Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making Strangers into Friends

A post by Michelle Thorne

A few years ago I took a spiritual gifts test for a seminary class and was absolutely blown away by the results. Voluntary poverty. Yes, that’s right. Voluntary poverty somehow beat everything else out for the number one spot. Not something that I had ever expected or even believed about myself. Perhaps the gifts assessment was more an assessment of where I want to be, or where I felt I should be, but it definitely was not how I was living currently.

I was reminded of this result recently as I was reading a book by Henri Nouwen, entitled Reaching Out. In it, he writes, “It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host. Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend” (73). This statement resonated with me so deeply that I am still chewing on it. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.

The prophet Jonah was called to preach impending destruction to the people of Nineveh. Already disgruntled about his mission, when his message prompts the people to repent and God decides instead to spare the city, Jonah becomes angry: ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Jonah 4:1-3)

Why is Jonah so upset? Who or what is Jonah defending by his anger? Jonah is having a difficult time accepting that God could show grace and mercy to such cruel people like the Assyrians (whose capital was Nineveh). It is almost as if this mercy were an imperfection, a weakness, which Jonah notices in God’s character. Because the Assyrians were the enemies of his people, Jonah’s pride and defensive stance of his nation and people provoke him to this rather offensive position against the Assyrians. Jonah’s response is dramatic - he would rather die than accept a God who is abundantly compassionate and the forgiveness and pardon this God offers to the city of Nineveh. Jonah is full of pride, self-righteousness, and a spirit willing to revel in the peoples’ annihilation. He lacks the poverty necessary (that of an open and empty spirit) to convert his enemies into friends.

If we are honest with ourselves, we too are often quite like Jonah. We divide the people in this world and our relationships between good and bad, friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors. Furthermore, we, especially in the United States, are often so full that we too lack the poverty to convert strangers into friends. As long as we are filled to the brim with our pride, our material attachments, our selfish thoughts, our idolization of nation, our prejudice and discrimination (based on gender, sexual orientation, race, citizenship, religion, etc.) we lack the ability to show real hospitality to others.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This same poverty of spirit that Jesus mentioned is exactly what Jonah lacked. Poverty of spirit means that we know that our place at the table of grace is a gift from God. Poverty of spirit means that God’s grace has opened our hearts to see other people as God sees them, with dignity and value. Poverty of spirit means that we approach others as equals, not with feelings of superiority or entitlement or with a paternalistic attitude.

We are at a time in our nation’s history, where our superabundance has been called into question. We have begun to feel the repercussions of our greed and our selfishness. Wrong though it may be, we believe that the easy way out of our crisis is to retreat, to close the doors, and to blame the stranger. Wrong though it may be, we clutch our fists and raise our arms to defend our space from the multiple enemies that have come uninvited and undeservedly to pollute our nation with their culture, religion, and accents.

What would it look like to say, “Welcome!” instead of fiercely guarding our “high ground”? What would it look like to offer real hospitality, to let my house be your house, my difficulties be your difficulties, and my celebrations your celebrations? What would it look like to have nothing to defend, but everything to give? What would it look like to really share life together?

During this Lent, let us covenant to empty ourselves, so that with a poverty of spirit we may be able to be more hospitable to the immigrants among us, each as a nation, as congregations, as families, and as individuals. May we always be about the business of converting strangers into friends!!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Undocumented and Unafraid: No Tenemos Miedo

A post by Rev. Yvette Schock

One day in Tucson last summer, as I wove a path through the crowds at a demonstration against SB1070, a young woman approached and held out to me a sign from the stack she had clasped under her arm. On the front was a brightly colored image of another young woman holding a sign that read in bold, block letters, “UNDOCUMENTED, UNAFRAID: NO TENEMOS MIEDO.” I stopped walking, seized by a moment of indecision—I am not an undocumented immigrant, and I do not have to fear the things an undocumented immigrant might, so, I wondered, what did it mean for me to carry this image and these words? Could it be a declaration of solidarity and support for families and students refusing to live in the shadows, and a denunciation of an economic system that requires the existence of an underclass and of a society and political leaders who accept it? Did it honor the courage of immigrant advocates, or was it just a shadow gesture made by someone who risked very little by showing up at a demonstration, in contrast to those who risked a great deal? My moment of indecision didn’t last long; I decided not to overthink it (I’m often guilty of this), held the sign high, and joined in the chanting and singing of the crowd.

