Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Meditation on Hope

This past year the word “hope” has taken on a more significant meaning for me, largely due to my ongoing study of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire dedicated his life to serving the illiterate poor of the world. His methods not only taught illiterate campesinos how to read, but also how to “read the world” politically and socially. He had an approach to education that caused people oppressed and squeezed by the socioeconomic system to see the nature of their situation and then act into change that system. In his native Brazil his methods were so successful and so revolutionary he was imprisoned and later exiled by the government. However, he remained undaunted and took his message and methods to the entire world, replicating his work in Chile, Guinea-Bissau and the United States. Despite the suffering and resistance he endured, throughout his life Freire remained a positive and hopeful because he had a vision of what could be, a vision in part given to him by his faith in a just God. His example has inspired and helped me appreciate the power of hope to transform the world.

Faith is “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1). Trust is “what is in front of you (my own definition with help from Heidegger). Courage is the willingness to act in spite of fear (Hauerwaus). So what is hope?

Hope for me begins with the awareness that God is at work in the world in spite of the evidence. Hope is believing that I am part of something that is bigger than I am, as well as bigger than governments, militaries or terrorists; Hope is seeing the reign of God breaking into the stuff of life in the midst of these atrocities. Hope is a vision of God’s future where the poor have dignity, where people divided by racial/ethnic fear and hatred can reconcile, and where battles between enemies cease. Hope is being part of a people who are working with God to make these things happen. Hope is believing that racism, oppression, injustice and violence are aberrations from God’s created order and not the norm. Hope is knowing that in working for justice and peace, we are working for the right cause. Hope is the conviction that the yearning for peace, justice and reconciliation is planted deep with the human spirit because God has placed it there. Hope is believing that the Eternal has broken into the temporal and God in us (Immanuel) compels us to act, live and believe.

Preachers and theologians often speak of hope in transcendent and heavenly terms: the hope of life with God after death. However, for me hope is woven into the stuff of life here and now. Hope is seeing a place like the Village of Arts and Humanities (a transformed neighborhood in North Philadelphia), or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the impact of churches like Monumental Baptist in Jersey City or Greater Exodus in Philadelphia (churches that have transformed their neighborhoods)or emergent Christian communities like the Simple Way (Philadelphia) and Rutba House (Durham, NC) who have woven their spirituality into living with the poor and dispossessed or groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams and Mennonite Disaster Service serving those devastated by war or natural disaster.

In the end Hope is not about me or what will happen to me when I die. Hope is how I live now. Hope is realizing that my destiny is tied to the destiny of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, and that when I share life and struggle with “the least of these” (Matthew 25), I am close to God. Hope is getting the opportunity to rub shoulders with those whom God has touched and knowing that the essence of life is far deeper than my vocational or material success.

So this Christmas I have hope and want to be a source of hope for others. I want to rededicate my life to service and working for justice. For me this happens through teaching students whom the educational system has largely deemed unworthy of its time and energy and seeing them succeed. It happens as I challenge adult students working in the business world to be “tempered radicals” helping to make their workplaces more compassionate, just and environmentally conscious. It happens once a week as I teach a young woman to read. It happens as I interact with people in my church and on my campus whoare captured by a passion for challenging the status quo. It happens as I try to point out places where I believe God is at work. It happens in my attempts to share my passions and visions with those I love and those closest to me. It happens as I continually look for the places and people in whom God is working and join forces with them.

Hope is not a pipe dream. Hope is Incarnate. Jesus, God in our midst, is Hope and enables us to be Hope for the world.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Veteran's Day for Peacemakers

This coming weekend, is Veteran’s Day weekend, a time when the country honors the veterans who have served in the military and fought in our country’s wars. When I was a Baptist pastor, I could never get past this weekend without having someone in the congregation (not me) ask all the vets to stand up and be honored for “defending our freedom.” Now I realize that this kind of rhetoric is about as central to the American psyche as hot dogs and apple pie. I don’t doubt the vets’ sincerity or their courage, but I think they were and are often misled and misguided, as evidenced by the immoral wars we have fought over the last several decades, including the one we are in now.

As a pacifist, I want to ask for equal time for all those folks (many who were vilified) for their tireless efforts to work for peace in a war-mongering world. So I declare (for myself and anyone else who would like to join me!) this weekend as a Peace Veteran’s Day and put forth a few of my favorites to be honored for their work for peace through the years.

John Woolman- a Quaker in the 18th century who spent 20 years convincing his fellow Quakers to free their slaves

Elijah Lovejoy – a Presbyterian journalist who was killed by a mob in St. Louis for his opposition to slavery prior to the Civil War.

AJ Muste – a labor organizer and pacifist in the early 20th century

Mahatma Gandhi – a natural choice – the one who gave us satygraha (soul-force)

Martin Luther King Jr. – another natural choice, the one who tied satygraha to the ethic of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and gave us the “dream”

Dorothy Day – the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

Jimmy Carter – a tireless worker for peace in the public sphere and a man who was consistent in his search for peace even when he was considered “weak”

Dan Buttry – a friend and mediator throughout the world who has worked to bring reconciliation in Burma, Northeast India, and many other places in the world

Arthur Rouner – my pastor growing up who retired to start a reconciliation ministry has worked inmany places including India and Rwanda

Daniel Berrigan – a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement

Clarence Jordan –founder of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia (which influenced Jimmy Carter) and a leader in racial reconciliation

Elias Chacour - Palestinian priest seeking to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in dialogue

Desmond Tutu – a leader in the South African reconciliation movement

Paulo Freire- Brazilian educator who taught campesinos to read the word and the world simultaneously.

