleeing violence and who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. Once they are granted asylum, they are a refugee. Many of the families who are detained in the family detention centers will, in fact, be granted asylum. But still, they are detained for unknown amounts of time.

And why are they fleeing? Oftentimes, the violence they flee from is, in part, created by U.S. foreign policies. The failed War on Drugs has not only led to an explosion of the prison population for such things as low-level drug offenses in the United States, this failed policy that spans the terms of 8 presidents has also armed violent and brutal dictatorships in Latin American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In an effort to reduce the tide of drug trafficking the United States has supported and given aid to violent dictators who have no qualms violating peoples’ civil and human rights in their efforts to maintain power.

In addition, free trade policies have devastated agriculturally-based economies in these sending countries, while U.S.-controlled lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have installed “structural adjustment programs” through loans granted to these countries that have emphasized market-orientation of their economies to the extent that vital social services have been stripped, which, of course, harms their poorest citizens.

Therefore, people are forced to flee the violence and poverty, and when they arrive in the United States seeking asylum – which, again, many of them will receive – they are detained in one of three family detention centers located in Dilley, TX, Karnes, TX, and Berks, PA. Ever hear of any of these places? Me neither. Imagine if you know or are related to families located in these places, which are rural and isolated. How would you go visit them? Imagine the cost involved in going to see them.

Further, the conditions in these centers are often wretched and have been cited for being so. There have been documented cases of rape and violence. Parents have become depressed and leave the centers stressed and hardly ready to begin a new life in a new country. The stress on children is even greater.

So, why do we detain families when they pose absolutely no security threat, when our own policies have often helped to create the very factors for their need to flee, and our “solutions” to their countries’ problems only further benefit the United States? One reason at least for why we detain families is because it makes a boat-load of money for private prison corporations. You see, private prison corporations such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) own most of the detention centers in this country and they make hundreds of millions of dollars in doing so. There is big money in the mass incarceration of people of color and the Obama Administration is handsomely awarding it to these corporations.

This is nothing more than modern day slavery and it is the best evidence we have today that we live in a thoroughly racist country that in its policies cares nothing for people of color.

This is why we marched on Saturday. The feeling of anger and outrage was palpable as we came onto the detention center, located a little over a mile outside of Dilley. As the guards stood silently scattered throughout the field in between the front gate and the facilities where the families are detained, we chanted and yelled, all of us hoping that the detainees would hear us; hoping they would know that someone in the United States actually cares for them, values them. It was weirdly festive but also maddening at the same time.

One of the things I love about marches are the creativity in the signs that people make and the messages those signs carry. There were lots of powerful messages, but one in particular stuck out to me, “I wish my dreams were in your politics.” Man, if ever the solutions were trapped inside the political maneuverings of power-hungry politicians and demagogues, it is this one.

But let’s imagine if this sign were true. What if we really created policies and legislation that made the dreams of those most directly impacted by injustice a priority? What if we took seriously the desires of children who I heard on Saturday whose highest dream is to be reunited with both of their parents and to be allowed to live their lives in a safe place free from violence? What if we made the dreams of a mother who wants to see her children go to high school and then attend college so that they might have a secure future become an actual reality? Seriously, would it weaken our nation to make our priorities not those of the private prison corporations but of those whose dreams are to live together in a safe environment, to attend school, to work, to worship in freedom and to contribute to their communities? Not one damn bit.

To make the dreams of those seeking asylum a reality it must begin by ending family detention. That is why I urge you to do more than read this and shake your head, feel outrage and then turn the page and move on to the next issue. I urge you to call President Obama and demand – not ask – demand that family detention be ended. His number is 202-456-1111. Call him today. Call him tomorrow. Call him the day after that. Get your Sunday School classes, United Methodist Women’s circles, Wesley Foundations, and every network you are part of to make calls every day until this injustice is ended.

To make the dreams of those directly impacted by injustice a political priority means that we must follow closely another dreamer whose mission was simple and direct:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me 
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
he has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Yes, let the Kingdom come.

Monday, April 27, 2015

They Know Me, And They Love Me

This past week I traveled to beautiful San Diego and met with my accountability group, something we have been doing for the last 17 years. It’s a small group of us that got together towards the end of our seminary time and we have been meeting each year ever since.

