Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reflections on Racism, Immigration, America, and Christian Faith

                Many years ago I was having a conversation with my supervisor. She was sharing with me her personal story of living in a very racist community that had absolutely no tolerance for anyone who was not white. Her employment brought her and her young son to live in that community but it proved to be a major mistake. She could not truly live. Every day she was assaulted with racial statements, denied service at restaurants or the grocery store, and her son, the only black child in entire school, was the victim of rampant bullying and hateful discrimination. After about a year, she requested an emergency transfer under hardship circumstances and was quickly moved to a new community and workplace. This is where I came to work for her.
                Upon hearing her story of being victimized by such blatant racism, I was shocked as I tried to conceptualize what that must have been like. It was—and still is—so far beyond anything that I have personally experienced, that could not really come to terms with how to empathize with her ordeal. So, in my ignorance, I told her that it must be a real blessing to live where we did so that she did not have to put up with racist people.
                She slammed her fist down on the counter and angrily challenged me, “Are you kidding me?” In shock, I just stood there wondering what I had said to offend her. She then went on to say that she was glad to be away from that other community, but nothing would change the fact that she was black and there were people who looked down on her for that reason. The only difference, she went on to say, was that those people in the other town knew they were racist and were at least honest about it. They hated her and everyone agreed on that fact. What angered her was that where she and I lived and worked, she found the racists were too ignorant to know that they were racist, too caught up in their own selfish worldview to see their own hatred, too shallow to realize how two-faced they really were. She went on to say how people would treat her with false respect, and then speak horribly about her behind her back. She shared with me what it was like to be followed relentlessly in a store because everyone just knew a black woman was there to steal, not buy. “It’s one thing to be racist and know it, even be proud of it, but I hate the most,” she said, “is those ignorant fools who are too blind to see their own hatred.” We continued to talk and I learned a lot about the clandestine aspect of racism and how much of society allowed institutional support of this sin in ways which made it easy for the rest of us to ignorantly believe we were doing nothing wrong. Essentially, we allowed our institutions do the sinning for us so it was easy to absolve ourselves of persona accountability.
                It was a lesson I learned over 20 years ago, and one that has never left me. Yet, in light of the present culture of incivility and outright hatred frequently expressed in the public sphere, as well as across much of Social Media, it is a lesson that needs to be taught. A South African Bishop and Pastor named Peter Storey once noted that the challenges he faced as a South African Pastor preaching against Apartheid was far greater than those challenges facing American Clergy facing the culture of American Nationalism. His point was that Christian and Biblical values had become so convoluted in the political and nationalistic fervor of patriotic priority that the task of preaching God’s justice and mercy was overshadowed by what he called the “red, white, and blue myth.”
                Those are strong words. In fact, they offend me. They cut to my heart the same way my supervisor’s condemnation cut me over 20 years ago. Then, I was forced to examine my own heart and see what racist beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices were secretly influencing my life. I found them and they offended me. Likewise, the myth of the red, white, and blue challenges me to look at the bigger picture of what is best for the world—God’s whole earthly creation—and step back from the arrogant and self-serving assumption that America deserves my absolute priority. Or, more to the point, my own political leanings deserve priority.
                The refugee crisis currently facing the nation more fully and completely brings this principle to mind. I have co-written a faith statement with several other brothers and sisters in the ministry that calls for a compassionate and just handling of the refugees from Central America that have been relocated to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. Some of the reaction I have received has been positive and affirming. Yet, some is not. Various arguments have been raised that generally point to same basic ideas. They have no right to be here because they broke the law and have no intention of contributing to our great nation, only draining from it and becoming the gangster thugs that are ruining our country. Besides that, if we can’t care for our Veterans and homeless, they certainly don’t deserve support. In very basic terms, they are not wanted here, not now, not ever! Yet, I have to ask, “Is that what America truly stands for? Is that how Christ would truly have us respond to such a humanitarian crisis?”
                Somewhere between the blatant racism my supervisor experienced so many years ago and the ignorant racism she experience when we worked together lies the very challenge we face today. Somewhere between the horrific conditions of what was Apartheid and the myth of the red, white, and blue, lies a stark reality that many of us are not truly addressing. Somewhere between creating an impenetrable border with massive walls and protective machine guns and opening our borders for anyone to come and go as they please, there is a better way—an American way, a Godly way! It is a way that places fear not in the person whom we do not know or understand, but places our trust in God. It is a way that recognizes that we can be stronger by working for a common good rather than simply asserting what’s perceived as being best for our little world. It is a way that balances compassion with discipline, grace with legalism, and love with restrictions.
                I do not pretend to have all the answers, nor do I assume that I fully understand the very complicated immigration system. I do know this. As a nation, if we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear, hatred, anger, and division, we will reap greater proportions of all those things. In regions such as Iraq, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, and Libya, where war or the pestilence of ungodly violence is destroying whole societies, the fuel is fear, hatred, anger, and division—each faction seeking absolutist means to assert its sovereign control over those other factions that understand the world differently. Is this the path that we wish to take? Truly, such violence is not the way of Jesus Christ.