Myles Horton –founder of Highlander Research and Education Center, a place that has trained social activists in labor, civil rights, environmental causes and immigrant rights for 50 years.

The list goes on. This list is neither exhaustive nor complete; there are many more tha could be added. Feel free to add your own. These are a few of my peace heroes, veterans of the peace cause. Let us honor them in our thoughts, but more so by following their example.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maybe Jesus Had It Right

Over the last couple of weeks the media has highlighted the response of the Amish community to a crazed gunman who brutally murdered six innocent school girls. Admittedly, there is something unbalanced about the amount of coverage of this murder has received when in the same period of time 4-5 times as many murders have occurred in Philadelphia alone. On the other hand, the response of the Amish to this crisis has been instructive, as they have embraced both the family of the victims and the murderer, offering forgiveness, compassion and support in the name of Jesus. Numerous observers have raised questions suggesting that perhaps the Amish have something to teach us about how we as human beings can and should live together. Diana Butler Bass raises one such interesting question. She asks, "What if the Amish were in charge of the war on terror?" As she points out the Christ-like actions of the Amish were not only witnessing to the gospel of peace, they were “actively making peace” in a situation where most people would be talking of revenge.

Bass’ comment took me back several months to a time when I was in New Orleans helping with post-Katrina relief. An article in the local paper reported a debate among several politicians running in the Democratic primary for mayor. They were discussing how slow various government agencies were moving in rebuilding the sections of the city devastated by the hurricane and subsequent floods. One of the candidates sarcastically said: “Maybe we ought to hire the Amish to come and rebuild our houses.” I thought to myself, ‘Truer words could not have been spoken. They would get it done a whole lot faster than FEMA! And the houses would be sturdier too.’

So often people, even Christians, look at groups like the Amish, and say, “The teachings of Jesus are nice in an ideal world, but this is the ‘real world.’” Too often we pay lip service to the gospel when it suits our purposes and backs our plans, but we don't seriously consider that Jesus may have had it right all along. Maybe we ought to take another look. Maybe forgiveness, non-retaliation, serving others, loving the enemy and offering grace is more “realistic” than the violent, power-grabbing, self-righteousness that characterizes the realpolitick of our age.

Thinking of the U.S. response to the war on terror, Diana Butler Bass puts it this way:

“What if we had invited the families of the hijackers to the funerals of the victims of 9/11? What if a portion of the September 11 Fund had been dedicated to relieving poverty in a Muslim country? What if we dignified the burial of their dead by our respectful grief?"

In other words, what if we took Jesus seriously and lived as he called us to live?

Recently, Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove spoke to our church in Philadelphia. Jonathan is one of many (mostly) young Christians across the country who are seeking to live and work faithfully in community together as faithful followers of Jesus. Speaking of his community (Rutba House) in Durham, North Carolina, Jonathan writes :

..[W]e are excited to learn more all the time of ways in which the Spirit is moving to address the social crisis we feel when we talk to our neighbors or read the morning paper. We are encouraged by the Catholic Worker Movement, the Bruderhof communities, Shalom Mission Network, Word and World Alternative Seminary, the Ekklesia Project, and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), among many others. Despite an absence from mainstream media, God has not left the world stage. The Holy Spirit is alive and active, moving among God’s people to produce creative new forms of resistance against the powers of evil. At the same time, God is creating new communities that, though imperfect, give us a glimpse of the kingdom that is to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is an exciting thing to see.

People like Jonathan and the Amish remind me that Jesus was on to something. Jesus had it right about we are to live in the “real” world. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if we listened...and then gave it try.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

What Did Hurricane Katrina Show Us?

This week I have felt inundated by the TV, radio and newspaper reports commemorating the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Like many people outside of the directly affected areas, I did not realize until several days after the hurricane hit the Louisiana-Mississippi coast just how utterly devastating it was. Like many folks, I was transfixed by ongoing newscasts chronicling the death, suffering and desperation of the people trying to escape the rising floodwaters. In March I had the opportunity to see the destruction first hand on a trip to Louisiana to work with Mennonite Disaster Services. I stood on the beach in Gulfport Mississippi, I walked the streets of New Orleans’ ninth ward, and I talked with residents of the bayou where we worked. That trip profoundly and deeply affected me in ways I cannot articulate. Watching the news reports this week has brought an ache in my gut and tears to my eyes time and time again. While I did not suffer the loss and trauma of the victims of the storm, in a small way I feel connected to their agony.

Much has been made of the government’s flawed and inadequate response to the crisis a year ago. Journalists and politicians have had a field day laying blame on the leaders involved. Much of that blame is well-deserved, but I don’t want to rehearse their diatribes here. Rather, I want to focus my attention elsewhere.

More than anything else, the aftermath of Katrina has shown us just how utterly flawed and callous our economic system is when it comes to poor people. Now I should reveal my bias up front; I believe the success of an economic system can be judged by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable citizens (I got that crazy idea from a carpenter turned itinerant preacher who lived in first century Palestine and who said something about “whatever you did unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did unto me”). On that score, the system failed---big time.

