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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Advocating for Justice: A Book Review

As those of you who follow this blog know, I rarely recommend books, especially Christian books. In fact, I have written previously about the danger of trying to grow in our relationship with Christ through the fluff being put out regularly by the “Christian” book industry (more industry than Christian I am afraid). But I am happy to recommend a book that will help fill what is currently a wide gap that exists in a crucial area of church mission: political advocacy. The book is called, Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.

The book is written by a group of evangelicals, including the Chair of the School of Mission at Asbury Seminary (where I went to school!), and it is written for evangelicals. But believe me, progressives need to hear much in this book as well. Though one could arguably say that progressives have far more experience in faith-based political engagement our engagement has not always been biblically-based. Progressives often too easily adopt the vocabulary of community organizers and political strategists for what they want to change. There have also been far too many times in my experience when I hear progressives not be able to give biblically-based answers for why we engage in justice-oriented ministries.

So, with a few hesitations I will name later, I highly recommend Advocating for Justice. The authors spend a good deal of time – time well spent in my opinion, establishing what advocacy is and its biblical basis for normative Christian use. They remind those of us who have spent our lives in this work that advocacy is in the very essence and nature of who God is as a triune God. Advocacy is not just something God does; it is part of who God is. The relational nature of the Trinity enables us to see “the Trinity as a polis, a community of Beings who perfectly represent goodness, love and beauty…Such a Trinitarian polis reframes power as a power-for-the-other, as well as a power-for-the-world.” (p. 58)

And it is the authors’ treatment of the powers in Scripture and our call to advocate so that the social, political and economic structures are redeemed that this book makes its greatest contribution. The authors remind us that because God is the Creator, even the structures which currently oppress and destroy so many and work to benefit so few owe their allegiance to Christ and therefore can be redeemed. We are reminded that the powers are sinful because they “are bent on their own survival – as ends in themselves – and engaged in practices that create allegiance toward themselves so as to ensure that survival.” (p. 90) When we acknowledge that structural sin is based in its disposition to be power-for-itself rather than power-for-the-other – or as I would prefer, power-for-the-powerless – then this helps to determine what our public engagement will look like; reminding the powers/structures of their God-given purpose.

Another important emphasis is the authors urging readers that advocacy must become normalized in the Christian life. Advocacy must be a part of the discipleship for all who follow Christ. This means that advocacy should not be reserved for a few who are usually so far to the left (politically and theologically) that they are irrelevant to the life of the overall church. If we do not partition prayer out to a committee of specialists, then why do we do the same with such a God-centered activity as advocacy? “We believe that engagement in advocacy is an issue of spiritual maturity, and that most of our leaders are not equipping congregations to respond faithfully to God’s calling.” (p. 15) Amen and amen.

Moreover, the authors rightly put the responsibility of discipling followers of Jesus within the context of the local church. Far too often – as in almost all of the time – the work of mobilizing/discipling congregations into political advocacy is left for ministries outside the local church. We can be assured that the large infrastructure and bureaucracy of churches like the United Methodist Church have never done, and will never do the work of mobilization effectively. But local churches are the locus of God’s change and transformation on the earth and any attempt at discipleship that fails to include the practice of advocacy is a failure not only for that person’s individual spiritual maturity, it is a failure that hurts the church and all of creation.

So, yeah, I recommend Advocating for Justice. But hey, it wouldn’t be a blog post if I didn’t have something critical to say, right? So here it goes. There are two weaknesses in this book that I see.

One is that the authors make the mistake that far too many evangelicals make when they talk about Scripture. Though I share with the authors a love for Scripture and a high view of Scripture, I also have come to strongly believe that much – and I mean much – of our understanding of the Bible is shaped and formed by where we live and who we relate to. If we live isolated from the poor and vulnerable so that our experience of poverty and oppression is filtered through the media (particularly through such outlets as Fox “News”) or through other biased lenses, then chances are our reading of Scripture will be tremendously impaired. At the same time, if we are rooted in a community experiencing police brutality, ICE raids of our undocumented neighbors, and a lack of any kind of economic distribution because all of the stores are owned by people who live outside our community (and usually are based in communities isolated from the poor one we live in), then we will read and understand (and obey) Scripture in vastly different ways. I believe we will be more faithful.

And I ain’t talking just about location; it is our relational rootedness – or incarnation – among the poor that determines how deeply engaged in justice we will be and how biblically faithful we will live. Our proximity to the poor and vulnerable certainly opens doors for even the possibility of authentic relationships to occur, but it is incarnation among the poor – when their hurts become our hurts, their struggles our struggles, their fears our fears and their dreams our dreams – where the most effective advocacy occurs.

The importance of incarnation to the work of advocacy cannot be overstated. I believe that relationships are the primary way most people are mobilized to engage in political advocacy, even more so than Scripture. Thus the formative power of Scripture is certainly not lost, but it is not necessarily one to initialize engagement. Instead, the work of mobilization must primarily lie in creating spaces for people (evangelical or not) to have even the opportunity to enter into incarnational relationships with those directly impacted by injustice. The authors touch on this in several places, but I think the book would be strengthened through greater emphasis on this point.

Lastly, I am troubled by the fact that this book is so limited in its focus on evangelicals. I know focusing on evangelicals is sexy among funders and publishers these days, but this book would have lost nothing had it been more expansive in its audience. The challenges prohibiting evangelicals from greater engagement in political advocacy are many of the same obstacles progressives face. I am not saying that progressives and evangelicals are the same – we aren’t! But our differences are not so great as to demand entirely different approaches to engagement in such ministries as advocacy.

Let me give you an example. I led the organizing work around immigration, mass incarceration and ending gun violence for the United Methodist Church for ten years. On immigration, I saw United Methodists in local churches lead thousands of public witness events in support of immigrants and in the need for humane and just immigration reform. Many of those who led those events had never been engaged in political advocacy before. The tens of thousands of Methodists who engaged in this work came from all over the political and theological map. And yet, in the work of mobilizing folks I never developed separate messages based on which side of the theological or political spectrum they came from. I didn’t have time or patience to delineate between two separate groups of people in the same church. We didn’t have evangelical teams and progressives. We created and maintained teams of people with passion because they were incarnated among immigrants who were living under the state-sponsored terror of indefinite detention, lack of due process in our courts, and mass deportations. When you are faced with such a reality, nobody gives a damn if you are a Democrat or Republican.

