Thursday, December 20, 2018

Social Justice, the Good Samaritan and Outsourcing Charity

A portrait of personal involvement.
The Good Samaritan by William Henry Margetson (cropped)

One of the most common arguments I hear against "social justice" is this:

Many Christians believe the Gospel calls us to get personally involved in doing charity. They argue that we shouldn't work to improve economic and political systems because that would be outsourcing our Christian responsibilities to a third party, such as the government. For example, they would say Jesus calls us to personally feed the hungry (Matthew 25:31-46), not to pay taxes so that the government can do that for us.

The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) shows why this is false.

As you know from the story, Jesus himself holds up the Good Samaritan as a model of a "good neighbor." The Good Samaritan helped the injured man he found on the side of the road. Indeed, he took personal responsibility to provide personal care for this man. No question about it.

The Samaritan "took pity," so he was emotionally involved. He provided immediate triage of the man's wounds using his own wine and oils.  He helped transport him using his own donkey.

But that wasn't all he did.

Remember that the Good Samaritan was a busy man who was in the middle of some business of his own. What did he do?  He paid an innkeeper to take care of this man during a period of time when the Samaritan could not be there himself. However, he promised to watch over this process and to return to make sure this work had been done to his specifications.

Jesus does call each of us to be personally involved, no question about that. Christian charity as Christ describes it is not the kind where we simply write a check and forget about it. Rather, we are to get viscerally involved on every level of our being. The parable tell us that there are many ways in which to do that.

The Good Samaritan continued to be personally involved even when he solicited the help of another person in this work. The Good Samaritan was wise to involve the innkeeper who had the time and skills to provide what he couldn't. However, the Good Samaritan didn't "check out" by writing a check.  Rather, he continued to be very much involved.

The Role of the Government

Many people misunderstand the role of governments in this way. They consider the government to be the "nanny state" which has taken our personal involvement away from us. Therefore they believe it is "more Christian" to do things on our own rather than involve the government. However, that is not a fair understanding of the government. Yes, we are indeed called to be personally responsible and be our brother's keeper. Just like the Good Samaritan, people may choose to exercise their personal responsibility by working together as a collective group or by hiring experts at strategic points. They stay attentive to the process to make sure the work gets done. An active, engaged citizen in a democracy has in no way diminished her level of personal responsibility to the "nanny state." She's going to personally elect representatives and then watch over them like a hawk to make sure they do the job they were elected to do.

I have never seen any moral difference between helping others as individuals, as a family, as a church community or as a whole society using the resources of the government. The only difference is the scale--and that is the point.  The government has a reach that no other organization has.  It is simply the best tool for some jobs. To not use that tool would be irresponsible if that tool were the best one to get the job done.

For example, if my neighbor falls off his roof, I will personally make sure he gets medical care.  However, I will not be the one providing that care. Instead, I will take him to the hospital. I am definitely personally involved, but I am not going to directly attempt to provide medical care--that would be dangerous since I don't have medical training. But I CAN be an advocate and make sure he gets to the hospital and gets the right people working on him. As you can see, there are times when involving others who have more skills than ourselves may be the more responsible--and yes, more Christian--thing to do than simply doing it ourselves.

That's what the Good Samaritan did. Because he didn't have the time, skills or resources (or a combination of all of these), he chose to involve the innkeeper. And remember:  Jesus holds up the Good Samaritan as a model of a good neighbor.

Likewise, when we work together with our fellow citizens to solve a problem together as a whole group rather than as isolated individuals, it may not simply be an option, it may actually be the most responsible thing to do from a Christian standpoint.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Why We Don't Say 'Illegals'

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Exodus 20:16

Imagine:  You are walking in a parking lot on a hot, summer day. You notice a baby in distress inside a locked car. There are no other adults around, including the child's parents.

What do you do? Without question: You break into the car to save the baby. 

Would it be fair if people called you a “criminal” for “breaking into a car”? No, that would be woefully unfair. You are saving a baby’s life, not criminalizing a car—even though, in a very limited, technical sense, someone could rightfully point that out you did indeed break into a car without permission. 

However, we all know that it would be misleading to be labelled as a “criminal carjacker” for the rest of your life for this effort to save the life of a baby. It would be far more likely that people would refer to you as a "hero."They would describe your actions as "saving a baby's life" not "breaking into a car." People would mention breaking into the car only in passing to describe how it happened. They would not use that action to label who you are.

In much the same way, undocumented immigrants should not be called “illegals” nor should asylum seekers be said to be “sneaking in.” These terms paint a misleading picture—no doubt to discredit and reduce sympathy for these people. However, spreading a misleading testimony about others is a violation of one of the 10 Commandments.

An asylum seeker can legally enter the U.S. without papers and then apply for asylum. Some may indeed enter on their own (i.e. "sneak in") while they are in the process of requesting asylum. However, it would be a false witness to label them as "sneaking in." It would be far more accurate to describe them—and their actions—as "seeking asylum." That is the more fair and honest witness of our neighbors' actions. While they are in the long process of seeking asylum, one of their actions may be to "sneak in" but it would be misleading to take that one minor instance to label the whole person.

