Justice

Blind Piety

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equals human first runPresident Trump’s America is looking less and less American, and totally un-Christian. With the flurry of controversial executive orders our new President has shown the effects of something with which many Christians in the West seem to suffer: blind piety. All in the name of morals and American values, with a strong dash of dishonesty and fear-mongering, our new President shreds the image of America around the world and moves us farther from the Christian values of justice, mercy and love for our neighbors. President Trump road a wave of this blind self-centered piety and unreasoning fear all the way to the White House. Now some of the most vulnerable people on the planet are beginning to pay the price.

What is blind piety? Piety is defined as a quality of being religious or reverent. Blind piety is a religiosity that ignores its negative and hurtful impact on the people around it. Jesus actually condemned it in his own day, and an apt name would also be shallow piety or even mean piety. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day who acted piously in vowing their income to the support of the Temple, but in doing so actually neglected their own aging parents who were in need. (Matthew 15) Now, I always wondered at that passage thinking, “How will something like that ever find a dynamic equivalent, today?” Well, ask and receive. It’s been played out on our national stage just this week. With an executive order that piously calls on abortion as a reason to cut our nation’s international help to some of the most needful and most defenseless women and families around the world our President has endangered lives, and many religious people are applauding and smiling. Blind piety. Mean religion. Just as in the day of Jesus, religion used to deny people our assistance is an affront to God.

sighing jesusAt another time (Luke 14) Jesus chastises the hypocrisy of the religious thinkers who would refuse to help a fellow human being because of the religious obligations of not working on the Sabbath, but of course they would rescue a child or an animal in sudden distress. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s playing out before our eyes in this day and age. Our leaders are turning away from the most needful and endangered children on the planet, and mantling themselves in faith and patriotism while doing it! The President continues to narrate his actions with the familiar and completely dishonest alternative facts about a lack of vetting and the danger represented by refugees. He targets Muslim nations and vilifies and criminalizes the most vulnerable people on the planet. He speaks of walling us off from others, as though we are not all connected human beings with a shared and mutual life on this planet. These actions are not Christian, American or moral.

Why did Jesus condemn those religious leaders of his day? It was for what they had neglected: people. People are at the core of religious law, as he named that core: justice and mercy and faith. (Matthew 23) Jesus will later sum up the Law in two expressions of love: love for God and love for neighbor. (Matthew 25) The problem is not that religion is against people, but these people were misunderstanding their religion. We are guilty in the same way today when we turn from justice, mercy and faith to hide behind fear, exclusion and dishonesty. Some have chosen a blind piety that neglects people.

imageThe sad truth is that these Christians in the West are turning from one of our oldest and deepest religious values: the heart of a stranger. Far back in our oldest Jewish religious roots as Christians is this amazing idea of identifying with the endangered. God gave Israel strict rules for protecting the alien and stranger among them, for blessing them and for serving them. The people of Israel were reminded of their own time as strangers in a strange land, and therefore they should hold to the heart of a stranger. (Exodus 22 & 23, Deuteronomy 24) That is an amazing statement and command of empathy and service. Until the incarnation of Christ into human flesh I cannot think of a more identificational statement in scripture.

These current events call for our silence to be broken and our voices raised. This political landscape suddenly shifts to assault our deepest religious values and we cannot withhold our condemnation of these executive actions. Let us be courageous and true. Let us be vocal and honest. Let us speak against these executive actions and their false religiouslity, blind piety and alternative facts. Let us be as courageous as Jesus to speak for justice, mercy and faith. That courage got him ridiculed, cast out and killed, but most of us face far less danger in our privileged status here in our own country. Privilege is never a license to ignore injustice, forget mercy or live faithlessly in our own time.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, Todd
(to the greater glory of God)

Treat People Like People

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FullSizeRender 2I’m on a Sirach kick again, as happens every couple of years. I have a deep affinity with the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus. It might also be called Ben Sira. Fun, huh? It’s a unique kind of book among the Apocrypha and scripture in general as the work of a proud grandson, an interpretation out of Hebrew of his grandfather’s acquired knowledge and wisdom.

Pressing Down. As a young Christian I was taught to primarily read scripture in a transactional way: do this and get this, don’t do this and don’t get this. Life was a cosmic vending machine and God was the correct change. Most things in life were a linear transaction of cause and effect, and the scriptures were a guidebook for making the best transactions. While many passages seem to support this way of reading scripture, there’s much more to be experienced. Pressing down into the way of a passage can remake us into new people, whole new communities.

Ecclesiasticus looks very much like the guidebook to end all guidebooks. However, like shifting one’s focus from the nearest trees to the farthest, we can press deeper and farther. Rather than take the transactional sounding statements as the product, let’s view them as the tools to create something bigger: a more just and blessed world.

