Kids in cages: Our Joe McCarthy Moment?

McCarthyism in the 1950’s came to an end when an attorney named Joseph Nye Welch,  stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy and asked rhetorically: “Senator, have you no shame?”   McCarthy who saw a communist under every rock, had turned to accusing opponents often with little evidence.  People lost their livelihoods and sometimes their freedom.

It was this simple question, ‘have you no shame?’ which opened up a process of soul searching by citizens and elected officials.  With one pointed question, our nation was asked to consider the values that define who we are and more than that, who we strive to become.

Thankfully, enough people took the question to heart.  Our democracy turned from fear based behavior, to the values of decency and due process under the law.

We’ve come to such a time.  In recent months President Trump and his administration have enforced a ‘Zero-tolerance policy’ that serves to separate children from their parents who are crossing our borders without documentation. Chief of Staff, John Kelly put it this way: “Children would be separated from their parents if their families have been apprehended entering the country illegally, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous border.”

It was reported today that nearly 2,000 children have been removed from their parents in just six weeks.  Yesterday in a Washington Post article, Laura Bush spoke out forcibly against this policy: “I live in a border state.  I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/laura-bush-separating

Could it be that President Trump has finally met his Joe McCarthy moment?

In classic Trump mode, our president is doubling down on his zero-tolerance policy.  My hope and prayer is that he has met his match in the American people.  Met his match in the collective remembering of our core values.

 

The Counter-cultural Act of Being Civil

The state of our union is fractured.  We’ve moved into camps.  Most political conservatives have rallied around the flag of Donald Trump.  Liberals and moderates are looking ahead to the mid-term elections, hoping for a check on the policies of our president.

Within my Christian community the camps are clearly defined.  Theological conservatives for the most part have embraced Mr. Trump.  Fully 82% of white evangelicals voted for him and still think he’s doing a good job.   Theological liberals and moderates like me are perplexed how our Christian sisters and brothers come to such different conclusions.

Our polarized society has led people to no longer talk with but rather talking at and about each other.  The result is that the narrative of ‘the other’ as an opponent, even an enemy, is reinforced.

What to do?  Is there a third way beyond labeling and confrontation?

Recently I participated with a small group of clergy in a meeting with leaders of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).  We had sent a letter asking for a meeting for the purpose of humanizing and better understanding one another.

To be clear I have grave concerns regarding the policies of our current administration towards undocumented immigrants.  I also know I have the capacity to view those tasked with enforcing such policies (ICE) as the opposition.

With this in mind we sent the letter asking for a meeting.  To our surprise ICE responded quickly welcoming such a meeting.  The meeting consisted of two ICE officers (one a senior official) and four clergy: a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Pentecostal pastor whose congregation includes recent immigrants and me (an American Baptist pastor).

For an hour we had a civil conversation.   The clergy group asked questions regarding ICE priorities and methods. We voiced areas of concern.  The ICE officers shared their perspective.

We also got to know the ICE officers as people.  My sense was that these two officers, one who had been working in ICE for over twenty years, are people of integrity, trying to enforce policies in as humane a manner as possible.

Let me be clear.  I think the policies being enforced are often inhumane.  For example, the current policy to separate children from parents at the border, as a means of discouraging immigration, is morally bankrupt https://action.aclu.org/petition/separating-families.

Yet, I think it is unfair to paint all ICE officers with a broad brush stroke.  They don’t set the policy.  They are tasked with enforcing a policy which I suspect can take a toll on their emotional and spiritual well-being.

For my part I am going to continue advocating for a more humane immigration policy.  I will continue to stand with our undocumented neighbors at risk.  My faith teaches that I can do no other.

What I won’t do is paint all ICE with a broad brush stroke. I won’t label them.  I’ll keep the officers and their families  in my prayers, as I surely keep in prayer those arrested and detained and their families.

I’ll work and pray for an immigration system that doesn’t dehumanize those seeking a better future and those tasked with enforcement.  I’ll remember that everyone has a story.

Perhaps that is the answer to becoming a more humane and unified society.  Moving beyond labels and listening to the stories of others.   In listening we discover our common humanity.

 

Risking Everything

Life is full of risk.  This feels particularly true in our uncertain and chaotic time.

The nature of risk is to calculate the best course of action.  Sometimes the path forward is clear.  Other times uncertain.  Sometimes we have good options. Other times not.

We awaken at 3 a.m. working our worry beads as we seek to discern the best path forward, as we struggle to understand (and accept) what we can control and what we can’t.  The concerns we carry are legion: health issues, well-being of loved ones, concern for institutions and causes we hold dear.   We worry over the right path to take.

In the midst of my worry, I came across this poem by David Whyte.  It is a call to ‘risk ourselves for the world…to hazard ourselves for the right thing’.

WE ARE HERE

We are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world. We are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. And in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way….

From ‘LONGING’ In CONSOLATIONS:
The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
© 2015 David Whyte

The poem ends with this line ‘in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way….’

Uncertainty is a given.  The willingness to risk for a cause we believe in is our choice. So is the choice to be happy in the midst of the uncertainty.