To say that some asylum seekers are “sneaking in” is to exploit a technicality to build a misleading caricature of the person. It is a lie, even if it is based on some degree of truth. After all, it is quite possible to spread a false testimony using only factually true statements to do so!

Furthermore, the asylum seekers in the migrant caravan are not an "invasion" nor are they a "threat"—even the U.S. military has confirmed this, so anyone continuing to use those terms has no justification for doing so and is simply violating God's commandment at this point.

Most undocumented immigrants are not "criminals." They are good people who have made a difficult decision to escape violence and poverty and to provide for their families. They have proven this by being good neighbors to us all these years living here in the states. It would be breaking one of God's commandments to refer to them as "illegals," because that is a false testimony of who they are—it would be more accurate to say they are good people who made a tough decision to provide for their families, and in doing so, some committed a legal misdemeanor. 

Just like the person who broke into the car to save the baby in the opening example, it would be far more truthful to refer to most undocumented immigrants are "heroes" rather than as "illegals."

My neighbors set off illegal fireworks all summer. Should I refer to them as "illegals"? Or are they just "folks having a good time"? Both are technically true, but which is the more honest witness? Given what the fireworks did to the sleep habits of my toddler, I don't have much sympathy for them. At least the undocumented immigrants did what they did in an attempt to provide for their families. All my neighbors are doing is just being inconsiderate of others.

How we label people perhaps says more about who we are more than it may say about the people we are attempting to describe. Perhaps we should just drop all these labels, as all of them dehumanize the people we are talking about by reducing these dignified, beautiful, complex human beings into some narrow category.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Christians Knowing Christians Without Agenda

Catholic, Methodist and Baptist: Pastors and friends.
Picture and story here.

"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one,Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
(John 17:20-21)

What should we do over the fact that Christianity has been fractured into so many denominations, groups and sub-groups?  Some call these divisions a scandal. They say it's against the will of Christ himself (John 17:20-21). Other say divisions are necessary to preserve the purity of the faith. Others say it's just human nature.

A number of people want to mend these wounds and tear down these fences. We may call this an effort toward "Christian unity," or "ecumenism," or sometimes we just call it building better  "denominational relationships."

It is tempting to want to solve the whole "problem." You start asking:  How can we reconcile all differences, heal all pains and represent one unified Christianity? Does that mean everyone joins one denomination or that we all merge together into one giant church?

There may be nothing wrong with those goals. Perhaps Christ himself has something in mind for the Omega point in the future where "all who believe" are indeed "one." Perhaps we already are one in some mystical, cosmic way that only Christ can see but we can only catch mere snippets of from time to time. Even so, it sure seems unfortunate that our outward signs here on earth speak more of division and the very real wounds these divisions have caused.

Perhaps it's the realist in me that is emerging with age or the fact that I've been immersed in this work for a while now, but in my opinion the prospects for Christian unity need not be quite so bold nor immediate. This doesn't mean we quit trying. If Christ wants oneness, then it is our job to keep working for it, even if the goal seems impossible, or at the very least, very far off. In the Roman Catholic Church, recent popes and Vatican documents have all affirmed that it is part of the mission of the Church—and the duty of every believer—to do something for the unity among Christian believers. After all, miracles do happen. More has been accomplished in the last few decades than anyone would have thought possible a short while before. We have to look no further than the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church to see profound agreement on the single most divisive issue of the Reformation. This has since been signed on by a number of other denominations.

But a lot of people don't even want any kind of full unity that requires a single institutional church at the helm. Others are too impatient to wait or find the task too impossible. If working towards Christian unity requires someone to affirm these goals, then many will opt out of the whole process

Again, maybe it's the realist in me coming out, but perhaps we should put aside those dreamy, lofty goals. We don't have to give up on our hopes, of course, but we can maybe try a different approach. Instead, here is what I propose: 

At the very least, Christians of all denominations out to get to know each other as neighbors, friends and most importantly as people of faith. If we stumble across a wound, we an do something to try to heal it.  We can celebrate the good things we see in each other and the very real gifts that God has given to others. We can offer constructive feedback to each other when we see things that worry us—and that feedback will be heard a lot better if it comes in the context of true friendship. We can and should do the things together that we can do together.  

Maybe—just maybe—it's perfectly alright if we don't try to change each other or propose some major changes for how the church looks and behaves on earth.  But we ought to get to know each other.

Too often, people imagine an end goal of "perfect Christian unity" and find it either so threatening—or it seems so impossible—that they give up doing reasonable, friendly things in the meantime. They worry they are being asked to give up too much of their identity or beliefs to go down that road. [Just for the record, in my experience, the professionals who work for Christian unity do a great job respecting differences and do not simply gloss over them as a matter of principle, although mistakes can happen in this, but overall this is what I've found.]

We can stay in our respective churches, but we don't have to seclude ourselves in some kind of protective bunker. We shouldn't pretend that the others don't exist and create an isolated bubble for ourselves to live in. After all, we know that other Christians of other stripes most certainly do exist.  We can say "hello," acknowledge each other and get to know each other.

Is this some kind of subversive, sneaky attempt to let our guards down so the ecumenical Trojan horse can enter? Not at all. I am in fact proposing the opposite—getting to know each other without any other agenda or ulterior motive. 

