Friday, July 29, 2016

Calling all clergy! Stop being embarrassingly silent on worker justice

Everything that is revealed by the light is light. Therefore, it says, Wake up, sleeper! Get up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. (Ephesians 5:14)
I wonder if we find ourselves in a new moment for worker justice. Community organizing has taken on a new aspect. #Blacklivesmatter matters, and has changed how we think about social movements in America. In the meantime, other social movements wonder how to gather the same kind of energy and voice #blacklivesmatter has gathered.

Periodically, somebody will chime in and remind anyone listening that the heart of the Civil Rights movement was workers’ rights. The very night before he was killed, Martin Luther King spoke to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee
On 8 April, Coretta Scott King, along with other family members
 and Ralph Abernathy, heads a silent march of 42,000 people
to support the Memphis sanitation workers' strike and to honor King.
. He said: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through” (King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 217). MLK Jr. was in Memphis for worker justice. He was assassinated while speaking out for striking workers.

This isn’t to say that black lives and workers lives are vying for social justice space in a limited resource arena, only that sometimes we need to remember the intersection of everything, and in this case race matters and class matters are inextricably bound up with each other.

I wonder why so few clergy these days are speaking up for workers rights. Is it that moneyed interests have finally and successfully purchased the voice of religious leaders, co-opting them to such a degree they’ve gone unwittingly quiet? Have the liberal and progressive churches become too cozy in their middle class-ness?

I know in my own part of the world, dominated as it is by large poultry corporations, virtually no clergy spoke up when our local worker justice center published an extensive and damning report on the poultry industry ( Marches have organized spontaneously and repeatedly for tragedies like Orlando, and after police shootings, and more. But when poultry workers organize, predominately white congregations stay home, and worker voices are left by and large to speak up for themselves.

I wonder if corporate philanthropy is a big part of the problem. Not only does money now have a vote (after Citizens United), money also has powerful influence on perceptions of good being done in communities. Large corporations can often use the gifts they give away to disguise the abuse of workers. In fact they maximize profits on the backs of worker injustice so that they can give away even grants and gifts that burnish their reputation in the community.

This puts clergy in an awkward space. We’re supposed to celebrate philanthropy and give thanks for it. We encourage it. But if we listen to workers (which is itself difficult because worker voices are systematically silenced in our culture), we learn that the worker experience is very different than the mid-level or executive experience, and frankly, a lot of our white and middle-class churches have more members working in the corporate offices than on the lines.

So as we head towards Labor Day, we clergy have a big responsibility. We must become witnesses. We must listen to workers at every level, from the top to the bottom and everywhere in between. But then like MLK our job is to side with those who struggle, those working for justice.

Frankly, I’m tired of so much of the liberal Protestant clergy sitting comfortably on the sidelines and eating food handled by abused workers. We’ve got some work to do. Start by looking at the Labor in the Pulpit resources at Interfaith Worker Justice.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

On every day headlines and short views

George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although I find the quote memorable, I do not know if I completely agree with Santayana. I find a quote of Winston Churchill more compelling on the loss of the past, that it would introduce “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views” (House of Commons, 16 November 1948).

Our family spent a few days in Kansas City this week, including one whole day exploring the National World War I Museum and Memorial. A centerpiece of the museum is the WWI timeline. The timeline dominates and divides the museum, printed majestically on two long curved walls, giving a precise global history of the war from beginning to end. The first half offers a timeline of the war prior to the United States entry into it. The second half continues the timeline until the Treaty of Versailles.

I was struck by the tragedy of the Great War, the tremendous loss of life, the intractable nature of the conflict, the strange and seemingly ineluctable push to its beginning. But in this walk through the museum, I was even more struck by the force of human creativity that transcended the war. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote Tractatus Logico-philosophicus while in the trenches. The Dada movement originated during the war. Explorers traveled to the North Pole. The war inspired Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings. Women suffragists fought for and won the right to vote. The national hockey league was organized. African-Americans organized a political movement to fight lynchings.

In the midst of a global war that changed the lives of everyone, the human drive for creativity, for liberty, for love, maintained its focus. Millions of lives were cut short, but life, human life, found ways to thrive in the midst of adversity. 

In a moment in history when our nation seems more divided than usual, when some believe we are on the precipice of dramatic decline, it is good to attend to history, that we not become the most thoughtless of ages, distracted by every day headlines and short views. Human creativity is far too fecund to be stunted by partisan politics. 

This is the point in such a meditation when I’m supposed to blame the Internet for all the things, or the so-called liberal media. And of course there are every day headlines and short views in both those places. But I think Winston Churchill was aiming at something else in what he wrote. He was pointing towards the capacity we have to take the long view, to actually attend to history. You can mention WWI in passing on Twitter. You can also drive to Kansas City and visit the WWI museum, and ponder our nation’s present in light of the past. Both options are available to us every day, and Churchill and Santayana invite us to take the second option more regularly.