Sirach 4:1-10
1 My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,
and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
2 Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need.
3 Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,
or delay giving to the needy.
4Do not reject a suppliant in distress,
or turn your face away from the poor.
5 Do not avert your eye from the needy,
and give no one reason to curse you;
6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you,
their Creator will hear their prayer.
7 Endear yourself to the congregation;
bow your head low to the great.
8 Give a hearing to the poor,
and return their greeting politely.
9 Rescue the oppressed from the oppressor;
and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
10 Be a father to orphans,
and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
and he will love you more than does your mother.
Don’t just pass by, but sincerely greet the needful neighbor, all neighbors. Treat people like people. Hear that the Creator loves them, too. Stop what you’re doing and enter into relationship with them. This short passage speaks to deep values of care, empathy, sharing, presence and humility. These aren’t just commands, but a framework for seeing people.
Treat people like people.
AMDG, Todd

The Hashtag Matters

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black lives matter banner at crib   Black lives matter. I find it hard to understand why we have to elaborate so much on what this statement actually means. It means that our black neighbors matter. Our black friends matter. Our black family members matter. Following the suggestion of a congregant and leader here at CiB I made a #BlackLivesMatter banner for the lawn out front, to express our solidarity with all our black neighbors and to express our solidarity with a local church that had its own #BlackLivesMatter banner defaced multiple times.

When I got an email asking what I thought of this idea, making a banner for our church lawn, I thought immediately of another local church banner that was defaced. Back in the last couple of years a sister church up on Old Georgetown Rd, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, had a banner asking for us to stand against gun violence defaced by the removal of gun. Really people, words matter.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was born of a very real and present fear among our black neighbors that their lives don’t matter or don’t matter as much as other lives. That fear is born of many actual and verifiable things like:

2nd welcome banner at crib   And if that weren’t enough, too many of their white neighbors just shrug and blame the victim for these inequalities and offer crass advice about too often playing the race card. And of course, we can always find an exception to a rule. There are black Americans who have not faced as much racism or negative attention from neighbors and law enforcement. But even as we are glad that some may not face such trouble, we are not granted a license to ignore the experience of so many who do. Finding a black neighbor without this fear does not erase the fear in the lives of others, just as one police officer behaving badly does not mean all police officers are bad. The hashtag is not just spin. The hashtag is asking if we care about our neighbor’s fear and pain. The hashtag invites us to come together around a truth that cannot be denied: black lives do matter. The hashtag doesn’t divide; it asks us to come together to put meaningful action behind our beliefs of equality and justice.

It seems we do have to say it: #BlackLivesMatter does not mean that white lives don’t, or brown lives don’t, or blue lives don’t (murder of police officers is tragically spiking this year), or that any other lives don’t matter. It simply means that black lives do matter, for real. It doesn’t mean they matter more, but does for sure address the fear that some believe that they matter less. The hashtag was born for a reason, with cause. It didn’t come from nowhere. It came from fear, doubt and experience.

It would be amazing if we didn’t need the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag! It would be an answer to prayers! It would be a great if our neighbors no longer lived in the fear and doubt that they would be aggressively policed and killed without cause. It would be wonderful if they that justice was also for them and theirs. It would be fabulous if their fears and concerns were heard and acted upon. The hashtag dreams of that world! Let it do its work. Let it remind us that listening to one another and taking one another seriously is important. Let it remind us that there are people behind hashtags, people that matter.

People of faith of any color should not be afraid of #BlackLivesMatter, but should embrace it’s truth: black lives do indeed matter. To become part of the solution we have to listen to the voices expressing the fear and doubt, and the pain and anger. Denying the voices of our neighbors who are hurting simply denies us and them the opportunity to begin the healing.

WP_20141213_002

   Escalate peace. The hashtag is not a call to violence or to more fighting. The hashtag is a call to step back and view one another with dignity and respect, black and white and blue and every shade around. We have to stop escalating the violence and fear and begin to build bridges and relationships between communities that will foster cooperation and growth. We can do this. We must do this. And the people of the book who claim the One who said “my peace I leave you” must work to establish this vision in the soil of very continent, nation and community of our beautiful shared planet.

AMDG, Todd

Yesterday I Prayed

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i prayedMost of us rolled out of bed yesterday morning and reached for the nearest device that would link us to Tuesday’s election results. We saw the list of winners and losers. We felt like winners and losers.

And I prayed. I was both a winner and loser yesterday, my vote at times landed on a candidate who prevailed and at other times upon a candidate who will not lead us in the coming years. I would imagine that we all faced some wins and some losses as the ballots were tallied. We each will have issues and interests at stake in who leads us forward. We’ll all have hopes and we’ll all have fears.