Having said that, I have to admit that change is always more likely when we don't push so hard for it. The paradox is that once we truly—and I mean really and truly and genuinely—respect each other as we are that creates the space for growth, evolution and yes, perhaps even miracles. But perhaps that would all come on Christ's terms and not our own, in which case that would be a wonderful thing, no? Christ seems to work best when we get our own agenda out of the way.

But back to being the realist—I don't need or want to change you. But I ought to get to know you. After all, we both profess to follow this same guy Christ. And we inhabit the same public spaces. As a Christian, part of my responsibility is to at the very least get to know Christians of other stripes and build positive relationships, perhaps even mutually-beneficial relationships, whenever possible. Many Christians are already doing this.

And sometimes in doing this I pause and say to myself... "I actually like that you are different from me.... it gives me a chance to learn something new and see things differently." And maybe somewhere in this we find the miracle of the unity we already have—and a taste of the unity to come.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

All Christians are Asylum-Seekers

A Christian IS an asylum-seeker.  

All of us.  Each of us.  

By definition.

As refugees, don't we need to flee from the sin of this world? Don't we come to the proverbial Gates of God's Kingdom as asylum-seekers, begging that God may allow us to enter?    

Some have argued—without exaggeration—that the entire Bible is a story of migration.

In the Bible, we read that Noah was adrift at sea until God brought his ark to a safe landing. Abraham set out with little more than his family en route to the Promised Land. Moses led the Israelites out of captivity and slavery. Jesus the Good Shepherd leads his sheep from the sin of this world to enlightenment and to His Kingdom, both on earth as it is in Heaven. The Apostles went forth into the world sharing the Good News. 

In the Catholic Church, we understand that we are a "pilgrim people." It's our very identity. See this link for quotes from documents of Vatican II as well as from Pope John Paul II on this. We are a people on the move.

Movement of people is an underlying theme in all of Scripture—in particular the movement of desperate people. I rarely say that "the Bible" has one message, but in this case it truly does. You could argue that it's there on every page, in every passage.

To not self-identify as a migrant is to understand neither the Bible nor Christianity.

To not understand that moving out of your comfort zone toward trusting in what God has prepared for you is to miss so much of the Biblical message. This can be an interior movement as your own thoughts mature or it can be an exterior change in your surroundings. It can be a movement you undertake as an individual, a family or as a whole nation of people.

Aren't we ALL asylum seekers who seek refuge in God's kingdom?

If there is ANY role that can best emulate our relationship with God, it should be that of refugee and asylum-seeker. This is how we come to God: We are the huddled masses of desperate, poor people gathered outside God's gate, begging for mercy and a warm welcome in—a welcome we can't purchase or deserve. And may God have mercy on us for how we treat others who are migrants, immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. We will want safe passage and a warm welcome into God's kingdom, but did we grant safe harbor to others when they begged for it, when we easily could have provided it?

This is the migrants journey—but not just any migrant.  This is the journey of a refugee—but not just any refugee. This is the journey of an asylum-seeker.  This is the position we are in when we come to God.  We are at the gates of God's Kingdom, begging for entry, and there is nothing we can do to merit it, earn it, buy it or deserve it. We have nothing to barter with. Only God's mercy will let us in, and thank God there is mercy in abundance!

It would be wrong to ignore many passages in the Bible which claim there is a direct relationship between the mercy we give in this world and the mercy we receive from God. Look at the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 or the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. I know it is tricky as that enters into the whole "works vs grace" debate, and I don't want to get into that here. Furthermore, some people may not interpret these "Kingdom" passages to be about an afterlife in Heaven, but this blog post is written for those who do. Perhaps these passages have more to do with how well we "know God" rather than whether or not we get a ticket to Heaven.

So when you see the huddled masses who have traveled thousands of miles with little more than the clothes on their backs approaching the U.S. border begging for safety—THAT is exactly what we look like when we approach the proverbial Gates of Heaven.  

More importantly: Does that change our attitudes about them at all? 

Sometime we feel lost at sea, like Noah, doing all we can to just hold on for the ride. Sometimes we set out daringly like Abraham. Sometimes our whole family—and our whole people—are running for our lives like the Israelites out of Egypt. Sometimes we agree to our mission as formed disciples, like the Apostles. But in all this, we are a people on the move, trusting in God.

Maybe you'll "get to Heaven" whether you help out these asylum-seekers or not—after all, our God is a God of mercy. But then again how can you get to Heaven if you don't know God, and if you see these huddled masses and see neither yourself nor Christ in them, then can you really say you know God? And furthermore, don't you want to know God just for the sake of knowing God, whether or not that comes with a ticket to Heaven or not?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Innkeeper Spirituality

...and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. - Luke 2:7

As the migrant caravan of asylum-seekers makes its 2,000 mile trek toward the U.S., I'm reminded of two characters from the Gospel of Luke:  The Innkeeper of Bethlehem and the Good Samaritan.

Whose example do we want to follow?

The Innkeeper

Many Christians today practice what I call "innkeeper spirituality." Like the innkeeper in Bethlehem, they can't seem to find any available time, talent or treasure to answer when God knocks on the door in real need.