                Truly, I believe most Americans are good-hearted, honest, and God-fearing people. We may be, to some degree, guilty of ignorantly allowing our institutions—our government, our churches, our corporations, our media—do our sinning for us as we blindly pat ourselves on the back for being good people. Yet, there is a better way, a holy way, a Christian way, even a truly American way. It is time that we set aside our petty political posturing and raucous religious rhetoric. Jesus Christ was not an American or a Christian. On earth he was a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. He did not transform the world by taking control over those in opposition to him, he transformed the world through loving sacrifice. It is time that we take on the law of love, and forgo the laws of hatred that are permeating our culture. It is time for those who proclaim Christ to live his love! 

Peter Storey quoted from "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, & Enuma Okoro, Published by Zondervan Press, (c) 2010, Reading for July 16, Page 361. 

Ecumenical Faith Statement on Immigrants in Artesia

The following is a reprint of a joint ecumenical statement of faith drafted by several clergy. 

                Southeast New Mexico is facing a crisis that cuts at the heart of Christian faith and practice. With the recent notification by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that upwards of 600 Central American refugees would be housed at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center campus in Artesia, it has served as a rallying call for many local citizens as well as local elected officials. Tragically, much of the most vehement response has been exceptionally negative, couched in fear, fueled in highly politicized rhetoric, and grounded in anything but solid Biblical, Christian, moral, and humanitarian concerns. As faith leaders and Christian pastors in Eddy and Lea Counties, this is our call to speak a word of Christian grace, morality, and common sense in regard to the looming crisis.
                Scripture repeatedly, and unapologetically, calls for God’s people to welcome the stranger, the alien, the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. Leviticus 19:33-34 recalls the sacred memory of the time when the people of God were once the unwanted immigrant in Egypt. Central to the Biblical narrative is the call to remember the harsh treatment and slavery inflicted upon the Hebrew people and to live in such a way as to never return such inhumanity upon other aliens. Jesus Christ also emphasized this vital law of God’s grace, compassion, and welcome. Most notably, in Matthew 25 reminds us that our salvation hinges on caring for “the least of these.” Furthermore, James writes that for our religious faith to be genuine and authentic, it must make as priority our call to care for the orphans and widows in their distress. As these immigrant women and children from Central America are brought to our backyard in Eddy County, Christianity demands we respond with compassion.
                Extending hospitality to the stranger and welcoming the alien is not a practice that comes easily and also brings an understandable degree of fear. Naturally, we tend to fear that which we do not fully understand. Accordingly, many in our community have expressed outrage at the decision to house these people at FLETC. At issue for many is the presumed illegal presence. Romans 13 calls for reasonable submission to the sovereign laws of the land and its governing authorities. Therefore, having presumed the immigrant’s guilt for violating the law, Romans 13 is hastily referenced to legitimize swift and decisive punitive measures both in the name of Scriptural authority and legal obligation. This, in spite of the reality that our criminal code both presumes innocence and calls for just and humane treatment of arrestees who are imprisoned.
                Reading further in the same chapter of Romans, Scripture calls for love as the fulfillment of the law rather than legalistic and punitive adherence to the law. Jesus Christ modeled the priority of human compassion over legalistic adherence throughout his ministry. In speaking of loving God and loving neighbor, Jesus told the parable of three men. Two upheld the letter of the law and maintained their ritual holiness and purity by avoiding the stranger in need. Yet it was one who broke the law and crossed the cultural, religious, and moral codes of the day to meet a stranger in need. We remember that lawbreaker as the Good Samaritan. Therefore, even in the midst of the legitimately illegal status of their presence on US soil, the commands of God in Jesus Christ are for love, not fear or punishment.
                Much of the controversy and emotionally-charged outrage over these immigrants is endemic of our own nation’s broken immigration system and the political rancor over how to best address immigration on a comprehensive, defensible, and humanitarian basis. While the current situation raises the issues in very powerful ways, expressing hatred toward, fear of, or anger with the women and children housed at FLETC serves nothing to resolve the national debate. Rather, it only diverts precious energy and engenders a destructive spirit of mistrust that is contrary to Christian love and hospitality. As Jesus Christ calls us to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile, let us not look down on the immigrants for being here until we both understand their real reason for coming and work collaboratively and prayerfully to seek just, reasonable, and defensible immigration reform on a federal level.
                As a matter of faith and Biblical authenticity, it is vital that all Christians approach the immigrants staying at FLETC with utmost compassion. As the prophet Zechariah made clear in the 7th chapter, God does not honor proper religious ritual and sacrifice when the people of God also oppress the widow, orphan, and alien. It is a sentiment echoed in Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:10-20, Hosea 6:6, Hosea 8:11-14, Jeremiah 7:22-23, and Matthew 25:31-46. God has made the command clear. This is no time for fear. In faith, our call is to be the Good News and stand in solidarity with Christ with confidence and love. Our call is perhaps best summarized in the words of Micah 6:8 which reads that we are to love kindness, seek justice, and walk humbly with God.

