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Occupy the Holy

 [This post was originally drafted in April, 2012.  Unfortunately, it is still relevant.]  As we commemorate Jesus’ final days, it’s worth recalling his mission of bringing “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).  Despite his insistence on helping the poor, many on the Christian Right actively oppose government support for those living in deprivation.  Rather than a morality of love their stance reflects an ethic of purity that is squarely at odds with Jesus’ ministry.

 Advocates for denying support for the poor justify government neglect by depicting poverty as self-inflicted, the result of “an awful lot of bad choices,.”  Deprivation is treated as reflecting deep seated character flaws that can only be cured by the Gospel.  Government assistance only compounds the problem because, in the words of the right wing Christian advocacy group Liberty Counsel, it “trap[s the poor] in dependence,” serving only to “enslave them in an endless cycle of poverty.”

This perspective idolizes the independent, self-reliant, and, above all, self-supporting individual as the model of righteousness.  The misguided and dependent poor share the status of the “unclean” of Jesus’ era: their condition makes them morally suspect. This attitude is reflected in the demeaning tests for receiving aid: drug tests for unemployment beneficiaries (which applicants must pay for) and fingerprinting food stamp recipients.

Blaming poverty on the “undeserving” poor is a well worn tactic, but it’s a grotesque distortion of the phenomenon of poverty in this society.  When poverty increased as a result of the deep recession, was it because there was an epidemic of bad character choices?  And what about the working poor?  They don’t fit the moralists’ model of the undeserving poor do they?  Yet there are 45 million people in low income working families, 1.7 million more than in 2008.  What about the elderly?  Over 18% of the elderly in this country were living in poverty in 2010 –– over 7 million people.  Are they plagued with bad character?  And children?  More than 1 in 5 of them are poor –– the result of bad choices?

Can we rely on the economy to solve the large and growing problem of poverty as Republican presidential candidates would have us believe?  No.  For the overwhelming majority of Americans the economy simply doesn’t work.  Instead, it overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy few.  In the first year of recovery after the recession, the top 1% of wage earners hauled in 93% of the income gains.  The same year the top 10% of wage earners reaped almost 50% of the total income produced by our economy.  As long as the economy is misshapen to such an extreme extent, it will fail to provide adequate support for tens of millions of our fellow citizens.  Without government support as many as 40 million more people would have sunk into poverty.  Far from seducing people into slavery, government support is keeping them from catastrophe and the despair that goes with it.

 

It’s time to repudiate the distorted images that come from the Christian right and return to Jesus’ message.  When he talked about the poor, he didn’t blame them, he comforted and fed them.  Unlike the rich and powerful in his society, who considered the poor the “least” in the society –– the least worthy, the least moral, the least clean –– he unequivocally identified with them, proclaiming them his brothers.

 

And they are ours, too.  In this Holy Week, let us occupy the holy ground, the place where we meet each other’s needs, where we stand together in community.  The place where Jesus leads us, where we love one another as sisters and brothers.  Let us occupy that place where all are worthy, where we become holy by caring for one another.

Official Brutality and the Voice of Conscience

Just over 20 years ago, Rodney King was savagely beaten by Los Angeles Police Officers.  This incident was almost routine in the Los Angeles Police Department at the time, and would have passed without notice except for an amateur video of the beating.

Rodney King 1991

When the brutality became public, the outcry was loud and widespread, with then President George H.W. Bush calling it “sickening” and the Mayor appointing a blue ribbon commission to investigate the event.  By grabbing public attention recordings of official misconduct can spark calls for accountability, as well as discussion about the ways that the larger culture fosters  such brutality by our representatives.But in one instance even audio and video recordings of a beating worse than Rodney King’s has failed to rouse any public response.  There has been no accountability for a killing at the hands of federal agents.  Only silence in the face of that killing, silence about the poisonous atmosphere of racist rhetoric around immigration and the vigilante legislation which is its fruit.  This passive acquiescence calls progressive faith communities to witness to both the savagery of this killing and the racist dehumanization of immigrants that has spawned it.

