A Parable

There was once a certain wealthy man.  At the end of his life, he died and found himself standing before the judgement seat of the Lord.  The throne sat empty and the man looked around the room confused, wondering when the Lord would appear.

As he waited a young boy entered the room.  He was small of build, his body frail and his eyes sunk deep into his skull.  His body was covered with ash and blood.  The man felt a rush of pity for the boy and knelt down beside him.

“What happened to you?” the man said.

“There was a war,” the boy replied.  “Bombs rained down on our home one night and we were trapped in the rubble.  We were trapped there for days.  My parents, my brothers and sisters, even my grandparents.  I could hear their cries.  I even heard my mother try to sing to comfort my younger sister, and then I could hear nothing.  The world went dark.  And then I was here.”

“But surely you could have fled?” The man said.

“No one would receive us,” The boy replied.  “We wanted to leave, but no one would let us in.  Why wouldn’t you help us?”

The man felt a wave of guilt and shame wash over him, but seeking to justify himself he stammered for an answer.

“You have to understand,” The man said. “There were complications.  Issues of national security and safety.  We were afraid.  There are violent people in the world.”

The boy said nothing and so the man continued to talk.

“Of course it was terrible what was happening to you, but what could we do?  We had to think of ourselves didn’t we?  There were risks to our homes, to our country, and to our way of life.  It was a frightening and uncertain time for us.”

Again the boy stood silent and so the man stammered on as his eyes began to brim with tears.

“I was a good man,” he said. “I went to church.  I paid my tithe.  I cared for my family.  I even prayed for you and for all of those like you.  I prayed that the fighting would stop and you would be safe.  I was a good man but I was afraid.”

The boy walked slowly to the man’s side and took his hand, calling him by name.  And the man’s eyes were opened and he found himself standing in the presence of the Lord.

“You were blessed in life to be a blessing to others,” the Lord said. “I came to you in my hour of need and you turned me away.”

“But if I had known it was you…” The man cried.

“Did I not tell you where to look for me?” The Lord replied, “Did I not tell you that what you do for the least of your brothers and sisters you do for me? And what you fail to do for them you failed do for me?  Didn’t you have my words with you?  Why did you not believe them?”

“But Lord you know I was a good man,” the man plead.  “You know me.  You know that I loved you.”

“I am sorry,” the Lord replied, “I know you not.”

Christianity and Climate Change

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This is home.  For all of human history this has been home.  This pale, blue dot sustains and nurtures us.  Scientists estimate that this beautiful planet holds at least 8.7 million species.  According to numbers released in 2011, there are an estimated 7.7 million animal species.  Only 12% of these species have been described.  There are approximately .3 million plant species on earth, of which 70% have been described.  The rest are fungi, protozoa, and chromists.  The same study suggested that only 14% of all species on land have been identified and only 9% of those in the water.

Speaking of water, the planet holds over 326 million, trillion gallons it.   You have probably heard that over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, but you may not know that only 2% of the Earth’s water is fresh and more than ⅔ of that water sits locked in ice caps and glaciers (ice caps and glaciers melting at an alarming rate).  Water is vital to all life.  

The vegetation on earth takes energy from the sun and, through chlorophyll, turns that energy into food.  Once plants produce this food they release oxygen into the air.  Though it should go without saying, it is probably worth reiterating that oxygen is essential to human survival.

I could keep going on.  I could provide you with a magical mystery tour of early life science lessons, but I won’t.  This is a faith based blog, and eventually I have to tie this post back to religion.   

The Book of Genesis begins with a beautiful poem that tells the story of the Universe.  It talks about how all life sprang from the creative impulse of God and how each part of creation was declared good.  Theologians argue about how we should interpret these passages.  What do we take literally?  What do we take figuratively?  However we interpret it, I think we can agree that it depicts the world we live in as sacred and holy, the handiwork of a master artist.  A masterpiece built in perfect balance and harmony.

With that in mind, it would seem to me that protecting the earth and the species living on it should be an integral part of the Christian life.  After all, for a believer, this planet does not belong to us.

