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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Plan for the Alliance for US Prosperity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Violence in Honduras: Imported from the North

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 10, 2015

Communion in Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Prayer for Conservatives (and Liberals!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The "Christian" Book Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please puke now if you’ve heard this before.

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Responding to Charleston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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