Archive for the ‘Justice’ Category

Churches can use some imagination.

Not imagination as a flight of fancy (although that can be good), but imagination that carries Christians into the hard places where reconciliation and transformation are most needed.

“Imagination gets us in touch with what is most real,” says Kerry Dearborn, a professor in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. However, Dearborn adds, imagination is a “tool we haven’t allowed God to access.”

During a recent presentation Dearborn joined with Chris Hoke, who serves with Tierra Nueva Ministries in Skagit County, to explore the meaning of imagination in Christian life. Both have just published books that explore Christian imagination: Dearborn’s “Drinking from the Wells of a New Creation” and Hoke’s “Wanted,” a reflection on his work within prisons and among immigrants.

Hoke (who appears above in a CBN profile about a man cared for by Tierra Nueva) pointed toward the imagination as he read from his book:

Growing up in many churches, I never found them to be raw or extremely honest places — not places where you could show the worst side of yourself. But I found the jail to be a place where inmates didn’t have the option to hide their problems … Here, people are left staring — innocent or guilty of the specific charges — at the wreck of their lives. And in this place, in these rooms of unadorned life, I found something that clergy call sacrament, mysteries I could feel.

In light of Hoke’s experience, perhaps it is no surprise that in researching her book Dearborn found the most striking examples of imagination and grace among the marginalized, who are open to the Holy Spirit in a way that cannot be matched by those of us who are more affluent, more respectable — and who feel like we have more to lose.

Imagination, Dearborn says, can work like a solvent that washes away old, false truths and renews one’s faith — and one’s ability to see the “other” in fresh new ways. But Christians in Western culture too often fail to use this gift.

“In a very cerebral culture we demean imagination,” Dearborn says. But that is to our loss.

At a time when the culture wars promote false choices, when churches are too often complicit in the injustices of this world, and when congregations crumble because they can’t adapt to a changing culture, the need for a renewed imagination shines brighter than ever.

And the words of Dearborn and Hoke feel much more daring than they ought to be.

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Years ago, during a sermon about money, a preacher offered this observation (which I paraphrase):

People say that money is neutral; what matters is what you do with it. But money isn’t neutral — it’s powerful. If you have it, you have choices that other people don’t have, and those choices will tug and pull at you. We should not kid ourselves about that.

That message has stayed with me through the years, and it returns every time I think of the financial collapse of 2008. In his book “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis argues that the prospects of huge, immediate profits overwhelmed all caution in the financial sector. In essence, Lewis says, people acted in a manner contrary not only to their own long-term interests, but to the interests of their clients and society. It became a sort of collective delusion, fueled by the prospects of extraordinary profits.

However, Lewis’ argument is generous when compared to that of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (see trailer), which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary. Ferguson sees in the finance industry willful greed and malevolence, not just delusion. He explores the ways in which that pursuit of money, accompanied by a sense of entitlement,  continues to taint not just Wall Street but government and (yes) university academics.

Whether you find Lewis or Ferguson more persuasive (and both are worth your time), their stories illustrate an observation from my pastor this Sunday: Money operates as an ideology from which we must be converted. When money, rather than God, becomes omnipotent in our lives, its power can distort and harm. The collapse of 2008 is but another cautionary tale of that power — a tale we still struggle to comprehend.

The consequences of 2008 persist today; they are not the abstractions of world set far from the Northwest. They continue to echo in our lives through lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and derailed hopes and dreams — even among those still fortunate enough to have homes and savings. It makes me wonder: Will my children have the same opportunities that my wife and I have enjoyed? I’m no longer sure about that.

But there’s a bigger question: Beyond those earthly worries, how can my wife and I steel our children against the pull of money and its pernicious ideology? How can we model for them a lives that are truly free? In a society rocked by financial uncertainty, perhaps one place we can begin is to put aside fear and trust in a God who will never abandon us. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

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Recently, I heard a theology student from Zimbabwe share a story from her childhood school days.

One day her teacher was thrilled to inform the class of a new history book – a book on African history, their history. It would be expensive, and everyone would need to contribute in order to obtain it. But despite the cost the students gladly scraped together the funds. They had never had a chance to read such a book, and they hungered to hear their own story.

However, a few days later the teacher returned to class filled with sorrow. They would not be able to purchase the book. The school authorities determined that the book would be of no use for the students as they prepared for their eventual general exams. The reason: The exams only dealt with European history. Academically, therefore, African history had no value. So the class returned to its standard textbook on European history. Their own stories would have to wait for another time.

This account would be no surprise to theologian Emmanuel Katongole, who has asserted that European colonizers treated Africa as if it had no history. His recent book, “The Sacrifice of Africa,” is a devastating reflection on the lingering effects of colonization — and the loss of story — on the African continent.