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” – Psalm 24:1

When we abuse the planet and when we ignore or suppress science, we are abusing something that does not belong to us.  Pollution, global warming, endangered species, famine, all of these things should be of concern to Christians.  

As Christians, we are also called to care for our neighbor, to protect the marginalized and to petition for those that Jesus called the “least of these”.  By ignoring things like climate science, Christians risk complicity in the death of vulnerable populations.

Scientists have called 2016 the hottest year in recorded history.  This has practical consequences.  An article in The New York Times notes that climate change has wreaked havoc across Africa, leaving 1.3 million children suffering from malnutrition.  An increase in temperature and a decrease in rainfall have lead to repeated crop failures.  According to the article, “The immediate cause of the droughts was an extremely warm El Niño event, which came on top of a larger drying trend in the last few decades in parts of Africa. New research, just published in the bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, concludes that human-caused climate change exacerbated El Niño’s intensity and significantly reduced rainfall in parts of Ethiopia and southern Africa.  The researchers calculated that human contributions to global warming reduced water runoff in southern Africa by 48 percent and concluded that these human contributions “have contributed to substantial food crises.”

What practical implications does this have for the residents of South and East Africa?  Families are forced to sell off their animals, driving down the cost of their livestock.  Families marry off their children at young ages, hoping that their new spouse will be able to care for them.  Women mix ashes and rock chalk into their food so that it becomes more filling.  Those children lucky enough not to starve to death are hurt developmentally.  Families who used to live near sources of water are now forced to travel hours for a pail of clean water.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/06/opinion/sunday/as-donald-trump-denies-climate-change-these-kids-die-of-it.html

When we ignore science and climate change, people die.  A lot of people.  As Christians we have a responsibility to them and God will one day ask us to answer for their lives.  

Contrary to some opinions, Christianity and science are not diametrically opposed.  It is the responsibility of all Christians to care for this planet and every living thing on it.  

My Brother and Sister’s Keeper: Why I Marched

Yesterday, I joined 2.9 million other Americans across the country who participated in Women’s March activities.  Sister marches took place on every other continent, including Antarctica (yes, Antarctica).  There have been a lot of people asking, “Why are people marching?”  The official Women’s March on Washington page provided a very succinct statement of the mission and values of the march:

https://www.womensmarch.com/mission/

That said, I based my decision to march in Biblical values that inform my faith every day.  I’m going to share images from the march along with Bible verses that I believe emphasize why I marched.

“Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.…” Genesis 4:9-10

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“”The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” Matthew 25:40

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“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

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“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27

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“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24

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25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Luke 10-25-37

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“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19

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“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9

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“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20

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“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” John 15:12

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“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.” Zechariah 7:9

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“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Proverbs 29:7

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“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

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20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.  Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.  But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:20-36

Me & A Gun: Thoughts On Tori Amos, RAINN, and the Global Epidemic of Sexual Violence

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I can’t remember the first time that I heard the Tori Amos song “Me and a Gun”, but I remember the devastating feeling that it left me with.  The song, from the album Little Earthquakes, details a sexual assault that Amos survived, along with the thoughts that ran through her head as it occurred.  The lyrics are chilling and brutal and, unfortunately, reflect a reality of experience for a staggering percentage of the world’s populace, particularly among women and children.

In 1994, Amos became the first national spokesperson for RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network), acting as a vocal advocate for survivors of abuse.

I’ve noted before that I’ve known a significant number of survivors of this epidemic.  The sad reality is that, even if you aren’t aware of it, there are survivors in your life too.

