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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

When the Clowns Run the Store

Politics can be brutal at times. We have seen especially in this bizarre election season that politics is not for the faint of heart. All previous rules governing behavior seem to have been thrown out of the window as civil dialog has been passed over in favor of uncontrolled vitriol. As jaded as I have become recently though I still was appalled as I watched the hearing held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee charged with oversight on immigration last week.

Before we get to what the hearing was about we should know what congressional hearings hope to achieve. Congressional hearings are an important part of the legislative process in that they provide a collective way for committee members to hear from experts on the possible impacts of policy ideas. All congressional staffers (should) do research for members of Congress they work for, but hearings are important because the information they find out through them is collective – all members of the committee are privy to the information and research that is shared and are able to better function as a committee to prepare legislation that will best reflect the mind of the collective committee and will be most effective and beneficial for the American public.

Ah, what a brilliant theory. Now let’s get to the sad, sick implementation of this theory currently being practiced by the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing was called, “The Real Victims of a Reckless and Lawless Immigration Policy: Families and Survivors Speak Out on the Real Cost of this Administration’s Policies.” I know what you are thinking, when did Maury Povich suddenly become chairman of this House Judiciary Subcommittee? This is the kind of stupidity you would expect to find on day time TV talk shows, not from the supposed “leaders” of Congress. The purpose of the hearing, in reality, was to politicize the deaths of two innocent people at the hand of undocumented immigrants who died needlessly and tragically. The hearing was also designed to scapegoat the entire immigrant population because of the horrific acts of individual immigrants. The heartbreak of losing loved ones is only compounded when politicians take those deaths and trivialize them by trying to score political points as was done through this hearing.

But the reprehensible behavior was just beginning. In a hearing each side gets to call witnesses. The party in control – the Republicans – gets to decide what the hearing is about and gets to call the majority of the witnesses. The minority party – the Democrats – in this case called one. She is a Bishop of the United Methodist Church and someone I must say from the outset that I am biased in her favor, Bishop Minerva Carcaño. Bishop Carcaño has been a tireless leader in the struggle for immigrant rights and has been tasked by the United Methodist Council of Bishops to speak on the issue of immigration.

The majority of the members on the Republican side behaved like rude, classless, bullies. Special mention though must be given to Representative Trey Gowdy, Chairman of this subcommittee, who spent all of his questioning time yelling at the Bishop and demanding that she be quiet while he asked her questions and then repeatedly interrupted her to make statements and ask more questions before she could answer his previous question. Representative Labrador called the Bishop’s testimony “disgusting” and went on to say to her “because of you and people like you we aren’t fixing [the broken immigration system].” Rep. Steve King didn’t insult the Bishop because he was too busy encouraging law enforcement to engage in racial profiling.

So, this is what the process of policy research and information gathering has come to. Our elected members of Congress host what was meant to be a time of research and in-depth analysis to instead yell at witnesses who happen to hold dissenting views from them and the hearing breaks down into what essentially amounts to a food fight. This perfectly illustrates the fact that the legislative process isn’t broken, it is currently being held hostage by a gang of clowns – really mean, petulant, petty, small-minded clowns, otherwise known as the House Judiciary Committee. They refuse to address the issues of immigration in ways that will move the country forward to find real solutions to real problems that real people face every day.  

This farce of a hearing benefits absolutely no one but their own objective of scoring political points. But I guess benefitting themselves is why they are in office. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Constantine Alive and Well in Tennessee

Watching the Tennessee state legislature debate whether to override Governor Haslem’s veto of making the Bible the Tennessee state book reminds me that it seems that very few of those who scream and yell about the importance of the Bible have actually read or further yet, studied it. Many of those who spoke in favor of the bill tried to assure their colleagues that making the Bible the state book was not an endorsement of a specific religion. Others, also in favor of the bill, alleged that making the Bible the state book had nothing to do with trying to recruit or proselytize others – that it had nothing to do with transforming others. It was simply to lift up the Bible for its historical importance. Indeed, in the language of the bill, making the Bible the state book was likened to making the honey-bee the agricultural insect, the ladybug the state insect, and the tulip poplar the state tree. Apparently, in the minds of the bill’s authors, the tulip poplar is much like the Bible because it is found “from one end of the state to the other.”

As a follower of Jesus and as someone who greatly values the unique value of the Bible as a means of knowing and even experiencing the transformative power and presence of God through its pages and stories, I am very grateful this bill failed. I, for one, do not think the Bible can or should be compared to the tulip poplar.