They have no shortage of excuses, however. I can imagine the innkeeper saying things like:

"I am tired!"
"I have already helped others! In fact, I'm the most generous innkeeper around!"
"The census is the busiest time of the year!"
"I have to protect my time with my family!"
"I don't trust outsiders--what if one of them is a thief or murderer?"

Maybe those excuses are valid... maybe not so much.

Some characters in the Bible get a bad rap, and the innkeeper is no exception. Truth be told we don't know much about this person. How much can we infer based on a single line of text from a 2,000+ year old document?

It's even more confusing when the document doesn't even say what we think it says. There was no actual mention of an innkeeper. All we are told is that there was "no guest rooms available" and then it says "for them" (as a side note, were rooms available to others and just not to this particular family?)

Still, it's not hard to imagine what went down. Here is a family traveling from out of town and the woman is about to give birth. Joseph as husband and protector probably explored every possible option, promised every favor imaginable and left absolutely no stone unturned. I'm sure he inquired with at least one innkeeper. Perhaps he approached several innkeepers.

The innkeeper probably felt more than a little twang of guilt. We imagine him sternly saying "No!" and then slamming the door to the Holy Family. The more guilt he felt, the harder he had to bite down on that guilt in order to push away this family in need.

But seriously, he couldn't ask some young person to move off the proverbial couch to make way for an expectant mother-to-be? A pregnant woman about to give birth should be the one condition that would cause most everyone--even some of the most fearful or hardest hearted people--to make some space available! If a woman was literally about to give birth and knocked on my door at night, I couldn't imagine saying, "yeah, go outside to the shed... watch out for raccoons" It's almost inconceivable.

The Good Samaritan paying the innkeeper
The Good Samaritan

What could the innkeeper have done differently?

Luke himself actually gives us the answer later in the gospel in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Again, here is a stranger in need and another person who comes in contact with him by chance. Unlike the innkeeper in Bethlehem, the good Samaritan reaches out to the injured man. The Samaritan goes toward him. He takes the initiative. He takes personal responsibility for this man. He makes sure there is a room available for him by not only paying the innkeeper himself but also promising to return to personally check on him--to see if additional money were needed but perhaps also to check up on the innkeeper to make sure he did what he was paid to do.

This is no doubt a different innkeeper than the one in Bethlehem. Luke seems pretty hard on innkeepers. Still, isn't it curious that those who are in the business of providing hospitality seem to be the least hospitable in his gospel? It is outsiders who don't have as many resources to leverage who show us God's abundance!

The Samaritan does more than he is asked and goes the extra mile. The Samaritan was obviously busy and had somewhere to be, but he still made arrangements for his absence. Hopefully, he also reflected on why the man was injured in the first place and would raise his voice in public so that the road to Jericho could become a safer place in the future.

The Samaritan could have made all the same excuses as the innkeeper. No doubt the priest and the Levite who passed by the injured man gave those same excuses--the same excuses we tell ourselves when we drive by a person asking for a handout or when we close the border to people begging for help.

"Make every effort"

Hebrews 12:14 instructs us to "make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord."

It is clear that the Good Samaritan "made every effort." It is also clear that the innkeeper did not.

Perhaps sometimes we do need to say "no." Even the most charitable people will speak of the need to set limits or risk burning out. But are we making every effort before we arrive at that point?

Back to the migrant caravan: The U.S. has large tracts of available land and empty housing. It is the richest nation in the history of modern civilization. On top of that, immigration of all types is generally a boost to the economy. Despite that, many Americans say to migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers: "We don't have room! We can't accommodate!"

Meanwhile, a much poorer nation like Uganda hosts the world's largest refugee settlement. How is Uganda willing and able to open its doors while the U.S. is not?

We have a choice: We can practice the innkeeper spirituality that always says "we can't." Or we can follow in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan who said, "Yes, I can do something here."

But if we turn them away, I have to ask:  How could they possibly be a burden? We could welcome in this whole migrant caravan of asylum-seekers and the vast majority of Americans would not feel even the slightest inconvenience.

My prayer: I hope each of these asylum seekers find safe harbor and a warm Christian welcome here in the United States.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Inclusion: The Default Christian Stance

Picture taken from here.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy;
without holiness no one will see the Lord. 
- Hebrews 12:14

News of the "migrant caravan" on its way to the U.S. border from Honduras has taken over the news cycle.

How are Christians to respond?

In all the arguments on all sides, there is one perspective I almost never hear:  "Make every effort" as the quote from Hebrews states.

There is no shortage of debate in this country. Arguments run the gamut from securing borders to opening them, to making short terms allowances to long-term immigration reforms.

Christians often get tangled in the tediousness of moral arguments.  They ask:  "Does a nation have a right to secure its borders at all?" "Can a Christian ever make the decision to exclude someone?"

The problem with the way we ask those questions is that we easily get lost in the details. Most theologians and pastors would argue that there are indeed times when we can exclude. But the question is: Should we? And should we now in this particular instance?