Today, I’m still praying. Tomorrow, I’ll pray some more. Prayer is not a consolation prize or an escape from the realities of life. Prayer is the ever-present expression of what is timeless, what is transcendent, what is hopeful. Beyond the arguments, the political parties and caucuses, and all the maneuvering of the powers that be, there must exist a truth and a reality undiminished by our collective failure to express God’s love, justice, grace and charity to one another. It must.

When I pray I beg for wisdom and for graciousness to inhabit the winners and losers of Tuesday’s contests. I beg for wisdom to overwhelm them all. I pray for the Spirit of the Divine to overlay them, even if they do not recognize the source of their growing empathy, mercy, grace and courage.

We keep moving, praying and hoping. I know what issues and values I have at stake in these many new leaders, and in the old leaders who will continue in their positions of power and influence. I know what many of you, a diverse group of people I dearly love, have at stake in these leaders. But we cannot let our fear ever extinguish our hope. We cannot allow our disappointments or even our victories to erode our commitment to justice, mercy and equity for all people.

I hope we’re surprised and not surprised. I hope that in the coming months and years we realize more justice, more equality, more joy, more freedom, and more of the rich life that we have to share. I hope that we see less poverty, less disease, less violence and less hatred, beginning in the halls, offices and rooms of our own Capitol. I pray that the good stuff God brings us is surprisingly beyond what we can today articulate or hope. And I hope we’re faithful enough in our anticipation to not be too surprised.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. To the greater glory of God. This is my daily prayer, inscribed upon my flesh with ink, that God’s glory grows and abounds in this world. This is my prayer because I am convinced that God’s glory is found in our love, grace, mercy and service to one another. Now and always, world without end. Amen.

AMDG, Todd

Ferguson: The Need to Listen

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Before Ferguson becomes old news in the wake of a more recent death or similar narrative to the sad loss of Michael Brown’s life, I want to ask just one thing of my beloved friends and neighbors who are not African American: Please, start listening and validating your African American neighbors’ stories, fears and feelings.

civility oct 6 2012

It’s time for us to fully hear and validate the narratives from our African American sisters and brothers across this country. We have to listen, to hear the fear and to hear the pain, and we must accept it. It can be such a blessing to be heard, and such a hurt to be ignored.

When something like the death of Michael Brown occurs, the fatal police shooting of an unarmed young African American male, we begin to hear the multitude of voices saying that this is status quo for their neighborhood. They say that this just part of being black in America, that it’s their fear for their own children, and that it’s just another white man killing a black man. We need to listen to these voices.

I resist listening because to do so is painful. Another armed white man has killed an another unarmed black man, and won’t face any charges, because that’s just the way it is in America. As a white man I cringe and want to look away, to “listen away” if only I could. I want it to not be true. I want it to be wrong. I want to deny the voices. But to deny the words, to ignore the words or to argue against the reality of my neighbor’s fear, pain and frustration, is to add insult to their injury. In fact, it’s worse than insult. It’s further injury.

It’s painful to validate the pain of my neighbor because I must then help carry it. I will sometimes do this for people I know and love, say the people in my family or my closest friends… but to carry the pain of a stranger? To carry the pain of a stranger, a pain that is also an indictment of me and the so near and present history that has been a huge part of me being who I am, and where I am, and what I have? That’s hard for me, a white man.

And yet, listening is exactly what I need to do. I have to listen and believe in the person speaking. I have to validate their story. I must value and give dignity to the experience of my hurting neighbor. If I cannot hear and value my neighbor, then I cannot speak to and journey with my neighbor. I will have already taken from them the value of their presence.

We all need to be heard and validated. When our African American neighbors speak, they must be heard. When their stories are told, we must welcome them to share. And when we are shamed by their words and begin to feel the hurt they are sharing, we must carry it with them. This is the only road to the future.

When our African American neighbors speak of their fear of raising children and the specter of death from police shooting, we must listen. When they speak of fearing the police, we must listen. When they speak of being misunderstood and harassed by white law enforcement, we must listen. When their story is painful to us, we must pay the price of listening.

There’s no way forward other than giving the dignity of thoughtful listening, and the validating worth of being heard. We cannot simply choose a side and hunker down with our arguments in our better neighborhoods and hope for compelling distractions to ease our disquiet… at least until the next shooting.

There are many narratives, and they must be equally heard. The Ferguson narrative is not the only African American narrative of contemporary America, but it is an authentic and valuable narrative that needs to stand alongside the other stories of being an American today.

There are also streams of experience that cut across the many narratives. We won’t begin to find a way forward between communities and their police forces as long as we ignore the real fear, the real pain and the real distrust engendered by histories of abuse, injustice and neglect.

A new narrative comes from our collective pain over the past and present, our redressing of wrongs and our belief in one another. When white Americans quote “black-on-black” crime statistics and point to the background looting that so often accompanies the peaceful voices begging to be heard, we do a deep injustice to the future, theirs and our own.