How is it that in the year following the worst natural disaster in recent U.S. history, oil companies have earned record profits? Not only did the aftermath reveal the stranglehold oil companies have on our economy, but when asked to justify their good fortune, the oil company spokespersons cited “market forces.” What we have seen in the past year is that the system rewards those with resources regardless of how others are faring. Moreover, PBS recently ran a special report revealing how the oil companies are being allowed to slide on the fees and taxes they are required by law to pay to the government. Furthermore, oil companies have routinely suppressed efforts to research and experiment with alternative energy sources, which could significantly lessen our dependence on oil. Any system that allows such brazen disregard for compassion and justice to go unchallenged is a deeply flawed system.

More recently, the insurance companies have shown their true stripes as well. While residents in New Orleans paid their homeowner’s insurance faithfully, when it came time for them to collect on their investments, they received only a fraction of the real value of the losses incurred. While people wonder if they will be able to rebuild, I don’t see any insurance companies struggling to survive. In fact they probably charged the rest of us more (presumably for less), so they can maintain their bottom line. I guess that’s those “market forces” again. If homeowner’s insurance doesn’t insure, what does it do?

And then how is it that the New Orleans Saints will be able to play their first home game in the Superdome in late September while most the residents of New Orleans can’t even begin to rebuild their homes? Somehow the owners of the Superdome were able to get their $75 million government check, while thousands of homeowners and other residents are caught up in bureaucratic red tape. I am as avid a football fan as the next person, but the priorities are really messed up here. For many people that stadium is a dome of death and despair, and probably should be torn down rather than renovated. How can such a move be justified when whole neighborhoods have not even begun to be rebuilt?

In our individualistically oriented culture, many people get nervous when suggestions are made that restrictions should be placed on people’s ability to make and create wealth. The rationale goes something like this: “Hey, if the oil barons, the insurance companies, and the owners of a football team can get away with it, more power to them. Then, if they want to give back to the community out of their largesse, that is their choice.” We get all excited when the Bill Gates and the Warren Buffets give away their billions to charity, when we need to question the system that allows them to profit so wantonly in the first place.

Ironically, the U.S. Census Report on Income, Poverty & Health Insurance Coverage was released on the same day as the Katrina anniversary. The report revealed that while the overall median income in the United States rose by 1.1 %, the number of poor people remained steady at 12.6%. Moreover the poverty rates for Blacks (24.9%) and Hispanics (21.8%) remained the same, for Asians it went up (9.8 to 11.1%), whereas for whites it decreased (8.7 to 8.3%). In broad terms what these statistics mean is that only some people are benefiting by our “growing” economy. The system is not designed to benefit everyone, just those who already have more than their fair share. Those in the most vulnerable position have the least resources to take care of themselves; that’s the sign of a flawed system.

In the U.S. Census Report one pair of statistics captured the essence of the problem as I see it. The state of New Jersey was ranked as the state with the highest median income ($61672), while Camden, NJ had the lowest median income in the country of any city its size ($18,007). Camden also is reported to have 44% of its residents living below the poverty line. One “expert” said, “[These statistics] are telling us that the general good news about New Jersey isn’t reaching everyone.” No kidding!

In an incontrovertible, in-your-face way Hurricane Katrina showed us is that the great capitalistic system on which so many of us depend is not working and never was working and can not work for the benefit of all the people. Capitalism is designed to create and maintain individual wealth, not spread that wealth around. The statistics are clear, the reality is daunting, and the results are immoral and unjust. What Katrina showed us is that long after the clean-up of New Orleans and the Gulf coast, we have got another massive clean up job ahead of us: righting a system that has gone hopelessly wrong.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Searching for the Reign of God

On July 30, 2006 I preached this sermon at a small Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. I shared with the folks there some of my ideas about how the Reign of God is made present in our midst, and how we discern where God is working. My intention was to encourage them to look for signs of hope and to be such a sign to the people of their neighborhood.

Deborah Good, a personal friend who happens to be an author, writes about a place that gives her hope.

“There is a neighborhood in North Philadelphia that continually inspires me. It’s certainly a tough neighborhood, the kind that never makes it onto the tourist brochures. This is a place where people—mostly young black men—are lost every year to drug violence and the (terribly unjust) prison system. Yet this is also a place where an African-American man named Arthur Hall and a Chinese woman named Lily Yeh had the eyes to see possibility in an abandoned and neglected lot.

“Hall invited Yeh, an outsider to the neighborhood, to build a garden there, which she did. [While she was the designer the community people were invited to help and as they did, they got involved in building the park. School children pick up the trash as part of a class once a day. Then they go through the garbage and learn about the environmental impact of various items. Most of the chairs are handmade and some are even made out of the trash that was collected.] Over the years, the garden was followed by more parks and gardens, mosaics, murals, youth and theater programs. Today it is called the Village of Arts and Humanities. I do not talk about hope as freely as some, but I have walked the streets of the Village, and when I turn the corner from Germantown Avenue onto Alder Street with its many-colored mosaics, hope feels like a blast of cool air in my face.

“In a magazine article, Lily Yeh put it this way: ‘I came to conceive of the neighborhood as a piece of living sculpture, in which people live and work, and the forms are brought to life by living community events’ ("A Luminous Place," The Other Side, Jul./Aug. 2004).