In the case of this theology student, her account bears witness to what it means to grow up without a story to call her own. Stories tell us of our origins; they explain our life as it is now; and they fire our imagination about the future. To be left without a story is to be cut off from our roots, to feel displaced in the present, and to be left in doubt about our days to come.

We are blessed to know a God who has given us a story, who has acted in history before, during and after the arrival of the baby Jesus, our Lord incarnate. Moreover, we know a God who recognizes the stories in all of our lives – the joys, the heartbreaks, the hopes, the fears. We are all valued.

To know that we are all part of God’s story is a great comfort; it also suggests a responsibility. To what degree do we follow God’s example? To what degree do we open our lives to the stories of others in our midst? How many among us have a story to tell – but with no one to listen? How many opportunities to listen have I dared to miss? More than I can count, I’m afraid to say.

Advent is a season of waiting, of anticipation for light in the darkness. As we wait, may we rest in the comfort of God’s story – and may we open our eyes, ears and hearts to the stories of others, so that the grace given to us may be shared freely among all.

Note: A version of this post also appears at my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices.

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I mean Rupert Murdoch, not Voldemort.

Over the past two weeks, the developments in News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal have come so fast it is hard to keep pace. No matter how many executives fall on their swords, no matter how many newspapers Murdoch shuts down (one so far), no matter how many tactical retreats on corporate ambitions (the BSkyB takeover) — public outrage and media attention have not been blunted (unless you watch only Fox News).

That’s because the rot truly starts at the top, and no one gets the sense that Murdoch  is experiencing some sort of ethical epiphany — though longtime Murdoch-watcher Jack Shafer believes that Murdoch will survive, if not prevail, as he always does. Still, it has been decades since the Dark Lord of the Press has experienced setbacks of this scale. As A.C. Grayling noted:

There is no redeeming feature in the scandal that has engulfed Mr. Murdoch’s British fief, News International, other than that it has now killed his biggest-selling newspaper, The News of the World. This tabloid made its money by regularly crossing the line of decency; the revelation that it also regularly crossed the line of legality surprises no one, for no one expected any better. What has horrified the British public is the nature of the illegalities.

Still, in this case the moral outrage, however justified, is quick to explode and hard to sustain over time — which is why it has only forced tactical retreats from an organization that long ago lost any sense of shame. Murdoch never embraced the idea of journalism as public service; for that reason Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” mantra mocks and dismisses the pretensions of other news organizations. Fair and balanced was never the point — only power and profit. 

For that reason, there’s something far more significant at stake here than ethical questions and business models. It is power. The corrupt relationship between Murdoch’s papers and British government is the most obvious example, but we’ve seen it here in the rise of Fox News as an arm of the Republican Party (or is it the other way around?). It is the outsized degree of power accrued by this media organization that distorts the democratic process.

Only when this scandal shakes the distorted (and distorting) power of Murdoch’s empire will it begin to reshape the media landscape for the better. That’s one tall order. Resignations won’t be enough; prosecutions and convictions might not get us there either. But it is one place to start.

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Robin Kirk reviews, and laments, the Christian church’s complacent, and at times complicit, response to the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Most interesting to me were comments by evangelical scholar and ethicist David Gushee. Kirk writes:

Yet, Gushee acknowledged, convincing ministers to approach their flocks to oppose torture is challenging, even with young, committed seminary graduates. “Most graduates are trying to find jobs in churches, whose membership is declining,” he said. “No one wants to offend their congregants about irritating issues like torture.”

Some Christians would draw the line between torture, which they see as a political issue, and faith. Gushee said that when he gave a talk at a Baptist church, one attendee accused him of bringing “leftist politics” into the church. “Even the growing churches aren’t interested in these conversations,” Gushee reported. “They don’t want to mess up a good thing and don’t think it is a part of their agenda, which is one of personal growth and finding your best life now.”

Francis Schaeffer, so often cited as a significant influence on today’s evangelical movement, often warned of Americans’ pursuit of “personal peace and affluence.” But Christians, who he envisioned as countercultural force, all too often swoon to the siren’s call of affluence — so much that we fall deaf to evil of torture and its corrosive effect on our corporate soul.

Personal peace? Perhaps, but it’s a peace hollowed out from within by the embrace of torture. As a nation, this is a truth that we have not been willing to face. I pray that one day we can find the courage to do so.

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Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He has worked for The Washington Post. Nearly a year ago he published a much-discussed profile of Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. And in a story posted earlier this week and published in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, he shares perhaps his most significant story — his own.

Since age 12 Vargas has lived in the United States illegally.