The best impulses of religious life run in a similar direction. Go to church this Sunday—or visit the synagogue or mosque this weekend—and you will hear ancient texts read aloud. Clergy trained in the study of such ancient texts will consider them in light of historical insights. We maintain such texts, read them aloud, discuss them, teach them, because we believe the story of God’s interaction with God’s people present in those texts offers hope, and unmatched resources for creativity.

History is not a distraction from the present moment—it is precisely a resource for better, deeper, and wiser engagement with it. However, like anything that can produce real change, history requires of us a few things—patience, our time, real attention, less distraction, care, tools for proper inquiry, investment, interest. 

The silo’d voices of our own parties and positions are echoing all around us in a cacophony of noise that is regularly decreasing our ability to understand those who differ from us. Inasmuch as we believe they are wrong, we probably don’t care that much whether we understand them or not. But effective change, changing hearts and minds in ways that bend in the direction of life and justice, can only happen when we bring our perspectives and insights into the range of understanding of the other who is predisposed to misunderstand us, and us them. 

We do not want to be remembered as a thoughtless age, one of those ages that knew neither its own present or the storied past. We need the inspiration the past can provide. Even in the most troubled of times, there are resources for profound creativity, open paths forward that lead to peace. If we’re going to find those paths, it behooves us first to look back and see where we’ve been, that we might recognize the path forward with greater clarity.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Martin Luther at Comic-Con International

Luther the Graphic Novel

So graphic novels and comics are perhaps the most culturally significant creativity in the present day. If you don't believe me, just google "highest grossing films." 

My friend Rich Melheim knows a bit about comics and graphic novels, and he's at Comic Con right now talking up his new graphic novel, Luther. 

Of all the #lutherancreative work happening right now, the work in graphic novels is particularly impressive. See, for example, Daniel Maurer's Sobriety.

But for this post, I'm going to let Rich speak for himself about his own project. Then I encourage all readers to go check it out for yourself.

The Graphic Novel Luther begins in 1415 with Czech Reformer Jan Hus burning at
the stake and predicting Luther’s rise 100 years later. It runs to and through the
trials and trails of a restless young monk - a brilliant but flawed hero - who searched
for peace at 21 by locking himself away from temptation in a monastery. As a monk
Luther wrestled with God, experienced a spiritual awakening, and was condemned
by the church for questioning the sale of indulgences (certificates guaranteeing
forgiveness of sins). Luther - who’s name means “freedom” in Greek - went to
trial but wouldn’t back down, even in the face of near-certain arrest and death. In
the end, he set the stage for a world where freedom of conscience, freedom of
speech, and freedom from abuse by government would be core values. That one
solitary monk became an annoyance, then an outlaw, then the voice of conscience
and reason for the entire Western World.

It is arguably one of the most pivotal events in the last 1000 years of human history
- the event that ended the Medieval Era and ushered in the Modern Era.
It’s Teutonic and tectonic. It’s 13 years in the making. It will have historians,
human rights experts and educators on five continents debating its significance next
And beginning July 24, 2016 at Comic-Con in San Diego, a hand-full of nationally
award-winning authors, musicians, designers, and artists are releasing a Marvel-style graphic novel, then tearing the story from pages and adapting it for theater stages in time for 900 million Protestants worldwide to celebrate their 500th Anniversary on October 31, 2017.
It’s Luther the Graphic Novel, and the new rock opera Luther the Musical.
Like the current Broadway smash Hamilton, both the graphic novel and Luther the
Musical deal with meticulously researched history AND issues at the forefront of
headlines and people’s minds today:
• The powerful (church and state) abusing power
• Brave young people putting their lives on the line for freedom
• Rich people buying political office
• A looming Muslim advance across Turkey into Europe