Of course there are many reasons why this is a terrible idea. To say nothing of its complete lack of constitutionality, when we begin to symbolize those things which are meant to be empowered by God’s own presence and are meant to be living and dynamic in the formation of God’s people for the purpose of sharing in God’s mission to the world, it means we have given up on the future of God’s promise and are instead memorializing the work of God as a thing of the past.

This odd obsession that many Christians have with ensuring Christian symbols, phrases, or even practices such as prayer be enshrined in public practice, even and especially when that public is pluralistic and may or may not proclaim Christianity as their faith, is actually causing great damage to the Church’s witness to the world.

The truth is that symbolizing Christian beliefs, practices, or objects hearkens back to the Constantiniazation of the Church, which began in earnest in 313. It was in 313 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine first made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Establishing Christianity as the official religion of the empire effectively transformed Christianity from a counter-cultural movement into a state-sponsored institution. What shifted within the first few generations in the life of the Church was that the concerns of the State went from being important to followers of Jesus to being central and definitive of the institutional church itself. Since we are long past the early life of the Church I am afraid followers of Jesus have no other way of seeing the role of the State as other than central and defining to the life and mission of the Church today. And we are still struggling with the effects of this sponsorship.

Rodney Clapp makes the comparison that as sports stars are sponsors of products like shoes or soft drinks and so become linked to those products to the point of seeing one brings to mind images of the other (think Michael Jordan and Nike), so too the Church has become the official sponsor of Western civilization. (1996:24) Thus, to those who desire to continue this unfortunate fusion, the decline of one is equal to the decline of the other. When one is in decline the answer must be to strengthen the fused relationship rather than address those areas of decline. When faced with societal distress, the Constantinian Church responds with statements or press releases and looks only to the state for solutions, while the New Testament Church responds by incarnationally listening to and loving those who are most directly impacted by society’s brokenness. The state might be part of the solution, but for the New Testament the state is not the answer in itself.

Since the Western Church has adopted a Constantinian missiological framework, it has moved from its origins in the New Testament as being a marginal movement challenging society’s predominant values through a counter-cultural living practice of love and hospitality towards society’s most vulnerable, to a State-approved institution whose task is to preserve the political and economic status quo and to give it legitimacy by adopting the values of the State as its own. The church’s fall into Constantinianism has shielded the state from a necessary prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness. The church fails to be prophetic because it shares in the preservation of the state. Should the state fall the Constantinian church will fall.

The Tennessee State legislators who voted to make the Bible the state book are, I believe, working within a Constantinian missiological framework for the Church. Adopting this framework divides the actual mission of the Church – reflecting and manifesting God’s love, grace, mercy and justice for the world – with ensuring that the interests of the state are equally prioritized. Having a divided purpose means that neither purpose is actually ever fully achieved.

It is easy to say that debate on such pieces of legislation takes away the focus on more essential bills such as expanding Medicaid, addressing the ever-growing prison population, or strengthening Tennessee’s schools. It is easy to say because it is true.

Instead of utilizing the resources of Tennessee to care for the needs of the state’s most vulnerable populations the Tennessee State legislature decided to try and make the Bible the state book. Such symbolization of Christian objects and practices only serves to keep those objects and practices enshrined and untouchable, almost like being preserved in a museum. And what objects are placed in a museum? Those which we never use anymore but pause occasionally to remember the days long ago when they were put to good use.

While I am glad the attempt to make the Bible the state book failed, I am concerned that the captivity to Constantinianism continues. Yes, we can still regain the essence of the New Testament Church and be liberated from our current captivity to Constantinianism, but it will take some work. The Constantinian Church still has a fairly firm hold on the church’s ideas, speech, practices, worship, and especially on our mission. Liberation means that we must become singularly focused on the mission Jesus set out for those who wish to follow him – that being to love the world and to work for justice for those especially most directly impacted by injustice. Sure, those who follow Jesus are needed in places like the Tennessee State legislature, but their focus should be to forget symbolizing Christian objects and practices and instead, to serve those most directly impacted by the brokenness of injustice. It is high time to live out the Scriptures rather than memorialize them.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Afraid of the Truth

On Thursday former President Bill Clinton got into a sparring match with some Black Lives Matter protesters. At one point, when Clinton was trying to answer and though he was the one with the podium and the microphone, he played the victim and made what was to me an astonishing remark when he said, “I like protesters, but the ones who won’t let you answer are afraid of the truth.” Accusing young protesters who were rightly pointing out that the policies of the Clinton Administration only increased the problems of mass incarceration and poor policing of being afraid of the truth was amazing to me, but the fact that it was President Clinton making this accusation was all the most shocking.