So, when I have seen separate messages being used to mobilize progressives from religious conservatives, devastating results have been seen. Let me explain.

My office was part of a very powerful coalition, in fact, the largest faith coalition working on immigration in Washington DC called the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC). Instead of joining the IIC, several of the evangelical groups, led by a secular organization, received millions of dollars of funding and started the Evangelical Immigration Table, as discussed in the book’s Appendix. In the 6 years I was leading the work of the Methodists, though I reached out several times to coordinate our work as faith partners I met with EIT leaders exactly zero times. For whatever reason (and yes, there are a bunch), evangelicals work well with almost any faith group except for progressive Christians. And though I had experience mobilizing both evangelicals and conservatives together no one asked me my thoughts about the wisdom of creating two separate coalitions to work on one issue.

Thus, the resources and efforts for advocating for justice for immigrants were split – for no real reason. And in creating the principles for what these evangelical groups stood for – though I had shown there was no need to develop vastly different messages or principles – the EIT, for some unknown reason, decided to adopt principles that were not just conservative; they were adverse to moving forward real reform. I have written about this previously so I won’t go into depth here, but one mistaken policy the EIT called for was “guaranteed secure borders.” Why faith communities should be for guaranteeing the security of national borders is beyond my understanding and is without any kind of biblical justification that I have been able to find. The only thing that seems even partly sensible to me is that groups that make up the EIT hold to a Christendom model of relating to the state. But even more, advocating for this position actually guarantees that there won’t be movement towards immigration reform. In 2012 more than $18 billion was spent on securing the southern border – more than all federal expenditures on law enforcement put together. And still, that was not enough for conservative politicians who refused to budge. Their hunger for militarization of the border that feeds the bottomless pockets of defense contractors who fund their campaigns means that these elected politicians will never move towards reform especially while they can point to religious groups supposedly in favor of reform but who believe that secure border should be “guaranteed” first. Thus, we are stuck.

I would hope that the goal for immigration reform (as one of many issues we should all be working on) would be the same for evangelicals as it is for progressives: to build a movement among those who are directly impacted by the broken immigration system themselves or who are incarnated among those directly impacted. Evangelical, progressive, it doesn’t matter. The movement will only be built only through relationships with those directly impacted by a broken and unjust immigration system. When it isn’t about relationships, that is when you need special talking points, but that is also when you aren’t really engaged in authentic advocacy.

Wisely, the authors of this book end the book urging evangelicals to work with other groups. But that counsel is most likely to be drowned out by the fact that the book marginalizes other groups in its title and throughout the substance of the book. My wildest hope is that many evangelicals (and progressives) would read this book and things like the Evangelical Immigration Table would break up and we can all work together more effectively to achieve justice. But, I’m a realist and I know there is too much money from too many funders for that good idea to ever gain traction. So, for now, I will settle for local churches reading it, implementing its ideas, and seeing the Kingdom more evident in the lives of the people they love in their communities. That’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Republican Racism

I stayed true to my promise last night to not watch the Republican National Convention, but from seeing the aftermath on social media and on all of the cable shows (yes, I even watched Fox “News”) it seems the GOP decided their theme was going to be “Make America Racist Again.”

The Republicans had various forms of racism on hand last night. Of course, they engaged in out and out race baiting as they exploited the sadness and loss of mothers whose sons were tragically killed by people who happened to be undocumented immigrants. This sends the obvious message that all immigrants are dangerous and gives credence to the ridiculous notion that building walls is a valid means towards protecting the public as if public safety was a priority for the Republican Party. Despite their repeated claims of this being a priority all evidence is to the contrary.

Let me give you an example. Hundreds of people are killed every week to senseless and preventable gun violence and yet the Republican-controlled Congress has not enacted one single piece of legislation that would address this in any sensible kind of way. Hell, they haven’t even enacted senseless legislation (though they do this on other issues!). They just pretend it doesn’t happen. Their only attempt was a failed effort in the Senate that was approved by the NRA – the “no fly, no buy” bill that would not have prevented a single one of the recent mass shootings. Other than that, the Republicans have treated the greatest threat to public safety in this country as just another common cold; something we will easily recover from if we drink enough liquids and just sleep it off. We entrust our leaders with our collective public safety and the Republicans have eagerly traded that in for high approval ratings from the NRA.

But that hasn’t stopped them from using every opportunity to bash people of color. Bellowing and cheering “Blue Lives Matter” (and they do!) while ignoring the original statement, “Black Lives Matter” is a not-so-veiled reminder that Black lives simply do not matter as much to them. Ignoring the rash of senseless killings and brutality committed against Africans Americans at the hands of law enforcement is a defiance of sensible concern for public safety.

Every single member of the law enforcement community that I have ever heard or talked with readily admits that they aren’t safe – no one is safe – when law enforcement is done unfairly and in a discriminatory way. The assassinations of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas are horrific and obviously worthy of condemnations (which BLM activists have repeatedly made), but to bifurcate our concerns for the welfare of life between Black lives and Blue lives unnecessarily infuses greater angst into an already adversarial relationship. Republicans too readily disregard the fact that our criminal justice system is innately racist in its arrests and sentencing of Blacks. An unfair criminal justice system is both a denial of public safety and a very loud and powerful dismissal of the value of black lives. Black lives matter AND Blue lives matter. We have to be able to say both and the Republicans didn’t just miss that chance, they intentionally played to a racist and xenophobic base of support in not doing so.

Perhaps the most glaring form of racism happened in the most talked about goof of the night: Mrs. Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. After a night full of subtle and not-so-subtle accusations towards people of color for many if not all of society’s problems the moment for inspiration was cunningly stolen from a woman of color! I was amazed at the way some in the media immediately afterwards cleared any and all blame away from Mrs. Trump, even though she claimed she wrote the majority of the speech herself. Some even tried to say that stealing the First Lady's words was actually a form of flattery! Of course, one can only imagine the savagery directed towards Michelle Obama if she had stolen the words from Laura Bush or Nancy Reagan.

But isn’t how this racism works? White-dominant society uses coded words like “law and order” (first started by Nixon in his successful effort to lure away blue-collar and southern whites from the Democratic Party in the early 70s) and then also use isolated tragic incidents to put forward a message that people of color are dangerous and a threat to “our way of life.” So, therefore, let’s go back to a time when a great society was a white-dominated society. In other words, that was a time when people of color “knew their place.” Yes, that was a time when America was truly great – for white people. Let’s make America great again is a code for making America overtly racist again.