His story is both a confessional and a challenge. It is confessional in that he unburdens himself of guilt from the lies he found necessary to maintain his life in the United States. At the same time Vargas poses a challenge, one he states most directly in his video: What would you do if you knew someone like Vargas? And chances are, many of us do — even if we don’t realize it. Vargas writes:

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

Vargas tells of how many people, when learning of his undocumented status, extended grace to him. A California DMV worker, whispering to him that his Green Card was fake and telling him not to return; a high school music teacher who changed an overseas trip to visit to Hawaii in order to avoid passport problems. This list goes on — people who made a choice to see Vargas as more than one of “them.”

I realize, however, that some would not see such acts as grace, but as assisting a law-breaker.

I don’t pretend to know the ideal legal solution on the question of immigration, though a chance for some sort of amnesty does not seem that outlandish — and a far cry better than the draconian and fear-driven attempts to crack down on “illegals.” At the same time, I do know of Scripture’s teachings to care for the stranger, and those teachings lead us in a direction very different from today’s polarized immigration debate.

With this story, and with the lauch of his website Define American, Vargas risks his own expulsion in order to make a case not just for himself, but for many others whose stories mirror his. He argues:

Our immigration system is broken — and fixing it requires a conversation that’s bigger and more effective than the one that we’ve become accustomed to.

Define American brings new voices into the immigration conversation, shining a light on a growing 21st century Underground Railroad: American citizens who are forced to fill in where our broken immigration system fails. From principals to pastors, these everyday immigrant allies are simply trying to do the right thing. Some are driven by a biblical call to social justice, while others believe this is a moral imperative. They, like Harriet Tubman and countless brave Americans before them, are willing to take personal risks in order to do what is right.  These heroes need to be the center of this national conversation.

I know people who would bristle in respons to such a statement. Heroes? Are you kidding? But Vargas’ story, and the challenge that accompanies it, is worth reading. The real question is: Do we have the courage hear it and ask: What does justice look like?

How we answer says a great deal about what it really means to be an American.

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Time to post remains tight as my family hits the road again for a wedding and visit with family back East.

Still, I cannot not resist highlighting the story of  Rai Bhuiyan, an Arab American who was shot in the face 10 years ago by Mark Stroman, who when on a murderous spree against Arabs in the wake of 9/11 — and is now scheduled for execution in Texas on July 20.

Bhuiyan is the only victim who has survived, and he spoke on his journey recently at Southern Methodist University, calling for Stroman’s sentence to be commuted to life:

My mother taught me that if people hurt you, don’t hurt them back. Today or tomorrow, they will ask for forgiveness. …

The story on his talk adds:

“I strongly believe he was ignorant,” Bhuiyan explained to the audience. “He couldn’t differentiate right from wrong…By executing him now, we are losing everything.” His Muslim faith, he said, teaches forgiveness, not vengeance.

Nadeem Akthar, the brother-in-law of another of Stroman’s victims, Hasan, spoke at the press conference as well. “The last 10 years have been a long 10 years,” he told the audience. “We’ve been going through a lot of turmoil…but we made it here.” He quoted Sura 5, verse 32 from the Quran, something he said his sister, Hasan’s wife, had wanted him to share. “If someone slays one person, he has slain mankind entirely,” reads the verse. “And if someone has saved one person, he has saved mankind entirely.”

“We forgive him,” Akthar concluded. “God forgive him.”

I wonder: How many Christians are willing to do the same?

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South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke in Tacoma recently, and one person who introduced him offered this story:

One of the speakers, Free the Children Founder Craig Keilburger, said he became more and more cynical the more he read the newspaper as a college student.

“I didn’t want to start every morning looking at that violence, that poverty … that negativity,” he said.

But when he got a chance to speak to Tutu and told him about all of the negativity in the newspapers, Tutu had called him a “silly college boy,” Keilburger said.

Tutu said Keilburger should not look at the newspaper as a collection of negativity, but as “God’s to-do list, delivered to the front door every morning.”

If everyone started seeing the newspaper as “God’s to-do list” and started working on all of the problems the headlines presented, the world could become a better place, Keilburger said.

A good way to think of the news, but that to-do list sure is long.

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“Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” — that was a prominent headline  earlier this week in The New York Times. To which Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick replied:

Do we have to have another big national debate about torture? Really, do we have to? Headlines like this one, in the New York Times no less, inform us that the Osama Bin Laden raid has “revived” the arguments over the “value of torture.” That’s strange, because until now, the only people “reviving” the debate over the wonders of torture were the same people whose names are actually on the torture memos or who were in the room when torture methods were being approved. This does not constitute a “debate.” A better term would be self-serving propaganda.