We cannot just say that we want to move forward. We have to be fully present now. We must trustworthy listeners. Although there is a goodness in attempting to be “color blind,” I’m afraid the weakness of that idea exists in it’s refusal to validate the divergent stories and experiences of different colors.

black like meSo, I’m trying harder than ever to listen, and I ask you to as well. Seek out the stories. Let the voices have their say and be heard. I ask you to want to better understand. Toward that goal, I’m reading Black Like Me at the moment. What the heck, I grew up in Texas and didn’t read this in school!? I grew up a few miles from the author’s home town and never heard of John Howard Griffin!!! Come on, Texas! I only know of him now because my dear friend David Gerard, who is African American, mentioned him in a poem I’m going to share in this post. David is also a musician, a poet and a gracious soul.

wanna hollerYears ago I was affected by reading Nathan McCall‘s  Makes Me Wanna Holler, a book of pain that forced me to hear someone’s story that was so very different from my own. It was hard to read and I wanted to argue at times, but his story needs to be heard and understood.

Maybe you have heard of “the talk,” the talk given to young black men by their parents who fear for them? This is a real part of growing up in America for many families, and we should all own that shame and want a better future.

I ask you, to hear my friend David’s poem, and to love him as I do. I’m going to reproduce the poem here and try to get his arrangement as visually true to his pdf he sent me as possible…

THE RACE CARD

when I try to tell my friends
what it’s like to be a black man in America
they evoke a patronizing empathy

when I try to tell my friends
that there is one standard for me
and a double standard between us
they seek refuge in their denial

when I try to tell my friends
how every black man ever stopped by the Police
wonders if he’ll be shot to death
they say I’m just being melodramatic

when I tell them that i’m nothing
in the eyes of authority
and that my life is easily expendable
they try to change the subject

when I tell my friends
that every black teen from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown
is six feet under due to prejudice and brutality
they ask me to look at “the other side” of things

when I tell my friends
to go undercover, as John Howard Griffin did
and notice the difference in how they are treated
they accuse me of “playing the race card”

when I was twenty-two,
I was talking with a friend
in the lobby of a moviehouse
when a bunch of cops came in

in search of a suspect
they pinned me to the wall and frisked me
because they were looking for a black man

when the victim saw me
and said to them, “That’s not him”
they took their hands off me and left
without apology

when I try to tell my friends
the humiliation and shame I felt
and their casual disregard
they say, “they were just doing their job”

when I try to tell my friends
they will never know what it is
to walk a mile in a black man’s shoes
they just don’t get it

my friends accuse me of playing “the race card”
but that hand was already dealt to me
the day I was born.

18 August, 2014

I thank David for telling his story. I pray that we listen better,  and that together we all can make a way forward, a way that tells and values our stories, and writes a better one for tomorrow.

AMDG, Todd

 

Nov. 22, 2013 Civility in Xian Scripture

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heart of a strangerNovember 22: Civility has always transcended us vs. them limitations, just as justice and “right” has transcended our divisions.

Exodus 23:9, “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” New King James Version

I want to carry yesterday’s idea forward another day. We looked at the passage in Colossians 4 and chatted about the way that our grace, particularly civil attitude and conversation, wasn’t just reserved for “us” but was also for “them.” Today, I want to show that this isn’t a new idea introduced in the New Testament, but this was in the formative concepts of justice when God gave Law to the Israelites.

That verse from Exodus is a nice example of the way God included “care of the other” from the earliest days of expressing divine will on justice and fairness. The people of Israel had been the strangers, the foreigners, the aliens, the “other” while living in Egypt. They began that sojourn fleeing famine, but ended up as slaves. They knew the truth of injustice. The passage above reminds them that they should know “the heart of a stranger,” how it feels to be unknown, on the outside, seen as “the other.” From that experience, they are commanded to care for those not like them and not from among them. Justice was for all, and this is a firm foundation for civility being for all.

There are other verses that echo this idea of God wanting Israel to transcend the “us and them” divide in life, even to the point of acting as if there was no difference between they and the other. All people’s value was to be supported and Israel’s behavior was to be consistent:

Leviticus 19:33-34, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Exodus 22:21 “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 “‘Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!'”

I think God has always wanted to break down barriers between us. The “chosen people” language of God’s nation Israel might cause us to think otherwise. The “called out” ecclesial language of the church might cause us to think otherwise. But the choosing and the calling has always been purposeful, and I believe part of that purpose is to break down the barriers of division, animosity and hatred that arise between us.

I need to be a safe person for all others, even “the other.” My civility is an extension of this truth. I cannot reserve a special hatred for the outsider because she is an outsider. I cannot reserve my love only for those I know. I cannot hoard my peace and civility for those who like me or think like me. My heart needs to beat for the stranger, for the outsider, for the alien. I need to be “safe” for all.