For me as a person of faith my ‘happiness’ is rooted in the belief that God who is the source and author of love is with usWith us when we work our worry beads at 3 a.m..  With us when the path forward is uncertain.   With us when we risk for a  cause we believe in.

There are no guarantees in life.  We know this to be true.

But it is also true that in the midst of life’s uncertainty is the comfort in knowing that we journey not alone.  We look around and  find others to travel with, to work with, to risk alongside.

And for people of faith like me, we find strength in knowing that we journey not alone. A belief that the God who created heaven and earth is with us and goes before us, preparing the ground for that which is life-giving.

The theologian William Sloan Coffin offered this:

I love the recklessness of faith….first you leap and then you grow wings.

It takes courage to take a leap of faith.  William Sloan Coffin’s metaphor promises that wings will be provided when we need them the most.  When we feel vulnerable, anxious, uncertain.

None of us knows what the future holds but faith reminds us that we journey not alone.  And this graces us with moments of happiness along the way. Even in times of uncertainty and risk.

That’s good enough for me.

 

 

Radical Availability

For some people believing in God doesn’t work.  One friend, a scientist, requires proof that can be objectively quantified and measured.  Another friend attended a Christian seminary.  For a few years he served as a chaplain on a college campus.  But it didn’t fit for him.  He wasn’t a theist.  The concept of a God that is involved and engages our human condition doesn’t fit for everyone.

But that’s not me.

Since I was a boy I have been graced with a deep-seated belief that God is real.  My belief can’t be measured or quantified.  It is based not so much on doctrinal teachings but an experience of that which my tradition calls Spirit.  While my understanding of God continues to evolve, my awareness of a sacred presence remains with me.

In Judaism (Genesis 1: 1,2) the Spirit of God is reflected in the word ruach which speaks of the breath of the Creator bringing the cosmos into being.  In the Gospels the word for Spirit is pneuma which like ruach reflects the essence of the Divine being breathed into creation, including you and me.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruach_(Kabbalah) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneuma

Why does the Spirit resonate for some of us and not for others?

What I have is my experience and the stories that others share with me.  Experiences that are sometimes subtle and other times ecstatic.  Witnessing to the movement of the Creator’s breath being breathed into ordinary lives.

Theologian Gerrit Scott Brown offers that receiving the gift of  Spirit requires an openness. What he calls ‘radical availability’:

Heeding God’s call can mean leaving home and all that is familiar.  It can demand our accumulated wealth and security or dare us to place our blessings, even our lives, at risk. It can also mean simply living where we are but with an entirely new set of priorities. In every case, our particular vocation in God’s service arises from our response to the basic call to radical availability.

This Sunday in my tradition is Pentecost.  That day when the Holy Spirit entered into a dispirited, fearful group of Jesus’ followers.  The Spirit filled and transformed them.  Transformed from fear to courage, from despair to hope.  (Acts 2: 1 – 13)

The Spirit filled and inspired these ordinary men and women to leave the safety of what they knew, for the promise of being both blessed and a blessing.

For me the Spirit is real.  As familiar as the air I breathe and the sun against my face.

I can’t objectively prove, measure or quantify this ethereal gift called Spirit. Nor do I feel the need to.  All I can do is share my story and say ‘thank you’ for this gift.

Kindness, No Small Thing

I spend a fair amount of time in hospitals.  As a pastor I visit people in all sorts of circumstances.  Sometimes I’m sitting with my own family.  On one memorable occasion I  was the patient waiting for biopsy results, being prepped for surgery and then the process of recovery.

Being in a hospital provides ample time for waiting. We sit with our emotions or the emotions of others.  Often we feel vulnerable, placing our well-being or the well-being of a loved one, in the hands of another.   We wait, we pray, we hope.

I’m always mindful that each person has their own story….patients, family members and staff.  A hospital is a container for the emotions that make up the human condition: Anxiety, vulnerability, despair, grief, kindness, hope, healing.

In the intensity of this setting there is no such thing as a ‘small act of kindness’.


Recently I sat in a large hospital reception area sipping a cup of coffee.  To the side was a man seated at a piano.  As people waited for their appointment or for a loved one, he quietly played a variety of jazz and standards, making each piece his own.  An accomplished pianist his music was designed to help us relax.

One woman with tears released a long sigh.  A man holding a sleeping child closed his eyes and nodded his head to the music.  A few children held hands and danced.

Around his neck was a lanyard  which read’ volunteer’.  Thanking him for his kindness I asked how often he played at the hospital, he responded: ‘Once a week for a few hours.  I retired a few years ago from teaching and playing music allows me to give something back.  I know from experience that hospitals can be a stressful place.  If my music can make things a little easier, why not?’


We know, there is no such thing as a small act of kindness.  Every expression, particularly in the heightened setting of a hospital, is a blessing, a gift, a balm.

Thank you to the piano man. Thanks to each of you for the kindness you show.

 

Martin 50 Years Later

Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago.   Murdered as he confronted systemic injustice fueled by racism.  His civil rights advocacy led to the end of legal segregation and enforced voter suppression. What hasn’t changed is the persistence of racism.

