Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Why I'm Opposed To The Violence In Baltimore: And It's Probably Not Why You Think

I can imagine some reading this going, "Duh! Of course you're opposed to the violence in Baltimore! What kind of idiot wouldn't be?!"

I've watched TV along with everyone else.  I've seen the looting of liquor stores and the check cashing shops (so many of which are payday loan operations).  I've watched the cars burning on the street.  Beyond the horror of it, beyond the stupidity of it, I oppose the violence because it will not work, it will not accomplish what is needed most.

When the dust has settled in Baltimore the insurance companies for the check cashing shops and the liquor store chains will write a check.  Perhaps the rates will go up....but that will be passed along to the people in the neighborhood.  The stores hurt most will be the small businesses run by community people.  It will be like punching a brick wall in a rage....the wall is still there, but your hand is bleeding, bruised, and maybe broken.

But beyond this, my primary opposition to the violence is that it diverts attention from the real issue, the real need.  We need to repent the violence done to poor people, particularly poor people of color.  And by "repent" I don't mean in the street corner preacher kind of "turn or burn" stuff.  Nor do I mean the "oh, isn't that terrible, now let's get on with business as usual" false repentance.

What I mean by repentance is the Biblical meaning which is to "turn and go in another direction."  It is the realization that one has been moving in the wrong direction and the taking of corrective action.  The violence in Baltimore diverts us from the need for repentance.  As long as the Powers can focus on the violence, as long as the news cycle can focus on the violence, we can be diverted from the actual issues at hand.

The death of Freddie Gray is a tragedy in itself.  It is also a symptom of a systemic problem in America.  That problem is that poor people, particularly poor people of color, are often brutalized by law enforcement.  As long as we can focus on the violence, the looting, the burning cars....we don't have to look at our complicity in this brutalization.

Now I can hear some of you saying, "most cops are good, hard working people."  I agree with you.  But that's a bit like saying, "My right lung works just fine.  So does half of my left lung. Let's forget that the lower half of my left lung is riddled with cancer."  The presence of a majority of good cops does not free us from the obligation to deal with the problem of racially based violence in the way law enforcement often deals with persons of color.....especially young black and brown men. 

The call to repentance is not just for the violence itself, but for the fact that for far too long those of us in positions of privilege (and I include myself) have ignored this problem.  It isn't our problem; we're just fine.  So we turn a blind eye, we ignore.  And in going blind to this violence, it becomes even easier to go blind to that perpetrated against those who have even less power: the homeless, the transgendered, the illegal alien.

The rioting works just fine for Evil....because Evil wants us blind.  As long as we are blind we will not repent, we will not turn, we will not change, we will not see that every one of these deaths condemns us.  For, "as you do to the least of these, you do it unto me."  If I take my Bible seriously, Jesus died in Baltimore; and I need to repent.

That repentance needs to drive us to action.  The kind of action that parks on Governor Hogan's front lawn.  That forces the new U.S. Attorney General into action.  That changes laws, and hearts, and minds.  That makes systemic and community change.  That causes us to see the people in Baltimore's inner city as human beings like ourselves.  The violence steals our power to do that because it turns us away from looking at our sin.  And when that happens, Evil wins.

This can be a turning point.  The opportunity is here for Freddie Gray's death to mean something besides one more dead black young man.  It can be a call to repentance.  That's what we need.  That's why I'm opposed to the violence.  Let's not be blinded.  Let us repent, and turn, and pray, and be healed.

Let justice roll down like water, and God's Shalom come to us all.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Jesus And Family Values

I don't have to preach this coming Sunday.  I didn't preach yesterday either.  That task was done very ably by our Associate Pastor Skye Hallman-McQuillan as we dedicated 8 children in a wonderful, joyous service.

Not preaching has given me extra time to think about the sermon I want to preach on May 10th (which is Mother's Day); and it's gotten me thinking about Jesus and the concept of "family."

In Mark 3:35, Jesus makes a startling and dramatic statement, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."  Jesus defines family in a different way than the common one based upon blood ties or marriage.  In doing so Jesus was creating what anthropologists used to call a "fictive family." The problem with that term was that it made that kind of family sound like it wasn't real....like it was something "less than" family based on blood lines or that one married into.

Jesus is staking a claim on family identity based upon obedience to God and relationship to Him as more real than any other kind.  