But the sign came home from Tucson with me; it sits propped against the wall opposite my desk, and I have had months to reflect on the significance of its message—how it speaks within the context of these times, and what it demands of me in particular. I have begun to reads its words as the kind of defiant, hopeful, confident, David-confronting-Goliath statement of faith we hear again and again in the Psalms. In the face of all kinds of dangers and anxieties, the Psalmists often declared their trust in God and their defiance of any human who might harm them using these words, or something very like them:

In God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
(Psalm 56:4)

It’s not just the Psalmists: very, very often in Scripture, when messengers from God arrive to bring comfort, hope and challenge to people in all kinds of precarious situations, they usually begin the same way: “Do not be afraid.” Maybe it’s because coming face-to-face all of a sudden with a messenger from God is a startling experience, or maybe it’s because God’s messengers so often appear to people with plenty of reason to be afraid, but I think it might also be because of what fear does to us. Fear causes us to shrink, to turn inward, to turn away from God and from others. When God’s messengers arrive, it’s usually not only to comfort and reassure, but also to challenge and move us to action. People who are shrinking in fear are in no state to hear God’s promises, to joyfully dive into the powerful current of God’s vision of life and abundance for our world and allow that current to redirect their lives, to answer God’s call to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

And so, when God’s messengers appear in the stories of our faith, they send up a flare for us: they prepare their listeners (and us, the readers) to hear and receive the promise and challenge that is coming next by reminding them (and us): Do not be afraid. God appears to Abram, elderly and childless, and declares: “Do not be afraid…Look up at the sky and count the stars…so shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15). When Abram’s wife, Sarai, sends her slave, Hagar and her son (by Abram) into the desert to die, God hears their cries and promises: “Hagar, do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 21) God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, saying to the Hebrew people in exile, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west” (Isaiah 43:5). The angel Gabriel appears to Mary to declare, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:30-32)

Fear, it seems, has no part in God’s vision of justice and wholeness for our world, nor in God’s way of working in the world. But fear has it uses for those who would wield it as their tool—human history is littered with far too many stories about political leaders stirring up fear of a particular group of people to distract from a problem the leader may not be able to address, to disguise their own shortcomings or corruption, to maintain their positions of power. Perhaps this is another reason why “Do not be afraid” is the refrain that begins each telling of God’s promises—to point out the universe of difference between God’s order and the order of empires.

Our society is no exception. It is crowded with voices that aim to stir up fear in immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike—candidates for public office, governors, state representatives, county sheriffs and Members of Congress who do not hesitate to paint immigrants in our communities as enemies, criminals, threats to our country’s security and to our families’ well-being; sponsors of state legislation that aims to make life difficult for undocumented immigrants. ICE agents waiting outside of apartment buildings or trolling in grocery store parking lots, increasing numbers of deportations that begin with a routine traffic stop, the threat of immigrant parents being separated from U.S. citizen children—all of these policies and practices are stirring up fear within immigrant communities, and for some, stirring up fear is the point. Though I don’t think the Obama administration would admit this, current immigration enforcement policy, in the absence of immigration reform, is, in effect, a program of attrition through enforcement—a strategy that banks on creating fear and suffering in immigration communities.

And yet some in those very communities are refusing to turn inward, to shrink in fear. I don’t know when the phrase “Undocumented and unafraid” first came into use in the movement for just immigration reform, but one account points to youth leaders working to pass the DREAM Act as the source, which wouldn’t surprise me. A number of DREAM students walked from Florida to Washington, DC early last year, declaring all the way that they were undocumented and unafraid. I imagine them walking through counties with 287g agreements in operation, and meeting with unsympathetic law enforcement officials or Members of Congress, living the words of the Psalmists:

In God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

They refused to give power to fear, refused to be turned inward, away from their families, their communities, or God.

Perhaps these are messengers from God in our time—they do not come to us encouraging us “Do not be afraid”, but challenge us through their example, their declaration that they are unafraid.

I haven’t answered all of my own questions about the poster from the Tucson demonstration, but I have come to see it as a kind of icon—a living image that reaches out of its frame, grabs my hand, and points me to pay attention to these messengers of our time, to follow the path of the migrant Christ: the One who walks with DREAM students on the way to Washington, D.C., who lives inside apartment buildings where ICE agents wait outside, who sits with school children as they wait for their parents to come home from work, half afraid that they might not arrive; the One who calls us to reject a life shadowed by fear and to seek justice for all people.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Following Bud Fox and Esther in Resisting Temptation

A post by Bill Mefford

It was through the 1987 film, Wall Street, that I learned more about temptation than I ever learned at church. In the film Bud Fox opts for a quick path to affluence by ignoring the ethical constructs with which he was raised. For Fox, it is a battle between two fathers for control of his identity, even his soul. His father, played by Martin Sheen, is the airline mechanic who, though continually beaten down by forces much greater than himself, finds his power through his solidarity with his union and his unwavering belief that hard, steady, honest work is the only way to progress in life and as a person.