The fact that we can exclude in some very limited scenarios does not give us license to exclude in every scenario. This is the logical fallacy I hear being played out in debates on this subject ad infinitum. Those times it may be regrettably the right decision to exclude someone may be few and far between and in very specific cases.

The Christian ought to the on the side of the outsider. The Christian should be listening to the cries of the poor. The Christian should be bending over backwards to include. In fact, "inclusion" should be the default stance for a Christian: There is always room at the table for more. There is always extra food in the pot. And when we're not sure if there's enough, we'll trust in God to help us find a way to make way.

“…I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” 
Isaiah 43:19

Let the theologians argue whether it is ever possible to exclude someone. Perhaps it is. But are we making every effort, as the quote from Hebrews above says? Are we showing sorrow when we have to close the door? Do we believe that God is "making a way" or do we throw up our hands after making little effort and say that nothing is possible?

The U.S. is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the modern world. We have ample, available land for newcomers. On top of that, immigrants are most often a boost to the overall economy. If that weren't enough, it is quite often U.S. policies in the first place that may be forcing much of this migration of asylum-seekers. Looking at all that, under what criteria can we actually exclude those who come to the door seeking safe asylum?

We should make every effort to include. That should be where our heart is. That should be where our efforts are. If we ever make a decision to exclude some people, we should do it with a very heavy heart. We should regret it and feel sorrow. Most people who are against welcoming newcomers are those who almost certainly have not even tried to sympathize with their circumstances or have even tried to make room for them before reaching their decision to exclude. This is the scandal: The Christians who want to exclude migrants are most often those who haven't even tried to include them, and I don't see much sorrow about their decision.

If we have to reach the unfortunate decision to exclude someone who comes seeking safe refuge, we should do with all the sorrow as if we have indeed closed the door on Christ himself, because, in a very real way, we have (as Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker movement reminded us over and over).

Saturday, October 13, 2018

River Current: The Physics of Prayer

Floating in style.

Most religious traditions affirm the practice of prayer. But have you ever thought deeply about how prayer works?

Do we think there's a man up in the clouds who hears our prayers and decides whether or not to grant them? Why do we need to pray over and over for something—why isn't once enough? Why do we pray at all if God already knows our thoughts and desires? Do we think God will be more likely to grant our prayers if we pray for something fervently and repeatedly? Are we trying to prove to God how important something is to us by praying so hard? Are we trying to control God?

Much of that sounds like the Prosperity Gospel and seems to go against the Protestant notion of works-based righteousness. We can't earn God's favor or work hard to deserve a reward in the form of an answered prayer. It also seems to turn God into an unpredictable genie who sometimes grants wishes and sometimes doesn't.

So what exactly does prayer accomplish? How does it "work"?

River Current

I liken the spiritual life to the current of a river. Okay, that sounds cliché, but hear me out:

We are born into this river and that's where we live our lives. It is all around us, and it has energy and movement. Like a person swimming in the river, we are a part of it and yet also have some autonomy. Life and all the world we know are like the river itself. The Spirit is the current of this river.

We have the ability to either swim with the flow of the current or against it.

There are things we can do—or things that can happen to us—to align ourselves more closely with the Spirit.

Religious traditions have identified methods that can put us more or less in line with the current of the river. These include prayer, meditation, academic study, works of charity, artistic pursuits, our daily labors, our family, friendships, community involvement, our humility, our poverty and our passions.

When we are moving with the current, we seem to swim more easily, cover more ground and do what we are meant to be doing. When we fight against it, it's sometimes dangerous and sometimes not dangerous—but it's a lot of effort with perhaps little gain. We're out of sync.

We don't control the river, but we can make ourselves more receptive to it.

And sometimes the river will simply move us no matter what we do. Call it grace.

The current can also be dangerous—a long tradition of martyrs witnesses to this.

Maybe this is not an original thought—saying that the Spirit is like a river is borderline cliché, after all. How many of you reading this have Garth Brooks' The River going through your mind right now?  But it feels new to me if we apply this metaphor of the river specifically to spiritual practices. It's a way to understand prayer. It's a way to understand religion. It's the physics of prayer and other spiritual practices.

Intercessory Prayer

A lot of people reject the notion of the power of intercessory prayer, saying—if there is a God, how can we pretend to control God through our petitions?

A common response to this is: Prayer changes the one who prays more than it commands the activity of God.

Pope Francis seems to be echoing these thoughts with his quote: "You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That's how prayer works."

This is one of my all-time favorite Francis quotes. He has an ultra-earthy spirituality that I just love. It's a spirituality so concrete it sounds like atheism. It is deeply incarnational. He is challenging anyone who has lulled themselves into a false reassurance that the passive action of praying for the hungry is actually going to somehow bring food to their mouths. That is not nearly enough. I don't think he is saying that prayer itself isn't enormously beneficial, I just think he's suggesting that if all you are doing for the hungry is praying for them, that's not exactly bringing your 'A' game by any stretch. Prayer changes the person praying. It may do other things, as well, but changing the person praying may be its primary outcome.

The Physics of Prayer

Prayer changes us, but not just our attitudes—it's more about energy. When we pray, we turn toward the current and allow it to carry us—like a sunflower that turns toward the sun. We vibrate at the same frequency of the Spirit. Or at least, we tune ourselves to harmonize with the Cosmos better. Prayer—and other spiritual practices—help align ourselves to go with the current rather than against.

