Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Should Bloggers Smell like the Sheep, too?




Pope Francis is famous for saying that priests (and presumably other church leaders and ministers) should "be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep." This statement is often repeated and resonates like a mantra. And rightly so—it reflects a powerful vision of accompaniment, solidarity and servant leadership.

The statement has been greeted with proverbial cheers by the masses who know all too well the problems that can arise when church leaders are too distant from the lives of the people they are attempting to shepherd.

Leaders—especially those who aspire to imitate Christ—lead best when they are close to the people. This closeness can be expressed in many ways, from sharing in the same lifestyle, sharing in the sufferings and just being geographically close.

I’m privileged to work for an organization that lives this out very well. The missionary priests, brothers and lay co-workers of GlenmaryHome Missioners walk close to the people they serve in the small towns and hollers of the rural US South.

However, Pope Francis has made another, very similar statement that has failed to grab the imagination of the people the way the first one has. It was initially shared by Catholic media but has all but disappeared with the passing news cycle.

Pope Francis has also said theologians should also "smell of the people and of the road."

The second clause is great emphasis:  Not only are theologians charged with having the smell of the people, but Francis also thinks they need to be on the road. In other words, they need to be out there in the muck and mire of the world, rather than some secluded office. He doesn't use the word "sheep" here presumably because academics are not necessarily pastors, but to the extent that we all minister to each other, we are both sheep and shepherd at times.

Admittedly, Francis shared this statement in quite a different format than the one about clerics. The first statement was said in one of his first Masses as pope when he had the world's attention. The second was in a letter to faculty at a university in Argentina two years into his pontificate. Still, I tend to believe that the statement could have taken on the urgency of the first if only we had ears to hear. Other offhanded comments by Francis have captured the world's attention, after all.

Perhaps the statement about theologians has been forgotten because it points the finger at a great many of us. I take his comment to apply not just to professional academics but also to us amateur and professional bloggers and commentators on the faith—in other words, just about all of us. It’s easy to point the fingers at those church leaders—it’s harder to point the finger at ourselves.

Everyone has different gifts. Some are thinkers. Some are healers. Some are pastors. Some are activists. Some are janitors, dish washers, nurses and mentors. However, there is something amiss when a life is completely un-integrated—for example, when someone is predominately a thinker and little else. I have known people who are profound theologians who flounder—if they bother to make any attempt at all—at integrating any of that theological insight into their lifestyle and actions. One of my first mentors was one such person. Probably the greatest lesson he taught me was the one he didn't intend. I have worked hard in the years since to see his example as a cautionary tale. There are reasons, of course, why people become so fragmented, and my intention is to learn from them without judging too harshly.

People love the Church Mothers and Fathers. These were great writers and holy people from the very early Church. Even 2,000 years later, their writings are still powerful and capture our attention. One thing that just about all of these people had in common was they seemed to display a very integrated faith life. They were profound theologians. They also lived holy lives. Some wrote—literally—on the road to martyrdom. They lived lives of sacrifice, dedication, some in solidarity with the poor and doing what we would refer to today as "activism." Their lived experience was not simply in addition to their theology—rather, it seems their theology was all the stronger because of this lived experience.

A biblical scholar once noticeably scoffed at me when I suggested that Fr. Daniel Berrigan's exploration of the Book of Job was one of the most helpful in my scholarly studies of the book. As an activist priest who has been very close to suffering all this life, including spending years in prison for the cause of the gospel, perhaps Fr. Berrigan had a better chance of truly understanding the message of Job than an academic sitting alone in a comfortable library. Rigorous academic study is important (as I'm sure Berrigan would have agreed), but it is worth asking whether we can truly understand the biblical texts outside of a lived experience of suffering, oppression and the other contexts out of which the biblical authors wrote? In other words, can you truly understand Job if you don't, well, smell like Job?

I've had suffering in my life, but I am quite comfortable today writing in my warm home on a mild Ohio day. It's hard to willingly leave my comfort zone to be close to the ones I am ministering to, whether that involves suffering, oppression or simply change and discomfort. But that is why Francis' words are a much needed challenge to me and perhaps also to a great many of us. They help me examine the ways I have—and more importantly, have not—theologized from a position of closeness to the sheep while being out there on the road.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday: Nothing Left to Lose

It is a good thing there aren't people walking through the streets flailing themselves with bamboo switches, like in the Philippines. It is a good thing no one is getting nailed to a cross, today (hopefully). But I'm not sure that it is such a good thing that there is nothing different about Good Friday here.

From where I be, you can hardly tell this is a holiday at all. There is little solemnity in the air. There is virtually nothing different about today, except for a few anticipatory Easter wishes at work. Same dirty jokes on the radio. Same advertising. Every day its just pizza and chicken.

It should be expected. There is nothing commercial about a holiday whose distinguishing features are fasting and the memory of a torturous death. Its hard to make something to sell out of all that. Maybe that makes this a very special holiday, indeed.

It is a good thing that we don't live any longer under an oppressive religious system that forces us to attend services and adhere to strict and sometimes unfair lifestyle guidelines (like fasting). It is a good thing that it is no longer a scandal for someone to break with convention, out of necessity or choice. Its a good thing you can get yourself an emergency tank of gas, if you need one, or stay home from church. On Good Friday, of all days, it is good that there is mercy in the system.

But like the song goes, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

And nothing from nothing leaves nothing. You gotta have something.

40 Days of sacrifice. 40 days of fasting. 40 days of walking the death walk with Christ. The Lenten season: an inconvenience. Church services and religious observance. It is a hollow victory to throw all that away and replace it with . . . nothing. Or more of the same, which is really a big nothing. We are free from the shackles of oppression, now go buy something. Target is open late. We beat that bad church, now let's collect the spoils and have another day of same ole, same ole. There's a porn star on NPR. And that's nothing.

And maybe this is a day of nothing. I'm not even going to memorialize it with a capital "N". No, its not "Nothing Day". It is just nothing.

And maybe this is a day to experience nothing. For if there ever was a day when nothing promises to turn into something, it would be Good Friday. If there were ever a day when the hollow becomes the hallowed, it would be today. Good Friday: God as Creator again makes something from nothing. Because, you know, you gotta have something.

And that, like the rest of creation, is good.

***

[This post originally written and published by me in 2008 on my personal blog.]

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

9 Reasons I Never Became Protestant

A house divided is only half a house.
I have read a lot of articles from my Protestant friends and colleagues celebrating the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation this past year. They varied in timbre and tone—some were overtly triumphalistic while others offered a balanced treatment of the pros and cons.

