Friday, February 17, 2017

Exploring The Call To Be Sanctuary

Hyattsville, the town in which I pastor has been debating the issue of becoming a "Sanctuary City."  While I don't live in this town, but in Annapolis, about 45 minutes down the road, this affects many of the people whom I pastor; and it impacts the Police Officers whom I serve as one of the Community Police Chaplains.  Their work and lives and safety are affected to the extent that they get pulled into having to enforce immigration policies.  The immigration debate on the larger, national scale, impacts many of the children who are in our Preschool and their families.  So I have no trouble claiming that I have a dog in this fight.

In addition, a variety of churches are now taking the step of defining themselves as "Sanctuary Churches."

I don't have an answer to the question about "Sanctuary" least in terms of how congregations and cities define themselves.  I DO have a lot of questions. 

In Acts 5:29, when told to quit preaching the Gospel, Peter and the other Apostles famously responded, "We ought to obey God rather than men."  When we as Christians first, and citizens second, are asked to be part of the violation of Scripture's claims on us to care for the stranger, when we are told to quit living the Gospel, "we must obey God rather than men."

Scripture is very clear about how we are to treat "the stranger in your gates."  The demand in Scripture for Hospitality is very clear.  The absence of such expressions of Justice and Mercy are part of the reason, according to the Prophets, that Israel will go into exile.  And, if you read the story of Lot the way that I do, the failure of Sodom to provide hospitality to the two disguised angels; the absence of a safe place where these two could rest for even a night; the threat of physical violence and rape....this was what caused the judgement resulting in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Let me say this again, so I am clear:  Two angels, disguised as travelers-refugees-fail to find safety and hospitality in Sodom.  They are subjected to the threat of violence and rape.  There would be no place they could go for justice or protection.  This behavior violates everything Torah taught about hospitality for the stranger.  God's wrath destroyed the city.

Lot's wife, looking back in longing, perhaps, at the good life she had had in the city, despite it's horrible treatment of those who sought refuge there (this evil had risen like a stench to God's nostrils), turned into a pillar of salt.  I always wondered about that until I remembered that salt was used to seal a covenant.  This pillar of salt was a reminder: "you have broken the covenant to provide safety and hospitality, here is a giant reminder of your promise and it's brokenness."

I sometimes wonder if our nation's love for Trump's attitude toward immigrants, particularly those who are people of color, isn't a fond looking back in longing for the old world in which whiteness ruled and others kept their heads down and kept on moving.  This is clearly at work in the current Alt-Right and Nationalist attitudes that praise recent EOs.  I pray that we do not need some horrible monument to the brokenness of our covenant to stand as a reminder of our failure.

People come to this country, sometimes legally, sometimes not, looking for a new, safe life.  Many of them have been severely traumatized both in the countries they left (often the reason for their leaving) and on the journey here.  When we deny refugees and immigrants basic safety protections and leave them feeling as though they cannot even go to the local police if they have been abused or assaulted or had their wages stolen, for fear that they will be reported, detained, and deported-in effect, re-traumatizing them....we are committing the crimes that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

We ought to resist this. We have to resist this.  We ought to obey God rather than men. 

From a non-religious, pragmatic standpoint, our cities become less safe when immigrants feel unprotected.

"As the Washington Post recently reported, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing the 63 largest urban areas in the nation, stated in a 2006 report, that “immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively affect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities,” which would “would result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing future terroristic acts.”

The above quote comes from this article:

One of my questions, however, even as I seek to "obey God rather than men," is how defining one's city or church as "Sanctuary" impacts the ones we're trying to help.  I am not waffling on the need to protect immigrants and refugees.  It seems, however, that there are two separate tasks involved here...and both are important.

We need to stand against the draconian approach to immigration that contradicts both O.T. Scripture and Jesus' teachings.  We need to stand with actions such as demonstrations, speaking out, and developing policies that keep our local city and county police from becoming an extension of Immigration Enforcement.  Like the Abolitionists during slavery, we need to speak out.

But we ALSO need to find ways to protect the immigrants and refugees who are at risk here, now.  This is a subversive activity.  Living our faith often is.  No one who was a "host" on the Underground Railroad hung a sign outside their church telling the world that they were a stopping point.

ICE appears now to be targeting church sponsored Warm Nights shelters, etc. and picking up folks as they step across the street....thereby obeying the letter, if not the spirit of their own policies.  Are we drawing a "bulls eye" on our shelters and churches, and consequently on those we seek to care for?  How do we both speak and protect?