This sounds all nice and sweet til we take a hard look at who Jesus was probably pointing out when swept His hand around at those who sat around Him and announced that they were His true family.  Over the past 12 weeks or so we've been looking at some of the folks that Jesus interacted with who (at least had the opportunity to become) became His followers:

  • Three fishermen
  • A tax collector and collaborator with the Romans
  • A paralytic (who Jesus forgave his sins)
  • A man with a withered hand
  • A gentile with a whole bunch (Legion) of demons
  • A woman who'd been bleeding for years
  • A dead girl
  • A leper
  • A bunch of children (unvalued in Jesus day)
You have to wonder.  Every one of these people was considered either unclean, unvalued, or less than in some way.  What kind of family is Jesus creating here?   And fair warning, the rest of our study of Mark in the coming weeks isn't going to make it any better.  The family that Jesus is putting together is truly shocking.  It will include prostitutes, hungry folks, and, from the cross, someone that some might have called a terrorist.  All are welcomed in.   All are family.

Jesus is saying that this is the REAL family.  God's family.  Jesus' family.  How do we make room at the table for all of this family?  What are the "family values" of this family?  They may be very different that we imagine, given who Jesus invites to be part of the family.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Children And Other Invisible People

I probably should never write my blog on Monday.  Mondays seem to be the day that I am most likely to be cynical, depressed, demotivated, and fed up.  So, please, bear with me.

What I want to do in this blog is not to sound hopeless....or even cynical and all those other words I used above; but to speak honestly to some issues that have been stirred up for me by recent news in Maryland where I live, and in the Brown Bag Bible Study this morning at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis where I serve as Interim Pastor.

Let me start with the scriptures; because I believe that they are to furnish us with the "spectacles" through which we look at the world around us.   They are Mark 9:33-41 and 10:13-16.  At first we're tempted to see them as iconic pictures of Jesus and sweet, rosy cheeked,  well washed children.  Many of us remember the picture from our Sunday School days.

The problem is, that this image has little or nothing to do with the reality of  these passages.  Children in the Hellenized cultures to which the Gospels were written had little value.  They probably had more value in the Jewish community than other places, but still they were often orphaned and had a high mortality rate.  They were easily enslaved.  Some suffered medical problems that our North American mindset hardly ever imagines: think for just a moment about the high incidence of cleft palate in 3rd world nations, just as an example.

The mother's in chapter 10 want their child blessed and touched by a famous rabbi.  The disciples, forgetting everything that Jesus said in chapter 9 keep shooing them away.  Duh.....talk about thick headed.....but am I that different?

Jesus, in the middle of an argument among the disciples about power and greatness and who will have it, puts a child in the middle of the group, hugs him or her, and says, 'greatness is when you welcome this one in My name.'   Days later the disciples can't even remember the conversation enough to let the kids get next to Jesus.

Jesus said, "If you receive one of these (children), you receive Me; and if you receive Me, you receive the One who sent Me."  The reverse of that would be equally true: 'if you ignore/reject/misuse one of these, you ignore/reject/misuse Me; and if you ignore/reject/misuse Me, you ignore/reject/misuse the One who sent Me.

Some recent news and conversations that I lay next to these passages:

  • Last week in Maryland, there where three major arrests for distribution of child pornography.  One of them involved a pastor who had over 250,000 graphic images or videos on his computer.
  • I had two conversations with parents or friends of children with special needs.  The need that parents have for a place to worship where they feel comfortable that their children will be cared for and accepted is tremendous.
  • Child labor statistics and information raise the issue of how much of what I (we) wear and use in this country has been produced overseas by child labor.
  • Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan announced budget cuts that will affect the care of children (and others) with mental health needs.
  • In my work as a therapist with sexual offenders I recently spent an afternoon reviewing the case of a client who had downloaded significant amounts of child porn.  It became deeply disturbing to read the accounts of the images that he had in his possession at arrest.
What happens when we take the info above, multiply it by the other unmet, ignored needs of children in our communities.....set next to that the other "invisible ones" such as adults with special needs, families with food insecurity, and persons assaulted or mistreated because of their gender issues?   What happens when we set them next to Jesus' words?

I know that we can't do it all.  But too often that becomes an excuse for 'selective blindness.'  We do not see them because we do not want to see them; because to see them would call us to do something.

Can we begin to open our eyes a little more?  If we're not ministering in one of these areas, can we begin?  If we are ministering in one of these areas, can we begin to put a face and a name to these invisible ones?  And if we have a face and a name, can we begin to build a relationship?  For when we begin to build a relationship, we will meet Jesus face to face.

It is here that our Hope lies.  That in meeting Jesus in these 'other ones' that what is believed will become beloved.