AMDG, Todd

Jesus Didn’t Weep Over Liberty

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me at my base

With the historic ruling this week by our Supreme Court on same-sex marriage we have been inundated with media coverage of responses from both sides of the issue. I understand that emotions run high on issues like this one, but I also know we still need to speak and react in responsible ways, especially if we step out to offer what we suppose would be God’s commentary on events, or more specifically, commentary from Jesus.

I was honestly, totally, down-right majorly peaved off when I saw this Tweet start making some headlines, from Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee), My thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: “Jesus wept.” He also Tweeted this gem, 5 people in robes said they are bigger than the voters of CA and Congress combined. And bigger than God. May He forgive us all.

Now, first I want to give the one nod to the Gov. that he’ll get from me, the fact that he began the “Jesus wept” Tweet with the words “My thoughts on…” But that’s all the praise he’ll get from this Pastor after moving on to a complete misuse of the tears of Jesus to essentially make Jesus appear as the enemy of our gay neighbors. Wrong, sir. For the love of all that is Holy, stop it! Here’s a bit of the text the Gov. quotes from, John 11:32-37:

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Let’s just break a few things down, shall we? Why did Jesus weep in that famously short verse the Gov. quoted? He wept over the death of a good friend whom he loved. He wept with hurting people, hurting friends. The weeping of Jesus is not a rejection of anyone, but a connection to all hurting people. Jesus wept in love, sorrow, loss and the experience of both his own pain and empathetically the pain of those around him.

To take the empathetic, beautiful weeping of our Lord and turn it into a hateful rejection of our neighbors’ search for civil justice is despicable and unGodly in the extreme. As a Pastor, I renounce this distortion of my Lord, I renounce the Gov.’s words and intentions. The Gov. rightly speaks for himself, himself alone. If he cannot do better textual work than that, he needs to shut his mouth and spend some more time in study and prayer.

Why take the time to blog on this? Because every voice that counters that kind of textual abuse is needed. Our gay neighbors who have so long been civilly disenfranchised from basic spousal rights and privileges have a lot of reason to celebrate this week. And to posit the idea that Jesus would weep at their joy, weep at their liberty, weep at this corrected injustice, is horribly wrong. In fact, I find it counter to the Jesus who wept at that scene in John 11. I find it counter to the Jesus who wept in love, not in rejection of people’s joy and liberty.

I respect the Gov.’s right to speak his own mind, hold his own opinions, and even maintain his own beliefs of what his faith may or may not say about same-sex marriage and attractions. To deny the Gov. his liberty would only lessen the hard won liberty bestowed on his gay neighbors this week by the Supreme Court. But I will not respect, condone or be silent at the abusive misuse of Jesus for the Gov.’s political, social or ratings gain. 

Just as a reminder, back when so many children were viciously gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary, when it would have been SO INCREDIBLY CORRECT to say that “Jesus wept,” the Gov. chose instead to rail on his political stump against gun control. He says something about slipping over to the “pastor side” and then speaking in blame about a mythical removal of God from schools. Why not let Jesus weep then with those hurting people? Why not let God be seen in the amazing person of Jesus, present with us and hurting with us and ready to make any journey with us, on good days and horribly bad days? Because the Gov. did not ever slip to the “pastor side” of things, but instead remained intrenched in his political/social agenda.

There is a lot more injustice to be righted in our country. There are still many disenfranchised neighbors waiting for us to move in their favor and right the wrongs that have often shaped their lives to their loss. God is not ignorant of their tears, even if pastors sometimes are. Jesus weeps with them, never against them, regardless of any pastor’s personal agenda.

Live For Healing, Not the Blame Game

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When tragedies strike, or even multiply as they have this week in Boston and down in Texas, we have a myriad of reactions as humans and as people of faith. We hurt… we feel empathy and a real human connection to the victims. We pray… because we feel like our hurt needs to take action and bring about a response in us. We have been praying all week for our friends and neighbors in Boston and Texas. And we begin to question… we want answers. We hope that the answers, and more often the blame for these tragedies, can help assuage the hurt, confusion and fear.

jumping to blameToo many times we turn to angry accusations and blaming games that endanger people and multiply harm. We “want someone to pay” and our prejudices always supply a handy suspect. And when those desires also serve a political grudge? Well, all the better it seems. Yet this is not thoughtfulness or healing. This is not service to the hurting or help to the injured. But blaming feels good to us sometimes. Blaming feels “right” and justified to us. By  the way, the Saudi national that many jumped to blame, along with the President, was not to blame. And of course today we know that it seems to have been the work of two brothers who are not from Saudi Arabia. I thank God that whatever steps were actually taken to keep more tragedy from happening with this Saudi man were taken! If he was whisked away to prevent unnecessary violence, then “Well done!”