And not only do we diminish people of color into dangerous threats to our way of life, we make them into one-dimensional caricatures by stealing the best that people of color have to give and make them our own moments of inspiration, which is exactly what happened when whoever wrote Mrs. Trump’s speech (and no, she did not write this herself) stole the inspirational words from Mrs. Obama. This has happened before however. Isn’t this exactly what happened with the invention of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was a white stolen invention from Blues and Gospel music, written and performed almost exclusively by African American musicians?

No, this is not a conspiracy theory. This is the way racism works: demonize and dehumanize people of color while at the same time steal and take credit for their moments of inspiration for your own glory (and then deny it which the Trump campaign is doing at this very moment). Do not be mistaken, Democrats have racism in their ranks as well. But the Republican form of racism was in full view for the nation and world to see Monday night. If only we have eyes to see. I don’t want America to be great again. I would be happy if America would be honest for the first time and confess our overt and hidden forms of racism. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Stop the Harm: My Letter to Stop the Trials

Dear Bishop Trimble,

I write urging you to do all that you can to stop the trial process being leveled against Rev. Anna Blaedel. Coming out of a week with the murders of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castille in Minnesota, along with the assassinations of five police officers in Dallas, with another seven officers injured and the shooter killed, the Body of Christ must do all we can to stop further violence and division. A step towards this would be to stop the unnecessary harm done by these church trials and the entire process of clergy bringing complaints against others.

Bishop, I know all of the violence from this last week breaks your heart. We were arrested together in February of 2014, on President’s Day, in an act of civil disobedience protesting President Obama’s continued reliance on the arrests, indefinite detentions, and mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, the overwhelming majority of whom are leaders in our communities and congregations. Many in the DC-based immigrant advocacy community thought civil disobedience was ill-timed and too radical a step. But you and Bishop CarcaƱo believed that deporting over 400,000 of our undocumented sisters and brothers was inhumane and civil disobedience a necessary way to stop the harm. Real solutions for a broken immigration system will never be found by upholding that brokenness. Too many people have been harmed too much, especially considering that their only desire is to contribute to their congregations, their communities, and their families. I proudly stood with you on that cold day in 2014 and together we demanded that the harm must end.

Bishop, I also was so proud to follow you when, along with other Iowa Bishops, you signed an op-ed which was published in the Des Moines Register calling on Senator Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to allow sentencing reform legislation to proceed through his committee. Senator Grassley had strongly come out against any kind of sentencing reform legislation in early 2015. Though the sentences handed down for low-level drug offenses are vastly disproportionate in regards to race with African Americans being sentenced to dramatically longer times in prison than whites for the very same crime, Senator Grassley refused to budge. Though the federal prison system's population has significantly expanded since 1980 because of excessive mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and though the Federal Bureau of Prisons now consumes $6.85 billion, or roughly one-fourth of the Department of Justice's budget, and has done nothing to stem addiction in our communities, Senator Grassley refused to budge. But due to your leadership and the incredible efforts of grassroots leaders in Iowa (most of them United Methodist), Senator Grassley not only relented, he eventually helped to author and lead through his committee the most significant sentencing reform legislation in decades.

I have been honored to stand by you as you stood for communities at risk against forces blindly dedicated to a strict and rigid maintenance of systems which were actually creating tremendous harm. Your leadership in the work to stop all deportations and end mass incarceration has been inspiring. When I worked at the General Board of Church and Society, as you know, there was no more vital work being done by the agency at that time or since. No other issue we covered had anywhere close to the level of passion and number of people engaged in grassroots organizing. Your leadership was instrumental in helping solidify the building of these movements for justice.

And so today I ask you once again to lead us and stop the harm of a broken system that is doing tremendous harm to people. There are those in the United Methodist Church who, like President Obama and Senator Grassley, believe that strict adherence to a system, no matter how unjust or harmful, is faithfulness. They are wrong. With the broken immigration system and mass incarceration you dramatically and publicly made sure injustice and harm were named while at the same time a vision for what full inclusion and justice could look like was articulated. That time to name injustice and harm is before you and I pray the leadership you exhibited then will be evident for the entire United Methodist Church to see once again.

In all of the years I have served in various positions within the United Methodist Church, Rev. Anna Blaedel is one of the most gifted pastoral leaders I know. I have seen her in ministry not only among those she serves, but she has also pastorally served and led me. She has been a source of encouragement to me, urging me forward to sanctification through her wisdom and grace. It has been her graciousness and invitation that I have been able to face sin in my life in the form of homophobia. I am closer to Jesus because of Anna. Her ministry is vital and Spirit-filled. Denying her gifts and presence in the United Methodist Church would do no one any good and would continue the tremendous harm that has been happening in recent years, if not decades.

The complaints and trials now being brought forth against LGBTQ clergy and those who stand alongside LGBTQ people are alike the harm being done against immigrants and those incarcerated. Unjust systems will always remain in place when people who believe in justice sit silently by while those who hold fast to strict and rigid interpretations of legal codes in need of change carry out harm in their false view of a retributive form of justice. It is simply unchristian.

I urge you to lead us and to stop the trial concerning Rev. Blaedel and again show the United Methodist Church what real and vital leadership is.

And as always, I remain your friend.

In Christ,

Bill Mefford

Monday, July 11, 2016

We Must Do Things Differently to End Gun Violence

One of the things I love about reading the modern day Civil Rights Movement is the stories about the unknown or lesser known leaders; those people who risked – or even sometimes lost – their lives to ensure freedom and equality were assured for all people, especially African Americans.

In reading Gary May’s Bending Toward Justice recently, one of the stories that stood out to me occurred in Selma, Alabama. Though most folks have seen the amazing film Selma a couple of years ago, the work that led to the events in the film were actually started in 1962 by a young man named Bernard Lafayette, a fearless organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Selma was one of those impenetrable places where progress towards equal rights and full inclusion were thought to be years away, if ever. But Lafayette believed otherwise and like the excellent organizer that he was he immediately started building relationships with key leaders in the town while he also recruited students to register to vote. Progress was slow however and the movement felt stalled.