On March 18th Stephon Clark was shot by police in his grandparents backyard in Sacramento.  Police were called to the neighborhood because of reports of a man breaking car windows. Two officers saw Stephon and fired 22 shots, eight hitting and killing him.  They thought he had a gun.  What he actually had in his hand was a cell phone.  Initial autopsy reports that the first six shots struck Stephon in the back. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/3/21/17149092/stephon-clark-police-shooting-sacramento

The shooting is currently under review.  If this is like most police shootings, no charges will be filed against the officers.  What this highlights is a racial bias in the so-called judicial system, against people of color, particularly against young men.  People of color make up a disproportionate percent of the prison population. People of color serve longer prison terms for the same offense as compared to a white person.

This was true in Dr. King’s day.  It’s true now.

Racism is also at work in our current political climate.  Scratch below the surface of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and Jeff Sessions and you’ll find racism.  In Mr. Trump’s world view, Mexicans are ‘murderers, rapists and drug dealers’.  In this world view we need to militarize our border.  We need to fear ‘the other’.  In almost every case ‘the other’ is a person of color.

Dr. King was martyred because he stood over against the fear and hatred of his time.  He was demonized by his opponents.  The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to continue Dr. King’s principles.  They too are demonized by their opponents.

So why do we talk about Dr. King’s dream  5o years later after his death?  Why didn’t the dream die with him?

Simply put, because he offers truth.  The truth that ‘hate is to great a price to pay’.  The truth that ‘only selfless love can make an enemy into a friend’.

Racism is a shape shifter.  It takes many forms.

Yet it has no place in a healthy society.  No place in a healthy person.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man guided by a source of wisdom that is eternal.  That comes from the very presence of God.

On one occasion King received word that his home in Montgomery had been bombed.  After reassuring himself about the safety of his wife and baby he had to confront the rage of a crowd bent on retaliation.  Dr. King said:

We cannot solve this problem of racism through  retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with nonviolence.  Remember the words of Jesus, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”…We must love our white brothers, our enemies,  no matter what they do to us.  We must  make them know that we loved them…We must meet hate with love.’

Martin King’s love was not passive.  It organized.  It confronted.  It persevered in the face of injustice.  His message offered a new way of being.

Dr. King didn’t believe in ‘us’ and them’.  For Martin there was only ‘us’.  May it be so.

 

 

 

Hope is Rising

With each school mass shooting my prayer is always the same: ‘May this be the tipping point that awakens us’.  Thurston High School, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and so many others.  But with each shooting the NRA doubles down.  Politicians who rely on the NRA for funding and political endorsement resist reasonable gun control.

But Parkland feels different.  Student leaders have risen from the trauma of seeing seventeen classmates murdered and fifteen wounded.  This time they say ‘thoughts and prayers’ won’t cut it.  What they are demanding is new gun control legislation (universal background checks, outlawing assault weapons and high capacity magazines).

They won’t back down.  They won’t go away.

I think of a prophecy in the Bible ‘ a child shall lead them’ (Isaiah 11: 6-9).   Perhaps the words of the Prophet have come to fulfillment yet again.  I hope  and pray  so.

Below is a powerful poem by Alison Luterman.  This poem speaks to the hope that these young leaders have stirred within me and my generation.

A new generation is stepping forward to lead.  To put a spotlight on the greed and hypocrisy of the gun merchants and their political lackeys.

It is time for my generation to follow. To encourage.  To support the change that is coming.  That must come.

No more Sandy Hooks. No more Parklands.


A new breed of activists is emerging.  Hope is rising.   Do you see them?  Will you add your voice to theirs?

 

The New Breed– for Emma Gonzalez and the other student activists

I see her on TV, screaming into a microphone.
Her head is shaved and she is beautiful
and seventeen, and her high school was just shot up,
she’s had to walk by friends lying in their own blood,
her teacher bleeding out,
and she’s my daughter, the one I never had,
and she’s your daughter and everyone’s daughter
and she’s her own woman, in the fullness of her young fire,
calling bullshit on politicians who take money from the gun-makers.
Tears rain down her face but she doesn’t stop shouting
she doesn’t apologize she keeps calling them out,
all of them all of us
who didn’t do enough to stop this thing.
And you can see the gray faces of those who have always held power
contort, utterly baffled
to face this new breed of young woman,
not silky, not compliant,
not caring if they call her a ten or a troll.
And she cries but she doesn’t stop
yelling truth into the microphone,
though her voice is raw and shaking
and the Florida sun is molten brass.
I’m three thousand miles away, thinking how
Neruda said The blood of the children
ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.
Only now she is, they are
raising a fuss, shouting down the walls of Jericho,
and it’s not that we road-weary elders
have been given the all-clear exactly,
but our shoulders do let down a little,
we breathe from a deeper place,
we say to each other,
Well, it looks like the baton
may be passing
to these next runners and they are
fleet as thought,
fiery as stars,
and we take another breath
and say to each other, The baton
has been passed, and we set off then
running hard behind them.

–Alison Luterman