The Problem of Blame

Here is a bit of what I see as the problem with our need to blame and rush to blame:

  • Blame can avoid actually dealing with the hurt and delay healing.
  • Blame can attack and injure innocent people, compounding the harm.
  • Blaming exposes and strengthens our deepest prejudices.

Let’s look at a text in John 9 about a man born blind. It may be familiar to you or it may not. Really, we’ll just be working with the first 12 verses, but the whole chapter is a very interesting story of Jesus healing a man and the dramatic aftermath of the healing within his family and community.

What is happening in the this passage? Jesus is walking along and comes upon a man born blind and about whom his disciples make an inquiry, “Whose sin caused this suffering?” There must be a little more action happening that we aren’t in on, like how does John know he’s born blind at that point, what kind of attention did Jesus show to the man to inspire the disciples to ask for details? Things like that… but the case seems to be a bit of a random event happening as Jesus moves through his day.

The Question: “Who sinned? Who is to blame?”

I first encountered this kind of thinking on blame when I lived in East Africa. It may seem strange to us in the West to automatically ask for spiritual causes for physiological problems, but it’s common place in other cultures and parts of the world. In East Africa a person rarely asked “why” someone was sick, they asked “who made them sick.” The change in question stemmed from the acceptance of the idea that bad things happening in life were caused by the bad thinking of a person that translated into spiritual energy such as an intentional or accidental curse upon another person. So why did my crop fail? Because my neighbor was envious of it. Why did no rain come this season? Because the spirits of our dead family are unhappy that we don’t pound dry corn the way they did.

For the materialist magicians that we are in the West this can sound very alien to us, and yet when we have bad things happen to us or in our nation we always hear the cry of “Why did this happen, God?” And there’s never a lack of unthoughtful preachers making news by blaming the people around them they love the least. And if they don’t love someone God must not either, right?

This happened after the attacks on 9-11 and after Sandy Hook. It happened when a tsunami hit Japan and it happens when an earthquake strikes the Middle East. It happens when bombs go off in Boston and it has probably happened when the building unexpectedly exploded in Texas, though thankfully I haven’t seen or heard the blame given to anyone yet.

In tough times, tragic times, we turn to blame someone. We crave to lay blame on someone. We rush to judge, to blame and to find someone upon whom to lay our pain and suffering. It brings out the worst in us socially, politically and often religiously.

Walking down the road the disciples had a chance to clarify their need for blame. Here’s a man born blind. He was blind before he had a chance to sin or do something to deserve the affliction, so who might have sinned to have caused this? Did his parents not attend synagogue enough? Were they bad Jews? Did they neglect to tithe?

It’s not as weird a question as we might immediately think. Did God not take King David’s child from him, the child born from the sexual sin and murder in which David took Bathsheba from her husband? Have we not at times seen in the scriptural narrative that God levies punishment on people in specific ways for specific sins? Have we not heard New Testament writers assure the people of faith to whom they wrote that trials and afflictions are God’s way of proving our patience and chastising us?

I don’t intend to remove any power or meaning from any of those passages, but I do intend to question the idea that such passages and pieces of our scriptural narrative give us license to lay blame at people’s feet when we feel the need to have a scape-goat for our hurts. I question our ability to know more than that group of speculating disciples walking down the road with Jesus. We often have the same question, and it’s not a bad questions. The real kicker here is where we get our answer. I hope it’s from Jesus.

The Answer to the Question: “Look for healing.”

The answer Jesus gives is both clear and a little ambiguous. Don’t you love that? He says clearly that neither the man nor his parents sinned to cause the blindness. Instead he says that the blindness of the man is intended to be an expression of God’s power, presumably in healing. So he clearly releases the man and his parents of the blame, but seems to sorta say it’s God’s fault. I immediately thought of poor Job. Remember him? He was the guy just living and loving life until God asks Satan, “Hey, what do you think of my man, Job?”

But is Jesus just playing the blame game that was set up by the question, only adding a third option for the blame, or is he doing something else? Is he simply saying, “No, it’s not him or his parents, but you’re on the right trail… it was God to blame!” Or is he trying to get the disciples thinking on a higher level, or deeper level we might say.

Jesus ramps the conversation up by rejecting the sin causality, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” and introduces a shared activity of revelation, “…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Interesting use of the light and dark themes so beautifully illustrated in the man’s blindness and restored sight! I love it when Jesus does stuff like that.

Jesus says the man’s blindness is an arena for seeing God work. He’s not really blaming God as much as tying the man’s blindness into a greater level of meaning. The man’s suffering in life is not simply a blame game, but a chance for good to move into action. Jesus says he is stepping past the blaming to grab hold of the healing, and I think we are invited to do the same.