Rev. Harold Armstrong, First Presbyterian, Hobbs
Mr. Justin Remer-Thamert, New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Rev. Geri Cunningham, St. Peter Lutheran, Carlsbad
Fr. Rod Hurst, Grace Episcopal, Carlsbad
Rev. Nick King, Carlsbad Mennonite
Rev. Ron Collins, Carlsbad Mennonite, Retired
Rev. Betty Collins, Carlsbad Mennonite, Retired
Rev. David Wilson Rogers, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Carlsbad
Rev. Gene Harbaugh, First Presbyterian Church Carlsbad, Retired
Rev. Steven Voris

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hobby Lobby and Christianity

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby has incredible implications that people of faith must take seriously. Unfortunately, the populist rhetoric surround the decision not only fails to address the real issue, it dangerously masks it in a destructive assault of self-righteous arrogance and superiority. As Christians, we need a different approach.

Religious freedom and the Constitutional right for us to practice our religious faith without undue interference of the government, as well as our right to not be forced to compromise our religious beliefs is a central truth that I hold very prominently. (The very fact that I have the freedom to write this blog hinges on that freedom.) The owners of Hobby Lobby have been long recognized (renowned or reviled—you choose) for their conservative, evangelical Christian faith. At the core of the faith expressed by many Conservative Christians there are major aspects of the Affordable Health Care Act that conflict with the values of personal responsibility, independence, and the role of governance in society that are vital the Evangelical Christian faith. It is understandable and I appreciate the fever to defend the tenants of such faith. Truly, the decision was a victory for Conservative, Evangelical Christianity therefore celebration is in order. I get that!

Religious freedom has another side, however. As many have pointed out, the so-called “freedom of religion” in the Constitution also means that we are to have freedom from religion and, freedom to not have someone else’s expression of religious faith thrust upon society as a whole. For many Americans—both devoutly Christian and non-Christian alike, the ruling is seen as one very narrow expression of the Christian faith as given the power to impose their religious beliefs on the whole nation. What is particularly troubling for many is the belief—right or wrong—that women’s rights, equality under the law, and essential freedom were trampled. Therefore, this ruling is seen as a cataclysmic step backward and a serious defeat to genuine religious freedom, not to mention women’s reproductive rights and therefore must be denounced as a serious miscarriage of justice. I get that!

Unfortunately, the whole case is much bigger that one corporation’s presumed religious freedom or the responsibility of faithful Christians to exercise religious freedoms in upholding God’s will. It would be nice if were that simple. The Hobby Lobby case is convoluted in partisan politics, vastly conflicting and contradictory interpretations of what “freedom” truly is, vehemently held religious, social, and political beliefs regarding the practice of abortion, the extremely controversial political firestorm of health care in America, and an emotionally charged citizenry that either viciously hates the current President of the United States a United States or staunchly defends him. Virtually all of these volatile perspectives are held within uncompromising and largely uninformed belief systems that are fueled fear rather than fact. Therefore, win or lose, the battle lines in this Supreme Court ruling were drawn long before the case was ever heard by the Justices and those lines actually have little to do with the principle of religious freedom.

The fundamental issue is about control. Who is going to control this country and our incredibly diverse citizenry? When issue-based political posturing rises in response to a split decision such as in the Hobby Lobby case, the driving force is a vehement push for control and there are factions that are willing to sacrifice almost anything to obtain it. Both sides of the argument are guilty and, as long as we believe we are truly acting out of the authenticity of our Christian faith, both sides invoke the name of God as the legitimacy of our unyielding argument against those whom we know are just deceived, ignorant, and destined to destroy all that is good and holy in our nation.

Perhaps, as a people of faith, there is a better way. It is time that we, as Christians, step back from our fiercely partisan political posturing and put a stop to the unholy division of God’s children into Conservatives and Liberals (or Fascists, Communists, Radicals, Progressives, Extremists, Socialists, or whatever arbitrary label is carelessly thrown about). It is time that we take note of the overall ministry of Jesus Christ. He never advocated for a particular economic or political system. Jesus taught to render ultimate authority to God (Mark 12:28-30), love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:25-37), give to Government what was due to Government (Luke 20:20-26), and to work for the establishment of Biblical justice (Luke 4:18-21). As Christians, Christ calls us to a life of service that improves the world for all, not just a faithful labor that creates a world which suits one’s own political, economic, religious, and social desires. Christianity, at its best, is a religious faith that serves the common good.

The Hobby Lobby decision—along with any number of split-decision rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States that tap into deeply-held religious convictions—has the power to divide the Body of Christ in ways that are devastating to our shared ability to represent God in this world.

Therefore, as Christians, perhaps we would be better suited to serve our Lord by casting off the idolatrous clothes of our partisan rancor and invest our energy in working to restore faith, hope, and trust amongst each other. Otherwise, in our fear-driven efforts to prove how right we are and how wrong they are, we may very well destroy everything that is good about both sides as the whole thing collapses in under the weight of our own pride and arrogance.