Late one night when he pulled over to help a couple of guys jump start their car he was ambushed. He’d been trained in nonviolence but he wasn’t sure if he would be able to actually respond nonviolently when the time arose. As he was helping the two men, one of them came up behind him, surprised him, and pistol-whipped him across the face. Lafayette, doing as he was trained, stood back up and looked the man in the eye. The man was startled, but hit him again. Lafayette, somehow martialed his strength and again stood up and looked him in the eye, conveying to him that though he had physical power, the spiritual power remained with Lafayette. After the third time he was struck, this time splitting the front part of his forehead open, Lafayette again stood up and looked him the eye. The two men were stunned he had not retaliated in anger or cowered in fear and they ran away. Lafayette achieved a different outcome both for himself and for those who was mobilizing because he engaged in radically behavior.

Lafayette’s example left an indelible effect on many of those who had previously been reluctant to endorse direct action in the city….it lent untold credibility to his movement, proving yet again the power and effectiveness of nonviolence in organizing and inspiring black activism.(2013:20-21)

This story stood out to me not only because I thank God for heroes like Bernard Lafayette whose work paved the way for the SCLC and Martin Luther King, but also because when we have seen the horror of this past week – Alton Sterling and Philando Castille murdered by police in Louisiana and Minnesota respectively, and the murders of 5 policemen in Dallas, with another 7 officers injured – we have to start doing things differently. Lafayette was unsure what difference a nonviolent response would make to violent actions made against him until he actually experienced it. Sometimes we have to dive right in whether we are sure of what exactly to do or not.

I quite frankly am tired of the typical responses that come after gun shootings that have made life in a nation crippled by an unconfessed addiction to guns, racism and violence routine. By continuing to do the same thing over and over again, we are enabling our national addiction to guns and violence. I am tired of the Facebook responses; from liberal outrage to those more invested in the continued maintenance of systemic white power and privilege. I am especially sick of hearing the prayers of politicians and the official statements by faith leaders and church agencies that are as thin as the paper they were printed on. None of it changes a damn thing.

We need different actions if we want different outcomes. As the powerful example by Bernard Lafayette shows us, we need to do things radically different from what we have done before. We keep responding the same ways expecting different results. We keep hoping others will change and so we don’t take responsibility for making the necessary changes ourselves. That makes us lazy, despondent, paralyzed, and ultimately useless.

So, I want to recommend a few things you and your congregation can do. More than anything I want to just say, don’t do what you have been doing.

If you can’t get your entire congregation to do some of these – or any of these actions – build a team of 3-6 people and start with your team. If we learn anything from the New Testament we have to see that a small group of people with shared passion and a common vision can truly change the world. Other folks have different or better ideas – so do them too! These are random, not in any order at all, and some are easier to do than others. The main thing again I want to urge you to do is to do something radically different from what you have been doing in response to gun violence and entrenched racism. Do something different and do it well.
  1. Stop with the white privilege statements. When Black men are shot by the police (and it is unlikely to stop anytime soon considering we have seen 115 Black men killed by police this year alone), don’t say “we need to hear from both sides.” You’ll never hear from one side because they are dead. Don’t say “all lives matter.” That invalidates Black lives. Don’t say, “Racism goes both ways” because it doesn’t. Discrimination can, but racism is innately about power and we live in a country where white power and privilege is systemically entrenched. Just don’t say this shit. It’s hard to push forward against the forces of violence and racism when we constantly have to turn around fight with those who are supposed to be on our side. Just stop. If you don’t know what to say that is probably a signal you should listen.
  2. Refuse to drive or walk by when a police officer is stopping a person of color. Stop and observe and tape it if you can. I stopped an incident of racial profiling earlier this year right in front of my house late one night. I respected the police and the Latino man they stopped for no reason at all was let go. Apply the Great Samaritan story to this phenomenon and quit being the hypocritical religious leaders who pass by on the other side. Here are excellent resources to learn how to do observe the police in a traffic stop or in making an arrest effectively and respectfully.
  3. Get to know the police in your neighborhood and work with them. No, # 2 and #3 are not adversarial. From having done urban ministry, the police can be some of the best assets to positive community development. I was struck the day after the murders of the Dallas policemen when Chief David Brown talked about how unappreciated the police feel. The police have an incredibly difficult job to do and the vast majority of them do it extremely well. It does not remove them from being accountable in an inherently racist society just as all of us must be. They deserve our appreciation as much as anyone who serves our communities.
  4. To pastors, frankly, I am not entirely certain you have to preach on every social issue right after it happens. A lot of faith leaders preach on social issues (and some of them are not very good either), and that is virtually all they do. All of the sermons in the world aren’t going to build a movement that effectively challenges racism and gun violence. Movements are built on relationships and they will go only as far as your vision takes them. So, a better question than what have you preached, is what is your church trying to change when it comes to racism and gun violence? What is your vision? Who in your church have you talked with, had a one on one conversation with to discuss what you are trying to change in your community, state, nation and world? A vision for where you are going and a team working together to achieve that vision will do a hell of a lot more than a sermon. If you are not a pastor then build a team with a shared vision. You don’t have to be ordained to be called by God to create change. This is for all of us.
  5. If you are white then don’t build a friendship with someone who is a person of color; immerse yourself in these relationships. Incarnational relationships among people of color and those directly impacted by injustice Immerse yourself in cross-racial relationships, especially ones where you are not in a position of authority. In a study of white evangelicals and their views towards racism in the mid-90s Steve Emerson and Christian Smith found that merely having a friendship with an African American did nothing to change white evangelicals’ views of systemic racism, thereby ensuring that the neither the system nor their entrenched white privilege were ever challenged or changed. Only white evangelicals, according to the findings of the study, who were immersed – or incarnated – in cross-cultural relationships were able to even see systemic racism, much less do anything to address it. So, stop going to an all-white church. Move into a racially diverse neighborhood. Spend more time listening to people of color than talking with people of your own race and socio-economic status. Get out of your white comfort zone.

This last one is a big one and to some it might seem unrealistic. Stopping gun violence and ending racism is unrealistic is as well. You know what else is unrealistic? Eternal life, raising someone from the dead, and sacrificially giving your life for someone else. But Jesus did all of those things and he calls us to follow him and do likewise. So yeah, that means getting out of your white comfort zone.