In rejecting the sin argument of blame Jesus opens the door for healing and change. What would the story have been like if Jesus had simply said, “His parents cheated a household laborer out of her wages, and God hates injustice, so their child is blind,” and then just kept walking? That story would have sucked eggs. And in fact, that kind of story would have been too painfully similar to the times when we and/or our neighbors experience tragedy or suffering and some nearby person of faith starts in with, “Well, we have legalized abortion… It’s the homosexual agenda… It’s the atheists… We don’t pray over the loud speakers at our football games any more… It’s the Republicans… It’s the Democrats… It’s blah blah blah.”

I’m glad that we are being called into account for our words more and more. Soon after the bombs on Monday, when some voices started the blame game against their favorite prejudice (the atheists), a response from a thoughtful atheist hit CNN’s front page. Good. The blame game causes us to de-humanize our neighbor and build walls of “us-them” thinking that need to be torn down!

I have been personally saddened by the speculative blaming that has meme’d across Facebook and other social outlets this week like “Obama Protects Saudi Suspect!” We are so bent to name and demonize the usual suspects that we turn immediately to the worst kind of unsupported reporting and blame game tactics to attack the people we least love. And do we beat people in parking lots now for looking Arabic? It seems that maybe we do. Truly, truly sick. Blame game crap never brings healing… it exponentially expands the suffering. Blame brings out our worst. 

What to do?

People of faith should be some of the first to recognize that we have many questions, some that get pretty satisfactory answers and some that never do. We travel a road of faith, a balancing act of certainty and speculation. There is plenty in the scriptural narrative to point out that, though our dumb actions are often the cause of our suffering, there are also times when “rain falls on the wicked” and the world caves in on the righteous. Our task is not to assign blame, and then I guess go on with administering some punishment. Our task is to move into healing action. Our task to look at the ways that the goodness and glory of God can move to lift humanity from affliction and into wholeness, and how we participate in that. Our task is to gracefully love, pray, and hope and thereby act out of gracious love, prayer and hope. 

Is it unjust when the sinful hatred of two young men sets off bombs on a crowed street and kill innocent people including an eight year old boy? Yes, it is. Is it unjust then the actions of those two young men maim and injure hundreds more? Yes, it is. Is it truly saddening when an unexpected explosion devastates a small town killing workers and first responders? Yes, truly saddening. Is it gut wrenching to watch the town scramble to rescue and serve their neighbors in the choking, blighted aftermath of that explosion? Yes, it twists our guts inside out.

The question that matters most on the Friday of such a hard week are not “Who do we blame? Who will pay for this? Who will be punished for this?” The questions that matter most on Friday of this week are “How do we serve? How do we help heal? How do we better love? How do we better raise our friends and neighbors from their suffering?”

Already one Boston bombing suspect has died in a confrontation with the police. His brother and suspect #2 is still running. I keep looking over at the news outlets to see if there’s any resolution to the chase yet, not because I’m jazzed to see news of his death, but because the sooner we can divert all this energy from hunting to healing the better served many of our hurting neighbors in Boston will be. I hope he is caught soon, and I am sure he will face justice for his actions.

But for us though, watching from afar, let’s multiply the healing and not harm with our words and actions! This is our task. I am so encouraged by the people running to the bomb sites Monday instead of away from them… they accepted the task of moving for goodness. As tragic as it is, I am so honored to be a human being when I read of first responders giving their lives in Texas as they rush to defend and serve life in the midst of a volatile situation. They are the heroes who make a lump in my throat. It’s a very human responsibility to serve and love, to raise a neighbor from the depth of pain in any way they can, and humans of faith should not be the first to forget it.

Our words in these days matter. Love. Hope. Healing. Let’s speak the greatest things and live them and never trade them for the burning drive to blame, isolate and divide.  It may not be the answer our questions might seem to ask for, but it’s the answer that will speed healing for us and all who need it most.

Reflecting on Osama bin Laden’s Death

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Writing about the death of Osama bin Laden is a complex and frightening thing. I was up late Sunday night and caught the earliest rumbles of his demise and then saw President Obama’s comments and official announcement of the operation which found and eliminated bin Laden at his palatial hideaway in Pakistan.

And then I thought about it. I heard of people in the streets just a few miles away at the White House having an impromptu party. Come Monday morning I had heard of the same kind of celebration at Ground Zero. And of course, Monday was a day of Facebook and Twitter soundbites back and forth between many varied and nuanced responses to his death.

I posted the first confirmed report of the death I could find late on Sunday night with only one word to accompany it: “Wow.” I’ve not said anything else online about it. And really that was my first and has been my most poignant feeling since I heard the news. I was stunned. It was long coming and overdue. It was world-changing. I can almost trust myself now, after a day and two nights of thought and listening and reflection, to say a few things.

I still have had no desire or impulse to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden with song and laughter and light heartedness. But I can honestly say that I am glad we now have a world that can spin on without his distorted views and his ability and willingness to impose death sentences upon the innocent and the defenseless. Osama bin Laden was a part of the evil from which so many of us daily ask deliverance, “…but deliver us from evil.” His willingness to kill and to send others to kill necessitated his own death. But I do not want war and death to cross the line from necessity to celebration in my own heart.