This is not an accusation, nor do I have an answer.  I seek only to raise the questions and suggest that this is one of those times that we need to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves."  Finding creative solutions....even ones that risk arrest, may be an important step here.  Small actions may be required....such as creating an apartment in a church where a family or individual could live for a long period of time; finding ways to slip immigrants in and out of shelter situations; helping people move safely from one place to another.  This should sound familiar.  The Church has done it before.  And it did it while other churches, specifically in the deep south, fought against such care for runaway slaves.

How we express our commitment to being Sanctuary is going to be an ongoing challenge.  But again, "we must obey God rather than men."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Resurrection, The Quality of Resistance, and The Sermon On The Mount

It may sound strange that I want to begin a discussion of "resistance" and the Sermon on the Mount with comments on Resurrection.  It may be even stranger when I tell you that my focus on Resurrection begins with my youthful hero, the film character Billy Jack.

Two poignant exchanges have stayed with me for over 50 years.  In the first, Billy Jack asked his female co-star about where King, and Bobby and Jack Kennedy are.  "Dead," she is forced to reply.
"Not 'dead', their brains blown out. Because YOUR people wouldn't put the same controls on their guns as they do their dogs, their bicycles, their cats, and their automobiles."

In the second, Jean tries to get him to leave before the violence escalates.  He replies, "In what remote corner of this country-no-entire goddamn planet is there a place where men really care about one another and really love each other? Now, you tell me where such a place is, and I'll never hurt another human being as long as I live."

These two exchanges raise significant issues about resistance.  The first is the question of what do you do when your Messianic figure dies?  N.T. Wright discusses this in terms of first century response, but it is the same now: you either give up the revolution and slink home, or you go find another messiah. 

The second issue is the sneaky feeling that "this  non-violent, peace stuff" doesn't really work when the chips are down.  So your best bet is to slow the S.O.B's down a little by standing in the way of their violence toward the vulnerable and take as many out as you can before they cut you down.  And your reasoning is supported by the deaths of your hero/messiah figures and the fact that evil will always have you outgunned and, usually, outmanned. 

Jesus' followers copied down the oral tradition about His teaching; a teaching so radical, so revolutionary that even today every Bible study I teach on it, someone shakes their head and says, "you know this won't work in the real world."  As though Jesus had somehow spent the 3 years of His ministry in a bubble somewhere or on top of a mountain in Tibet like a monk that people climbed up to for some word of wisdom.

And they wrote it down because something had happened so powerful that they were forced to think, "well, if this happened, maybe this teaching might be true as well.  And the "this" was the Resurrection.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus didn't say, "listen for me in the wind, see me in the flowers,"or any of that cheap bullshit; He said, "touch my hands and put your fingers in the wound in my side."  Torture and death may still exist in this world; but I follow a Jesus who has conquered both.  So I risk trying to follow Him....right the here and non-violent resistance that confronts evil and exposes it for what it is without turning me into a mini version of the very thing I'm trying to fight.

Walter Wink, in Jesus and Non-violence makes a strong case for the idea that "turn the other cheek; give him your tunic; and go an extra mile" were forms of resistance that shamed the oppressor and maintained the honor/humanhood of the oppressed.  These are more than simple rules; they are example guides to how we deal with oppressive forces.  Our task is to ask, "what would that look like now, in this situation?"

When one looks at the resistance of King and Ghandi and Tutu through this lens we get a whole different picture.  There is "a place" where people "care for and love each other."  It is the Kingdom that Jesus talked and taught about.  It is both here and coming.  And we can participate in it.  We can participate in it now.  By resisting hatred in all it's forms....including Trump's ban on Muslims and the suppression of voting rights and violence against LGBTQ folks and the rape of the earth for financial gain.

Now I have to confess that my life doesn't look like that resistance.  It looks more like the poem I posted earlier today about my bowl of resentments.  But I'm trying.  God help me, I'm trying.

I'm even trying the "pray for your enemies" thing.  And my prayer is this: "O God, surround them with Your Presence, and give them what they need."  Before you turn me off here, remember that it is a "terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God."  If those who are giving themselves over to Evil are surrounded by God's Presence, then a moment of choice has come.  What they need may well not be what they want.  My experience of that kind of moment was not soft and mushy.  God kicked my ass.

And that's my final point:  Non-violent resistance in imitation of Jesus' teaching always holds up a mirror; always forces a choice; always provokes a turning point.  We may die in the attempt, this is true-to say less would be to lie.  But we follow the one who has conquered death.  We are offering those who are giving themselves to Evil the opportunity for Repentance and Reconciliation.  Isn't that what Evangelical faith is supposed to be about?  These brothers and sisters who, perhaps not truly totally aware, are giving themselves to that which will make them less and less human; which will devour them....we are seeking their salvation.

So we are called to resist.  Here, now.  Without violence.  Because, as the anonymous writer said, "violence is a sword that has no handle, you have to hold the blade."  But we are called.  Jesus calls us.  This is our time.