Bernard Lafayette and the known and unknown heroes of the Civil Rights Movement have shown us the way, but the way is innately risky and it requires more than the time we give to a hobby. Addressing racism and gun violence is a calling that requires our whole lives. So, we must decide if we respond to the horrors of this last week in the same way and just live with the same old results or if we do something entirely new and different and then seek real change. The choice is yours. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Holding Covenant

I always find it fascinating how narratives are formed. An action or event by one group is framed by another group in a particular way and it gets repeated so often that even the group that committed the action or participated in the event begins to adopt that framework, often to their own detriment. Messaging is powerful and the way things are framed often decides, more than the action itself, whether the action is deemed acceptable or offensive.

Such is the case regarding the various United Methodist annual conferences that voted to ignore the mandates of the Book of Discipline that marginalize LGBTQ+ people by calling them “incompatible with Christian teaching. ” Instead, these conferences faithfully and prayerfully chose to “do no harm,” allowing LGBTQ+ people to openly serve in positions of leadership and not to punish those who officiate same-gender weddings. These conferences, churches, and individuals are simply being faithful to the gospel in the best way they know how; nothing more, nothing less.

The well-organized strength of conservative networks set in motion a fierce backlash that has effectively framed these actions as “breaking covenant.” Though conservatives are responsible for effectively blocking attempts in recent General Conferences to stop the harm being done to LGBTQ+ people through holding onto the harmful language in the Book of Discipline, conservatives have turned the tables and have framed themselves as the ones being harmed by the actions of the annual conferences. Like I said, this is really good framing and messaging. As a result, LGBTQ+ people who respond positively to God’s call for ordination are “without integrity” because they have “broken covenant.” And those of us who are not LGBTQ+ and support these conferences and individuals to serve openly as God created them to be are “without integrity” as well. Faithfulness has effectively been reframed as godless anarchy and destroying covenant.

It is a good thing my self-worth is not dependent on the opinions of conservative groups that invalidate my integrity and that insinuate that I lack “a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment” simply because I am not included in their latest organizational creation. Ironically, these are descriptors I have always valued as a follower of Jesus. But because they have been framed as distinctive to the effort to maintain institutional marginalization of LGBTQ+ people it is now commonly accepted that none of these descriptions apply to me. All because I question the validity of six verses in the Bible and one sentence in the Book of Discipline. You can ignore thousands of verses on caring for the poor, welcoming the sojourner and advocating with and for the most vulnerable, but ignore 6 verses and one sentence in the Book of Discipline and suddenly you are “without integrity.”

The truth is that I do have a high view of Scripture. I believe in vitality in the church founded on Wesley’s teachings. I have an Orthodox theology. And I pray daily to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in all I do. You see how powerful framing is? It almost convinces some of us that working for inclusion means we forfeit these characterizations, not to mention our own integrity!

The charge being regularly flung at those of us who are progressive is that we have broken covenant. This seems like a fairly serious charge to me. When we look at Scripture covenants play a serious role in the formation of God’s people and in maintaining relationship with God. In fact, it seems impossible to be in right relationship with God and with others without covenant. I want to highlight some of the covenants in Scripture, though I won’t go into detail on each one. Here are, briefly, a few for us to consider:

  • The Edenic covenant that occurred in the Garden of Eden in which God commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and to not eat from the tree of knowledge. Of course, Adam and Eve do exactly what God tells them not to and thus the first covenant is broken, though a new covenant is established.
  • The Adamic covenant is given where God pronounces the implications of their sin as well as how God will continue to provide for them. God does not shut them off because they have broken covenant.
  • The next covenant comes after God sends a flood because of the continued sin of God’s people, particularly in their mistreatment and marginalization of vulnerable people. Therefore, the Noahic covenant is established where God again promises to not punish in this way again. The rainbow is given as a reminder of this covenant with God.
  • We then see the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant where God promises, among many things, the founding of nations through Abraham’s descendants, one of whom will be the Messiah to the world. This covenant is regularly addressed through the prophets who accuse God’s people of breaking covenant with God through disingenuous worship of God and mistreatment of the most vulnerable in society.
Sadly, covenants were broken, but they were broken mainly because of mistreating the most vulnerable people in society and engaging in disingenuous worship. God does not excuse or ignore the sin of God’s people, but God refuses to withhold the possibility of intimate relationship between God and God’s people. God is often deeply angry over their sin, but even in the midst of intense anger God continually desires relationship and creates new covenants to facilitate a new intimacy.

Now, what can we learn and perhaps even apply to the issue at hand? There are those of us who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be recognized as leaders in the church and share in the recognition of entering into marriage. Does that mean that we have somehow broken covenant? One thing that is obvious is that covenants are created by God. To charge someone with breaking covenant is a fairly serious charge to make and must be done in the absolute certainty that one speaks for God, as did the prophets when they made this charge historically towards God’s people.

The prophets often delivered the message to God’s people that their behavior – again behavior which centered on mistreatment of the most vulnerable people in society and a refusal to genuinely worship God – was grieving God to the extent that covenant between God and God’s people was no longer possible, or at least was being seriously undermined. I do not reject the premise that conservatives today who are making the charge against progressives for supposedly breaking covenant cannot speak prophetically, but I do absolutely reject that they are speaking prophetically in this case. Progressives have not broken covenant because our highest motivation is actually located in defending the most vulnerable and it is done in genuine worship of God. We want all people to serve God in the fullest way God has called them and not just those who profess to be straight. Therefore, the conservatives – particularly the organizations that generate the messaging of “breaking covenant” – are simply way off base and clearly not speaking for God in any kind of prophetic way. They are speaking what they passionately feel and believe, but for them to claim they speak for God is idolatrous.

Now, I must say that I do believe that there has been recent conference action that might entail the charge of having broken covenant in the way shown to us above. It happened during the North Georgia annual conference when they passed a resolution urging care for at-risk youth. During the debate the conference voted to take out any and all references to LGBTQ+ youth even though LGBTQ+ youth are the most at risk of suicide and homelessness. The Book of Discipline specifically states

We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

It seems fairly clear that North Georgia chose to at least ignore the suffering of the most vulnerable in society – a breach of the commands of Scripture and the mandates of the Book of Discipline written above. So my question is, why aren’t the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association hurling accusations at the North Georgia annual conference for breaking covenant? Not one of the conservative organizations that I know of has “prophetically” accused North Georgia of lacking integrity or breaking covenant.