Despite that, I was struck by how the Reformation just seemed to be taken for granted to be a universally good thing by virtually all Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals. I guess it's to be expected that people wouldn't call into question the origins of their own movement. I was still taken aback by how it was simply taken for granted. Whether it is spoken outright or simply implied, the idea that the Reformation was simply a good thing seems embedded within the American consciousness, even at the secular level.

I'm not convinced. 

I have always seen the Protestant Reformation in zero-sum terms: It brought some good. It brought some bad. It's a very mixed bag. God has certainly showered on it many gifts. Still, it leaves me disappointed. It never truly surpassed Catholicism—the promise of the Reformation stalled and at best settled into a stalemate. So to go through all that effort to break off from Catholicism only to create somewhat parallel traditions without really raising the bar equates to a negative, in my book.

I've often been frustrated with my own Catholic Church and have been tempted to shop around. I have enjoyed visiting other churches but have always fallen short of joining. I have always come away from that search with the strong sense that I would only be exchanging one set of problems for a different set of new problems—and possibly worse ones. So why bother? At least I have history with my own church. 

Let me show you what I mean:

1. The Protestant Reformation opened the door for more diversity in religious approaches—a good thing! However, that came with a cost of disunity and outright conflict—a bad thing. This is a perfect example of a positive that arrived married to a negative through the Reformation. Not all reform movements break that way. The rest of this list tells a similar tale:

2. The Reformation was coupled with the rise of individualism, which is not inherently good or evil. It helps provide the framework for people to follow their conscience—a good thing! It also provides the framework for individuals to see themselves as the center of the universe—this is the cardinal sin of pride, a denial of sola gratis, the very pride that Protestantism arose to protest!

3. Protestantism is very "head" focused. This sometimes manifests as a beautiful intellectualism, and Protestants have been pioneers in academic theology. All too often, this head focus turns into a tedious obsession with hairsplitting concepts and doctrines. Protestantism has been very cold—when it hasn't been downright hostile—to the arts, liturgy and contemplative practices. It has been cold to an embodied faith.

4. Speaking of the arts, while we celebrate the intellectual Enlightenment that came along with the Protestant Reformation, we also cannot forget that this was coupled with the literal whitewashing of much of Europe's artistic heritage. The destruction of countless frescoes, statues and paintings all over Europe had all the darkness of the Inquisition. A movement that literally goes around destroying centuries-old sculptures with some groups forbidding dance and art for centuries is a Dark Age, not a Renaissance. 

5. Concerning the above, one person told me: "It wasn't my denomination that did that!" But therein lines a problem. When you have 40,000 denominations, who takes responsibility? Or does the whole movement have to take some collective responsibility for what happened as a result of it? For better and for worse, the structure of the Catholic Church kept a lot of this extremism in check over the centuries. When you tamper with that, you bear some responsibility for the fallout.

As a Catholic, I am often asked to answer for every sin that was ever done in the name of the Catholic Church, even sins committed hundreds of years ago on another part of the globe (like the Inquisition). Fair enough. But Protestants don't have to do that. They can simply close down one denomination and open a new one. But that does not clean up the mess. It reminds me of a corporation that can sidestep problems it has created by declaring bankruptcy and its members starting a brand new corporation with a new name and blank slate. It may exonerate the individuals of legal responsibility but not a moral one—the problems still exist and someone still has to do something to fix them.

6. For every denomination that is forward-thinking and progressive, there is another that is perhaps more regressive than the Catholic Church they were rebelling against. Remember the Puritans? How many reactionary, repressive cults have there been? Protestant fundamentalism? The horror stories that have come out of conservative fundamentalism are worse than anything I've seen in Catholicism, especially in the modern era. Stories of soul-crushing control and forced conformity abound among Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals. It's hardly where I'd go to find "freedom." The same denominations that celebrate Luther would be quick to crucify young reformers in their own ranks. It is a timeless tale of human nature that certainly isn't limited to Protestants, but it begs the question: Why bother with the Reformation if you are just going to re-create the same mess elsewhere?

7. Luther's initial protest was as much about Church practices as it was theology. It was the corruption, power-grabbing, censorship, control and manipulation that were at the heart of Luther's initial concerns. He was right about much of that. However, when I look at Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches both today and throughout history, I also see corruption, greed, power dynamics, and every form of human drama under the sun. I also see bad theology everywhere. What was gained?

8. You can see abuse of power by bishops and priests in the Catholic Church. However, I don't find more freedom in Protestantism, as congregations regularly control their pastors by manipulating their financial offerings. Strong hierarchical control tempers this in the Catholic Church, although admittedly not nearly enough. While we in the Catholic Church are quick to blame the hierarch for all sorts of things, the grass isn't always greener on the other side. In Protestantism, there may be less hierarchical control but more congregational pressure. It is hard to preach to the same people who pay you.

9. Unmerited Grace. I have never grasped the Protestant fervor over sola gratis: By grace alone. I understand the theological point that we humans always get in trouble when we tip the apple cart and start taking credit for things that are of God. In principle, Catholicism agrees. After all, the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation even signed a joined declaration on justification in 1999—supposedly settling the primary conflict of the Reformation. It's in the Bible; it's in Augustine and Aquinas. 

One of the worst theological slams a Protestant can say about a church is that it tries to merit grace through its own effort—i.e. the dreaded "works-based righteousness." This may be something Protestants believe in principle, but overall they certainly don't live it very well. Again, it's human nature. We often hate in others what we hate about ourselves. 

While Protestants profess to believe in a God who showers humankind with unmerited grace, many have no interest in showering unmerited mercy and grace on their fellow human beings in need. It's all "tough love" and "pull yourselves up by the bootstraps." Everyone earns their own worth by how hard they work. Unmerited grace is hard to find in their politics. For two hours every Sunday morning, they may hear a message about unmerited grace from the pulpit, but the other 166 hours of the week are consumed in works-based, merited righteousness. The standards for heaven and earth seem quite different indeed. Yet, Jesus prayed "on earth as it is in heaven."

Protestants take quite a bit of pride and boast of the "Protestant work ethic." What exactly is the Protestant work ethic? I define it as a tedious lifelong task of judging the worth of everyone around you by whether or not they "work hard enough." Bonus points if you can mask your condescension with an even more prideful faux humility. We try to mask this shame with pride, but pride is the absolute opposite of unmerited grace!

You could give me the theological run-around and say that the Protestant work ethic isn't a way to earn salvation but simply evidence of that freely-given salvation—the Calvinist twist. Step away from the theological double-speak for a second and see it for that it is: A system of works-based righteousness. Even more damaging, these thoughts lay the groundwork for the prosperity Gospel.

I prefer the very Catholic approach that we should love one another and not try to judge who is worthy. 

Case in point: A colleague of mine says that in his town a poor person can sometimes have a hard time getting help. Most of the soup kitchens and shelters have conditions on their charity.  In some, you have to be a member of their church, listen to a sermon or meet other criteria. If a person cannot or will not do that, they are advised to go to the Catholic outreach center "because they'll help anybody."  Unmerited grace.  We are accused of not preaching it, but I see us practicing it all the time. 

Summation

The Protestant Reformation serves as a cautionary tale whenever I've been tempted to jump ship. Other reform movements were able to open horizons of possibility while also sidestepping so many of these negatives. The reforms of Francis of Assisi comes to mind. His radical movement could have been the start of something like the Protestant Reformation. Francis was able to set in motion his reforms without creating a rival denomination and all the problems that entails.

The initial reformers themselves were fear-based people. Many were quite harsh, if not downright brutal. That's not exactly what I look for in a spiritual leader. Luther for example, was complex and relatable. I can appreciate his righteous anger at censorship and his zeal to hold the Church accountable. But there's something missing when I hold him up against Francis of Assisi. I don't know what's missing, but whatever it is is somehow essential. I can understand Luther, I can sometimes agree with Luther—but I would not follow Luther. I'd like to think I'd follow Francis. 

While there is so much good to celebrate in the Protestant Reformation, let's be clear that it was a colossal failure at peacekeeping, harmony and family unity—admittedly that sin is on both sides. Both the Reformers and the institution of the Catholic Church failed to resolve differences and stay together. It was an ugly time and few of the leaders on either side inspire me. Celebrating the Protestant Reformation is like celebrating a divorce—perhaps it had to happen but it's never a good thing. The only true winners were pride and ego—on both sides.

Perhaps the Protestant Reformation was a necessary stage in the evolution of human consciousness. If so, I don't think it's the final stage. What unfolded perhaps need to unfold, but it also opened a Pandora's box of other problems. 

To me, the Protestant Reformation is one of many movements within the life of the Church. It has value, as I hope I have illustrated above. But with almost each positive comes a negative, and I suspect there is something about the movement itself that lends itself to this. I see the Reformation more as a wound to be healed than as a pure victory. Now, Protestants and Catholics are separated but we are all still struggling over the same things we were struggling over before—the only difference is that now we are struggling apart from each other, which just adds to the tragedy of what happened. I'm reminded of the last verse of Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd:


How I wish, how I wish you were here
We're just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
And how we found
The same old fears
Wish you were here

ADDED LATER: If you are going to have a "protest" movement, that means one of two things is true. You are either throwing out bad theology and practice to have a more streamlined, purer church—or you are throwing out half the wisdom of the church.  Given the zero-sum nature of the examples above, I suspect more of the latter may be true in the Protestant Reformation.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Abandoning Trench Warfare: 8 Ways to Find Common Ground in the Abortion Debate



Trench warfare.

More than any other issue, abortion is the poster child of the polarized culture wars. People just scream at each other. They recite talking points, often with their fingers firmly in their own ears. They lob verbal grenades at each other while staying lodged within their respective bunkers. Neither side gives an inch, and, perhaps because of this, neither side advances an inch. These steps are repeated ad infinitum. Many are weary of the fighting but don't know how to stop.

Trench warfare is getting us nowhere fast.

Literal trench warfare didn't work well in World War I, either—it mostly left a wake of immense trauma and loss of life while battle lines moved only a few meters back and forth. As the war lingered on, no side abandoned the trenches all at once, but each starting putting resources into other strategies. It was obvious that the trenches were a losing endeavor.

This analogy works quite well for the culture wars today, too. Incredible energy is expended by both sides. All this effort may enable each side to hold its ground, but each also gains very little with no end in sight. For every small "victory," you have to wonder how many people are forever alienated by the brutal conflict.

Can we open pathways for discussion so that energy can move more freely? Is there any way to tip the scales to encourage people to talk in a different way?

A number of people are hard at work trying to figure this out. Some great examples are these articles in Nurturing Faith and Secular Pro-Life Perspectives. The organization The New Pro Life Movement is also an attempt to find a new way. Along with this blog, that includes Baptist, Catholic and non-religious viewpoints, suggesting that people from multiple backgrounds are trying to re-think how we approach this issue.

It is my hope that this essay can contribute to that discussion. Let me suggest the following 8 points:

1.  Reflect on how we talk to each other.

We can bravely set aside our talking points for a while and just reflect on how we regard each other and talk to each other. Take a step back—instead of talking about "the issue," talk instead about how you talk about it. That can be a difficult thing to do when your hands have been clenched around your weapon for so long, when you can pull out your talking points faster than Bill the Kid could pull out his six-shooter. Yet, there are stories in every war where this happens. After fighting each other in battle after battle, sometimes soldiers put down their weapons and say, "We can't keep doing this, we've got to find another way." Do you practice active listening and nonviolent communication when someone with contrary views talks to you? Is it more important for you to "be right" and "change people" than it is to help others? Would you like being talked to in the way that you talk to others?

Check out The Story of the Christmas Truce, which incidentally occurred in the trenches of World War I.

Perhaps we can learn to speak the language of conversation and conversion rather than condemnation.

2.  Admit it: People of goodwill exist on either side of this debate.

The culture wars have gotten to the point where it has become impossible for people on either side to say anything good about the other side. They are afraid of giving ground or appearing to soften their viewpoints. Personally, I have strong views on this issue, but I can still affirm the people and perspectives on the other side.

I've met a lot of people on either side of the abortion debate and in every position in between. I've come away from that with a strong belief that there are simply good people of good will on either side, as well as in the middle. They aren't monsters. They simply disagree on a very contentious issue. I still think some people are very, very wrong and have huge blinders on.  But I respect them as people. I like them. I love them.

People can often be so disgusted by differing views that it can be hard to even acknowledge each other's humanity. They look at each other in disgust, thinking, how could someone possibly hold that viewpoint? 

Admittedly, it is a fair question. I sometimes find myself asking it, as well. We may never fully understand how or why someone could take the opposite view in this debate. But we also have to admit that millions and millions of people do. We also have to realize this debate is probably not going to be settled anytime soon. We may want it to go away, but it's not. Yet, somehow we have to live together, share this world together and function in society together in the meantime. That's simply a fact.

3.  I can understand and affirm the concerns on either side. 

Even though I may not completely understand why someone could hold a differing view on abortion, I can still sympathize with the profound issues in play on either side of this debate. It is not hard to see why people are passionate about this issue.

People on either side should be able to at least affirm that the other side has valid concerns. You may not think their conclusions are good, but I'm talking here about their concerns.

For example, I am a strong proponent of peace and nonviolence, but I can certainly understand why someone would choose to go to war.  I think that in most (if not all) cases, war and other forms of violence come from an unenlightened place. However, I can at least understand the emotions and fears that go into that decision, even though I hold out for a still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31). There are all sorts of actions that would make violence a tempting response for me, and I don't lose my nonviolence credentials by acknowledging this temptation.

4.  Understanding the other side does not mean I have to lessen my own views.

We are afraid that if we affirm the people on the "other side" and validate their concerns, that our own argument will lose something. That does not sound like a person who is confident in his or her point of view. Odds are, my position will be strengthened because I have the courage to face the points from both sides.

But you can still respect the other side even if you think they are totally missing the boat.

5. Some people do a good job of living up (or down) to the stereotypes—but most don't.

Some spokespeople for both sides are all to often caricatures of their positions. There are some pro-life people who seem to have an anti-feminist bent and there are some pro-choice supporters who express a lot of anti-male fervor. So what?

These people do not represent everyone. There are good, decent people who have arrived at their viewpoint on either side of this debate through the hard road of life. 

6.  People on both sides can be accused of being inconsistent.

There are some pro-life supports who are very inconsistent—they seem to be against abortion but rarely invest time or energy in other "life" issues, even those that may yield less abortions. You could make the same argument on the other side—why are some on the left so concerned with just about every social injustice except for the unborn baby in their own body?

Contradictions are sometimes useful to point out, but most of this is just deflection. Instead of addressing the argument, people instead try to discredit the people on the other side. These arguments usually assume people fall along political party lines, but many people fall somewhere in between the two parties.

7. Find a goal we can share

There is possibly one thing that pro-choice and pro-life activists have in common: Many are weary of the culture wars but don't know how to end them. They feel they can't give up, but they see little hope in continuing the battles.

Can we all commit to ending the trench warfare? Can we all apply ourselves to the task of melting the stalemate? In other words:  Can we try to figure out how to figure this out?

What's interesting is that many people on both sides want to live in a society where no abortion occurs. Let that sink in for a moment. The linked articles above go into more detail about this. Do you agree? If so, this seems like a profound unifying platform to work toward!

8.  Redefine victory.

Ardent activists on either side might define victory as convincing the other side to change its stance. I'm not asking anyone to give up this goal. But perhaps we need other short-term goals along the way: Can we at least agree to disagree and find a way to respect each other in this? Maybe that's not the magic answer anyone was looking for, but don't knock it till you try it. Simply agreeing to disagree can be an immensely healing experience:  The plates shift. The whole discussion may not be resolved, but it could graduate to a higher level, laying the groundwork so that a more substantive change may happen later.

***

We don't trust each other.

I can't promise that in any of this there is a magic bullet that will break the stalemate. But perhaps if we did the recommendations above we might get somewhere over time. This is a marathon, not a sprint.  But one thing is clear to me:  The current trench warfare is getting us nowhere fast. We need to be brave and try something else.

Listening deeply to the concerns on either side has not changed my mind on this issue a whole lot. I still hold the views I held previously, and actually my viewpoint is stronger because I am no longer afraid of what the other side might say because I have had the courage to hear them out.

But it has helped me see the human beings behind those views.  And that matters.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Darth Vaderization of America through Guns

Picture source: https://pixabay.com/en/darth-vader-star-wars-geek-1207142/

"He's more machine now than man. Twisted and evil."
―Obi-Wan Kenobi

Darth Vader is not just a bad guy. He's a tragic and sad character, perhaps even pathetic. It's hard to feel sorry for him when he's intimidating the bejesus out of everyone, blowing up planets and leading an assault on peace and goodwill in the galaxy.

But he's not a happy guy. He's barely even a guy at all, anymore.

Driven by pain, anger and ultimately fear, and literally torn apart by his numerous scuffles, his once graceful form was replaced by cold machine. Part by part.

He may have been the galaxy's chief bad ass, but that armor hid another truth. The loss of his flesh and blood mirrored the loss of his own humanity.

It must have been uncomfortable under all those circuits and wires—for whatever flesh he had left to feel with, that is. He was literally on life support. There was no more potential for human touch or experiencing life with his natural senses. His armor both protected and imprisoned him.

He didn't just participate in a war. His own body was the war zone.

In light of the alarming rate of mass shootings in U.S. schools, a number of plans are being proposed. Some involve stricter regulations around guns and gun ownership. Other plans involve turning schools into barricaded fortress with armed teachers.

This online meme from a Twitter discussion captures the basic idea. @FoxNews issues the following, from Judge Jeanie Pirro: "We need to protect kids, & that means we've got to have metal detectors, we've got to have experienced cops..., & we've got to be able to have perimeter controls. We've got to have teachers who can carry a weapon & react to this kind of nonsense." #Hannity

Journalist Scott Gilmore replied with: "That's a prison. You're describing a prison."

These measures are perhaps what you would do in the temporary, extreme conditions of an actual war zone. It should never be accepted as a regular way of life.

There is a cost to living like Darth Vader. Every piece of armor replaces your own flesh and blood. Every wall between you and someone else means another wall between a part of your own self. You could drape armor over yourself, never leave home without packing firepower and be always on the lookout for danger. Somewhere along the line, perhaps in shades of gray, you lose your humanity and become a hunted beast— always on the lookout, always afraid, always griping this metal extension of your body tightly. No one can shoot you, no one can beat you . . . but is there any "you" left?

Whenever this happens, the gun has become an "essential" part of your life. It is a continuation of your own hand—it starts where your hand stops. It may be held around your heart. Or gut. The gun has in effect become a part of you. By definition—that's what "essential" means. At this point, you will have taken a large step forward on the path to becoming like Darth Vader.

A gun may bring additional power and security, but it always comes with a cost. It's important to weigh that cost before going down that rabbit hole. The gun demands a high price. It wants to become enmeshed into your identity. It wants your very soul.

Case in point: The way the Parkland, FL, students are being insulted, harassed and villified—when they are asking questions, speaking their voices and sharing their testimonies—all during this time of grief—tells me all I need to know about the gun lobby and its bought-and-paid-for politicians: Mean spirited, juvenile, heartless and ultimately selfish. There is no humanity left in the gun lobby.  Or if there is, it is buried so far beneath its armor that it can barely breathe without it.

I don't know what motivates the gun lobby, but it's clearly not freedom. If they were concerned about freedom, they would be supporting these students' free speech. Instead, they slander them and try their various smear, diversion and distraction tactics that have worked so well in the past. America may finally have had enough.

The Darth Vaderization of the gun lobby is complete. When grieving high school students are the subject of political spin and slander, there is no line of decency left that won't be crossed. Anyone who comes between them and their gun is an enemy who must be discredited and destroyed. They live, and we die, for the gun. The gun no longer serves them—rather, they serve the gun. They worship the gun. It is supreme. All other concerns are in a far secondary place, if at all.  Everything is negotiable except the wishes of the almighty gun. No other liberty or right matters other than the liberty to carry a gun—even the right to life itself.

Van Morrison sings "Ain't it lonely when you're livin' with a gun?"

The song is Who Was That Masked Man? Fans of old westerns know that masked man was the Lone Ranger—aptly named.

Oh ain't it lonely
When you're livin' with a gun
Well you can't slow down and you can't turn 'round
And you can't trust anyone
You just sit there like a butterfly
And you're all encased in glass
You're so fragile you just may break
And you don't know who to ask

Oh ain't it lonely
When you're livin' with a gun
Well you can't slow down and you can't turn 'round
And you can't trust anyone

You just sit there like a butterfly
You're well protected by the glass
You're such a rare collector's item
When they throw away what's the trash
You can hang suspended from a star
Or wish on a toilet roll
You can just soak up the atmosphere
Like a fish inside a bowl

When the ghost comes round at midnight
Well you both can have some fun
He can drive you mad, he can make you sad
He can keep you from the sun
When they take him down, he'll be both safe and sound
And the hand does fit the glove
And no matter what they tell you,
There's good and evil in everyone

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Surprising Place of Common Ground in the Mass Shootings Debate



When it comes to mass shootings in the U.S., there is something we should all be able to agree on no matter where on the political spectrum we fall.

Whether we are strong supporters of gun rights, gun restrictions or some other approach, there is at least one thing we can all say.

This doesn't happen very often in our polarized nation, so it's worth taking notice.

Mass shootings are very common in our country. Virtually nothing has actually been done to address any of the suspected causes. For the last several years, Congress has not been actively debating the pros and cons of any proposed plans to address this problem with any serious intent. 

Therefore, we should all be willing to admit that mass shootings will continue at about the same rate.

Right?

This is just basic logic.

Like the old saying goes: If you do what you've always done, you're going to get what you've always gotten.

We should all be willing to agree on this regardless on where we stand politically or what we think are the causes of mass shootings. That's simply the most likely scenario. If anyone disagrees with this, I'd sure like to hear it.

Is this something we are willing to accept?

Is this just the way life is going to be going forward?  The new normal?

Who's Job Is It?

So whose job is it to ensure the safety of school children? Liberals and conservatives may have some different views. However, even the most conservative libertarians—who want as small of a government as possible—will argue that "that government's only legitimate role is to protect individual rights to life, liberty and property."

The government mandates that children go to school, but it seems incapable of ensuring their safety while there. When politicians say "now is not the time to talk about gun violence" they are derelict in their elected duties no matter which political philosophy you follow. People are free to use self-defense, but that should be a last resort, not a first resort. The first and primary responsibility for security falls directly on our elected leaders.

What Do We Do?

Gun control supporters actually have plans with lots of ideas. Here's one. There are others. Maybe they will work, maybe they won't, but they are based on real data and real experience in other parts of the world, as well as previous laws in the U.S. The causes of mass shootings are complex, but more and more the data is showing us that the sheer availability of firearms is the strongest correlating factor in mass shootings, like this NY Times article. Other countries have comparable rates of mental illness, breakdown of the family and (lack of) religious commitment of the population, but most don't have many mass shootings. The U.S. has more guns and more gun-related deaths—those are the only two data points that are unique for us.

Other data, like in this Washington Post article, is showing us that a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would result in a significant drop in mass gun deaths. We already had a version of that law from 1994-2004 and no one lost their basic liberties over it. It probably wouldn't solve the whole problem, but it would be a significant step in the right direction.

If gun control isn't the solution, then what, pray tell, is?

Some say the solution is better mental health treatment. In this NY Times article, a psychiatrist shares the cold reality about why mental health treatment will not fix the problem of mass shootings. She argues convincingly for better gun control.

Some gun rights supporters don't actually have a plan, other than the slow arming of the entire population. It seems like the only scenario they support is turning this country into some kind of a Wild West video game, where everyone walks around all day packin' in some kind of testosterone-fueled action movie and schools are turned into fortresses. That seems like a fantasy for little boys, but this is a situation that calls for mature men and women. The fact that virtually every other nation in the world has figured out how to keep school children safe without having to resort to this should be our first clue that there is a better way.

It is hard to accept someone telling me that my child is safer if teachers are armed when the halls of Congress is a gun free zone. 

Don't Believe the Hype: Regulations Work.

Despite all the negative comments you may hear about gun regulations, the truth is that the government does a fantastic job regulating weapons. The vast majority of weapons are only available to the military, and the military does a great job of keeping it that way: Armed tanks, missiles, nukes, chemical and biological weapons, most bombs and grenades, you name it. You just can't go out and buy that stuff, because regulation actually works quite well. In fact, if you want a bomb, you pretty much have to make it yourself. Try to research how to do it and acquire the ingredients without attracting the attention of Homeland Security in the process! A few domestic terrorists have shown us that it can be done, but it's clearly not easy. I'm tired of making it easy for mass murderers.

But you need a comprehensive control. You can't allow it in one city then ban it in the next city (i.e. Chicago). 

People act like a ban on assault rifles would be some major break with the Constitution, but the vast majority of weapons have always been unavailable to civilians. Given our long and bloody history with mass shootings, the line between "military" and civilian" weapons has become blurred and needs to be re-evaluated.

There are clearly some weapons circulating in the general population that only belong in the military. Civilized countries just don't let random people walk around the streets carrying loaded machine guns. You can't even do that in the military—weapons are kept under a strict chain of command and there are detailed procedures for how to use and store them. Large scale firepower should never be in the power of random citizens to use at their private discretion.

Imagine walking around a military base just randomly carrying loaded firepower whenever you felt like it! That would never happen. There are very good reasons for that: Accidents, mental illness, people with grudges, people with power issues, sociopaths, suicidal people who want to take out others, the list goes on and on. There is some firepower that is so large that vast amounts of damage can be done before anyone can react to stop it, so it’s better to stop it further upstream. The threat of losing their lives or life in prison does not seem to deter most terrorists.

Weapons of mass destruction should only be kept and used (if at all) by an organized body (such as the military) which is accountable to the government (the people) where there is a strict chain of command, training and precautions governing their use and storage. I think that's what the framers of the Bill of Rights meant by the term "well-regulated."

"A Good Guy With a Nuke"

Some things are not meant for private individuals to use at their own discretion. Nuclear weapons are a great example. A "good guy with a nuke" is not an effective deterrent against a "bad guy with a nuke." If both parties have a conscience and feel responsible for the lives in their respective nations, then a nuclear standoff might work. But all you need is one crackpot dictator with nothing to lose who doesn't care about the consequences, then suddenly we've got nuclear Armageddon. A good guy with a nuke will be ineffective in stopping the deaths of millions in that scenario. He might get the last word, but at what cost?

A school shooter is very similar to a crackpot dictator with nothing to lose. They all probably know they are going to eventually get caught and either killed or imprisoned. They don't care. They just want to cause as much devastation as possible before that happens.

Social Contract 

The best solution is that we as a whole society should come together and make a social contract with each other—making the free choice to give up the use of some weapons because the lives of our children are simply more important—and their freedom to live is more important than our freedom to own weapons of mass destruction.

Living in the large civilized society means that we have to continually make adjustments and compromises in order to figure out how to share this space together and accommodate each other in the best possible way. There is nothing new or unusual about having to make adult sacrifices in order to be in relationship with each other. We do it all the time, as we are a nation of laws and sensible regulations. Like a successful marriage, you give up some things so you have have even better things. We can choose to stomp our feet and complain that the "government is taking things from us," or we can maturely come together and take responsibility for these choices because we realize that are indeed the best options available.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Most Overlooked Reason for Universal Healthcare

For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement,
"YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF."
Galations 5:14


In all the debates over whether or not to have universal healthcare in the U.S., there is one very simple, obvious reason for it that I almost never hear anyone mention.

It's so obvious. That's probably why it is so completely overlooked.

It's right under our noses.

We should have universal healthcare in the U.S. simply because . . .

. . . (wait for it) . . .

Simply because . . . we can!

Yes, it's that simple!

I'm sorry if you expected a more complex answer. But hear me out.

Why not? 

We are the richest, most productive nation on earth. Why shouldn't we enjoy that? Why shouldn't we make life better for both ourselves as well as fellow members of society? Health care is something everyone wants, and at some point or another everyone will need it. Let's do it! We have public parks, public schools and public roads. Why not have public access to health care?

This will, in turn make life better for each of us. Diseases would be better controlled and other conditions prevented. Why should our fellow citizens live in constant fear of health issues and painful decisions over whether to buy food or medicine? Let's be as healthy, productive and happy as possible. Why in the world would we not want that?

There is no reason to make it any more complicated than this.

Instead, we turn healthcare into some kind of game. It is seen as a reward for people who supposedly "work hard" and know how to be enterprising. We link access to health care to employment, even though there are many ways well-intentioned people can fall between those cracks. Through no fault of their own, children are dependent on whether their parents have secured health coverage. Later in life, health coverage could be at risk if you have a pre-existing condition or lose your job. For some people, losing health care coverage is akin to losing their lives. Being in-between jobs should not be a death sentence. Even people who do all the "right" things can find themselves without coverage.

Perhaps it's our Puritan roots coming back to haunt us. If something is too good to be true, then it must be bad, right?? It can't be that easy!

We already have the money. All we need to do is take the money we currently spend on health care and instead put it toward a nationalized system. We can pay doctors and hospitals through a Medicare-for-all system rather than going through private insurance companies. We'll end up covering more people, thus improving the quality of our system, and actually saving money. It's a win-win. It's practically a no-brainer. Otherwise, there is always the over-inflated military budget or tax cuts for the rich which could be pulled back to pay for healthcare. We spend more on the military than the next the 8 highest spending nations. But if we don't even have healthcare for our citizens, what exactly are we protecting with that military budget? We pay a lot in taxes, we should actually get what we want (and need).

Virtually every other developed nation on earth has comprehensive coverage for its citizens. Despite the fact that American "news" sources report that some of those nations are going "bankrupt," none of them are showing signs of changing. The horror stories you hear about coverage in other countries are largely false. People generally love the care they get. The bottom line is:  Most would never opt for a U.S.-style system.

The only obstacle is that it would put a lot of private insurance companies out of business. They are getting rich off of the system we currently have, so they are putting a lot of money into the pockets of politicians, lobby groups and anti-information campaigns to halt the progress toward universal health care. But their gains come at the expense of human lives and human well-being. After all, they make money by denying coverage to sick people. It's simple math: They make profits by getting as much as they can get in premiums and paying as little as they can get away with in actual health care costs. It is an evil system in that it rewards callousness in the face of human suffering. Morally speaking, some industries should never be tied to a profit motive, and health care is a perfect example of that.

Sadly, our current system is not that great. The World Health Organization rates the U.S. as #37th in the world. However, we spend the most by far! Why aren't we getting the best care for our money? This makes no financial sense.

Lack of Social Contract:  Could it be racism?

So many Americans live in fear that their neighbor might benefit from their tax money, they end up biting their own nose to spite their face. They would rather deny coverage to everyone (including themselves) rather than let something benefit their neighbor.

If your family were sick, you would probably want to provide for them. So why wouldn't we want to provide for our fellow citizens? I think the reasons is exactly that: We don't see ourselves as family. America's original sin is racism, as Jim Wallis points out. Here it comes to bite us again. We don't want universal health care because black people might benefit from it, or Hispanic people, or LGBT people, or some other groups that we don't like. We're so individualistic that we barely see ourselves as part of a shared society at all. European countries have a sense of shared culture and heritage so they have fewer problems insuring each other's health care, because they see each other as part of a l venture together—they are going forward as a whole society together, not as isolated individuals.

Wouldn't it be nice to go to any hospital or doctor at anytime and have access to all the care you could ever need without having to navigate a complex system of in-network and out-of-network providers, (assuming you have coverage at all)?

If you got rich in this nation, it's partly because we as a society made that possible through education, infrastructure as well as police, fire and military protection. You didn't earn it "by yourself." We all helped you. So this is one way to pay it back. But more importantly: We're all in this together. Let's act like it!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

It's Time for a Pro-Life Rethink



The 45th Annual March for Life was held last week: Another year, another march and another long stalemate in these longstanding culture wars.

I've been observing the pro-life movement from both the inside and sidelines for years now and I've come to a stark realization:

The pro-life movement (overall) is not dedicated to the task of reducing abortions and saving lives. Let that sink in for a minute. Rather, the movement is focused on making abortion illegal. 

They may seem the same at first, but those are actually two very different goals. They require very different courses of action.

There are exceptions to this, of course, but I'm talking about overall trends in the movement itself, especially on the national level.

I understand why people would want abortion to be illegal. It makes sense for the unborn to have the protection of the law, pure and simple.

But you have to look no further than the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s to see what happens when a law is forced upon a population that does not support it. Despite being illegal nationwide, many people still drank alcohol. An entire industry of organized crime, backwoods 'stills and urban speakeasies sprang up to meet the demand. This underground economy gave opportunity to gangsters like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. The experience was such a colossal failure that it ended up killing the movement against alcohol. The movement not just for prohibition but also for temperance and moderation has been set back decades, if not forever. When is the last time you heard a sermon on temperance? I hope you have, but from what I can tell, they are much rarer than they used to be.

The pro-life movement can and must evolve into a movement that encourages a holistic culture of life—creating a society where abortion would simply not make sense anymore to anyone. Other options and other ways of looking at unplanned, unwanted or problematic pregnancies would be so prevalent. That's going to require everyone's "all in." Making abortion illegal is actually easy by comparison—it doesn't require most of us to change our lives, attitudes or behaviors. We can sit back and judge "those people" from what we think is a safe moral distance.

It is worth asking whether making abortion illegal in this time and place in history would have the net effect of saving lives. Those with resources would simply go abroad to have the procedure done (it's not the 1950's anymore, flights are readily accessible anywhere). There would no doubt be an industry of back alley abortions outside of any kind of regulation or oversight. Offenders could be punished by the law, but I wonder how many additional lives would be lost by botched procedures? Despite that, I'm sure that abortions would probably be significantly reduced  if it were made illegal, but that could get negated when you look at the long-term trajectory: Eventually, our pro-choice culture would revolt against this legislation, putting such strong nails in the coffin to make it hard to ever resurrect it again, with the pro-life movement no doubt in full retreat and unable to mount much of any resistance at that point (just like with the prohibition of alcohol). If by some miracle Roe v Wade were overturned and each stated voted against abortion, it still wouldn't stay illegal for long and that's the piece I never hear anyone mention.

Making abortion illegal would punish people (mainly women), but it may not stop abortions from happening. Those on the pro-choice side often accuse the pro-life movement of being punitive toward women. Making abortion illegal without an underlying culture of life to support it could potentially have that effect.

However, changing the goal of the pro-life movement from "making abortion illegal" to "saving lives" would be very freeing—and at the same time, challenging. Everyone would have to do their part, not just people in difficult pregnancies. It would be about nurturing and supporting people in all stages of life, rather than making life as difficult as possible as some kind of a moral test to see what they will do—we can all do some pretty rotten things when pushed to our limits.

It might also ease some of the tunnel vision. The pro-life movement has thoroughly been used and taken advantage of by politicians. They appreciate the votes but give very little in return outside of occasional showmanship and lip service. Pro-life voters are held hostage because of the distant possibility that politicians might actually do something about abortion rather than just use it to win elections and then play political football with later, always blaming the other party for failures. Pro-life voters have shown they will support the most vile candidates who do the most vile things in office (including murderous policies) in exchange for the *possibility* of anti-abortion legislation.

Stopping abortion does not have to happen legislatively. In fact, it probably cannot happen that way if it is going to be a sustainable cultural change. In our current cultural context, a legislative overturn of Roe vs. Wade would be punitive but not corrective, judgmental but not life-giving.

A final note: If the movement is going to carry the name "pro-life," then it must be a champion of just that—life. All life, all the time, everywhere. From conception to natural death. Otherwise, it is the "anti-abortion movement" but not the "pro-life movement." Words matter, and we need to be honest about what we are about.

In some ways, the anti-abortion movement has no choice. The moral strength of the movement is based on the fact that abortion is the taking of life. It is the taking of life that is wrong. Abortion is simply one instance where the taking of life happens. But if abortion is wrong, then the taking of all life is wrong. Moral theologians make distinctions and add qualifiers such as the "intentional" taking of "innocent" life, but the faith teaches us that all life has dignity. Activists need to pick and choose which causes to dedicate their limited time, talent and treasure toward, and some may chose abortion and not other issues. But it is important when doing so not to deny the legitimacy of other issues. If the pro-life movement is going to carry that name, then it needs to step up to the plate and be a champion of life itself. Those are big shoes. Either fill them or just call yourselves what you actually are. And by supporting other issues, such as ways to reduce poverty, reform immigration and address injustices in the criminal justice system, we may find that rates of abortion also go down in the wake.

My recommendation: The pro-life movement could get out of its stalemate by focusing more on saving lives than making abortion illegal—a subtle but significant distinction. This involves creating a widespread, holistic culture which is life-affirming from conception to natural death. Addressing poverty, immigration, criminal justice and wage theft are proven ways of reducing abortion rates, as well as simply being good neighbors who reach out to the people around us. You may never know how many abortions you might prevent by being a good mentor, neighbor, uncle or teacher, but statistics say you would be directly alleviating the stressors that people claim are the primary reasons that drive them to consider abortion. The movement would have an easier time seeing these connections if it adopted a truly holistic, consistent ethic of life.

Addendum:  I am not suggesting that the movement should entirely give up its goal of making abortion illegal—not at all.  But if that is going to be successful, the culture has to be willing to accept it or else a purely legislative change without the support of the people would most likely seriously backfire and send the movement back decades.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Where Charity and Love Prevail: The Matthew 25 Solidarity Test


Our society is so divided over many hot-button issues. There are conservative and liberal viewpoints, with variations of all kinds in between. It can be confusing to know what to think when half of the population seems to have strong opinions one way and seemingly the other half of the population has just as strong views on the other side.

When people express opinions about a particular issue, I always look to see how charitable they are in this. Do they take the concerns of others seriously and try their best to get to the bottom of it? Or do they simply dismiss their concerns outright without getting involved? That is often a clue as to whether their opinions are in line with Christian discipleship.

Jesus promises that he is close to the poor and suffering of the world. He is so close that he can say whatever is done to the "least of these" is also done to him (see Matthew 25:31-46). In this passage, he compels us to do the same through the works of mercy. This is a great model for how Christians can move and act in this world.