Midnight Snack

My bowl of resentments
I keep under the bed
To chew on when I can't fall asleep.
They're out of sight most of the time
You wouldn't even know they were there
Unless you're my wife
And got woken up by the crunching;
Or my dentist
Who wants to know how I broke
A perfectly healthy tooth
(I couldn't tell him that I did it
on a fossilized 20 year old resentment);
Or if you get to close to me
And catch the whiff of resentment
On my breath
That no amount of brushing
Seems to get rid of.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like
If that bowl wasn't there
Would my indigestion go away?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Poem Before Babylon

Those who do not listen to their prophets
To the ones God sends
carrying words of warning:
"Come gather round people wherever you roam,"
God's voice weaving it's way between the guitar strings
Or echoing of the walls of a Birmingham jail,
trying to warn us that waiting, lukewarm
has a price
Pay me now, or pay me later.
Still we choose Blindness to the pain,
Deafness to the cries.
We have chosen leaders who help us cover our eyes
And stop our ears
They have sought to gag our mouths so we can't speak;
and we have let them
Thinking it a small price to pay for our sedation.
We have chosen one who thinks himself a king
the palace intrigue is already begun
And like the parable of the trees
Fire has leapt from the thorn bush
And threatens to consume us all.

Pick a prophet, any prophet
Like the straight man for a magic act
pulls a card from the mystery deck
Pick one from your lifetime
Pick one that you know well
I look at my card, pick again, and again
Trying to avoid the words
Of King, Dylan, Tutu the Major Prophets;
Breuggemann, Wink, and Will Campbell
Regional prophets in certain circles
Of lesser prophets of my own life
Sheares, Tirabassi, Wheeler
Don't look over my shoulder,
Read your own damned cards.

Before us we shall pile a mountain
Of unlistened to Words of the Lord
Eat them as a bitter meal

Read their words, chew them slowly
Sing them in the cold still air
and weep
As we pack our bags for Babylon

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Aikido, Standing In The Center, And Handling Chaos and Sin

My favorite martial art is Aikido.  In Aikido one stands in the center of the "dynamic sphere" and redirects the incoming attack away from one's self.  It is an art that sounds much softer than it is. If I re-direct an attack and let it go past me, the force of the attack may carry my attacker into a wall or bring them crashing to the ground.  They can be severely wounded.  There is a way, however, to practice this art so that the results for the attacker can be compassionately handled in such a way that injury to them is minimal.  However, if one continues to attack, then the option of allowing increased consequences is always there.

For me, the Center is my Christian faith.  I try (often unsuccessfully) to stand in the center created by the life and teaching of Jesus and the wisdom of other scriptures as I attempt to respond to what goes on in the world around me. 

What does that Center look like?  Let's start with Psalm 1:

Blessed is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly
Nor stand in the way of sinners
Nor sit in the seat of the scornful.
But there delight is in the Law of the Lord
and in that Law do they meditate day and night.
They shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water
that bring forth their fruit in their season
their leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever they do shall prosper.
But the ungodly are not so.
They are like the chaff that the wind drives away
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the way of the righteous,
but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Who are our political leaders listening to.  In whose counsel are they walking?  Steve Bannon, an Alt Right racist does not qualify as godly counsel.  Nor, frankly, does Franklin Graham.  Why not?  Because it does not pass the test of scripture.  "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt." (Exodus 22:21)  "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Me." (Matthew 25:46).  There are a multitude of others.

The "seat of the scornful" has been so wonderfully demonstrated in Trump's mocking of a handicapped reporter and his comments about demonstrators at his rallies.  Now it is being acted out from a position of power in the refugee ban put in place (ironically and nauseatingly) on the Day of Holocaust Remembrance. 

The verse about "standing in the way of the sinners" is about walking their path; not a warning about getting in their way.  In fact, we are called by God to get in their way, "defending the cause of the widow and the orphan."

And when their attack carries them past?  When they refuse to cease?  "They are like chaff which the wind drives away."  "The way of the ungodly shall perish."

Go to the NT and read Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount.  It not only lists "blessings," but it lays out the "curses."  It is a list of "woes" for those who are rich and ignore the poor; who are well fed and ignore the hungry; who laugh at the situation of those who mourn.

God has said that God hears the cry of the suffering.  How much is that cry going up now?  Do we really believe that God is mocked?  Will God not, sooner or later, respond?  Will we not reap what has been sown?

It is not enough to just wag my finger and point out the sin of Trump and Co.  There is a prophetic task here of calling this administration to repentance;  but there is also the responsibility to, on a daily basis, to feed those who are hungry because of sinful policies; to educate those who do not understand the impact of these decisions; to hid (if necessary) the refugee who needs sanctuary; to protest; to vote; to call Congress.  To find the place where our gifts are best expressed in Christ's name and stake out a claim.