[Deborah Good concludes] “Like Yeh, I want to be a seeker of possibilities—in my own life, in others, in broken people and places.”

Life these days is difficult with the violence and crime throughout the city, the gas prices and the heat, not to mention the wars in Lebanon and Iraq and who knows where else. All this stuff going on around us can make us feel pretty hopeless. Amidst the signs of hopelessness all around us, we need to find people like Lilly Yeh and Arthur Hall, and places like the Village of Arts and Humanities that remind us of possibilities. Moreover, as the people of God, and the community of faith we are called to be those possibilities of hope for others.

Jesus’ Idea of the Reign of God
The people of the first century in Palestine felt pretty hopeless too. Subjected the domination of a vicious Roman empire, and a rigid religious establishment, he life of the common Palestinian peasant was hard and often hopeless. Jesus came along telling stories called parables. These were stories of hope, stories about a Kingdom he said he had come to initiate.

Now let me take a moment to clarify what is meant by the Kingdom of God. First, of all the kingdom of God is not a place. Rather it refers to the influence of God on people’s lives and social events. That’s why I prefer to talk about the Reign of God rather than kingdom; its gets us away from thinking about this idea that there is a particular place. Jews and Muslims have been fighting for centuries over the city of Jerusalem because they see it as a holy place, and even some fundamentalist Christian groups have fixated on Jerusalem and the state of Israel as a sacred place. They have got it wrong, God’s kingdom is not a place, it’s an influence, it’s the Reign of God.

Second, the Kingdom or Reign of God is not something we have to wait to experience until the second coming of Jesus. There are some Christians who look at Jesus’ words about the Kingdom as something that is way off in the future. That is just plain mistaken. Jesus was talking about the impact God was having right then and there, and by extension the impact that God is having right here and right now. When Jesus is talking about the Kingdom, he is talking about God’s activity in our world right now.

Third, some would say that the Kingdom is something only God can do. In one sense that’s true, because the influence of God on our lives is God’s work. But we have to cooperate, we have to participate. God doesn’t force our hand; God offers us an opportunity. We have to participate with God in seizing that opportunity and bringing about the world that God wants to create.

Finally, the kingdom is represented by very tangible signs. At one point when John the Baptist was in prison, he sent his followers to Jesus to ask him a question: “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?" It was a yes or no question, but Jesus answered it this way: Tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11. 2-6). Very tangible signs of hope, justice and healing. Leonardo Boff, a Latin American theologian, says that the Reign of God is best measured by social and ethical criteria, such as benefits to the poor, needs being met, and power be gained by the powerless and so on. God’s reign can be felt and seen because it’s tangible.

The Reign of God in Parables
In the beginning of Mark 4 Jesus tells a story that is commonly called the Parable of the Sower or sometimes called the Parable of the Soils. The purpose of this story was to make the point that the news of this kingdom was only available to those who were open and willing to hear about it and change their lives in response to what they heard.

Then in Mark 4.26 he says the kingdom of God is like a person scattering seed. She scatters the seed and then wakes up one morning to see the seed sprouting and growing. Anyone who has ever planted a garden can understand the picture Jesus is painting. You put his little seed in a pot or in a plot of ground, and you wait, and then one day there it is. Gradually, at first, imperceptibly the seed grows, and then it becomes a full-grown plant. If you aren’t watching, or if you don’t know where to look, you might miss it altogether because it sneaks up on you. Just like the seed, the growth of God’s reign is at first imperceptible; you have to watch for it.

Then starting in Mark 4.30 he says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Now apparently a mustard seed is a tiny, tiny little seed. Yet it grows into quite a big and bushy plant over 6 feet tall. What is Jesus’ point? God’s reign doesn’t make a big splash; it’s not a huge production. It starts small, almost imperceptibly, tiny like a mustard seed.

The other night I went to see Cirque du Soleil. What a production: lights, and music and pulleys, costumes and amazing performers…an incredible production. Great for a circus, but not for how God makes an impact on our world. God doesn’t put on a production, God plants a mustard seed.

Now Jesus makes an assumption when he tells this story of the mustard seed. He assumes that we will join in the work. He assumes that just like a seed needs watering and cultivating and pruning and tending, that once we know that God works in small ways to make his influence known, we will join in. Because I said earlier, the kingdom is not something we sit on the sidelines to watch; we need to join in.

Conspiracy of the Insignificant
Tom Sine, a Christian futurist, wrote a book called the Mustard Seed Conspiracy. He writes “That has always been God’s strategy --changing the world through the conspiracy of the insignificant…God’s policy [is] to work though the embarrassingly insignificant to change his world and create his future” (p. 11-12). Sine goes on in his book to tell story after story of ordinary folks changing their lives in order to join in the work of God in the world – helping the poor, protecting the environment, stopping the violence, speaking truth to power, bringing hope and justice to the oppressed. The sign of this “mustard seed conspiracy” is the presence of hope that changes lives.

As the 3rd century Christian leader, Origen, wrote: The poor are said to be the rag, tag and bobtail of humanity. But Jesus does not leave them that way. Out of material you would have thrown away as useless, he fashions people of strength, giving them back their self-respect, enabling them to stand on their feet, and look God in the eye. They were cowed, cringing, broken things. But the Son has set them free!”