In early June, 2010 Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, a 27-year resident of San Diego and father of five children was taken, separately from the official group of undocumented immigrants, to the border to be deported to Mexico.  While handcuffed and face down on the ground with his legs hogtied, surrounded by about a dozen Border Patrol agents, he was repeatedly beaten and Tasered.  One agent stripped Hernandez Rojas of his pants.  Hernandez Rojas’ screams for help and pleas for his life are audible in an eyewitness’s recording of the event, a former National Guardsman who tried to intervene to help him.  The beating and Tasering was also video recorded by another eyewitness.   The recordings and the testimony of the eyewitnesses squarely repudiate the agents’ account of the event.   The recordings and the testimony of the eyewitnesses squarely repudiate the agents’ account of the event.  The agents literally beat Hernandez

Anastacio Hernandez Rojas 2010

Rojas to death; the injuries he suffered were so severe the San Diego coroner ruled his death a homicide. One eyewitness said she “witnessed someone being murdered.”  After two years the Department of Justice has taken no action in the case and is apparently uninterested in the recordings.This event has been exhaustively investigated by Need to Know and The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, as part of a broader investigation into the 8 immigrants who have been killed by Border Patrol agents in the last two years.  These killings include a 15 year old who was shot to death by an agent while standing in Mexico, and more than one person who was shot in the back.  In none of these cases has there been any action taken by any public agency.  These deaths themselves are part of a persistent pattern of abuse inflicted on immigrants by Border Patrol agents, ranging from this lethal violence to denying food, water, and medical treatment, and to outright torture.

These reports of persistent misconduct call for accountability from the agency whose members are involved.  But the pattern they reveal also demands an examination of the broader culture of the society that licenses the use of violence by its officials and then turns its back on the abuse of that authority.  As in the Rodney King case, the camera’s eyewitness should provoke an outcry about the drumbeat of vilifying rhetoric that renders migrants less than human and thus fuels the lawless violence against them.

But there has been no outcry.  And the shameful record of the Border Patrol makes clear that there will be no accountability unless a chorus of voices insists on it.  When no one else raises their voice, faith communities must, because, as Dr. King reminds us, the church “is the conscience of the state…the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

There are times when mounting brutality is numbing, and when the culture so marginalizes a group, as ours has done to immigrants, that violence against them does not shock or even disturb most people. Inaction by the Department whose name is Justice, and silence by institutions that proclaim brotherhood are signs of deadened souls.  Faith communities must summon and nourish the maladjustment Dr. King spoke of:  “[T]here are certain things in our nation and in our world to which I am proud to be maladjusted. And to which I hope all men of good will be maladjusted…And through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”  Faith communities can shine a light on this official savagery and illuminate the path to justice.  The first step on that path is speaking out.  Loudly and definitively.  Speaking out for Anastacio, for his wife and their children.

Sign the Petition calling on the Department of Justice to act – http://act.presente.org/sign/anastasio/?source=presente_website

Holy Callousness

Rep. Paul Ryan’s claim that his budget, which slashes billions from programs to support those hardest hit by the recession, best embodies Catholic teaching, especially the preferential option for the poor, deserves close scrutiny, because it is a model for enlisting religion in the cause of neglecting the most vulnerable in society.  He demonstrates how conservative religionists twist their faith to anoint injustice.

First, he stigmatizes the poor for their poverty; it’s the first step in denying any collective responsibility for their plight. But the charge that most government support goes to “the undeserving poor” is a grotesque lie. More than 90% of aid, according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, goes to the “people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.”  Cutting off aid to these people will not save them from the mythical “dependence” on government; it will push them into severe deprivation they are powerless to do anything about.

“Dependence” is a double barreled weapon for those pushing for cuts in government aid.  It not only personalizes a problem best understood as an institutional one –– an economy that doesn’t work where nearly 1 in 3 families, 45 million people, have barely enough to get by.  At the same time it demonizes government efforts to help those in need, asserting that those efforts “crowd out” the work of others.  It’s nonsensical to believe that other institutions are straining at the bit to alleviate poverty, but are held back because someone else is working on that as well.  Nor is there any discussion of the ability of non-governmental organizationsto even begin to address the

"When did we see you hungry?" - Matthew 25:37

pervasive deprivation in our society.  And Ryan is silent on the huge positive impact of these programs in reducing poverty –– the food stamp program alone cut poverty by 8% in 2009, sparing close to 4 million people further misery.  The billions in cuts Ryan calls for would eliminate aid for millions of those people.A chorus of Catholic voices has rebutted Ryan’s claim that his budget is in line with the church’s teaching, repudiating his stance as “morally indefensible” and the misuse of the Catholic faith “to bless an immoral agenda.”  “We join with other Christian leaders,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared, “in calling for a ‘circle of protection’ around our brothers and sisters at home and abroad who are poor and vulnerable.”