Listen to the Word and stand in the calm center created by Jesus' life and teachings.  From there-act.  Don't be caught up in chasing the chaotic "golfball in a tile bathroom" of Evil brush fires.  Stand, deal, resist.  "Give Caesar what is due Caesar," even if what is due takes Caesar into the wall.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Make Nineveh Great Again

I am tempted
like Jonah
to find the nearest ship
sailing anywhere away from here
Away from thoughtless cruelty
masked as fiscal soundness
Away from the strain
of holding in tension imaginary opposites
Created to keep the poor and marginalized
from talking to each other.
I just want to sail away.

Then I remember
that's how Jonah
found himself barfed up on the beach
of Nineveh
covered in slime and seaweed.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Vulnerable Love: Herod, Challenging Legitimacy, Speaking The Truth In Love, John Lewis, and MLK

(Whew! How's that for a blog title?)

In Matthew we are told that when Herod heard the Magi has slipped away from him, he ordered the killing of all the boy babies 2 and under in and around Bethlehem.  The presence of this baby whose star they had seen "rising in the east" challenged the legitimacy of Herod's rule, and he wasn't about to have that happen.  Herod's are like that.  They will use any and every means to maintain their power and impose there will.  Hitler is quoted as saying, "I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few."  And when none of those worked, he went on to his final solution, the attempt to exterminate an entire race.

Scripture and history are both full of examples of "Herods" and their actions aimed at maintaining power, wealth, and the legitimacy of illegitimate rule.  Hitler, again, in Mein Kampf, said, "By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell---and hell, heaven...The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed."

It is not an accident that both of these quotes are from A Gift Of Love, the collection of sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King was not "soft minded" (a phrase he used to describe those who did not see reality).  He knew the reality of the Herods.  He knew what they could, and would do.  But he believed he was called to imitate Jesus in loving the enemy. 

Loving the enemy does not mean failing to speak the true to power.  In fact, love REQUIRES that we speak the truth.  But love also requires that we do so in a way that does not resort to the violence of the enemy.  This is where the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement came from.  It is the result of MLK's commitment to Jesus, to the God of scripture who, as King proclaimed, "does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles.  He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality."  King's commitment was to following the Christ who comes to us in vulnerable love.

Vulnerable Love is not a push over.  It speaks the truth.  Whether that Truth is "I'm worried about your drinking," spoken to an alcoholic by a spouse; "your behavior is sinful," spoken by a pasttor to a parishioner; "you should not have married your brother's wife," spoken by John the Baptist to Herod's son; or "your presidency is illegitimate," spoken by John Lewis to Donald Trump.  It does not shrink from the hard task of speaking reality.

Herod's hate those who speak the truth in love even more than they do those who seek violent revolution.  For Herod always has more power, more tanks, more guns.  Those who speak the truth in love are those who are willing to die, to go to jail or prison, to cross bridges in the face of clubs and dogs....they are the ones who shame the Herods by showing them for who and what they are.  They do this at great price, often the price of their lives.  But they do so in imitation of the Christ whose vulnerable love defeated Death itself.

The Australian criminologist John Braithwaite, talked about the role of "healthy shaming" that calls people to repentance (my word) and makes a path for reintegration (his word).  His work is foundational to the concept of "Restorative Justice." This approach to individual justice issues found expression in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The shaming of a system and it's leader(s) by vulnerable loving non-violent resistance and the continued, unrelenting speaking of the truth to power opens the door for repentance, reconciliation, and the creation of what King called the Beloved Community. 

I say all of this to come to two important conclusions:  1) John Lewis, in declaring the illegitimacy of Donald Trump's presidency not only stands in the legacy of Dr. King, but in obedience to Jesus and imitation of His response to oppressive power; and 2) this moment offers Donald Trump an opportunity to repent, to change, to act to reconcile with those he has demeaned and harmed and threatened.

I am not na├»ve.  While I pray that Mr. Trump will repent, I honestly do not hold out much hope.  Just as "it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven that a camel to go through the eye of the needle," it is harder for a Herod to repent and reconcile with those he has oppressed.  Which leads me to my third and last conclusion:

We need to prepare ourselves as followers of Jesus for the battle ahead.  We must Speak Truth To Power; Speak that Truth in Love; do not give in to violence, be willing and prepared to pay the price of following Jesus' example.  Remember the words of Dr. King that God "does not leave us alone...He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us..." and Jesus' words, that "Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  We cannot know what the end of this struggle will look like; but we will follow in the steps of giants, and we will not go alone.