For historians, human rights activists, amateur social complexity theorists, and
those interested in ancient clocks, the story of Luther also weaves in a confluence of little-known but significant events that redrew the map of today’s world, including:
• BUYING THE THRONE: Emperor Maximilian spread one million gold piecesinto the hands of the German Electors to assure that his 19-year-old grandson,Charles V of Spain, would be crowned king of the Holy Roman Empire upon hisdeath. Charles later plays the pivotal role in the story as he holds the balance ofpower of the world in his hands and must fight Luther, the German Princes, theKing of France, the most powerful Sultan in Turkey, and a Pope who wants toweaken his power. 
• CONSPIRACY BETWEEN POPE, KING AND SULTAN: MachavellianMedici Pope Clement VII plots with Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent andFrench King Francis I to weaken Charles’ power. The Pope told the Sultan he couldtake southern Italy and convinced the French they could take Northern Italy if theybut left him central Italy and helped him bring Charles V down a notch. 
• MUSLIM INVASION: Sultan Süleyman’s conquest of Hungary and the Balkansset the stage for the siege of Vienna and a near-conquest of Europe. Repercussionsof this event still smolder today. It set up the Serbian/Bosnian civil war, genocideand rape camps twenty five years ago. It also drew the path for the massivemigrations along the borders of Turkey, Macedonia and Greece in refugee camps tothis day. 
• THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: When Charles V got wind of the Pope’sconspiracy against him, he captured French King Francis I in Northern Italy andlater defeated Süleyman at the gates of Vienna. 
• SACKING ROME: Charles V didn’t stop with Francis and Süleyman. He orderedhis Spanish, German and Dutch troops to march on to Rome. They sacked the cityand imprisoned the Pope. (Yes, the Spanish Catholic king and grandson ofMaximilian, Ferdinand and Isabella, actually sacked Rome and threw the ItalianPope in jail!) 
• SPLIT OF CHURCH OF ENGLAND: Henry VIII wanted an heir and anannulment from Charles’ aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Charles finally let the Pope outof prison in exchange for a 200,000 golden crown bribe and a pledge not to letHenry ditch his aunt. With no annulment in sight, Henry VIII split the church andmarried Anne Boleyn. Their daughter, Elizabeth I, would rise to the throne uponHenry’s death. 
• DEFEAT OF SPANISH ARMADA: Elizabeth I defeat of the Spanish fleetchanged the balance of power in Europe, redrew the map of the New World, and setthe stage for the rise of the British Empire. 
• THE NEW WORLD: English Protestantism also led to the rise of the Puritans, thesettling of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown Colony, the colonization of much of theEast Coast, and the founding of 100 of the first 105 American Universities asseminaries and Christian institutions to bring the Gospel to the New World and“Light to the Nations” - a Biblical reference.) 
• THE ABDICATION OF THE KING: On September 25, 1555, Charles Vreluctantly signed the Peace of Augsburg with the German Princes allowing thelegal status of the Protestant churches. One month to the day later he abdicated thethrone and escaped to a monastery in western Spain.) 
“Perhaps the greatest irony of the story is this,” says Melheim. “Three years to theweek after signing the Augsburg concessions, the Emperor who couldn’t silence amonk died alone in a solitary monk’s cell, surrounded by a wall full clocks. 
“Tick tock.”

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Praying in the way of Jesus

Scripture calls us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). The news of the world, and even events in our individual lives, re-orient us towards prayer on a regular basis. The news of the past few weeks in particular has many if not most of us seeking for deeper and more effective ways to pray that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice (Martin Luther King Jr).

The disciples wanted to know how to pray. So they asked Jesus. "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." 2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." (Luke 11)

Jesus then goes on to teach parables on the value of persistent prayer. Persistence that verges on annoyance.

I remember watching a documentary years ago about Mt. Athos, a Greek island occupied solely by monastics and devoted to eastern orthodox monasticism. The documentarian at one point asks a monk, "Do you really pray without ceasing?" The monk laughs, giggles even. So the documentarian asks, "What's so funny?" The monk replies, "It is funny, you know, that you think I am not praying right now."

The monks of Mt. Athos, like most Orthodox, are trained to pray the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It's a prayer just long enough to shape your breath. Breathe in praying one half, breathe out praying the other.

All prayer is like this. It shapes not only our hearts and minds, but our very bodies. The prayer Jesus taught has shaped the prayer meditations of billions of people over the past two millennia. It is prayed at rising, at sleeping, at meals, on walks, twice at funerals, once at weddings, each week in Sunday worship, and many other times besides.

It is a heart prayer. It's the kind of prayer that emerges from the lips of those affected by tragedy. It collects the work of church councils, relieves barbers of their boredom, offers something for sleepless octogenarians to do if awake in the midnight hours, strengthens protestors in their marches.

There are of course many other ways to pray, from the freeform prayers that arise in conversation with God, to the highly liturgical prayers written especially for corporate worship. There are prayers that drive to action, and prayers that lift to greater contemplation.

This Sunday, at 9 or 11 a.m., join us as we meditate on just one prayer, the prayer Jesus taught, the Our Father. In it, we discover that Christ's mission, his very life, proceeds first of all from who he is as the Son of the Father. From there, he begins to pray in ways that can inspire all of us gathered up into him in ways so clear we are changed, and so mysterious they emerge deeper than words (Romans 8:26).

Gathered up by the Spirit in Christ's prayers to the Father,

Pastor Clint Schnekloth