Sometimes statistics and numbers say more than any amount of pontificating every could.  With that in mind, I’d like to present some numbers regarding sexual assault:

  • Every 98 seconds a person in America is sexually assaulted
  • Every 8 minutes a child is a victim of sexual assault
  • 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or successful rape
  • 1 in 33 men has been the victim of an attempted or successful rape
  • 54% of sexual assault victims are under 50 years old
  • 21% of TGQN (Transgender, Genderqueer, Non-conforming) College students have been sexually assaulted
  • 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during the two weeks following the rape.
  • 30% of women report PTSD symptoms 9 months after the rape.
  • 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
  • 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
  • Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime.
  • On average, American Indians ages 12 and older experience 5,900 sexual assaults per year
  • American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races
  • Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
  • Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator
  • In jail or prison, 60% of all sexual violence against inmates is perpetrated by the institution’s staff.
  • From 2011-2012 80,600 inmates were sexually assaulted or raped

These numbers taken from RAINN.org

  • There are approximately 20 to 30 million slaves in the world today
  • 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which 80% are female and half are children.
  • Some studies suggest 80% of trafficking involves sexual exploitation

Numbers taken from DoSomething.org

The causes for these numbers are many and complicated.  Studies have shown links between pornography and increased sexual violence.  The normalization of rape culture through so called “locker room talk” and the glorification of male sexual conquest have played a role, as has a society that views human beings as little more than usable commodities, declaring some more valuable than others.   In addition, the tendency to stigmatize and blame victims leads to perpetrators remaining unpunished.

These numbers also fail to reflect global issues like the weaponization of sex.  In numerous conflicts around the world rape has become an instrument of war.  The numbers also fail to reflect the threat of sexual violence as a means instilling terror.  A brief search of social media outlets like Twitter reveals that threats of rape and other forms of assault are frequently levied at women, particularly outspoken women, in an attempt to intimidate them into silence.

Christianity, or any other faith tradition, cannot be silent about these issues.  If we are silent, we become complicit and all of our prayers, songs, and dogmas become meaningless.

The prophet Amos says this, “I hate, I despise your feasts,  and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,  I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,  I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

I pray healing for the countless victims of sexual violence, that they will know that they are whole, and holy, and loved in a way that no perpetrator of assault could ever take away.   As advocates for our brothers and sisters around the world, I pray that we will beg for forgiveness for our past silence, that we will embrace the courage necessary to speak out and act up.  I pray that our thoughts and good intentions will be replaced by the hard work necessary for healing and change.

We have an awful lot of work to do.

If you are looking for concrete ways to help, visit RAINN.org to see the initiatives they are leading.  You can also visit Fight the New Drug at fightthenewdrug.org to learn more about how pornography feeds rape culture and sexual exploitation.  A link on RAINN asks visitors to sign a petition to the incoming presidential administration and 115th congress, calling on them to make eliminating sexual violence a priority.

I would also recommend writing your individual representatives in Congress to let them know that this issue is of vital concern to their constituency.  Other concrete actions you can take: If no support group for survivors exists in your church, talk to leadership about starting one.  Look into leading small group or Sunday school classes dealing with the issue of sexual assault and exploitation.  Contact your local school board to see how issues of sexual violence, consent, and related issues are being treated in the classroom.  Also develop a consistent ethic of speaking up when you see targeted sexual harassment and threats of violence on-line or in person.

 

 

The Fierce Urgency of Now: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Tomorrow the United States will celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Our country has a curious relationship with Dr. King.  We venerate him, but it seems that over the years we’ve sanitized him.  We’ve taken his life’s work and tamed it.  We celebrate him for his non-violence, as we should, but we ignore his willingness to agitate and disrupt.  We applaud the dream of racial unity he described but we are hesitant to do the hard work of reconciliation that make unity possible.

Today, we are facing grave threats in the long fight for equality.  It seems we are taking steps backward, watching creeping threats toward the rights of a multitude of minorities and marginalized people: African Americans, Women, Muslims, LGBTQ, immigrants, and the poor.  Reading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remains instructive as we continue the fight against injustice.  To that end, I include selections from the letter here:

“…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.  You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

“YOU express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I – it” relationship for the “I – thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, he has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. Recognizing this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand public demonstrations. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, “Get rid of your discontent.” But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.”