Basically, what this means for us is that we have to search for signs of the kingdom, search for signs of God’s reign in the world. Like Deborah Goode looking for visible signs of hope and justice like the Village of Arts and Humanities, we need to look for other signs of hope and justice indicating the activity of God’s kingdom. Once we find those signs, we need to join in, to become part of this mustard seed movement, this conspiracy of the insignificant.

Searching for the Reign of God
Several years ago I met a young man recently out of college who was going to work in the mission field in Southeast Asia. I asked him what attracted him to Southeast Asia and he responded with an answer I have never forgotten. He said, “Instead of waiting for God to move where I am, I want to go where God is already moving and be a part of God’s work there.” What struck about this statement was the realization that just because I may be a faithful, conscientious Christian, that does not mean that God is working along side of me. In our American can-do ethic, we think that if we just do all the right things, God will bless us. But that’s not the case. God is the one in control and our task is to find where God is working and join in there.
Sometimes where God is working catches us off guard –

- Like in a former burned out, drug infested neighborhood of North Philadelphia with Lily Yeh and Arthur Hall.

- Or the gutters of Calcutta, India with Mother Teresa;

- Or in a small village in northern Palestine where a priest named Elias Chacour brings Jews, Christian and Muslims together to talk of peace;

- Or among a group of students from Eastern University who founded a community in Kensington called the Simple Way that is reaching out to their neighbors in clear and tangible ways;

- Or maybe right here in a tiny Baptist Church in South Philadelphia.

Where is God’s impact being felt? Where are people being helped and healed and given hope? Where is justice being found for the poor, the dispossessed, and the victims of oppression? Sometimes you have to look long and far and wide. Sometimes it’s hard to find such evidence. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack or trying to find a mustard seed…but that’s where God’s reign is breaking in and where God’s influence being felt.

The Story of Ann
I am a college professor who mostly teaches adults who have decided to come back to get their college degree after dropping our of a college years before. One such person was a woman named Ann. Ann grew up here in Philly, and then went into the Army, and attained the rank of Sergeant. At the height of her career she was a commander of troops in South Korea.

Ann got out of the Army, went to work for a law firm as an accountant, and showed up as a student in one of my classes. She was tough as nails, but she had always struggled as a student. So two weeks into her first class, she was ready to quit. I ran into her in the library and she said, “I was just going to call you. I’m quitting. I can’t do this school stuff. I’m not smart enough.” Well, I was able to convince to stick out the one class and then make her decision. She got through the class with a C, and I encouraged her to continue on, which she did.

Several months later, I had her for another class. She did so well in my class, she earned an A. When she got her grade, she hugged me and said thanked me. I reminded her that I don’t give grades. She earned it, and she could be proud of her accomplishment.

A few months later I had her for the last class in her program, and she told me she was thinking about going on with her education. Through her job she had gotten involved in a program tutoring elementary school kids and she thought she might want to be a teacher. She also mentioned that she had started going back to church, that her faith in God had been renewed. That’s when I knew that this change in Ann was more than just about academics; God had been working on her.

A few more months passed by and Ann called me up and asked if I would write her a recommendation because she was applying to get in a Masters of Education program. I gladly did, and now Ann is on her way to getting her teaching certificate. Very soon she is going to be an elementary school teacher. She will be great at it because she knows what it’s like to be a frightened underachieving student. When she called me, I said “None of this would have happened, if years ago you had quit.” She thanked me for convincing her to stick with it. I was thankful too.

Way back there, God planted a seed, and I had a hand in watering and cultivating that seed, and now it has grown to something magnificent and beautiful.

Where is God planting seeds of hope and justice? Where is God working so we can join in? We need to search those out, lend a hand and do our part. We need to be part of this conspiracy of the insignificant. When we do that we will never feel overwhelmed. We will live in hope and be bringers of hope to others.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Making The Church Real (Rather Than Just Relevant)

My friend Matthew Krabill has gotten me thinking about what it means for the church to be relevant in contemporary culture. He defines the relevant church as “1. a distinctive community of faith that is passionate for Jesus as well as culture 2. a community of believers that has significance in present day culture.” Speaking to young adults he says “We cannot be fully relevant or fully the church if people our age do not help shape who we are called to be, and how we are to live-out our faith. I fear that we have reached a point where the words ‘distinctive community’ or ‘culturally significant’ no longer apply to the church. We (young adults) need to help change this.” Matthew is wise enough to recognize that his generation is not the first to ask such questions of the church. There are some of us baby-boomers (I turned 53 this week) who have struggled with similar questions, but I am thankful for young adults like Matthew raising the questions anew.

His reflections got me thinking, is it relevance I want from the church? Not exactly. My generation took making the church relevant very seriously. Relevance-seeking brought us contemporary worship services, user-friendly full-service churches, mega-churches that looked like mega-malls, and the homogeneous unit principle of evangelism and church growth. Ministry became a form of management. Pastoral leaders like John Maxwell took business guru Peter Drucker as the model for ministry. Evangelism became a form of marketing . Jesus became the key to self-actualization, the one who would meet all your needs and fulfill all your dreams. However, in the end nothing really changed. As Ron Sider has documented in Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Christians are not distinctive either in their character or behavior. If anything the church has become more wedded to the status quo than before. So in my view relevance didn’t exactly get us where we needed to be.