Gordon Gecko, on the other hand, is the father of Fox's ambitions: a man of power and wealth, whose monologues throughout the film reflect a cycnical realism where the individual is the final arbiter of all that is good and right. Justice, for Gecko, is ultimately utilitarian; doing anything to maintain one's own position and security at the top of the established social order. At the end of the film, Fox faces an impending jail term for giving in to the temptations offered by Gecko, yet experiences his liberation as he tells Gecko that he betrayed Gecko because he realized in all his attempts to be like Gordon Gecko, he will always just be Bud Fox. His father's ethic is rediscovered and it is that which saves Fox.

Many of these same lessons are found throughout Scripture of course, as we see once again in the story of Esther, which we discussed last week. In this book, all of the characters face temptations as well. And I believe these are instructive for where we are in our struggle to defend the rights of immigrants.

To recall, Haman schemes his way into the number two position in the Assyrian Kingdom and takes great offense at Mordecai's refusal to bow down before him. Haman, like Gecko, determines that justice is best attained through securing one's position and security by any and all means, including elimination of those who oppose him. Any attempts to challenge the rigid social order are seen as subversive to the point that Mordecai becomes a public enemy of the state, and he and his race must be annihilated.

While I think there are challenges to comparing the Scriptural context to the current day, I believe we can find points of convergence in some of the underlying values and messages. For instance, Haman's treatment of Mordecai and the Jews is an extreme form of objectification as he carelessly is willing to throw their lives away when they no longer are deemed useful. While not nearly as extreme, this corresponds with the way that immigrants are often treated today. While it is commonly said by the media and elected leaders, including the President, that immigrants often do the jobs no other Americans want to do and that they are necessary to our economy, there has been little public outcry against the state-sponsored terror initiated by the Bush Administration and increased exponentially by the Obama Administration through indiscriminate raids, indefinite detention, and an alarming increase in the deportations of immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a mass family separation strategy and it is nothing less than immoral. The economic usefulness of immigrants, the demonization of immigrants by the media and elected leaders, the tragic number of deaths in the desert with zero public concern, and the state-sponsored terror directed against them reveal our society's objectification of immigrants.

More instructive though from the story of Esther are the temptations both Mordecai and Esther faced and how they responded.

Mordecai, in chapter 4, is presented with an alluring temptation that could have been disastrous for him and his people. Mordecai, joined by others in provinces where the edict to destroy the Jews was read, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and protests in front of the city gate in order to move Esther to action. Esther's isolation by her place in society is so entrenched that she has no idea what is happening to her own people. Her handmaidens are the ones who have to come and tell her about Mordecai sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

What is so stunning of course, is her response to Mordecai's protest: she sends down clothes for him to put on. Thus, the temptation for Mordecai is to react to Esther's tepid action by stopping his protest and perhaps trying other (more acceptable) ways to protest this edict. Or he could simply accept the current social order where Jews have no rights and are mere objects for the Assyrian rulers to use and then throw away.

Mordecai's choice, I believe, is in some ways a similar choice facing immigrant communities today. Immigrants can accept the status of objects, less than human, used for building the U.S. economy by working perpetually in low-income jobs no one wants, or waiting to be forceably ripped apart from their families and detained in private prisons for months at a time before being deported. Immigrants can be satisfied with the nice rhetoric of the President as he speaks of the importance of immigrants in the history of the United States and of his support for such things like "comprehensive immigration reform" while his policies continue to break up families and deport people at an unbelievable pace. The hypocrisy is stunning. The Administration mouths the words of compassion, while engaging in policies that are terrorizing.

Mordecai refused to accept the clothes sent down by Esther. And in doing so, he refuses to let her off the hook. She must act, she must risk, she must use her access to power redemptively so that those, like Mordecai, who do not have that same access may move from objectification to humanization. Immigrants can follow Mordecai and refuse to buy the rhetoric of politicians like President Obama and force him to act, to risk, to use his political capitol for the good of others and not merely for his own re-election. Immigrants can force him even now to stop such programs of state-sponsored terror as 287g and Secure Communities, and to grant administrative relief to DREAM Act students and the families of citizen children.

And of course, Esther faces her own temptations as well. She tries to get out of risky engagement by sending down clothes to Mordecai. That could have been so easy. Just do a little mercy, satisfy the immediate need identified from the comfort of her (suburban) palace (by other people than herself no less), and she could have gone on with her life. But Mordecai refuses the clothes, reminds her that her own life, her own identity that she has somehow forgotten because of her rise to affluence, is also at stake. And so she now must risk, she must reach out in her position and urge the King to rescind the edict.