“There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation — and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

For the full text, you can read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” at https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

The Criminalization of Compassion

On Sunday I wrote about the arrests of seven members of the Tampa Bay  chapter of Food Not Bombs.  They were arrested for serving food to the homeless in a public park without a permit.

On Tuesday, the group returned to the park to serve meals.  It is an activity they have engaged in for years without incident.  Police again returned to make arrests, but protesters linked arms around the group and refused to move.  Eventually the police left without making arrests, though news reports state that the members of the group may face criminal trespassing charges.

Today I welcome guest author and Tampa Bay Food Not Bombs Organizer Dezeray Lyn who writes a first hand account of events of January 7.  The essay was written Monday evening, the  day before the group returned to the park.  Photographs in the post are credited to Anthony Martino.

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The Criminalization of Compassion

by Dezeray Lyn

This past Saturday, I was dragged away in handcuffs from behind a table I have served from literally hundreds of times in the past several years. In all, 7 Tampa Food Not Bombs members and supporters were arrested by TPD for committing the crime of refusing to compromise with the city on hiding the suffering masses to accommodate tourists and guests to our community.

As I am facing arrest again tomorrow morning for refusing to be deterred from sharing food and manifesting solidarity into action; let me contextualize this story of resistance.

The city of Tampa has a history of arresting people for sharing with the hungry.

The city of Tampa has a history of bullying and silencing people for strapping themselves, without fear, to their constitutional rights and hanging on with fierce determination.

The city of Tampa has a history of trying to criminalize the ways that the houseless survive from one day to the next; ie the recent panhandling ban which was challenged in the courts by the Tampa movement Homeless Helping Homeless.

Allow me to note that the Homeless Helping Homeless house was raided by an army of police and shuttered just weeks after launching a legal counter (on the basis of unconstitutionality,) for reasons the TPD and city of Tampa decorated to look like, anything but a vicious backlash, an act of revenge and an attempt to silence those who rise up to defend their rights from their precarious position of struggle.

When an enemy to humanity presents itself to you at a table where you have shared food, laughs, conversation and hugs with people who are in a time of need, you straighten your back and stand your ground and that is what we fully intend on doing.

The TPD and city of Tampa are so ruthlessly blatant in their actions in that they chose the very day of a high-profile and highly profitable sports and music event in our city to enforce an ordinance that has been collecting dust for years. The timing is nothing if not conspicuous and ultimately, par for the course.

What the city of Tampa should know about our movement is that our hearts cannot be contained in a jail cell, they cannot be negotiated with, they cannot be slowed nor can they be stopped. We meet the need where the need is. We do not allow the city to disappear the suffering and as such, our food shares are active protests; every spoonful of food we pass across the table is a simultaneous statement to the city that this is a failure of their humanity and a display of what their greed and indifference to suffering has wreaked in the lives of so many.

I was one of 7 people arrested on Saturday for sharing food surrounded by supporters. Let this be our call to enliven the world we dare to believe is possible. Ordinances and handcuffs are no match for what we can do when we mobilize with love as our guide and compassion as the wind at our backs.

If you would like to support our movement, you are already a part of our movement.

Every time the city arrests us for sharing, we will be back with more people and more food.

Obtaining permits, as though our critically necessary sharing of resources can be likened or lumped in with a parade or a corporate labor day luncheon, is a signal of how dismissive and clueless the city of Tampa is. The permits we are being told we need to produce and pay for to give us a virtual admission ticket to express our solidarity with the hungry, are an outlandish affront to human decency.

We are walking into a period of uncertainty where race, ethnicity, Immigration status, gender, identity, birth place of origin and conscience itself will be weaponized against us. It is up to us to reject toxic narratives and laws alike and throw our hearts over the fence.

Making Holy Mischief

In 1980, the first Food Not Bombs group formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The group consisted of anti-nuclear activists who also wanted to help the homeless.  They began recovering food destined for the dumpster and turned it into vegetarian and vegan meals for the homeless.

Since that time, the group has grown, with chapters appearing across the United States, South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.  There is no formal leadership in the group and all work is done on a volunteer basis.