So then I wonder maybe its faithfulness we need. That sounds good, but what exactly does it mean? Faithful to what? To our understanding of the Bible? To our faith tradition? To some vision of an idyllic Christian past that never existed?

No, what I think we need are churches that engage the core issues of the culture while remaining distinct. We need churches that understand and are involved with the culture, so they can call the culture to account. We need churches comprised of what Hauerwaus and Willimon call “resident aliens.” We need folk who are truly involved in the struggles of culture and society, while at the same living out the values of the Reign of God here and now.

Nancey Murphy, author of Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, talks about the need for the “social embodiment” of faith. Social embodiment involves understanding both the sociocultural environment of the Scriptures and contemporary culture, and seeing where they correspond. We need to examine how Jesus and his followers acted and spoke to the issues of their day and to ask how can their engagement with their culture inform how we speak and act in relationship to our culture today? Social embodiment involves finding the correspondence and connections between then and now, and incarnating the first century response in 21st century terms.

For example, not long ago I had a conversation with a 19-year-old woman about how the church we attend could be more responsive to the needs of people her age. She talked about her friends, some who had been messed up on drugs, others from dysfunctional family situations, and still others who had identified themselves as gay or lesbian. She said her friends felt alienated and rejected by the church. This young woman wanted the church to be a place where her friends could ask their questions, voice their concerns, and be heard. Later I thought about how Jesus dealt with the outcasts of his day: the lepers and the poor. Is there a correspondence between Jesus’ response to outcasts and our response to these alienated young folks today? I think so.

I am thankful for people like this 19-year-old woman and Matthew Krabill for challenging me to keep making Jesus real in concrete and specific ways. However we won’t make that happen as individuals. I am convinced it can only happen in communities that share a common faith while embracing a diversity in age, gender, race, theology and perspective. It can only happen in communities that in embody their faith in the first century carpenter thorugh 21st century words, deeds, and attitudes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Diversity, Capitalism and Doing The Right Thing

Recently, I attended a banquet of a local Human Resources organization honoring companies who had outstanding diversity programs. The featured speaker of the night was an African-American woman who ran a consulting firm focusing on team building and executive coaching. Her message to the group was basically that in order to promote diversity-related issues in a company, one has to speak the language of the CEO, which is language of money and profit. She clearly conveyed the message that in order to promote inclusiveness and diversity in a corporation you have to show how diversity positively affects the financial bottom line. What troubled me more than her basic message was her reference to people as “assets” and “resources” toward the goal of making money; this from a woman whose ancestors had merely been “property” of the plantation owners. I left the banquet depressed and angry that American capitalism had reduced people to merely a means to an end and that the business culture had again seduced one who ought to know better.

Capitalism operates on an illusion that if one hasthe right skills to make the right product or service, one can make a lot of money. The reality is that 5% of the population owns 80% of the wealth, that there is a tilted playing field that favors the haves over the have-nots, and that the rich-poor gap is increasing rather than closing. Americans call themselves the “richest country in the world” and yet when it comes to quality of life indicators such as infant mortality, general health, or crime rates, we are way down the list. We may have the greatest health care system in the world but when 40 million people have no health care insurance, the greatest system in the world is meaningless. These realities are not just a glitch in the system; the problem is the system itself.

Capitalism is like playing the lottery. People play the lottery in hopes of winning millions of dollars. Instead of taxing people proportionate to their incomes, governments sell the illusion of getting rich quick and millions fall for the line (and mostly they are working class and poor folks). The likelihood of winning is miniscule. Every lottery ticket is a tax that people place on themselves while all the time holding onto the illusion they are playing a game that will make them rich. Capitalism is the same way; it sells the illusion that someday one can make it, when in fact it primarily benefits the haves on the backs of the have-nots. The truly sad thing is all the middle and working class people play along, contributing to a system that fundamentally has sold them a lie.

As I listened to the speaker at the diversity dinner, I asked myself a number of questions:
- What if, instead of tricking people and appealing to their baser motives, one appealed to people’s higher motives like justice, fairness, and love?
- What if instead of appealing to people’s greed for making money, one could appeal to people’s desire to actually improve people’s lives and make the world safer and healthier?
- What if we used the language of profit as only one of many strategies to get people to do the right thing, and in the process raise the ethical bar of the business community?
- What if we had business leaders with the courage to call people to clean up the environment, create equity and enhance the quality of life?
- What if the development of people, the enhancement of communities and the betterment of the world was the end and not the means of business?
- What if people and groups who reversed that equation and used people rather than served them were severely sanctioned and penalized?
- What if….?

I recently read an article about James Rouse, a real estate developer who designed the Baltimore Inner Harbor, Boston’s Fanueil Hall, the city of Columbia, Maryland and a host of other life-enhancing public spaces. James Rouse was quoted as saying that the purpose of business was not the bottom line, but to provide a meaningful product or service to the community. When companies first became incorporated in the mid-1800’s that was their charter: to provide a meaningful service or product to the community. It was only in the early 1900’s that capitalism was given legal sanction to limit their concern to the bottom line.

As I listened to that speaker talk about how to sell the idea that all workers had inherent value regardless of race, gender, culture, orientation or creed, I thought there have to be ways out of the new slavery of capitalism. Maybe we can do the right thing, just because it is the right thing…and still do good business. What an amazing thought!

For more on the need to reform corporate life see the following books:

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan

Tyranny of the Bottom Line: Why Corporations Make Good People Do Bad Things by Ralph W. Estes

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Left Hand of God

I recently finished reading Michael Lerner’s intriguing book, The Left Hand of God, (2006, Harper Collins) in which he calls for the formation of a movement of spiritual progressives. The heart of the book is what he calls “The Spiritual Covenant With America,” a series of broad proposals for social reform which seek to wed generally progressive political values to a loosely defined spiritual foundation. His assumption is that the political left has ceded spirituality to the political right thereby losing touch with the broad base of the American public, who he believes share the political values but not the spiritual agnosticism. The purpose of the Covenant is to challenge the Christian Right’s exclusive claim to spiritually motivated political values.

At one point he makes a fascinating point in which he describes how the religious right decries materialism, selfishness, and greed, while allying itself with the forces of big business that aggressively market those values. However, because the liberals work so hard to keep religious values out of the public sphere, the right can blames the left for the secularism that is sweeping our society. It’s a neat little trick that reveals the complete vacuity of vision in the Democratic Party and the duplicity of the religious right.

Lerner seems to pin his hopes and direct his thoughts toward a spiritual openness in the Democratic Party; this is where he loses me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no Republican. Rather, I am more in sympathy with Jim Wallis (God's Poltitics) when he writes “The Right is wrong and the Left doesn’t get it.” I am enthused overall with Lerner’s Covenant, and I am hopeful that spiritually-minded progressive folks can get together, but I must confess I have no faith in the future of the Democratic Party. Seeking to align ourselves with Democrats or revive that party seems to be a dead end. The Democrats are too busy trying to criticize the Republicans that they have no vision of their own.

Furthermore, labeling the spiritual progressive movement a leftist or liberal movement is not only a dead end, at least for me it is inaccurate. Personally, I think the Right is correct on some issues, such as a concern for the family and an opposition to abortion. Their views on family are too narrow, so as not to include single parents, the poor, and gays/lesbians, but they are right when they say the family is in need of support. They are right on abortion too; but again they see “pro-life” as only one issue rather than a theme running through a number of issues such as opposition to the death penalty, the need for gun control, and the need for a health care system that provides for all. By limiting his appeal to so-called “liberal causes,” Lerner makes the same mistake as the Democrats.

Spiritual progressives must do more than simply harp on the old liberal agenda; they must forge a new vision with a new set of alliances. Jim Wallis is closer to the issue when he calls for the creation of a “radical middle,” a group of spiritually minded people who will call both the Republicans and Democrats to task for their lack of values and life-giving vision.

Personally, I would love to see the formation of a third party. In a recent issue of Tikkun, (May/June 2006), a journal which Lerner edits, historian Howard Zinn, a favorite of many progressives was asked about his opinion about “The Spiritual Covenant with America.” He said,
“My differences with Lerner though, reside in the proportion of attention he pays to spiritual values. These are important, but they are not the critical issue. The issue is living and dying…For those who find a special inspiration in Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, fine. If that inspiration leads them to work or justice, that is what matters.” (“An Interview with Howard Zinn”, Tikkun May/June 2006, p.28).

In other words, Zinn could care less about spiritual values, what matters to him is a commitment to progressive causes. Interestingly, his opinion of the Democrats is similar to mine. He says:
“The Democratic Party is pitiful. Not only are they not articulating a spiritual vision, as Lerner says, they don’t even have a political message.” (p. 27)

On this we agree. A new political movement outside the Democratic Party is needed.

The Left Hand of God is a provocative read. Lerner raises our consciousness about the relationship between our spiritual and political values. His proposals are bold. My concern is that he is barking up the wrong tree.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Tacit Knowledge – Knowing More Than We Realize

Recently, I have been reading excerpts from the writings Michael Polanyi, a scientist turned philosopher. Polanyi was interested to understand how scientists would “know” when they had hit upon a significant discovery, or when the findings of another scientists were truly valid and significant. Polanyi challenged the scientific assumption that all true knowledge was empirical, that is, it could be “proven.” Polanyi said there was another kind of knowledge that came from one’s culture, one’s experience and one’s community called tacit knowledge. He defined tacit knowledge as knowing something beyond our ability to explain it.

He gave the example of recognizing a friend’s face in a crowd. We might be able to describe the features of a person’s face. By themselves, those features could describe a million different people, but when we saw those features on one particular person, we “knew” it was the face of our friend. How did we know that configuration of features was our friend? Tacit knowledge. We can’t explain why, we just know that is him.

As I have gotten older, I have learned to listen to those aspects of my being that seem beyond words. I sit in a meeting and I get a “gut feeling, an intuition about how a decision will go down. It may be minutes, hours or even days before I can articulate the reasons behind my “hunch,” and in the world of academia, as well as in the world of business, hunches and gut feelings don’t get you much of a hearing ---unless over time they have proven to be right. Nonetheless, I have learned to follow my intuitions to the point of trying to put words to the feeling; but it’s the tacit knowing, the knowing beyond words, that gets me started.