It was past time for Osama bin Laden to be gone. I am glad that he has lost the power to kill. I am glad that our world is now without him. I am glad that he is dead. I do not wish he had been arrested. I do not want him to have had a voice any longer than he did. I do not want his stain on our planet to have grown any darker or to have sunk in any deeper. I am glad he is over.

Almost ten years later it is too easy to see Osama bin Laden in a war of ideologies and caught in a contest of competing worldviews. It’s very easy, after ten years of being hunted, to see him in the context of his philosophical arguments. But for those of us who are old enough to have watched the towers fall in 2001, the necessity of bin Laden’s death is not ideological, it is visceral and quite real. From watching the towers fall on live TV, to those earliest tapes of Al Qaeda beheadings of innocent people, we have seen the face of evil in this world. Of course, for the families of those who died his evil is even more real and present.

While I am glad Osama bin Laden is dead, I cannot find it in me to celebrate death, even his. I won’t sing in the streets. That just doesn’t feel right to me. But the women and men of the United States Intelligence Services and Armed Forces have my gratitude and respect. I thank them and I am proud that we have rid the world of that evil. I am glad we persevered in the face of such heavy necessity. Our people who have sacrificed and given so such much in the face of what needed to be done are our heroes and I celebrate them, their courage, their service to our nation and world, and their sacrifice to confront such evil.

I don’t condemn or mean any slight at all to those who are joyfully celebrating in the streets the death of such an evil. I’ve watched threads on Facebook in which people have “unfriended” those who will not celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death with patriotic chants, capital letters and lots of exclamation points. I’ve watched the vilification of many who simply asked something along the lines of, “Wait… am I really supposed to be a happy that death is still the best or necessary option to any problem?” We should not use this as yet another opportunity to divide and feed any hostilities. Whether you or I celebrate the man’s death, or don’t, our need for civility in discourse and conversation is as real as ever.

Here’s maybe the bottom line for many people of faith… we recognize the justice in Osama bin Laden’s death, the justness of it. We recognize the necessity of his death, we feel the relief that he is gone, and we are glad that his hatred and evil have been removed from our world. He earned that death over and over, more than 3,000 times in one day back in 1991, and many times since. But even as we recognize justice, we have been taught to hope for something greater, and that is grace. Our gladness that justice has been served is tempered by regret that grace was missed. Grace was missed so many times in the life of Osama bin Laden. He did not know grace, show grace nor bring any grace to our world.

Our faith has informed us that a better world is possible, and we still wait for it. That better world is forestalled by the evil of creatures like Osama bin Laden and the necessary sacrifice of good people to hunt and kill him.

I pray, from deep down inside, that with the passing of that evil another death dealing prophet will not stand to carry the banner forward. I pray that the great day of peace will come sooner than later for our globe. I pray that we might no longer be a species which produces such a monster and then has to wage ten years of war to find and stop him.

Looking forward to WILD GOOSE 2011!

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Wild Goose Festival 2011!

Almost two years ago I’m at a conference in Albuquerque, NM, and I hear a dream being described for a festival built on the idea of allowing streams of life like art, justice and faith to freely create a nexus point, an intersection of creativity and action. Really, they had me at the word festival.

Festival is a noun that the esteemed Merriam and Webster say means “a time of celebration marked by special observances, a feast, and an often periodic celebration or program of events or entertainment having a specified focus.” (Pulled right from http://www.merriam-webster.com!) My imagination immediately presented me some mental images of a feast of art, an observance of justice and a celebration of what happens when we give free reign to those streams to mingle and dance together creating new things. I wanted to be there to see that, to hear that, to taste and hold it.

I volunteered to keep in touch with the dream and friended the fledgling Facebook profile, and I began to dream myself of the coming feast. Today I’m a part of the planning to make art happen at the festival. We are dreaming of canvases and paints, clay and paper. We will use our creativity to vision changes in ourselves, our communities and our world. We’ll bless the land and the people which play host to us in the four-day feast.

Making art is an a tangible expression of the spiritual streams running through our hearts and souls. Making art is presence. Whatever your past experience of art has been, we will help make an exercise of creative expression very accessible for you. This won’t be a time for seeing who is an “artist” and who isn’t, but it will be a time for each of us to dig deeper into the creative veins which God has implanted in all.

I can’t know where your hungers are or what kind of feasting you need. But I know that tables are being prepared for us. We will sit down together and share a rich fare as our faith, our dreams and needs for justice, and our creative hearts all come together for a few days in North Carolina. And if Merriam and Webster are correct, this will be just a beginning of a many more feasts to come and we make a community chasing the Wild Goose and making time together for years to come! I hope to see you there!