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Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Responding to Charleston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Best of Intentions

Dear Jesus,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The North American Church

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Nausea is Just Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"I Wish My Dreams Were in Your Politics"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, let the Kingdom come.

Monday, April 27, 2015

They Know Me, And They Love Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Death by Hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Danger of Incarnation to National Security

In March of this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials conducted an operation called, “Operation Cross Check.” Operation Cross Check detained over 2000 immigrants for the purpose of removing them from the United States. These people were deemed the highest priority for removal by ICE – they were supposedly the worst of the worst. Here is some of what ICE and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials had to say:
  • This nationwide operation led to the apprehension of more than 2,000 convicted criminal aliens who pose the greatest risk to our public safety. Today, communities around the country are safer because of the great work of the men and women of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas 
  • [Those apprehended in Operation Cross Check] meet our highest priorities to ensure public safety and national security. By focusing on those who pose the greatest risk to our communities, we are marshaling our limited resources in the most responsible manner - ICE Director Sarah SaldaƱa
Boy, do I feel safer since these ICE and DHS officials are out there getting the really horrible people bent on mayhem off of our streets. What they claim might have some veracity except for the fact that they are largely lying.

The Mennonite Central Committee has published a powerful and devastating critique called “Worst of the Worst?” In it, they highlight the blatant falsehoods of the quotes of the officials above. Almost half of those picked up had misdemeanor convictions and of those who had felony convictions, half were immigration-related violations. These are hardly the most dangerous people in our communities.

The Mennonites then highlighted several people who were among the 2000 people swept up by ICE, among them, a Mennonite Pastor named Max Villatoro. Pastor Max had “a records tampering conviction from 1999, related to his trying to obtain a state identification card. He was also convicted of DUI in 1998. Sixteen years later, Villatoro is now pastor of a church, husband and father of four U.S. citizen children, and works to help those struggling with substance abuse and addiction.”

Man, am I glad that ICE has kept this man far away from my community. If they had dared allowed him to stay, many more people might escape the clutches of addiction and might experience the presence of the Kingdom of God anew in their lives.

Yes, I am being sarcastic. But this angers me so much. In the process of “upholding the law” ICE has managed to separate families and weaken our communities, making it that might harder for impacted families and communities to succeed. This is the perfect image of a system that is absolutely broken and in desperate need for repair.

And the ICE officials who issued the above quotes are hoping that you and I will not know the difference. They are counting on us not knowing people directly impacted. Just reading what they said makes it seem like they are watching out for us – that they are genuinely interested in our safety. They are banking on our detachment from the people whose lives Operation Cross Check completely devastated through their sweep. They are counting on the accepted belief – an almost hegemonic belief that is – that law enforcement crackdowns on behavior deemed “illegal” are always a good thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have served in urban and impoverished contexts and I believe that the police can serve as a very positive and powerful resource in those communities. But I also know firsthand, that law enforcement crackdowns or sweeps or operations almost always carry destructive results for the most vulnerable people in impacted communities. And whether it be immigration sweeps, or drug busts in urban neighborhoods, or any kind of enforcement operation; these actions are the least effective at really stopping the illegal behavior. But the actions continue because the officials who run them (who are far more at fault than the ICE agents or local police who have to carry them out), are counting on me and you knowing very few if any of those directly impacted. Because if we knew them, we would not allow them to continue.

Think about it. If we really were interested in stopping illegal behavior and preventing those in positions to commit illegal behavior from doing so again, then why, after the economic collapse in 2008, didn’t a bunch of police vans and trucks pull up to Wall Street and then pile in a couple thousand of the hedge fund managers and CEOs and CFOs of the stock-trading corporations that devastated our economy? Talk about amnesty! The hedge fund managers are still in those same jobs (and are back lobbying Congress to let them do what they did before again!) precisely because those of us in the predominant culture know those people. We are those people.

And in this lies the promise and danger of incarnational relationships among those directly impacted by broken systems. The story of Pastor Max is out – it can’t be hidden among the statistics that ICE and DHS officials want to throw at us and pacify us with. The actions of ICE and DHS are not entirely for the benefit of society and now we know that this is true. The good Mennonites who put this important study together have refused to allow his story and others like his to be swept away under the guise of “national security interests.”

There are literally millions of other stories of people whose lives have been crushed by the false claims of “public safety” or “national security.” These are peoples’ lives at stake. These are people from our communities with families who are devastated by dysfunctional and unjust systems; systems that are innately racist and classist. It is those systems that will not stop until people incarnated among those directly impacted stand up and ensure that those stories do not remain hidden. The Mennonites have shown us the way. Shall we follow?