On January 7, 2017, the Tampa Bay chapter of Food Not Bombs made news when members were arrested for feeding the homeless at Lykes Gaslight Park.  An article reporting on the incident noted:

“There were no altercations, no illicit substances, no bad behavior—unless you count that, according to the City of Tampa, that coffee and bagels were illegal.”

The article goes on to explain why the gathering was considered illegal:

“you have to have a special permit in order to offer free food to the needy in city parks. But obtaining a city permit to feed the homeless twice a week—to set up a table and open bags of chips and bagels and spoon organic beans and rice from a pot—can be pricey because of the insurance policy the city requires.

Given how often they do it (homeless people have to eat frequently, too), that can add up.”

http://www.cltampa.com/news-views/local-news/article/20848403/tampa-activists-arrested-for-feeding-the-homeless

The volunteers, rather than acquiescing to an unjust law, distributed the food and willingly accepted the punishment.  While Food Not Bombs is not a religiously affiliated organization, they were doing Kingdom work, embracing the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”

Reading the Food Not Bombs story reminded me of something I read in Shane Claiborne’s “Jesus For President”.  He notes in the book that there are places where homeless people are prohibited from salvaging food from dumpsters.  Because we have determined that some people are not even deserving of our garbage.  

These laws are antithetical to the teachings of the Gospel, the writings of the Old Testament, and the teachings of Jesus.  Levitical laws mandates leaving gleanings for the hungry when harvesting crops.  John the Baptist instructs his followers that “anyone who has two shirts should give one to the poor” (Luke 3:11) and Jesus’ parables are filled with instructions to serve the least of these.

I am reminded of the lunch counter sit ins and the freedom marches of the Civil Rights era, the work of men like Rep. John Lewis.  They defied unreasonable laws that denigrated humanity in order to change the world for the better.  They engaged in holy mischief, troubling the waters of oppression and complacency.  

I also think of the illegal occupation of Apollo House in Dublin, Ireland.  For the last few weeks, the organization Home Sweet Home has occupied an unused government building controlled by Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency.  The activists are using the building to provide shelter to the homeless population of Dublin.  When the occupation started, the group intended to provide shelter for all of Dublin’s homeless before Christmas.  With the holiday past, they are continuing their struggle despite a government mandate to evict all residents of Apollo House on January 11th.  

http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/citizens-take-over-namacontrolled-property-and-set-up-rooms-for-homeless-people-35299848.html

This is holy mischief.  This is kingdom work.

We must do likewise when confronted with laws that are unjust.  This is how we follow a condemned and crucified Savior.

For more information on Food Not Bombs visit:

www.foodnotbombs.net

For information on Home Sweet Home visit:

http://glenhansardmusic.com/home-sweet-home-ireland

If you are looking for a practical project to help the homeless in your area, and you know how to crochet, consider making sleeping mats from plastic bags.  The plastic bags are hygienic and insulate well against the cold.  They are also ecologically friendly as they avoid waste.  For instructions, check out:

http://www.1millionwomen.com.au/blog/diy-crochet-plastic-bags-sleeping-mats-homeless/

 

Consider the Lilies…and the Trolls

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I should write about something serious.  I should be musing about profound matters of theology and social justice.  I should…but…but…

I am thinking about troll dolls.  

You remember troll dolls right?  Of course you do.  Everyone remembers them now.  They just made a movie about the little creatures with the outrageous hair.  The leading roles were played by Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick.  It made a whole lot of money.

I never played with troll dolls, but my sister did.  She had more than I could count.  There is a significant chance she still has them tucked away in storage somewhere.  My family doesn’t get rid of much.

They were silly little toys.  They didn’t do anything, but for some reason people loved them.  The movie is equally silly and surreal, though per standard children’s movie mores it has a redeeming message.  A message punctuated by Justin Timberlake singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”during the films emotional climax.  It plays well.  Because Cyndi Lauper and the 1980s always work.