It might be the most important commitment – outside of our marriages – that we have. It is for me. No matter the job I have, the church I am attending, the place I live or anything else that comes and goes in and out of my life, this group is my mainstay. They know me. They know me better than anyone outside my wife and my boys. And they love me. I know them. And I love them.

Sounds easy enough, huh? It hasn’t always been. Back during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq our group nearly shattered because I took a very hard line against the war. I made it very uncomfortable for anyone to sit silently by, particularly leaders in the church, while the war raged on and precious lives were lost. I said extremely hard things and challenged the members of our group. That war was a moral travesty to the United States and the entire world and support for it – either active or through silent complicity – was sinful. I believed it then and I believe it now.

My fellow members in the group felt judged by me and there were hurt feelings. The truth is, I still don’t regret anything I said or did. If you want to speak prophetically, it is easy to do it when the people to whom you are speaking will either never hear you or will never care what you say because you are so far away from them in status or geographically. Speaking to those you love? Man, it is hard and it hurts. On both ends. I cried many times for the pain that was felt in the relationships that I knew also brought me the greatest amount of joy and encouragement in my life. I felt a greater sense of disappointment and discouragement than I ever have in my life because of the distance between me and the guys in the group.

But we stuck it out. They stuck with me. They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. We still differ on some things, and some of those things are fairly substantive, but our differences do not overwhelm our commitment to one another. Sure, there have been times when it seemed easier to just get out, to just go on, perhaps with people who might agree with me on more issues. But I just kept coming back to this thought: They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. There is just something about this truth that would not let me go these last 17 years.

It won’t let me go now. I need this group now more than ever. I need them to remain faithful to my wife and my family. I need them to remain faithful to my calling to ministry. I need them to remain faithful even to myself. I still hold strong opinions regarding social and political issues. Those values and opinions are dear to me. Those opinions and values shape me and deeply shape my worldview. But those issues and my active engagement in them do not define me in total. I am also shaped very much by the relationships in my life and it has been one of God's greatest gifts to me to be shaped by the men in my accountability group.

I just love these guys. They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them.

I tire of the blogs that end with "this is what the United Methodist Church needs" so forgive me as I trespass my own rule, but may I suggest that small accountability groups is something that United Methodists might want to do amidst all of the talk about splitting? Heck, aren’t Wesley’s classes what we came out of? It isn’t just about loving people. We throw that term around far too often and it means very little most of the time. This is about accountability, this is about life together, this is about knowing people. And when you know them; in spite of what you know about them, loving them.

I am talking about being the Body of Christ y’all. If we as United Methodists can’t do this or just simply do not want to do this, then maybe splitting up ain’t such a bad idea. If we can’t love people or if we can only love people who agree with us then we aren’t much of a church in the first place. Regardless of what happens to the institution though I can tell you what I will be doing in 2016. I will be meeting with my annual accountability group somewhere in Texas. You know why? Cuz they know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. And man, it’s beautiful. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Death by Hierarchy

I have a friend (no, seriously, I do!) who, several years ago, worked in an urban ministry organization that went through the change of hiring a new Executive Director (ED). The new ED did what all new heads of organizations get to do: he re-structured the entire organization.

Now, my friend was originally excited for the new boss. She and her colleagues were ready for new ideas. She loved her work – especially the people in the neighborhood that she worked directly with.

She, like many of her colleagues, thought at the time that a re-structuring was in order. However, the ED’s new structure quickly countered her hopes for a fresh beginning. She discovered that new structures do not necessarily bring about new ideas or visions. She learned firsthand that you cannot always restructure yourself into renewal.

Before the arrival of the new ED, the urban ministry seemed to thrive in the midst of chaos. It was exciting, but also tiring. When the ED’s new structure was implemented it benefitted a few in the office, but relegated my friend and her colleagues to the lower rungs of the ladder. Those who were promoted were given new titles and higher salaries, which naturally generated some hurt feelings. What once a community of colleagues took on a corporate culture.