Instead of resisting the current, attempting to muddle along inch-by-inch through our own power, we instead submit ourselves to the current first. Then our efforts are supported and encouraged by the momentum we have put ourselves in line with. It's the same spiritual energy that gave birth to us and which is our ultimate end. After all, we're born into this river and we're going with it whether we like it or not. It's all that there is.

There are many mini currents and eddies in the river, but with prayer we are attempting to tune into the deepest, most fundamental rhythm. Prayer brings us into a resonance with the deepest, life-giving wavelengths of the universe. It does not just change our attitude or direct our awareness, both of which are good, impactful things—it causes us to vibrate at a different frequency. Once we are vibrating at a different frequency, the world around us changes, too, because we will then be drawing other people, activities and things that resonate with our new vibrations.

Imagine yourself a street musician. If you play sad songs, you might invite the tears of those who pass by. If you play happy songs, you may find yourself surrounded by happy people dancing. If you align yourself with the deepest currents of the universe—the deepest of which is love, according to all the mystics from nearly all the world's religions—then your life and activities will correspond with love, and you will probably witness daily miracles. You don't control it but you can submit yourself to it.

What meditation looks like.
A early version of this article first appeared here (July 4, 2016).

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Catholic Abuse Crisis: An Ecumenical Solution?

Pope Francis, 500 leaders from other faith traditions and 25 refugees
meet to discuss the situation of refugees. Source
Perhaps a similar model with ecumenical leaders and abuse survivors can happen?

The abuse crisis in the Catholic Church can seem overwhelming. But what if, like in so many other crises, this one has created a crack in the surface through which the healing light of the Holy Spirit can break in? What if in the midst of all this tragedy and institutional and personal failing there is an opportunity for a greater Christian witness?

What if this were a moment for ecumenism?

As Catholics, we trust that the Holy Spirit always guides the Church--we also know this Church is comprised of very fallible human beings who are capable of just about any sin that human beings are capable of committing. History has reminded us of this all too well and often. The abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reveals many failings, but I would argue that the primary failing is the inability of leaders of the institution to hold themselves accountable.

In all fairness to them, no institution is fully capable of holding itself accountable. No person can effectively police him or herself. 3rd party accountability is the norm almost everywhere else in society. That's why we have independent regularly agencies to provide oversight and correction if an organization, business or government entity develops abuses of power.  

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of this problem. This is why they established a system of checks and balances. There are three branches of government as well as a balance between federal and state power. The system is not flawless, but it has more opportunity for correction than a rigid monarchy, which requires the good fortune of having a benevolent ruler for this level of accountability, and that may be asking too much of any one person.

Maybe other Church denominations could provide the necessary oversight and checks and balances, almost like a board of directors? Catholics already do that internally in varying degrees, where different religious orders may have a role in holding members of other orders accountable in some matters, for example. There are limits to how far this can go because ultimately all Catholic organizations fall under the same bishops and pope. So why not include other denominations? 

At the local level, pastors confide in other pastors from different denominations. They may often form friendships and hold each other accountable. People may be surprised to know how well their pastors get along with pastors from different denominations. The reason is simple: There are few others who understand their work and their struggles as well as other pastors.

At the global level, the Catholic Church has had "observers" and "consultants" from other denominations from a theological standpoint. We celebrated the role of these observers at Vatican II, for example. But we've never formalized those relationships in the sense of giving these people power within the system. Those are primarily friendly relationships.

The Proposal

What if a group of perhaps Lutherans, Baptists and Orthodox were responsible for receiving abuse allegations of Catholics? What if they were the ones who kept the records and made judgments about conducting investigations or involving secular authorities? Would they be willing if we asked them?

This would follow in the spirit of the early Church. It could be like the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but instead of solving theological disputes it could also settle institutional ones. This could be a true ecumenical council for the modern era. It may be what Christ intended for us all along.

This group would have to have real power and not just be a symbolic presence. Also, this would have to be done in such a way that if we ever were to offer the same service to them that we wouldn't mutually cover for each other. We certainly don't need a multi-denominational cover-up!

This would be a moment of incredible humility and trust in our fellow Christians. It may require some meaningful reflection on ecclesiology. But as Catholics, we already recognize people baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be incorporated into the same Body of Christ, even if we don't recognize them to be in full communion to account for our differences. There is already talk of having panels of lay Catholics and secular authorities having a role in bishop accountability, so why not include leaders of other Christian denominations?

This would really show that the Catholic Church is serious about full disclosure and full accountability. It would be a moment of gospel humility to hand over this power to our fellow Christian pilgrims from different church communities. After all, if we are not willing to give up this power to control information about allegations, then it begs the question: Why not? If we want to hold onto this power, is that because we are not willing to have full disclosure? Full disclosure is, well, full disclosure.

People may worry that other denominations may try to scandalize or sabotage the Catholic Church through a mechanism like this, but honestly, folks: Can we as Catholics do any worse than what we have been doing?