Lithwick is right in her characterization of John Yoo and former Vice President Dick Cheney (see video), and in calling their arguments self-serving propaganda. But Lithwick and Deborah Pearlstein (who also laments the “disheartening” return of the torture debate) should not be surprised.

The debate never was settled in the first place.

And President Obama deserves as much credit (so to speak) as anyone. Obama’s choice not to investigate Bush-era abuses essentially put the debate into a deep freeze; there’s never been any proper accounting, much less accountability, that’s needed for a proper public resolution.

As a result, those responsible for perpetuating and defending torture, such as Cheney, Yoo and (so sad) former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, remain free to pounce on any opportunity to make their case.

But as Alice Ristroph notes over at Balkinization, these renewed arguments by the torture apologists undermine their previous rationale: the ticking time bomb:

The fantasy of the ticking bomb was designed to make people more comfortable with torture, in part by suggesting certain conditions on its use: most importantly, an imminent threat of catastrophic harm that could be averted by torture and torture alone. The renewed endorsements of torture after the death of Osama bin Laden illustrate that it’s not about the ticking after all.

On the revised account, the torture of suspected terrorists was justified if it yielded one piece of information that contributed to the eventual success, years after the torture took place, of a long-term manhunt (a hunt based, by all reports, on a vast array of intelligence from many different sources). Torture need not “work” quickly, it need not be the only means of gaining the information, and the information need not be essential to avert imminent catastrophe. Indeed, torture need not be concerned with future threats at all – it seems widely acknowledged that killing bin Laden was a matter of “bringing him to justice” for past deeds, or, as one honest fellow put it, exacting revenge.

Many, notably Andrew Sullivan and Lithwick,  also have offered strong rebuttals. But without the force of an independent investigation we are back to the same deadlocked back-and-forth stalemate on torture that existed during the Bush administration. And in this case, justice debated remains justice denied, to our shame.

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I was in a meeting at church Sunday night when the text arrived from my daughter: “Osama bin Laden is dead everyone is reporting it everywhere.” A few minutes later I learned that other parents in the room were receiving similar messages from their kids.

I spent the rest of the evening at home watching the coverage, a nonstop cavalcade of celebrations in New York, D.C. and elsewhere. I never anticipated how cathartic this moment would be for the nation. I certainly felt some relief at the demise of someone responsible for so much bloodshed. But that relief was — and is — tempered by uneasiness over the intensity of the celebration over bin Laden’s death.

When I perused the blogosphere today, I found I wasn’t alone. One rabbi, while expressing gratitude to the U.S. military, nonetheless added:

When hearing about the downfall of an enemy, the rabbis remind us of the verse from Proverbs:  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

This is in line with the tradition that no matter how wicked our enemies are their destruction is not a cause for celebration.  The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.”  As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy.  And to this day, our liturgy reflects that by limiting the psalms of joy that we recite to commemorate that event.

Perhaps this is why videos of celebrations at Annapolis, which received considerable traffic on the web earlier today, have now been taken down at YouTube. (See this post as illustration). The chants of “I believe we have won!” are now gone — though one can still find video of midshipmen singing the Star Spangled Banner.

The New York Times, meanwhile, found reservations among  reflections from a Buddhist:

My initial reaction is like everyone else’s — this is a good thing. But Buddhism says there is no monster that exists on his own, without cause. And that every living thing is sacred, including monsters. So I would chalk this up as one of the most intensely confusing moments for Buddhists so far in the 21st century.

Another Buddhist told the Times:

This should not be a joyous occasion. There is no way of hurting or killing someone without creating a karmic come-back. You may believe that killing a man who is intent on killing others is a necessary act, as I believe it was in this case. But you cannot escape the karmic effects of the act itself.

Another reason I’m with Bono in preferring grace over karma.

Thankfully, Christianity Today also posted several essays urging restraint. As one essay notes:

Not everyone who reads what I write here will agree with me that the actions of the American government in the killing of Osama bin Laden were just. Neither will everyone agree with me that rejoicing over that death, understandable as it is, is inappropriate for those of us who know the depth of our own sinfulness and the scope of God’s grace. But once again these events illustrate the tension in being both citizens of the United States of America (or any political community) and citizens of the kingdom of God.

When I watch the celebration, I see too many expressions of vengeance, when we should reflect on the meaning of justice. I see too much tough-guy nationalism, when we should be humbled and reminded of so many lives needlessly lost. I see too much triumphalism, when we should be realistic about the threats that remain in a dangerous world.

Above all, however, I worry that when we celebrate the death of another, even an Osama bin Laden, we lose more than a bit of our own humanity. Karmic come-back, indeed.

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