She of course does and saves her people. She resists the temptation to allow herself to be paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice, or the enormity of the force of government bearing down on her people. What she did was utter bravery. She resists the temptation to allow her perspective to be tainted - as it so often is for those who benefit from the social order - to see the problem of injustice as one that is actually the problem of the victims than a problem of unjust systems. She could have easily joined others in saying that Mordecai "earned" his fate by not bowing down. No, Esther redemptively uses her place in society to defend the rights of her people, the Jews.

And should we.

Those of us in positions of power (those of us with legal status, in other words) must resist the temptation to feel overwhelmed by the power of the federal government being used right now in a mass family separation strategy and instead, we must fight harder than ever against the enforcement-first (read enforcement-only) strategy of the Obama Administration. We must act and risk our own position in the social order to push President Obama to do the same and provide administrative relief for undocumented immigrants. We must resist the temptation, as benefactors of the current social order, to join the media (and it is not just Fox News) and elected leaders in blaming immigrants for the mess of the broken system. It is not their fault, and they should not be forced to endure state-sponsored terror, discrimination, and massive family separation because the United States benefits from their labor but refuses to ackowledge their dignity.

Mordecai and Esther refused to give into temptation and I thank God for that. I pray we will do the same and that our ending will also find a people saved from danger and restored to full humanity. Like Bud Fox and like Esther, may we find our own liberation in advocating tirelessly for the protection of the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lessons from Mordecai for Ash Wednesday

A post by Bill Mefford

Although I grew up in the church, Ash Wednesday has been a new thing for me. Of course, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and falls 46 days before Easter. Ash Wednesday is meant to represent a day of repentance and is seen by the mark of ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross.

The use of ashes to represent a time of mourning is seen in numerous examples in Scripture, but the instance in the book of Esther draws my attention for a number of reasons, including it's correlation to so much of what is happening in our current context regarding the issue of immigration.

In Esther 4, Mordecai, uncle to the beautiful Esther, refuses to bow before the powerful Haman. Haman had schemed his way to being the number 2 man in the Assyrian Kingdom. Deeply offended at not being given appropriate respect, Haman abuses his close access to the ruling King, and manipulates him into issuing an edict condemning all Jews to death. It is a genocide because one man refused to subvert his loyalty to God for loyalty to his ruling authorities.

Upon hearing the announcement of the dreadful edict, Mordecai, along with every province in the Kingdom where the edict was read (who says community organizers aren't in the Bible?) put on sackcloth and ashes and publicly mourned. Mordecai resists the temptation to allow state-sponsored terror and repression to drive him inward. Instead, he and others in every province engage in a very public protest.

Yet, even in the midst of his protest against the edict, the writer is very clear that Mordecai only went as far as the entrance to the King's gate, but could not go any further, "for no one might enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth." (v. 2) It is fascinating to me that Mordecai has risked not only his own life, but the lives of his people in honoring God over Haman, but then refuses to break this particular law.

Perhaps it is here that we see the real difference between Haman and Mordecai. Haman, so easily offended by the refusal of a single man to bow to him, makes himself the focus of this incident and so his understanding of justice is deeply twisted and swewed. Mordecai, on the other hand, does nothing to spite Haman, and even in the most extreme distress, goes to great lengths to ensure that his message and actions are about the terrible injustice being done to an entire race of people. He cares about the issues and the people directly affected by the issue. Haman only cares about the issues as to how it affects and impacts himself.

There is much to glean from this passage on thie Ash Wednesday regarding the current context we are in. To be godly is to follow the example of Mordecai and the many others in provinces who publicly mourned in protest against unjust laws. With Arizona's SB 1070 leading the way, and with federal enforcement policies like 287g and Secure Communities, we live in a land that is deeply repressive to our immigrant sisters and brothers. But like, Mordecai, our focus must be on those directly affected by the issue and resist making ourselves the center of our concern.

And we live with far too many Hamans in our state and federal legislatures, and sadly, in the Church. We have far too many people who do not look for how the most vulnerable are impacted by these unjust laws and over-enforcement policies, but instead, they think only of themselves. They are easily offended and will lash out in unrighteous anger towards anyone and everyone they deem responsible for that offense (despite what the facts may say).

We need to recognize the Hamans in our communities and on the national scale and follow Mordecai's example with them by refusing to pay them homage. On Ash Wednesday, we follow the mournful, but powerful Mordecai. Like Mordecai, our mourning will not end in self-pity or morose introspection. Our mourning will give way to action and our action gives us hope. Though we know that the dawn of Easter will replace the long, dark night we currently are in, we mourn now on Ash Wednesday, as Mordecai did. Sadly, as Mordecai painfully realized, we mourn the failure of a government to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But, as Mordecai shows us, let our cries of sorrow be the seed of protest that triggers the movement for justice that erases the terror and repression so many of our brothers and sisters are enduring now.