To my Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Orthodox and Coptic friends--and to every other denomination under the sun--not only could this be a great Christian witness, but let's face it:  Sisters and brothers in Christ, we need you.

CLARIFICATION: It is important to add that some of these other denominations may also have a history of abuse and cover-up, as well. This post does not suggest that they are guilt free in that regard. It is only suggesting that since these denominations are outside of the power structure of the Catholic hierarchical system, they may have a far easier time being fair and making sure all charges are followed through on and leaders held accountable.

ADDED:  If you go to a party and you ended up drinking too much, you give your car keys to someone else. If you've been drinking too much over the course of your life, you join an AA program and get accountability partner(s). These are supreme acts of responsibility. it means you are taking responsibility for your actions and you are serious about being held accountable for your actions. You say, "I have a problem and I want to do better." The Catholic Church needs to do something like this. It needs to hand the car keys over to someone else, not as a statement of failure but as a supreme act of responsibility.

And also, this endeavor would be in addition to, and not instead of, other regulatory oversight such as from secular authorities, the Catholic laity, etc.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Terrorism: Playing with Numbers

On this day known in infamy as 9/11, it is fitting that we talk about numbers.

I was in a debate recently with some friends about the NFL protests over police brutality. Some folks were saying there are no structural injustices in the police force. Rather, they argued there are some isolated "bad apples" who do bad things. The incidents may be bad, but the number of them is not statistically large when you look at a nation of 300 million (I'm paraphrasing a bit here).

Numbers can be funny. You can get them to say all sorts of things.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 "only" directly caused the deaths of less than 3,000 people. But yet we all know how traumatic that day was to the whole nation. Laws were changed as a result. Wars have been waged. The whole attitude of our nation changed and to my eye still hasn't recovered. We've become a darker, more fearful and more hostile place since then.

In recent reports, there were 98,000 public schools in the U.S and 33,000 private  The Parkland school shooting was the 208th school shooting since Columbine 19 years ago. 208 school shootings seems like a large number until you compare it with 131,000. There is “only” a 1 in 629 chance that your school will be one of them--more likely than winning the lottery by far but still a slim chance.

4,400 people were lynched in the Jim Crow years, most of them African Americans. As horrific as that is, you could argue that is "only" 55 per year--nearly 5 per month if you average it out. "Only." Another way of looking at it: That is 5 people per month--every month--for over 80 years. Can you imagine what that does to the psychology of a population living with that (literally) looming over their heads?

Not only is the number of lynchings bad enough as it is, but for every person lynched there have been no doubt dozens more who have been beaten, robbed, raped and threatened. Lynching was used (and is still used) as a weapon of terrorism against a whole population of people. Step out of line, express yourself too much, ask for too much, and even worse, demand too much, and the threat of lynching was always there. There were people who no doubt spent their whole lives looking over their shoulder, monitoring every word they said and behavior they made in order to avoid a situation that could escalate to lynching. They hid their God-given light so as not to attract too much attention or anger. That’s how terrorism works.

And THAT is the situation many African Americans find themselves in today when it comes to their relationship with the police force. We know there are good cops. I assume--and hope--that the majority of them are good. I have friends and family members who are cops. I haven’t seen any of them on their beat, but as far as I know all of them are good. I trust in that. But there is a significant percentage of cops who are not so good--some reports say the number of bad cops is as high as 15%. If so, that's huge. But perhaps worse, there is a system that covers for them--a system of loyalty, secrecy and power.

For every killing, there are no doubt dozens of instances of racial profiling, harassment, beatings,  rapes, wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions and disproportionately long prison sentences compared to whites. And for every one of those, there are millions of our fellow citizens waking up today wondering, ”Is it going to be me today?”

The situation is not unlike the problem with abuse in the Catholic Church. Many of us are hesitant to speak up because we know many good priests. We don’t want to disparage all of them in one swoop.  But the small percentage of bad priests has caused a huge problem. And even worse, the system has been willing to cover for them. That’s the problem with see today with the police. The system seems unable to hold police officers accountable.

Perhaps you have heard the litany of names of wrongful deaths alleged and remembered by groups like Black Lives Matter--Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, etc. To my friends who say that list of atrocities--however horrible it may be--is not statistically significant in a population of over 300 million, I hope this post has shown that not to be the case.

This is why NFL players are taking a knee.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Our Greatest Sin: Quick to Judge, Exclude and Comdemn

Good people can rightly disagree on a number of issues. We often forget that. Our culture is heavily polarized. We've grown accustomed to the culture wars. Our political parties have drawn hard lines between each other to where working across the aisle can be considered scandalous instead of wise and prudent. Both the professional media and social media have a role to play in these divisions, as well.

What bothers me the most is not that people disagree on important issues. Disagreement will happen. It's that we can be so quick to judge, exclude and condemn.

For example, anyone who has looked at the hard issues around war, peace and violence knows that there are rarely easy answers. This is specially true with nations with long and complicated histories. I've been in academically tedious debates over the nuances of Just War Theory. Folks may argue from a Christian perspective either for or against war. I can appreciate the points on all sides. But what I can't understand is that some folks are just so eager to go to war. At the drop of a hat, it's All Systems Go.

It's the eagerness to go to war that keeps me up at night.