First, for Bill Clinton to talk about anyone being afraid of the truth when he repeatedly denied – and had other people deny for him – the truth of his sexually and emotionally abusive relationship with an intern during the second term of his presidency is beyond hypocritical. Though most of us would like to keep this whole sordid affair behind us and while I do not expect Mr. Clinton to wake up every morning making a formal apology to the world for his past behavior – certainly, there is forgiveness and grace for all of us who fall short of the standards of ethical and moral decency – I was more than a little shocked to find him so protective of “the truth” for someone who refused to ever apologize to the one he hurt the most, Ms. Lewinsky. He apologized to the nation, to his supporters, and to his family, but he never made an apology to his victim, the one whose life was more shattered than he will ever know; Ms. Lewinsky. I do not hope to retry the former president for his actions during this whole sleazy mess, but I do think he should be a bit more careful when accusing others of being afraid of the truth.

The reason the Black Lives Matter protesters were there was to demonstrate against the former president’s policies, particularly the Violent Crime Act of 1994. This piece of legislation gave money to states for imposing longer sentences and tougher penalties, particularly for young people in gangs. The bill also spent lavishly on building more prisons while ignoring almost entirely significant prevention programs which actually prevent crime and make communities safer while not incarcerating an entire generation of young black men. The bill, by all accounts, was a terrible piece of legislation and has had a horrible impact on communities of color.

By all accounts, except for Bill Clinton.

Clinton responded to the Black Lives Matter protesters by defending his bill in language like it was 1994 all over again. He tried to remind the protesters that the reason for the bill was to target “gang leaders who got 13 year old kids hopped up on crack and [sent] them out on to the street to murder other African American children.” Welcome to the rhetoric of the late 80s and 90s. The problem is that rhetoric of that time did not match the reality. The crime rate had begun what was to become a long decline because what truly prevents crime most often, which are jobs and education and not more prisons and longer sentences. Mr. Clinton’s remarks shows he never has understood this and even though everyone, including his wife who is running for President, has come to regard that legislation as a horrible idea with devastating consequences for communities of color, especially the African American community, he still doesn’t get it.

When I first watched his retort to the Black Lives Matter protesters – a movement begun in response to the recent rash of police killings of young black men and that has shined a much-needed spotlight on ending mass incarceration and better policing for local communities – it sounded like Bill Clinton was claiming that his actions in 1994 showed that he cared more for black lives than the protesters themselves. Like I said, his remarks were astonishing. And simply not at all truthful.

African American men stand a one in three chance of ending up in prison – one in three. There are more African American young men in prison than in college. And we are continuing to build more prisons and maintain the tough and entirely unnecessary sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses that were furthered by his legislation.

Of course, Mr. Clinton did not pass the bill – we have the seated 1994 Congress to thank for that. But while at yesterday’s protest he credited the congressional Republicans with passing the bill he somehow forgot that he could have vetoed the bill, but he didn’t. He profited from it politically, in fact, as he carved out the political “middle” and was able to show himself tough on crime and tough on poverty (as he passed an equally horrible welfare reform package as well). He rode this political middle to reelection in 1996.

More prisons and longer sentences has meant dramatically more people impacted by an already racist and classist criminal justice system. This carries with it what are called collateral consequences – employment and housing discrimination and lifetime disenfranchisement for some. All of this together has meant a life filled with unnecessary and unjust challenges and obstacles for not only those who are and have been incarcerated, but their families and communities as well. This kind of truth hurts Mr. Clinton, but while it doesn’t seem to have affected you that much, it has impacted millions of people, a few of whom were standing in front of you while you talked about your past “accomplishments.”

Now tell me, who is the one who, by continuing to talk without listening, shows that he really is afraid of the truth?

Monday, April 4, 2016

I Miss Dr. King

I know this might sound a little odd, but I have always treasured the fact that I shared seven months of living on this earth with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was born in September of 1967 and Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – 48 years ago to the day when I am posting this. For someone I look up to so highly and whose words have been so transformative in my life, those seven months are something of a link for me to a man whose commitment to justice is unmatched.

I miss Dr. King, whose life was cut short at 39 years old. It has been said many times by many people, but it is no less true today – it is absolutely amazing what he was able to do in such a short amount of time. Much has been written about Dr. King, my favorites being the trilogy of Dr. King’s life by Taylor Branch, particularly the first one, Parting the Waters, and the excellent biography, Bearing the Cross by David Garrow. What is remarkable in these books and the many, many others that have been written, is that Dr. King rarely sought out the attention he received. He understood his place in the Civil Rights Movement as a leader and particularly as a theologian and strategizer, two characteristics that are rarely found in the same person. He knew when he needed to be out front in order to draw attention to the brutal injustice he fearlessly faced head on, but he also knew when he needed to withdraw and allow others to take the lead.