You see, this whole hubbub has really nothing to do with holding covenant. It has everything to do with well-funded conservative organizations intent on taking over the United Methodist institution and having really good messaging and communications machines in order to do so.

So, be at peace my fellow progressives. We have not broken covenant with anyone, and especially we have not broken covenant with God. But let’s not follow into what I fear is the trap my conservative brothers and sisters have fallen into. Let’s not get haughty. Let’s follow Jesus passionately. Let’s make room in the Body of Christ for ALL people and support ALL who are called to serve the church. Let’s continue to take stands against injustice, both inside and outside the United Methodist institution. Let’s be the Body of Christ!

And I, for one, will not allow someone else’s smart messaging and framing to define who I am. I will continue to hold to a high view of Scripture. I will continue to dream and live into vitality of the church founded on Wesley’s teachings. I will hold on to my understanding of an orthodox theology, though I strive for my orthodoxy to be invitational and not so rigid and exclusive. And I pray I will live empowered by the Holy Spirit. That’ll beat the best messaging and framing any day of the week.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

UPDATED! Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities Gun Violence Prevention Bible Study

For a copy of this study to download email me at 

Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities

Reflections on Gun Violence
from Micah 4:1-4

By Bill Mefford

 Week 1: Micah 4:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mention of the last days is a prophetic reoccurrence pointing to a Messianic age. Micah lives in a worrisome time for Israel. Powerful nations like Assyria lurk in the shadows ready to invade the Kingdom of Judah.[1] The failure of leadership, according to Micah, means “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.” (3:12) The “days to come” that Micah mentions at the beginning of chapter 4 is not directed towards a specific time, but rather, the phrase is meant to convey a future time of God’s own choosing. It will be a time that humanity cannot bring about because their efforts have actually brought Jerusalem to ruins. Only God can raise Zion to a level that will cause the nations of the world to stream to it. Yet, we will see that God’s people definitely have a role to play.

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

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

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

Contextual Reflection

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

This treaty focuses on the illegal trade across international boundaries of small arms and light weapons, which easily go undetected in international trade and present a grave threat to peace in unstable regions of the world. The treaty regulates “the international trade in conventional arms…[and] will foster peace and security by thwarting uncontrolled destabilizing arms flows to conflict regions. It will prevent human-rights abusers and violators of the law of war from being supplied with arms. And it will help keep warlords, pirates, and gangs from acquiring these deadly tools.”[3] Most tragic, civilians make up the overwhelming number of those killed by illegal small arms; far more than actual war participants.

The Arms Trade Treaty is barred from regulating any trade of small arms within nations. It only applies to international trade. The focus instead is to prevent arms being traded to already dangerous situations. In adopting the treaty, the 118 nations that signed it and the 31 nations that have already ratified it[4] are stating that gun violence is a universal problem devastating lives and creating tremendous instability in nations and entire regions in the world. Adherence to the treaty will greatly minimize the benefits flowing to nations that prosper from the arms trade as well.

Because small arms are easy to trade and easy to use, particularly in areas where there is instability, small arms often go hand in hand with human rights abuses, exacerbating violations in often brutal ways. “Small arms facilitate a vast spectrum of human rights violations, including killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed groups. More human rights abuses are committed with small arms than with any other weapon.”[5]

Further, small arms greatly hinders the development process in many countries. Small arms are the greatest interference to food insecurity and nations encumbered with violence from small arms face the greatest obstacles to delivering social services to those who need them the most.[6]

Armed violence can trigger forced displacement, erode social capital, and destroy infrastructure. It can impede investment in reconstruction and reconciliation. Armed violence can undermine public institutions, facilitate corruption, and be conducive to a climate of impunity. Armed violence contributes to and is sustained by transnational crime, including the trafficking of persons, drugs, and arms. When associated with interpersonal and gender-based violence, it unravels the fabric of families and communities and leaves lasting psychological and physical scars on survivors. Armed violence is not only a cause of underdevelopment, but also a consequence of it. Risk factors associated with armed violence and underdevelopment includes weak institutions, systemic economic and horizontal inequalities, exclusion of minority groups, unequal gender relations, limited education opportunities, persistent unemployment, organized crime, and availability of illicit firearms and drugs.[7]

The impacts of the illegal small arms trade are felt every day by people all over the world though it is often overlooked or ignored altogether by the global North.

The Narrative

One of the results of the proliferation of small arms globally has been the forced conscription of children into armed forces, otherwise known as child soldiers. While factors differ from context to context, some of the reasons why children are recruited as soldiers include[8]:

  •  Technological improvements in small arms have made it easier for children to operate small arms effectively
  • Greater access to small arms: In 2005 there were an estimated 500 million small arms worldwide, one for every 12 people,
  • Larger number of children preyed upon for forced conscription due to generational disconnections that occur as a result of globalization, war, and disease,
  • Socioeconomic problems that impact all people, but which affect children most of all and include lack of education, lack of access to health care, malnourishment, social marginalization, and catastrophes which include famines, disease outbreaks, and AIDS, and
  • Global conflicts that are increasingly about resource exploitation more than territorial expansion.
This includes the indirect influence and intervention by powerful countries on a country’s political, economic, even cultural affairs, so that resource exploitation as well as exporting commercial goods, including arms trading becomes easily acceptable.

Illustrative of much of this is the story of Ishmael Beah[9] who grew up in war-torn Sierra Leone, which experienced a brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002. Partly fueling the civil war and the atrocities was control over rich diamond mines. It was during the chaos that Beah was brainwashed, drugged and forced to participate in human rights atrocities and killing.

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

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

Beah felt the contradiction between being so afraid for his life he was tempted to try and run away and the acceptance he felt in his division of child soldiers. Beah fought for two years before eventually being rescued by UNICEF. He was taken to a rehab center in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. It was here that he spent eight months learning about what happened to him and readjusting to life after the war. In his early months at the center Beah says, "We were very angry. We were very destructive. We destroyed the center where we were staying at [and] we burned some things up. We beat up the staff members. They came back, we beat them up some more."

With time and the patience of a nurse named Esther, Beah was eventually able to reconnect to his lost childhood and remember the person he once was. His progress was so impressive that in 1996 he was selected to go to the United Nations and speak on the plight of child soldiers. It was during this trip that Beah met a UNICEF worker who eventually adopted him and brought him to the United States in 1998. Beah ultimately graduated college in 2004 with a degree in Political Science from Oberlin College in Ohio. He is now a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, a law graduate and a best-selling author.