So, what does this have to do with Christianity?  Maybe nothing.  I mean, I’m sure I could torture out some exegesis, tying the movie’s plot to substitutionary atonement or theories of the trinity.  I could, but I’m not going to bother.  Well, not exactly anyway.

My family saw the movie about a month ago.  We all loved it.  We got the soundtrack and sing along like lunatics.  My daughter has toys from the movie.  In strict confidence, I entertain myself playing with them too.

It’s fun.  It makes me smile and it gives my kids the giggles.

After one particularly difficult day, I found myself sitting on the bed with my kids, singing along with the soundtrack while my daughter jumped on the bed.  My son entered the room and before long we were all goofing around.

Bed time was put on pause while we played.

Sometimes, that is enough.  In a world of endless trouble, a simple moment of joy can be enough.

Jesus told us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds.  They don’t worry.  They simply bask in the wonder of creation, in the light of their creator.  They know they are taken care of.  No fancy philosophy.  No need for a seminary degree.  Just joy.

Bad news will always be with us.  There will always be another battle to fight.  We should dedicate our lives to fighting those battles, but we need to make time to smile, to enjoy being alive.  

Even the teacher in Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to laugh, and this comes from the book of the Bible most loaded with existential despair.

Find your laughter.  Embrace joy.  No matter where you are.

It may not be troll dolls.  Or comic books.  Or bottles of Yoohoo chocolate drink (assuming you are crazy) but there is something.

Find it and embrace it.  

In spite of it all, the world is an amazing place.

 

The Golden Calf Of Nationalism

A few days ago I came across a comment on Twitter that set my teeth on edge.  Not altogether surprising.  I’m reasonably certain that Twitter’s existence serves to balance out the positivity that exists in the world.  A yin and yang sort of thing.  Where good is happening, you can always balance it out by checking your Twitter feed.  Even so, this particular comment stood out.

   A Pastor from Missouri wrote a note warning about the dangers of nationalism to the Christian way of life.  In response, someone said this:

“Sorry, but Americanism will be the savior of Christianity.”

It is a breathtaking statement, one that leaves you a bit shocked and unsure what to do.  It reminded me of a sermon I heard Ginghamsburg UMC pastor Mike Slaughter give once.  He said that a man told him, “You’re an American first and a Christian second.”

It also reminded me of the Book of Exodus.  In Exodus 32, the people of Israel are living in the desert after having fled from Egypt.  Moses has travelled up Mt. Sinai to receive the word of the Lord.  The people have grown impatient waiting for his return.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.  As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron said the them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a gold calf.  And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  When Aaron saw this he built an altar before it.” – Exodus 32:1-5

Nationalism is a golden calf wrapped in a flag.  It is a form of idolatry, and one that we are seeing more and more of across the globe.  There is an increasing mindset that our hope and deliverer will be found in a political platform or national identity.  Like all idols, the golden calf of nationalism demands sacrifices, and just as in the Old Testament, they tend to be human sacrifice.  We sacrifice our global neighbors, the poor, and refugees.  We sacrifice our sense of empathy and interdependence, the sense of responsibility for others that Jesus requires of us.  

Taken to its logical end, Nationalism eventually requires literal human sacrifice in the form of war.  It demands a willingness to take the lives of others to prove national superiority.  The 20th century saw the most devastating wars the world has ever known, each born on the back of nationalism.  An estimated 17 million deaths occurred in World War 1, with an additional 21 million wounded.  World War II raised the count to approximately 60 million.  These wars were not the only example.  The rise of Communism in Russia, China, and other countries created an idolatry of the state, each leading to tens of millions of deaths.

In the First Book of Samuel, the prophet warns the people of Israel about the dangers of having a king.  His words are just as relevant today when we raise national identity into a form of kingship.

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots.  And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take the tenth of your flocks and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” –  1 Samuel 8:11-18

This the price of nationalism.  This is what it requires, a willingness to sacrifice anything and everything.

As Christians, we do not place our hope in earthly leaders.  We do not place our hope in flags.  We do not find our identity in nations, but in the Kingdom of God.