Ryan’s claim that government should stop helping the poor is unequivocally repudiated by Catholic social teaching.  The classic statement of that teaching by the Bishops, Economic Justice For All (1986), declared ,“The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice…[G]overnment has a moral function: protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all members of the commonwealth.”

Stigmatizing the poor and discrediting government are part of a larger effort to amputate the ties that bind us, to reduce our

No society, just isolated individuals.

commonwealth to a group of unrelated, isolated individuals.  Ryan and his ilk want to actualize Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “there is no such thing as society,” just individuals and families.

Without a government that expresses and embodies our connectedness, our sense of shared humanity will wither.  When that happens the poor and vulnerable will bear the miserable brunt of our callous neglect, but all of us will feel the shriveling of our souls.  The Ryan budget is a giant step toward that collective uncaring.

Tar Babies and Conquest

Rep. Michele Bachman’s remark that President Obama is “waving a tar baby in the air” is the latest instance in the longstanding strategy of right wing political talk in this country: demean people of color and associate political opponents with this suspect group.  That’s why race is so often implicated in their criticism of President Obama.  It may be subtle like a “dog whistle,”or as

The Tar Baby

overt as a “siren,” but the strategy persists.This is not just a matter of rhetoric; it’s also embodied in right wing legislation intended to appeal to the conservative base by targeting people of color: the Michigan emergency financial managers law threatening to deprive more than half of the state’s African Americans of local democracy; voter suppression laws that disproportionately hinder people of color; and harsh immigration laws that invite racial profiling.These laws and language are the vile residue of a history that goes back to the colonization of this continent by western Europeans.  In 1452 Pope Nicholas V gave full throated religious sanction to the conquest of this continent and the subjugation of its inhabitants in the “Doctrine of Discovery.”  The Pope purported to grant “permission” to King Alfonso V of Portugal to conquer and enslave native peoples throughout the world.  These children of God were, according to the 19th century international law expert Henry Wheaton, seen as “the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

The Church has repeatedly reaffirmed and never renounced this doctrine, despite a request in 2009 that it do so.  Protestants have claimed identical rights under the doctrine, and it was incorporated into U.S. law in the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).  In the court’s unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that, despite the natives’ long tenure on the land, European colonizers acquired sovereign title to it, including the power to evict the occupants.  A later case declared that Indian tribes were not sovereign, but were, according to Steve Newcomb, a Shawnee American authority on the doctrine, “subject to the federal government’s absolute legislative authority.”This assertion of absolute power in the U.S.

'The lawful prey of their civilized conquerors'

government has justified broken treaties, stolen land, forcible removal of indigenous peoples, and massacres.This pernicious doctrine is still with us as an active legal principle, cited by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2005, and in the wounds that afflict Native American communities today ––extreme poverty, substance abuse, and sexual and domestic violence.

The subordination and domination of indigenous people which the doctrine encouraged has also helped shape the cultural mindset that reflexively demeans people of color, while promoting the continued domination of whites.  Too many people, vocalist Nanci Griffith sings,

Thank the Lord for the land that they live in, / Where the white man does as he pleases.

It is especially fitting that religious communities have the opportunity to take the lead in repudiating this doctrine, as it originated in and has long been sanctioned by religion. The Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches have already denounced it, and the Unitarian Universalists will consider it at our upcoming Justice General Assembly in June.  Our governing Board calls for healing the “profound brokenness deeply embedded in our national identity” by repudiating the doctrine as “a step toward restoring right relationship among the peoples of this land.”

Other faiths are being asked to take this action.  The doctrine contradicts virtually every religion in its determination to “divide and conquer” –– divide humanity into dominant and subordinate groups and then piously demeaning and subduing those deemed inferior –– with words or weapons.  But at its best religion affirms the oneness of the human family, calling its adherents to unite and love –– to make our oneness a living reality by bringing all persons into community.  That means striking down barriers that divide us, and standing with the “least” among us –– those victimized by injustice and cast out of our communities.  Religious organizations should live the reality of that faith by repudiating the past that rejected it.