If you are trying to figure out what position to take on a controversial issue, you can use what I call the Matthew 25 Solidarity Test: Do you know the people who are affected by this issue? Have you walked in their shoes? Have you heard their concerns in their own words rather than from a third party? Are you so close to them that whatever happens to them also happens to you?

I'll use two hot-button issues to illustrate this point:  Racism in the U.S. and the struggle of refugees and undocumented immigrants.

Reports have been mounting in recent years of unarmed black people in America being killed or otherwise brutalized by police officers. There are so many reports that it is hard to dismiss them all as simply isolated incidents. Yet, some people are quick to say, "There is no racism in the U.S.!" It is strange how that is their first thought. It comes across as defensiveness and frankly just flat out denial. 

Anyone who studies statistics can tell you that a string of incidents does not necessarily prove that there is something like societal racism in play. Such things are difficult to prove and it can take years for the proper data and studies to come in. However, anyone who is even remotely charitable should recognize that we have a big problem. All indicators point to it. Even if we were to find out later that this treatment of African Americans is somehow NOT systemic racism (which I sincerely doubt), we should still be acting as if it were racism until we know for sure. That is what a charitable person would do. Until we get to the bottom of it, we should be doing everything possible to solve this. We should be sensitive, compassionate and diligent until this problem is solved. The fact that so many resist any effort to work on this issue just about proves the legitimacy of the charge of racism.

For example, if someone falls out of a tree and thinks he has broken his arm, the best thing to do is take him to the hospital. It is possible that the arm is not broken, but doctors will treat that person as if the arm is broken until they can properly diagnose. It would be cruel and inhumane to say, "quit crying, your arm is not broken!" without actually doing the necessary evaluation to know for sure. Yet, that is exactly how many in our culture are treating African Americans who present strong evidence of racism and are met with resistance, dismissals of their concerns and overall lack of interest.

The people who say that racism is not a factor are rarely (if ever) close to the issue. They seem to pronounce their judgement from their comfortable living rooms in very white neighborhoods. They aren't the people who are consoling grieving family members or helping a wounded and angry community heal. Those who are involved seem to have no problem recognizing the footprint of racism at work.

I see the same pattern over how we treat refugees and undocumented immigrants. The people who are closest to migrants—who hold their hands when a loved one is missing or who simply listen to them with open minds and hearts—these people overwhelmingly support a merciful approach to welcoming immigrants and granting hospitality whenever possible. Those who want to shut out immigrants and refugees with strict rules are usually people who have had no meaningful contact with those migrants and have rarely taken the time to fully understand their concerns.

An important note: It takes more than physical proximity to truly be in Christian solidarity with others. For example, police and the people they arrest are very close. The police physically touch them and they share a ride in a police car. However, despite sharing that space, they are often very far apart in terms of their life experiences and perspectives. People in segregated communities can often think they are close to each other. They see each other from behind their car windows or in limited interactions in public. They can fool themselves into thinking they understand the concerns of the other group. Segregated or confrontational relationships are not relationships of solidarity, and solidarity is what Jesus is requiring in Matthew 25.

Being in close solidarity with the poor and suffering of the world is no guarantee that you will always form the best opinions. However, in our culture that seems almost evenly divided on so many important issues, we are actually not very divided when we factor in solidarity. Looking at the issues of racism and immigration, those who are in solidarity with the affected groups overwhelmingly have a supportive, sympathetic opinion of their struggles while those with differing opinions are almost always those who are not in solidarity. I'm sure there are exceptions, but quite frankly, I have never met one. Exceptions must be very rare, if they exist at all. This is a pretty clear indicator to me that opinions on both sides are not equal in validity.

I'm reminded of the lyrics to the old church hymn:

Where charity and love prevail,
there God is ever found;
Brought here together by Christ’s love,
by love are we thus bound.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Book Recommendation: Thinking Theologically about Mass Incarceration

Click here to buy

It's hard to imagine a more urgent and timely topic: How can Christian churches understand and address the problems of racism, especially in its most current manifestation, mass incarceration?

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Thinking Theologically about Mass Incarceration, Biblical Foundations and Justice Imperatives.  Churches, seminaries, social action groups and other concerned Christians: This is a fantastic book for any Christian who wants to better understand—and take action on—racism in the U.S in its contemporary form: Mass incarceration.

26 writers—representing nearly as many Christian denominations—contributed brave essays, prophetic sermons and top-notch scholarly pieces on this very topic as part of the Faith & Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. It was the fruit of a multi-year process of vigorous discussion and discernment. The essays are powerful. 

Topics covered include racism, white supremacy/privilege, prison ministry and the main focus, mass incarceration.

Full disclosure: I am one of the authors who has a piece in this volume.

YOU CAN PURCHASE IT HERE.

This book is a great volume for prayer, study and action on this extremely important, contemporary issue! It's a "must have" for libraries, seminaries as well as personal and group reflection! It is academically robust, but it’s written in an accessible style so that non-experts can engage.  Thanks, Paulist Press!

What is mass incarceration?


If you talk about what racism was like before the Civil War, you couldn’t do that without talking about slavery—it’s most sinister manifestation. For 100 years after the Civil War, you couldn’t talk about racism without mentioning the way Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South institutionalized segregation and, along with it, racism. Today, you can’t really get a full grasp on the reality of racism without understanding how it manifests itself in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and the selective bias and privilege which fuel it.

Mass incarceration is the disproportionate treatment of people of color in all aspects of the criminal justice system—everything from shopkeepers being overly suspicious of black patrons to the statistics that say that people of color are more likely to be questioned by police (such as in a traffic stop), more likely to be searched, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be convicted and, once convicted, more likely to have the harshest sentences. And the only factor that seems to correlate to these differences is skin color. I’m only restating what has been said so well in Michelle Alexanders seminal book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

A young African American kid is shot and killed for sporting a water pistol in Cleveland, Ohio. A white man who was arrested after shooting 9 black people in Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is taken to the drive-thru at Burger King immediately after the incident. Perhaps a single incident could be excused for any number of reasons, but there are hundreds and hundreds of comparable examples all across the nation.

The end result is that African Americans have a familiarity with the criminal justice system that most Caucasian Americans will never have. This leaves empty spots in the pews, a gap in father-child relationships, a permanent mark on one's work history and a lifetime ban from voting. While some individual African Americans may fare well, the overall result of this is a permanent 2nd class caste system for African Americans in general.

What can we do about this?  And more specifically, what can our churches do about it? I recommend Thinking Theologically about Mass Incarceration, Biblical Foundations and Justice Imperatives to help with that.