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

Beah’s story is a wonderful one, but an exceptional one as well. How many children remain trapped in the life of forced conscription to war and violence?

Questions to Discuss: 
  1. How are the “ways of the Lord” different from the ways of the nations today?
  2. Are there specific “ways of the Lord’ that you see are needed in your nation today?
  3. How is the trading of small arms impacting your nation or your region of the world? Has this been aided through the indirect influence or intervention by more powerful nations? How so?
  4.  Looking specifically at some of the impacts and consequences of the small arms trade (weak institutions, systemic economic and horizontal inequalities, exclusion of minority groups, unequal gender relations, limited education opportunities, persistent unemployment, organized crime, and availability of illicit firearms and drugs), are some of these characteristics present in your nation or region of the world?
  5. Looking at Ishamel Beah’s story, how can the Church minister to both Beah individually after he has been rescued from being a child soldier and also work to prevent the conscription of children as soldiers?

Week 2: Micah 4:3

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

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

Micah specifically describes the nations whose disputes shall be arbitrated as being “strong.” God is greater than the strength of many nations and is not frightened by what is likely long-standing intense clashes. Nothing in this passage indicates this arbitration will occur only among monotheistic nations, or nations already in peaceful coexistence with Israel. This is for all nations, regardless of their belief systems or prior relationship to one another. God is the final judge and the nations will voluntarily journey to God out of their desire to live in peace, without violence and bloodshed.

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

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

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

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

Indeed, changing the culture of warring nations represents perhaps the greatest picture of the power of a transformational and sovereign God. The disputes, many of which will surely be generationally passed down from parent to child, often rooted in racism, ethnic hatred, nationalism, and sexism will be reconciled and there will no longer be a need for “learning war.” A new culture, a new way of peaceful co-existence, anew path toward reconciliation between enemies will be established. Violent weapons will be unnecessary because there will be worldview change among the nations. This is what corporate conversion looks like.

Contextual Reflection

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

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

Many factors lead to acts of gun violence and the type of gun violence is entirely contextual. One of the most prominent forms of gun violence is suicide. Worldwide, there are over one million suicides every year, which amounts to more than 3,000 per day.[10] While not all of these are caused by firearms of course, it is equally certain that access to firearms makes suicide more attainable for many who attempt it. Indeed, firearms are the most frequent method for suicides in countries where firearms are commonly found in private households.[11]

At the same time, suicides will not cease solely through making firearms harder to access. The United Methodist Church believes that suicides can be prevented in part through providing “social interconnections, social support and life skills,”[12] something local churches seem particularly gifted to help provide. Therefore, to prevent firearms from being a primary method of suicides, we must seek to love those in crucial times who might be inclined to attempt suicides, providing social and spiritual support and unconditional love. And we must also seek to make firearms difficult to obtain for those who are struggling with mental illness for their safety and those around them.

Micah’s dream of God’s Kingdom is certainly one where there is peace, but there will be work for that peace to be maintained. God will settle disputes between nations and while that brings to mind powerful nations warring with one another, history reminds us that oftentimes nations declare war on those unable to defend themselves.

Domestic violence can be viewed as the abuse of power by one stronger and dominant partner over and against the other partner. When domestic violence incidents involve the use of firearms the results are devastating. “Gender inequality, tolerance and cultural acceptance of the use of violence against women, and common notions of masculinity that embrace firearms possession (which may be supported by both men and women) all combine to create a climate that places women at risk of Intimate Partner Violence involving firearms.”[13] Thus any approach to reducing or eliminating altogether the use of firearms among intimate partners must involve making firearms inaccessible to those with intimate partner violence in their past as well as addressing cultural attitudes that define masculinity and the value of women.

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

The Narrative[14]

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

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

And now my mother had become the victim of a crime that is the leading cause of injury to women. While mass shootings garner headlines, paralyze us with fear, and fuel debate on gun issues, many more people are likely to be affected by domestic violence. Statistics show that one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.[15] Between January 1, 1997, and June 30, 2010, in Washington State alone, there were 463 homicides committed by domestic-violence abusers, with more than half of the victims killed with firearms, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV). In the cases where the victim had children, 55 percent of the children were present at the scene of the homicide; 16 children were killed.

Domestic violence also plays a role in mass shootings. A study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns[16] of every identifiable mass shooting (shootings in which four or more people are murdered) between January 2009 and January 2013, 57 percent of the incidents involved the killing of a family member, or a current or former intimate partner of the shooter.

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

A common myth about domestic violence is that it’s only prevalent among those who are uneducated and living in poverty. John was extremely intelligent: He read books on abstract mathematics and had a master’s degree in engineering. My mom held an MBA and earned two more masters’ degrees during their marriage. From the outside, we probably seemed perfectly normal. We lived in an upscale neighborhood. We attended church. John collected guns and liked to conduct target practice on the television with the laser sights on his gun. He would pull out his gun when President Bill Clinton was on, cursing as he fired his unloaded weapon, the sight on Clinton’s head. The “click, click, click” of the gun was always a warning that he was in a bad mood.

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

My mother’s experience isn’t uncommon, and the toxic mixture of domestic violence and firearms made her particularly vulnerable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)[17], an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of a physical assault by a partner each year. When guns are a part of the equation, the risk of homicide skyrockets to more than five times higher than in instances where there are no weapons.[18] The WSCADV put together a list of 11 recommendations after reviewing 13 years of domestic-violence fatalities. One of those recommendations is to “maximize the use of existing legal means to restrict abusers’ access to firearms.” WSCADV cites numerous cases where the state’s failure to do this resulted in homicide.[19]

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

Months of surgeries followed and recent MRI scans have revealed that she has some brain damage, likely from lack of oxygen to the brain due to traumatic blood loss. The brain damage has affected her ability to effectively do her job and to remember things. Police seized 24 guns and hundreds of rounds of ammo from my mom’s and John’s home after the shooting. Unless new legislation passes in our state, my mother may have no legal recourse for ensuring that John doesn’t get his guns back.

My mom went on to testify in front of the Washington State legislature in support of Substitute House Bill 1840 which would ban people under full protection orders from buying or owning weapons while that order is in place. A New York Times investigation by Michael Luo,[20] “identified scores of gun-related crimes committed by people subject to recently issued civil protection orders, including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping. In at least five instances over the last decade, women were shot to death less than a month after obtaining protection orders. . . . There were dozens of gun-related assaults.”