Find out more about the Doctrine of Discovery:

http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/

http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html

http://law.lclark.edu/faculty/robert_miller/website/

http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/189502.shtml

Who is George Zimmerman to us?

 The wall to wall coverage of George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin has been all over the lot.   For many, this tragic event has led to fruitful reflection and conversation about the larger currents of race and violence that flow through American culture. George Zimmerman has understandably been the focus of much of the public’s attention, which raises the question of how we see him.  Who is George Zimmerman for us?  The answer is complicated, and simple.

Ama Yawson answered the question of who he is by concluding “I am George Zimmerman,” because she was “not yet able to observe all others in a completely neutral fashion without ascribing some negative or positive values to them based on the combination of their race, ethnicity, age, religion, clothing and or other characteristics.”  Coming as it does from an African American woman, her confession is a compelling invitation for people to reflect on whether that is also true for them.

Sean Thomas Breitfeld answers the question with another: “Could I be both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?,” probing the complexities of race where two people of color are involved while showing how those complexities don’t negate the fact that “the 21st century’s racial hierarchy may have more layers between black and white, but still has darker skin firmly at the bottom.”  Breitfeld also shows how the racial undertones should not distract from the way “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law fosters a vigilante mentality” that ‘collides and conspires’ with racism to spark this kind of tragedy.  As Melissa Harris Perry points out, the racial profiling embedded in and encouraged by recent legislation sparks pervasive suspicion of people of color.

As an expression of that vigilante mentality, and infected with the mindset that sees black men as threats and therefore targets, George Zimmerman embodies much of what we fight against.  He is our enemy.  So what does Jesus’ imperative to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-31) mean here?

It means accountability.  We hold people we love accountable for their actions, not merely to enforce a moral code we believe in, but because living in community with others to whom we are accountable is fundamental to what it means to be human.  “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper,” Dr. King said, “because we are our brother’s brother.”

But the criminal punishment system is a blunt instrument for achieving accountability.   Zimmerman’s rights as a defendant

"I was in prison and you visited me" - Matthew 25:36

must be fully respected, yes, but Jesus’ imperative goes further.  The lust for vengeance has been legitimized in our society, institutionalized in the punishment system. As retribution is more insistently invoked as the goal of “justice,” more and more severe penalties are imposed.  Vigilantism against George Zimmerman, exemplified by the attempt to publish his parents’ address, is now and will be an ever present temptation.  Many feel the honor they give the victim is measured by the pain they inflict on the perpetrator.  Those who affirm Jesus’ imperative must not just resist vengeance, but challenge it, in this case and throughout our criminal system.  We must work for accountability through alternatives to retribution that recognize the humanity of those whom the system now demonizes and degrades.

Lastly, those who take Jesus’ imperative to their hearts must grieve.  We must grieve for Trayvon Martin, his family and friends, for his life so needlessly cut off.  And we must grieve for George Zimmerman, for whatever soul sickness may have afflicted him, and for the trials he will face for the rest of his life.  We must grieve for our human family, because our brother killed our son.

Both our family

 Check out these resources for alternatives to retribution in the criminal system:

http://www.restorativejustice.org/

http://www.pfi.org/cjr/restorative-justice/introduction-to-restorative-justice-practice-and-outcomes/briefings/what-is-restorative-justice

http://www.rjca-inc.org/

Occupy the Holy

As we commemorate Jesus’ final days, it’s worth recalling his mission of bringing “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).  Despite his insistence on helping the poor, many on the Christian Right actively oppose government support for those living in deprivation.  Rather than a morality of love their stance reflects an ethic of purity that is squarely at odds with Jesus’ ministry.

Advocates for denying support for the poor justify government neglect by depicting poverty as self-inflicted, the result of “an awful lot of bad choices.”  Deprivation is treated as reflecting deep seated character flaws that can only be cured by the Gospel.  Government assistance only compounds the problem because, in the words of the right wing Christian advocacy group Liberty Counsel, it “trap[s the poor] in dependence,” serving only to “enslave them in an endless cycle of poverty.”

"I was hungry and you gave me food." - Matthew 25:35

This perspective idolizes the independent, self-reliant, and, above all, self-supporting individual as the model of righteousness.  The misguided and dependent poor share the status of the “unclean” of Jesus’ era: their condition makes them morally suspect. This attitude is reflected in the demeaning tests for receiving aid: drug tests for unemployment beneficiaries (which applicants must pay for) and fingerprinting food stamp recipients.