While staff meetings previously had included a time for collective sharing and dreaming, the new staff hierarchy assigned decision-making power solely to the senior staff. Ideas could be submitted, but decisions were owned by senior staff and implemented by the rest of the staff. I never knew the toll it takes on a person when you take away their creative input until I saw it in my friend. Communication no longer ebbed and flowed organically among staff as they sought to discover new and innovative ways to serve their community. The ED’s new structure emphasized more tightly controlled means of communication. Ideas and requests flew up the chain while decisions and responses sailed down.

I remember being shocked when I ran into my friend at a conference a few years ago just a few months after the ED’s new structure had been implemented. I literally could see her depression on her face. Whereas she previously had been fully engaged in the life and vision and direction of the urban ministry, it was painfully obvious that she had become cynical and derisive. She still was passionate about the people in her community, but she felt invalidated, detached and alone in the place she once had felt so a part of.

Hierarchy had brought those who sat at the top greater efficiency and control, but efficiency and control do not always result in faithfulness ad effectiveness. In fact, I believe they rarely do. It is my strong contention that hierarchical structures in the church do not reflect Jesus’ Kingdom as much as “flatter” or more egalitarian structures.

Most of the renewal movements in the Church throughout history have reflected aspects of the New Testament church. It is in the birth of the Church that we see worship at its most vital, missional outreach at its most effective, and communal love at its greatest sense of harmony. That is, until a dispute erupts over the distribution of food.

It is in Acts 6 when the Hellenist Jews complained that their widows were being ignored in favor of the Hebrew Jews. This was, in fact, a cultural divide between Jews who spoke Greek and were acculturated in the wide reaches of the Roman Empire. In contrast, Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic and came from Israel. This dispute over food was not a minor problem over structure or the need for better organization. It was a clash of cultures.

But the disciples instead saw the problem as one of structure and organization. Look at how they respond: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (6:2) Of course, in one sense they are right; they cannot do everything. But I cannot help but feel when I read this that they view this problem as less important than their work of preaching and teaching. Their work is viewed as more significant than that of “waiting on tables.” In this early moment in the life of the Church, they have created a hierarchy of responsibility within the Body of Christ. What makes this so problematic is the fact that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born, Peter stands up and recites the prophet Joel:

In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

When the day of Pentecost comes and the Spirit is poured out, the hierarchies of the world are flattened. Valleys become hills and hills become valleys. The last will be first and the first will be last. It turns out that God prefers a more flattened structure where all people, men and women, sons and daughters, old and young, slaves and free, are to speak the words of God to God’s people.

I am saddened by what I see in the local churches and agencies of the United Methodist Church today. We seem bent on making the hills more hilly and the valleys more…valleyer? Instead of reflecting the New Testament church’s emphasis on the prophetic priesthood of all believers, we are a corporation filled with employees seeking upward advancement and the titles and recognition that go along with rising mobility. As we develop new structures and fool ourselves into believing God’s anointing will bless our misguided efforts, we too easily forget that those relegated to the bottoms of our little individual fiefdoms will be lost. Many of our pastors and deacons will leave the ministry and while there will be various reasons that account for their departure, one of the reasons I hear often is that they didn’t feel like their ministry mattered to the life of the institution.

God damn us for opting for the life of the institution and the preservation of a hierarchical structure over the gifts and callings of even the “least” of our sisters and brothers in fulfilling their callings and living out their gifts. Hierarchies work for those who are at the top, or those who buy into the ethic of climbing to the top, but hierarchies are not effective when the task is about loving God and loving others. Any structure that relegates large numbers of voices to the bottom and innately values some and invalidates others will never be effective. That is why Paul compares us to a Body with equally important parts, and not just a big head that mandates unthinking, subservient appendages to engage in mostly insignificant tasks for the pleasure and the benefit of the head.

I pray we recover the bottom-up ministry of Jesus and leave the top-down, title-filled, power-hungry hierarchies to the corporations where they belong. If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers then let’s allow everyone a turn at speaking. Let’s get rid of the titles and the corporate-based salary structure that ignores legitimate need among our pastors and instead rewards institutional ass-kissing. Institutional hierarchies are efficient for those at the top, but they are not effective in helping us love God and love people. Flattened structures may be a little chaotic at times, but it was in those chaotic moments when everything seemed out of control that Pentecost happened once and can happen once again. I say let it come.