My own Catholic Church has a long history of theological debate over this issue. But even if war is somehow deemed to be "necessary," it should always be a last resort. It should always come with great sadness. It should always be seen as a sin that all else has failed to prevent it, including our own individual efforts. But when we go to war, I just don't see much regret or sadness. I see triumphalism. I see blood lust. I see dehumanizing of the opponent and cheers over bombings.

I see this playing out around other issues:

Anyone who has looked at the issues around immigration knows that there are no easy answers. There are desperate, hungry people at the border. At least some of their desperation (if not all) is the result of our own policies. But there are points to be made about maintaining borders and knowing who comes and goes. Good people can rightly disagree. But what bothers me is that some of my fellow Americans are just so eager to shut the door to our neighbors before hearing their concerns. They find some technicality in the laws as an excuse to shut their hearts and minds, but let's be honest: The law isn't the real reason for their push to exclude.

Take the death penalty. Sometimes a person on death row has another story to tell. His legal team may be screaming, "Wait! Don't execute! We found new evidence!" I'm shocked by how often they have great difficulty even getting the testimony heard. Before even seeing the new evidence, others say, "Sorry, too late, the case is closed!" They don't even want to hear the evidence. I've worked with groups petitioning the state governor just hours before an execution trying to halt the process so it can be re-evaluated. What's the rush? A life is at stake!

Abortion. Anyone who is a parent knows the great responsibility that comes with parenting. It's an enormous life vocation that challenges every fiber of your being--and that's even if you have a supportive family, access to medical care, gainful employment and are in a socially-acceptable relationship. You don't have to convince me how difficult the life circumstances of some folks may be. But what bothers me the most is how quick many are to devalue the life in the womb and find a reason to abort. Maybe we'll never agree on when life truly begins, but there are many medical indicators that it's very early, and many faiths teach that it's conception. Why the rush to devalue that life?

Take the current NFL protests against police brutality started by Colin Kaepernick. Virtually all the opposition is focused on the method of protest while all but ignoring the stated reasons for the protest. We should all be saying, "Gosh, something extremely important must be going on to compel these players to make such a bold and dramatic statement, even to the point of risking their entire careers over it." It should make us stop in our tracks and listen to their concerns. The whole nation should proverbially sit down and talk this out. Instead, many are quick to shout them down before hearing their concerns. These athletes are practically shaking us, trying to tell us that something big is going on that we aren't paying enough attention to. But we're still avoiding it, so quick to deny before hearing what they have to say.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
- James 1:19-20

By contrast to these examples above, God is slow to anger (Psalms 103:8 and 145:8). God is eager to love (John 3:16), eager to forgive (Matthew 18:21-22) and eager to include (Mark 2:13-17). Jesus was constantly including people that society wanted to exclude, marginalize or offer only a secondary status. Dozens of verses directly attest to this. This is not just a description of God's behavior, but rather we are called to follow their example (James 1:19-20).

People often cite the example of Jesus overturning tables in the table as an example of biblically-justifiable anger.  Yes, but we forget that Jesus was also slow to anger. This does not mean we rush in angrily as a general way of life. Jesus' one example of anger does not mean that all of our anger is justifiable. It means that righteous anger has a role, but that role is not open-ended. The same is true with teachings about war and violence. Perhaps they are justified in some rare instances, but we should be very slow to choose them and always do it with sadness and much regret.

Probably no other instance in the Bible speaks to this more than the trial and crucifixion of Jesus himself. It was a sham trial, a mockery of justice. There was no case against Jesus, Pilate even said so. The crowd shouted "crucify him!" When Pilate tried to reason with them, the crowd only shouted louder. Mob mentality ruled. Nothing puts the masses into a rage more than challenging the social hierarchy. Jesus was constantly putting the last first and including where society wanted to exclude. How different is that from us today who want to exclude the immigrants, condemn the prisoners, dehumanize the unborn or the people in other nations, and shout down those kneeling for justice?

In every one of the examples above, I see a reenactment of the same sham trial. It's the same mockery of justice and mob fervor. The same mob fervor that put Jesus on the cross is the same impulse that puts immigrants in detention centers and separates their families. It's the same impulse that rushes a person to the execution chamber despite compelling evidence of innocence. It is the same sham trial that finds the flimsiest of excuses in the law (or in Church Teaching) to rationalize evil and rush to war, rush to abortion and rush to exclude, condemn and dehumanize. Those who work with the poor, the suffering and the marginalized know that the crucifixion is an ongoing reality in their lives.

"Black lives matter."
"Crucify them!"
"This prisoner may be innocent."
"Crucify him!"
"This fetus is a child."
"These immigrants are our brothers and sisters in need."
"These Islamic nations are our neighbors too!"

Good people can disagree. Even though I have pretty strong opinions about all of these issues, I can at least respect the points from people who differ. But what I can never be comfortable with is the resistance to even hearing the points on the other side. It's the eagerness to exclude, condemn and judge before hearing what others have to say that is so hard to reckon with. Those are signs there is something more going on than mere disagreement. It means that people are resisting the message and resisting the messenger. Where is the resistance coming from? Where is the real discomfort coming from?