Blaming poverty on the “undeserving” poor is a well worn tactic, but it’s a grotesque distortion of the phenomenon of poverty in this society.  When poverty increased as a result of the deep recession, was it because there was an epidemic of bad character choices?  And what about the working poor?  They don’t fit the moralists’ model of the undeserving poor do they?  Yet there are 45 million people in low income working families, 1.7 million more than in 2008.  What about the elderly?  Over 18% of the elderly in this country were living in poverty in 2010 –– over 7 million people.  Are they plagued with bad character?  And children?  More than 1 in 5 of them are poor–– the result of bad choices?

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" - Luke 6:20

Can we rely on the economy to solve the large and growing problem of poverty as Republican presidential candidates would have us believe?  No.  For the overwhelming majority of Americans the economy simply doesn’t work.  Instead, it overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy few.  In the first year of recovery after the recession, the top 1% of wage earners hauled in 93% of the income gains.  The same year the top 10% of wage earners reaped almost 50% of the total income produced by our economy.  As long as the economy is misshapen to such an extreme extent, it will fail to provide adequate support for tens of millions of our fellow citizens.  Without government support as many as 40 million more people would have sunk into poverty.  Far from seducing people into slavery, government support is keeping them from catastrophe and the despair that goes with it.

This week is a good time to repudiate the distorted images that come from the Christian right and return to Jesus’ message.  When he talked about the poor, he didn’t blame them, he comforted and fed them.  Unlike the rich and powerful in his society, who considered the poor the “least” in the society –– the least worthy, the least moral, the least clean –– he unequivocally identified with them, proclaiming them his brothers.

And they are ours, too.  In this Holy Week, let us occupy the holy ground, the place where we meet each other’s needs, where we stand together in community.  The place where Jesus leads us, where we love one another as sisters and brothers.  Let us occupy that place where all are worthy, where we become holy by caring for one another.

"When you give a banquet, invite the poor." - Luke 14:13

"And you will be blessed."

The Truth Written in Blood

An unarmed black youth gunned down by a neighborhood “protector.”  Soldiers kill civilians on two sides of the world; 17 dead in their own country, two others in this country, the mother and sister of the killer.  The media narrative focuses on the individuals –– each case is unique, all are aberrations –– avoiding the broader reality: our nation is steeped in blood.  But if we have eyes to see, these killings, and the countless others that have now become routine in our country, reveal the unpalatable truth: our society is defined by a culture of violence of which these killings are just the latest sign.

The soldiers’ killings point to our government’s relentless hunger for warfare, gruesome reminders that the price of war is not just its victims’ lives, but the humanity of those who wage it.  When ‘soldiers do nothing but meditate on blood,’ Shakespeare writes, ‘they grow like savages.’  Too often “the brutality of the battlefield,” Chris Hedges states, “is carried over into personal life.”  All boundaries between combatants and civilians, battlefield and home, protection and attack, are eroded; violence insinuates itself everywhere. 

The brutality infects the entire society.  Our government’s militarism feeds off the pervasive devotion to violence among our fellow citizens. Violence “simply appears to be the nature of things,” Walter Wink observes.  “It is what works.”  For far too many Americans it is good.  The craving for security and simple solutions leads many to exalt violence to the status of a god, a jealous god that demands human sacrifice.  It feeds not just on its victims, but on the most savage impulses in us.  In Shakespeare it is not just soldiers that “grow like savages” under the sway of “blood,” but everyone: “our houses and ourselves and our children.”

How to fight this insidious beast?  How can those of us whose faith is grounded in divine love heed the call to “come out” of the culture of violence ‘so that we do not take part in its sins and share its plagues’ (Revelations 18:4)?  For Wink the journey to a life lived in nonviolent resistance to war and injustice requires both individual and collective action.  He urges us to transform our own inner aggression into a source of strength to use against violence and the deprivations and injustices that oppress our neighbors –– racism, despotism, and economic injustice.  We also need to learn and tell the stories of personal and collective witness for peace and justice, from Jewish resistance to Pilate’s compulsory idolatry in 26 C.E to Poland’s Solidarity to the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring.  And we need to join with others who are doing this work.  Here are some organizations which are.

Until we smash the idol of violence in our own lives and in the life of our society, the killings –– at home and abroad –– will continue.

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