If state history is any indication, though, things aren’t looking too promising for SHB 1840. The bill failed in 2004 after strong lobbying against it by the gun lobby. Unfortunately, it failed again in 2010. But gun-safety and victims-rights advocates are pressing for change on multiple fronts. Initiative 594 which will be voted on by the people of Washington state in the fall of 2014[21] would require anyone buying a gun in Washington State to pass the same background check, no matter where they buy the gun and no matter from whom they buy it. Currently, loopholes allow firearms to be sold between private sellers and at gun shows without criminal background checks.

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

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

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

Questions to Discuss: 
  1. Do you see any evidence today of the vision Micah shares where nations are recognizing that their ways of violence are not sustainable and are beginning to recognize God’s ways are higher and better than our ways?
  2. It is noted in this study that the culture change of nations no longer “learning war” is perhaps greater than the effort of beating weapons of violence into instruments that provide for the welfare of all people. What specific cultural characteristics of your nation need to change to “not learn way anymore?” How are you and your church participating now in this change?
  3. What ministries is your church currently engaged in to prevent suicide and/or domestic violence? What might some ministries your church be that can engage in to prevent these tragedies?
  4. How could the church have been more active in the family of Rory Graves before the terrible shooting of her mother by her step-father?

Week 3: Micah 4:4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contextual Reflection

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

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

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

If repentance from attempting to bring about our own self-preservation through violence is to start anywhere, it should start with the church. Our theological understanding of confessing our own inability to bring about our own salvation and then our willingness to participate in the transformation that accompanies God’s manifestation of the Kingdom in the world is utterly necessary if the world is to follow our witness and travel to the mountain of the Lord.

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

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

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

One specific step of action that we can take in the direction of realizing God’s Kingdom, as discussed in the first week of this study, is for churches to advocate for their governments to sign and ratify the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. This treaty focuses on the illegal trade across international boundaries of small arms and light weapons and presents a grave threat to peace in unstable regions of the world. Since most people killed by small arms are civilians this treaty can save lives. 118 nations have signed the treaty and 31 nations have ratified it.[22] After seeing if your country has signed or ratified you and your congregation can write letters urging your government to either sign or ratify.

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

In studies in the United States, it has been shown that states with handgun purchaser licensing laws are also much less likely to export crime guns to other states (45 percent to 76 percent lower crime gun export rates).[23] Further, guns associated with crime recovered by police in states with handgun licensing and registration laws were much less likely to have been originally purchased within the state. This indicates that these laws make it harder for people with a high risk of violence to get guns.[24]

Micah’s vision of God’s Kingdom shows that self-protection is a matter of belief in the power of God and cannot be attained through fear and intimidation. For those in the United States, this means repealing the “Stand Your Ground” laws in states where they have been adopted.[25] Stand Your Ground laws allow for anyone in any place to use deadly force if they reasonably believe that they are in danger of bodily harm.[26] If the nations in Micah’s vision applied the Stand Your Ground reasoning then none would have ventured to the mountain of the house of the Lord, none would have repented, none would have participated in their salvation through transforming their weapons into instruments to care for the welfare of others, and none would have experienced genuine security. “Stand your Ground,” or using deadly force if we simply feel threatened in any way, is a repudiation of belief in the power of God to be the one to bring about genuine security and peace. The Church must be on the forefront of the efforts to repeal Stand Your Ground laws if only because we are driven by the vision given to us by God through Micah.

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


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

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

That’s why in December of 2013, on the anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I joined and began advocating with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.[27] I could no longer be a silent observer in this culture of gun violence. I want to make sure that the above scene won’t happen anywhere, and like every mother, I have the passion and ability to change the way things are.

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

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

Questions to Discuss:
  1. What are the ways you and your nation are obsessed with self-preservation? Has this led to any engagement in violence in any form?
  2. What would it look like in your nation for all to “sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid?”
  3. Which of the public policies listed here (sign and ratify the arms Trade Treaty, universal background checks, handgun-purchaser licensing, repealing Stand your Ground laws, preventing suicide and addressing issues of mental illness, or addressing domestic violence) are ones that you and your congregation can be involved in? What are some specific actions you can take? Consider creating an action plan with a timeline. 
  4. The Rev. Michelle Reed joined Moms Demand Action to take action. Are there local groups such as this in your area that you can join? How can we create teams in our congregations to join with these groups?


[1] Klaus Koch. The Prophets: The Assyrian Period. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, p. 104.
[2] Taken from the website for Small Arms Survey,
[3] Taken from the website for The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs,
[4] You can find out which nations have signed and ratified it here:
[5] Taken from the website for The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs,
[6] Ibid
[7] Taken from the website Small Arms Survey,
[8] Taken from Children at War, P.W. Singer, Pantheon Books, New York, 2005, pp. 38, 39, 41, 45, 47, 51-52.
[9] Taken from the website, You can also read his excellent book, which is a memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007.
[10] Taken from the website International Association for Suicide Prevention, Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day is September 10.
[11] Taken from the website World Health Organization,
[12] 2008 United Methodist Church Book of Resolutions, Suicide: A Challenge to Ministry.
[13] Taken from the website Small Arms Survey,
[14] Taken from
[15] Taken from
[16] Taken from
[17] Taken from
[18] Taken from
[19] Taken from
[20] Taken from
[21] This passed by voter referendum, 60-40%, the first time gun violence prevention legislation has passed by voter referendum in any state.
[22] You can find out which nations have signed and ratified it here:
[23] Please see Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, Alcorn T. Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws, in Webster DW and Vernick JS eds, Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2013. Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Also look at The Movement of Illegal Guns in America. New York: Mayors Against Illegal Guns; 2008.
[24] Webster DW, Vernick JS, Hepburn LM. Relationship between licensing, registration and other gun sales laws and the source state of crime guns. Injury Prevention 2001:7:184-189.
[25] As of April 2014, those states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.
[26] There are three basic kinds of self-defense. One is Stand Your Ground. A second is called the Castle Doctrine which allows for someone to defend their personal property, and the third is called Duty to Retreat, which says you should retreat if you feel threatened. Taken from the website,
[27] You can join Moms Demand Action by going here: