Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Does the Church Have the Courage to Oppose the Outlawing of Dreams (On DACA)?

The acronym DACA is short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It's administrative relief from deportation. It protects eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were youth, offering them protection from deportation and a work permit.
Hundreds of thousands of the most productive Millenials in our nation are here because of the wisdom of DACA. Ideally, our nation would sort out and improve its immigration process, offering a path to citizenship for all those currently protected by DACA. 
However, some of the highest officials in our nation, including Secretary Kelly and Jeff Sessions, together with a host of xenophobic attorney generals (inclusive of Arkansas's attorney general Leslie Rutledge) have of late filed lawsuits seeking to phase out DACA, and have also begun processes to deport DREAMers (DREAM: Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). In other words, rather than seeking solutions offering a path to citizenship to this vital portion of our population, they are taking regressive steps that create fear and anxiety, and threaten hundreds of thousands of young Latinos.
Here's a quote from Inside Higher Ed:
In the letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the 10 state attorneys general (including Arkansas's Leslie Rutledge) said that if the administration refuses to phase out the program, which they describe as "unlawful" in that it "unilaterally confers eligibility for work authorization and lawful presence without any statutory authorization from Congress," they will amend their lawsuit against DAPA to challenge the DACA program as well. 
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, condemned the attorneys general who sent the letter, saying in a statement that "their evident xenophobia is not remotely consistent with the trajectory of our nation's history and future progress."
And here's a press release from one of our most prominent Latino congressman, Luis GutiĆ©rrez: 
The following is a statement from Rep. Luis V. GutiƩrrez, a Member of the Judiciary Committee and Chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
I think we have to prepare for the worst and get ready to fight mass deportation.  We showed up at airports to fight the Muslim and Refugee Ban and now DREAMers and people who have lived here legally for decades with TPS are in imminent danger.
Secretary Kelly determines the future of TPS and basically told us he is not sure if he will extend it for hundreds of thousands of people. He also said that the future of DACA is up to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, America’s leading advocate against immigration, so Kelly was basically telling us DACA is facing a death sentence.  They actually want to take millions of people who are documented – with our own government – make them undocumented, and then go after them and their families. 
So, I fear for anybody currently with DACA or TPS. 
This was a wake-up call that Trump, Sessions and Kelly are serious about mass deportation and are anxious to get started.  It is a call to action for people who oppose mass deportation and turning the documented into undocumented so that they can be deported.
Upon questioning, Sec. Kelly made it clear he does not understand how his agency works or how the Congress works.  He stood by his past remarks that Congress should change the law if we don’t like it, as if Democrats have not been fighting Republican obstruction for years, and asking for a vote on immigration reform, the DREAM Act and other legislation.  Sec. Kelly says it is up to Congress, but his party is the obstacle standing in the way of a modern immigration system.
Sec. Kelly said he could not help people and their American citizen children who have no criminal record and are being deported, as if he doesn’t understand that he has the power under current law to spare people through his prosecutorial discretion.  I told him straight up that he could prevent the August deportation of Francisca Lino – the wife of a U.S. citizen and mother of U.S. citizen children in Chicago – just by picking up the phone and he seemed not to know he has that power. 
He either does not understand his authority under current law or was stonewalling or doing a very convincing job of playing dumb – or maybe some combination of the three.  He is playing along with Trump’s agenda to deport millions and pretending to not understand his powers to do something about it.  ‘Just following orders’ is not a valid defense, especially when you have the power to prevent a tragedy for millions of American citizens and their families.
Trump, Sessions and Kelly want to take 800,000 DREAMers with DACA and hundreds of thousands with TPS who are registered with the government and in compliance with the law and make them into criminals, felons, and deportees in the next few months.  Anyone with a conscience who thinks legal immigration is an integral part of who we are as a country just got called to action.
How should and can faith communities respond to these regressive and immoral moves on the part of our own elected officials?

First, contact them. Most of them tweet, so reach out to them on Twitter. Call their offices. Write letters. Visit them in their offices.

Second, approach the issue as a matter of Christian faith. Most if not all of the attorney generals taking these hateful actions are posturing under the guise of "law and order," and most if not all of them are Christians. Surely they know that the vast majority of DREAMers arrived in our country because they came here with their parents. Their parents came for opportunity, to flee oppression, to make a better life. They themselves can and should also be offered a path to citizenship.

But the children of such immigrants definitely deserve our best and most hospitable treatment. We welcome the sojourner in our midst, as Scripture teaches, because we remember that we were once sojourners in a foreign land.

There's really only one reason why the attorney generals, and Jeff Sessions, and all these others, are taking these steps. They're doing it because they seek to "make America white again." It's racism posturing as law and order, Christianity falsely supporting nativism. It's our worst impulses clothed in religiosity.

Finally, connect with communities who are preparing to ameliorate the devastating effects of the criminalization of those who are undocumented. Join a sanctuary movement. Find out what local efforts are already in place to begin an underground railroad or other resources for the undocumented.  Connect with those actively protesting the actions of our attorney generals. Read faithful resources on immigration, like the ELCA social statement. Donate to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

This is real folks. It's not a drill. Our neighbors, vast numbers of Latino DREAMers, are waiting to see how the faith community responds now. They are afraid. Our action will be our testimony in Christ. Will we have the courage?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

On the immorality of politicians and pastors

Many politicians, or at least the ones I've been lobbying lately, seem completely immune to moral persuasion. 

These politicians lie routinely while claiming to be Christian. Virtually the entire field of national politicians (Trump chief among them) appear unaware lying is considered in Christian tradition one of the gravest sins of all.

Then as a pastor, I think to myself: How did we get here? How have these politicians drifted so far from any kind of moral center? Why won't they operate with integrity?

This was my Aha! moment. Because honestly, most pastors in a way exactly like politicians find themselves compromising their integrity daily. Every day pastors make choices that chip away at their moral center, degrading them as they compromise over and over and over.

For the most part, pastors do this to survive. Like politicians, they need political cover. If they don't have such cover, they choose not to speak a prophetic word from the pulpit for fear of losing their job. They choose not to volunteer with a worker justice organization for fear of losing parishioners. They avoid getting arrested for fear of frustrating their family.

Every single day, pastors like myself choose the political over the moral, doing the strategic thing rather than the right thing. Over time, this takes a toll. It chips away at the soul.

I'd guess that most pastors, like most politicians, are largely unaware this slow slide into insipid depravity is even taking place. We get so good at compromising in order to survive in the system it becomes second nature. We forget that failure to act is still to act, and we are as defined as much by what we don't do as by what we do.

I imagine this is what happens to politicians. They compromise once to gain a few more votes, they compromise again to get a few more, they stay quiet about a glaring wrong strategically in order to not alienate the base of their party, then compromise again for that large campaign contribution, and the whole process of compromise becomes so natural they lose sight of themselves.

No, they actually lose themselves.

Until the pastor, having once again not preached the sermon they wanted to preach, or doing the thing they believed was right, is confronted with the stark question: When WILL you do that to which you are called?

Politicians stop living in reality and start dying in political reality. They die little daily deaths that leave them haggard, alone, and scared. So do pastors.

The politician might say: I can't get elected if I appear to be X. 

The pastor might say: I won't be able to keep this call if I speak up about X.

The politician might then justify it: Well, overall I will vote for better policies than my rival.

The pastor might then justify it: Well, I do have to be the shepherd of all these different kinds of people.

Pastors and politicians share one other thing in common: they gain exposure to the breadth of the human experience in ways different from other vocations. A politician might meet with constituents concerned about global warming in the morning, and cattlemen concerned about midwest farm policy in the afternoon. Pastors might bless a newborn baby in the morning and pray with an elder in hospice in the afternoon.

One could reasonably conclude, then, that the political and the pastoral life both have much opportunity for the enlarging of the heart and the feeding of the soul.

But that all depends on whether at the crucial moment the politician (or pastor) chooses the right thing over the politically expedient thing. Because such compromising choices color everything else. They become the whole. It makes the difference between a politician as empty suit or pastor as empty collar, or an integral moment when the people and community can say: That pastor, that politician, they're the real deal.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

A Complete Church Guide to Reaching Your Neighborhood

I've got a pastor friend who is spectacular at being in her neighborhood for good. The congregation is known by the neighborhood and is integral to it. They garden in their back yard. They use the basement as a shelter. Members of the parish are residents of the immediate geographical neighborhood.

As a result, this pastor often gets asked by newly called pastors and church outreach committees, "How can we reach out to our neighborhood more effectively?" Often these questions come from nearby congregations. As her friend, I want to step in to the conversation and answer, "Donate to her church. She's already doing it! Support her!"

That is in fact one excellent answer to the question. If you want to reach neighborhoods for good, you could do much worse than simply finding the churches already doing it, then donate cold hard cash.

But many congregations are asking this question, and not all of them are going to donate to neighboring churches (even if more should). It's not a bad question to ask.

So to reach a neighborhood, the real answer is, It will cost you. The first answer to the question, "How can we reach out to our neighborhood?" is itself a question: "How much are you willing to spend?"

Honestly, if you want to reach your neighborhood, you are going to need to be like your neighborhood. An upper middle class congregation will not be effective in reaching a poor neighborhood in which it is situated unless it divests itself significantly of its wealth and learns to live among and with the people it hopes to "reach."

This is why so many Christians form intentional Christian communities in specific neighborhoods.  They know that to do good ministry in a neighborhood, you have to join the neighborhood. Culturally. Economically. Linguistically. Spiritually.

If your congregation isn't willing to make ALL the requisite changes necessary to join the neighborhood, it won't reach the neighborhood. Full stop.

Neighborhoods are real places. So in addition to joining the neighborhood of people in their sociological location, a congregation that wishes to reach a neighborhood will need to think about the actual neighborhood. It needs to "find" itself in the neighborhood, as it were.

This looks like knowing the third places, knowing the people, knowing the businesses, knowing the public services, knowing the other churches, going door to door.

If you want to reach the neighborhood, spend time in it. It's really that simple. If you spend time with your neighbors, you'll hear their needs... especially if you ask. There aren't magical strategies here. It's really about time and conversation.

Finally, most neighborhoods are completely caught by surprise when a congregation actually impinges on their lives and makes a difference for good. People have become so accustomed to churches as quiet little "no-places" about which they know little, a gathering of folks they seldom see, that they are pleasantly surprised when the church actually does something for or with them.

I read your pastor's column in the newspaper this weekend! That water stand you set up for the kids after school was amazing! I love it that your church takes risks on behalf of the LGBTQ+ and stands with them. I heard your church has a little food pantry. Your church does social gospel well.

After a while, if your church does impact the neighborhood, the neighborhood starts to teach you your own mission statement. You hear echoed back in their vision of you what God is calling you to.

But in my experience, neighbors don't notice a congregation until it has been willing to be actually vulnerably, truly at risk, in order to connect with them. Surprise surprise, when Christ tells the church to take up its cross, that's actually one of the most missionary of expectations. It's how you reach the neighborhood.

Don't even start asking how you might get more neighbors to join the church until you've asked a much harder question in your community: How can we risk everything for the sake of our neighbors and their needs?

That's how you reach your neighborhood. It's rather rewarding, actually, although there's much sweat involved.

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." (Matthew 10:40-42)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Scripture's mandate to provide universal, single-payer government funded health care

Let's start off with a simple premise. No Christian, especially a Christian holding public office, can in good faith and with moral integrity support a health care act that offers significant economic relief to the wealthy while at the same time stripping health coverage from the poorest.

The Bible has no patience with immense wealth disparity, and calls it out time and again as one of the greatest moral failures of a society.

So we can add: a Christian community that allows medical providers, health insurance CEOs, and even doctors themselves, to become wealthy off the need of the sick, is equally perverse.

By contrast, as just one example (and we will offer more later), Jesus is abundantly clear about the mandate to offer healing, and to do it at low cost--that is to say, for free. "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge.” (Matthew 10:8-9) Notice, remarkably, that the one thing Jesus absolutely DOES NOT encourage in any of his healing or instructions to heal is the goal of wealth and income creation as a part of healing the sick.

The Bible does not, on average, dictate once and for all time the system whereby health care will be provided. You do not have in Scripture any form of neoliberal free market capitalism, or representative democracy for that matter. So not only did the biblical writers not have in their imagination the possibility that people could buy and sell health coverage in a (relatively) unregulated free market, they also did not have in their imaginations that the people themselves through a (relatively) representative democracy could establish laws protecting the "right" to health coverage for every citizen of a given nation.

The next illogical step taken by many modern Christians reading the Bible is to assume that since the Bible doesn't imagine these things, therefore it is not the Christian responsibility for a government (or a health insurance network, or a national church system, etc) to do such things. But this simply doesn't follow. The Bible no more argues for a hyper-individualistic model of health care supply than it does for a government-funded universal one.

And in point of fact, although Jesus himself went around healing the sick as an individual, he was himself a rather unusual individual, the community formed in his name assuming that somehow corporate it was and is his continuing bodily presence in the world precisely as community.

And the church, founded in his name, includes as part of its imagination a mandate in Scripture directly to a nation (or the equivalent of a nation in its day, namely Israel) to provide care for the poor and sick.

To be really clear, what this means is that all the instructions you read instituting laws, or giving commandments in the Old Testament are not given to individuals, or to the church, but to a nation as a whole, the closest equivalent we have to nations today. God's care for the poor and the sick was illustrated through the laws given to Israel--a nation--and God expects nations to care for their sick and poor.

So you get, for example, in Deuteronomy a mandate given not to individual Israelites to follow out of the goodness of their hearts, but a mandate to an entire people, given as law: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (15:11).

Many Christian commentators on universal health insurance seem also to overlook the plethora of biblical texts that argue against wealth disparity. Apparently God cares about the problem of some being too rich and others being too poor, and goes to great length via the prophets proclaiming such.

So Amos 5:11 notices that the rich use systems of taxation to consolidate their wealth and build immense homes:

Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine. 

We might be reminded at this point that one of the most frequent causes of bankruptcy in the United States are health care costs. So it is literally the case that federal plans for health coverage that give relief to the rich at the expense of the poor fulfills the warnings of Micah 2:2:

They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance. 

And if that weren't enough to convince the average reader of Scripture, I can go on, with examples from other biblical prophets.

Hab. 2.9    “Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!” 
Zeph. 1.13 Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,

they shall not drink wine from them.
Hag. 1.4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 

You get the point. I hope. The Bible is a big book, with lots of content, but if there is one long-standing social ethic that weaves its way through the entirety of Scripture from beginning to end, it is a concern for grave wealth disparity that leaves the poor oppressed and burdened while the wealthy give comfortably on the backs of the poor.

In fact, the vision of Scripture includes God's direct intervention and reversal of this trend. Mary sings about it in the Magnificat, the rich brought down and the lowly lifted up. Or as the Psalms have it, God raises up weak and lowly, and gives the people as a whole instruction to do the same.

Psa. 82.3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 

There's a lot to talk about in our nation as we seek to implement a health plan that offers real health and healing resources for all people. But if the Christian voice is going to be in the mix, it needs to operate out of some of these basic principles: the fundamental responsibility to heal and provide relief for the poor; the clear moral concern in Scripture about wealth disparity; a deep concern about health care being a source for getting rich; and the call for the community of faith to align itself with God, who raises up the widow and the orphan AND brings down those in high places.

The warning is clear. God's going to do it, and when God does, you want to be on the right side.

Luke 1: 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.