I miss Dr. King’s leadership. Lord knows, we are in short supply of it now in the church and in our society. I have seen far too many “leaders” whose rhetoric far surpassed their actions. I remember planning the first act of civil disobedience on President’s Day in 2014 when I joined a small group of faith leaders as we stood in front of the White House to protest the continued deportations of undocumented immigrants by the Obama Administration. I had hoped for a much larger group of faith leaders, but we remained small because far too many of these leaders – leaders who eagerly accept invitations to speak at rallies or press conferences – were worried they might upset the White House and hurt their access to the seat of power. As I stood there in front of the White House waiting to be arrested, singing praise songs and praying with the others, I thought about Dr. King and how he refused to back down in 1967 – April 4 actually – when he spoke out against the Vietnam War and was disparaged for it by the media and other movement leaders. They wanted him to focus solely on segregation issues, particularly in the South. But as King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King didn’t bow to the pressure to be popular.

I miss Dr. King’s focus on the regular folks as the source of inspiration for building the movement for civil and human rights. Dr. King knew it was the regular folks, folks mostly unheard of and forgotten by the pages of history (though not all of history – check out Local People by John Dittmer and I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne, both are excellent at telling the stories of regular folks). These are the people that make movements go.

However, today, far too many of our institutions, including our churches, seem more focused on sustaining themselves, drawing attention and much-needed resources away from where the real action is: the local church loving and transforming local communities. Rather than seeing local churches and local communities as a distraction from the work of corporate bureaucracies, Dr. King regularly spoke of and gained his inspiration from local folks. He talked about the ordinary house workers in Montgomery, Alabama who walked to and from work, sometimes several miles each day for over a year, in order to maintain the bus boycott until they fully desegregated the bus system. He spoke admirably of the woman who said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” He talked about the little girl who wrote him after he was stabbed in the chest, just inches away from his heart, so close that the doctors said if he had sneezed he would have died. The little girl wrote in her letter, “I am glad you didn’t sneeze.” His passion deepened and spread from his interactions with regular folks. We need more interactions like this and greater dependence on the ordinary heroes doing the work of justice in our local churches today.

I really miss the radical and prophetic statements and witness of Dr. King. I get tired of how we have made Dr. King tame in celebrating his memory. We have made him lovable and nice, because that makes us feel lovable and nice. We have to remake our heroes in our image to justify our refusal to be challenged by them. I am sure he was all these things, but Dr. King was also a radical. He was infuriated by injustice, poverty, and oppression which seemed so rampant throughout the country and the world.

Every time I hear a white man – especially a politician – talk about what a great leader Dr. King was because his messages have been reduced to merely sound bites on love and brotherhood, it makes me want to give them a copy of James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America. I read this book when I was in seminary though, sad to say, not because my seminary asked me to read it (although every seminary student should read it). In it Dr. Cone shows how the messages of Dr. King and Malcolm X started early on in their public careers as widely separated from one another, but towards the end of their respective lives became so much more aligned. Dr. King is loved and Malcolm X is often reviled, especially by white America, because we have lost the history of what they actually said (and did).

Dr. King ended his life calling for a nonviolent revolution to overthrow the systems of injustice that had maintained a permanent underclass of mostly people of color. He wanted an end to all war and militarization and he demanded that every poor person in America receive a guaranteed salary that lifted them out of poverty, regardless if they worked or not. Dr. King did not accept the heresy so endemic in the white church of classifying a small number of poor as “deserving” and worthy of aid while ignoring if not outright demonizing those classified as “undeserving.” No, Dr. King wanted to eradicate poverty for all people regardless of human classifications. Just like Jesus. Dr. King was radical and was willing to speak hard, difficult and uncomfortable truths to those in powerful positions no matter whether it cost him his reputation or, ultimately, his life. We desperately need this today.

I consider myself lucky, not because I heard Dr. King speak or met him personally, but just because for seven months of my life I breathed the same air and walked (or crawled in my case) on the same earth as he. It’s not much, but it is my link to someone I have come to esteem so highly. I am very critical of the “leaders” I see in the church today, but it is mainly because I see through Dr. King’s life and work that all of us are capable of so much more. And so, I remember Dr. King’s life today and I celebrate his life. When I look around at where we are and the absence of authentic and radical leadership in the church though, it does, indeed, make me miss Dr. King more than ever.