I have also started to listen to my body. There are days I can just “feel” a cold coming on or “feel” that I need to get to bed early. There may be no tell tale signs that I need to change my routine, but my body is giving me signals. Another example: I have muscle in my chest that tells me when I am overstressing myself. Several years ago I went to the doctor because I thought I might have a heart problem. After stress tests, and all sorts of scans, nothing showed. My heart was perfectly healthy and functioning fine. The pain came and went. So, I listened to my inner voice –it’s your body telling you to slow down. Now I listen. Why that muscle? Why that message? I can’t explain it except to say its tacit knowledge.

This whole idea of tacit knowledge leads me to think that there is a whole lot more knowledge and understanding in our bodies, in our intuitions, and in our souls than we give credence to. We need to learn how to listen and then respect the tacit knowledge that is there. Today so many people seem to be drowning out the world with noise. Perhaps we ought to turn off the TVs, radios, Ipods, computers and cell phones, and cultivate an awareness of the knowledge we have beyond words. We may find we know a whole lot more than we realize.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Theological Reflections on the Immigration debate

The United States prides itself as a being a “nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of America’s openness bidding, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” However, recent events in the U.S. Congress suggest that we as a people do not really mean what we say.

In December, the House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Anti Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437). Major provisions of this bill include making illegal immigration a felony, criminalizing church workers and social service providers assisting illegal immigrants, constructing a 700 mile fence along the U.S.- Mexican Border, and requiring employers to verify their workers’ status though a massive immigrant database. Since there are approximately 11-12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., enforcing these provisions are not only vindictive, but highly unenforceable. Currently the U.S. Senate is working on its version of the bill which is seeking to develop a process whereby undocumented immigrants can become permanent guest workers over a period of several years.

One of the arguments for stricter controls is the supposed negative effect that undocumented immigrants have on the U.S. economy, public services, and social welfare system. As the argument goes, immigrants take jobs that other Americans won’t take, because the wages given them are so low. Despite the rhetoric, it is ludicrous to think that 12 million people could slip into the country undetected without the assistance of some powerful interest groups or that those interests are truly chagrined by having to pay such low wages. The fact is such as construction, food service, agriculture and meatpacking depend heavily on immigrant (much of undocumented) labor and we who purchase their products or services are the beneficiary with lower prices.

While the socio-economic and political issues are complex, there are Biblical and theological issues that we as Christians must consider as we listen to and engage in this discussion. For our first allegiance as Christians must be to the principles of compassion and justice laid out for us in Scripture.

Scripture clearly compels us to “welcome the stranger in our midst (Leviticus 19-33-34). Jesus goes so far as to say that welcoming the stranger is equivalent to welcoming him (Matthew 35.35). If the provision in HR 4437 making it a crime to assist or help undocumented immigrants, many Christian workers will be confronted with a choice as to whether to follow the law or the Biblical imperative. Simply allowing someone to attend church or get help at a food pantry could be grounds for arrest. Will we as Christians choose obedience to an unjust law?

However, beyond our concern for the stranger is the Biblical mandate to care for the poor in general. Surveys of undocumented immigrants clearly indicate that they come here seeking work in order to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Jesus places no boundaries of nationality or ethnicity on his call upon us to show compassion and seek justice for the poor. In fact it was the Good Samaritan’s willingness to transcend ethnic and national strictures that made his act of compassion so commendable (Luke 10). In the words of Liberation theologians God has exercised a “preferential option for the poor” and thus who seek to follow God’s ways must stand against the powers of exclusion and oppression on behalf of those most vulnerable. Arguments that justify tighter immigration measures on the basis of helping America’s poor are not only specious, but present a false dichotomy. Our commitment to seeking justice for the poor must transcend boundaries or race and nation.

For at the heart of this issue is a global economic system that disproportionately benefits the wealthy and powerful and disadvantages the worker and peasant classes regardless of their nationality. Douglas Massey, the president of Princeton University has said, “At the heart of NAFTA lies a contradiction we move to promote the freer cross-border movement of goods, services, capital and commodities, we simultaneously seek to prevent the movmeent6 of labor…To maintain the illusion that we can somehow integrate while remaining separate, we have militarized our border.”

One has to ask why undocumented immigrants are leaving their country to work in low wage U.S. jobs. Obviously it is because the opportunities for good-paying jobs are not present in the home country. If U.S. corporations have the freedom to move to other coutnries in search of cheaplabor and higher profits, why is it wrong for workers to go to other countries seeking work that pays a more decent wage. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander. We must ask ourselves if the capitalistic system is actually making wealth avaialbe to greater numbers of people ( as proponents say) or simply amassing wealth in the hands of the already wealthy few?
Before we middle Christian Christians shake our heads in disgust, we must realize that as consumers of the lower costs provided by cheap labors, we are unconscious collaborators in an economic system that denigrates the poor. Thus, as compassionate Christians we are confronted with the question: At what price, justice? Not only should we contact our elective representatives to inform them of our views, we also must be willing to literally pay the price for changing an economic system that benefits the few, at the expense of the many.

The current immigration reform debate confronts us with a question of our values and priorities. Andrew Grove, the former chairperson of Intel Corporation and a Jewish holocaust survivor has written that the immigration debate confronts us with questions about our basic values as Americans. I suggest that for the Christians this debate goes event deeper to question the ultimate sincerity and validity of the faith we profess.