An interesting read from Religion Dispatches today from some cat named Thomas Warming about problems members of his small, rural congregation have been having thanks to the president’s executive order banning Muslims from entering the nation. Sounds familiar. So should this part:
But it always seems like when I’m in a truly black mood about the future of the American project, a bit grace drops in like a sunbeam to restore my confidence. Today it was a few dozen people gathered on the main corner of our little city to protest the executive order, waving signs saying MUSLIMS WELCOME and JESUS WAS A REFUGEE. The darkness can only last so long before the light comes again. We’re going to be okay, I think.
Who is this guy and why is he stealing my bit? In RD, no less. I need to ask them about that.
Anyway, I share Warming’s optimism. There’s a lot of energy out there waiting to be harnessed somehow.
Here’s a good example: Greg Sargent had an insightful interview yesterday with Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee about fighting back against the administration’s agenda.
Inslee, of course, brought the first state-level lawsuit against the EO, which so far is holding up pretty well in court. That leads Sargent to this kicker:
This first victory in court, by operating as an inspiration to further action, perhaps points to more ways that Democrats can seek to channel the passion and energy unleashed by Trump’s agenda into constructive efforts to limit the damage that it threatens to do on so many fronts.
“Channel” is right. Incredible as it may sound, the biggest story of 2017 isn’t anything the president, Steve Bannon, or the Congressional GOP have done or tried to do. It’s that wave after wave of citizen action has thoroughly driven back their agenda.
Even bigger, this action has been directed and powered by the grass roots. That doesn’t mean that it’s all been spontaneous: extensive planning and preparation has gone into a lot of it. But even in the absence of a unified Democratic leadership, citizens are organizing themselves and stepping off the sidelines. In fact, the leaders are having to play catch-up, which prompts bold action like Inslee’s.
It’s a virtuous cycle if you’re a liberal, and I don’t know that Republicans really have an answer to it. Instead, we hear story after story about how they’ve been rocked back on their heels by constituent calls and protests, even in unexpected places. Some Congressional Republicans even fear for their safety.1
It’s not just on a national level, either. Look at how these guys get grilled on a lawsuit related to Republican gerrymandering in Wisconsin:
There is also concern about taxpayer money being used to hire private attorneys to represent Republicans in the legislature in a recent lawsuit. In late November, a court ruling stated that the Wisconsin legislative voting maps were unconstitutional after democrats argued the drawn districts diminished their voice in state government. The Republican legislature, who is planning on hiring private attorneys, and the state, defended by Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, may appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and argue that the districts are constitutional.
Thiesfeldt and Feyen argued that the legislature needs someone to represent them, and if it decided to hire someone in the Department of Justice and not spend taxpayer money on private attorneys, that takes a Department of Justice attorney away from his or her normal duties. Those duties may, in turn, have to be done by outside council, which also comes at a cost.
Feyen said the easiest way to solve this problem is to drop the lawsuit.
"If the lawsuit never happened, this wouldn't be costing us any money at all," he said.
In reply, someone in the audience shouted, "If (the voting districts) weren't draw illegally, it wouldn't be costing us money," to which many audience members applauded.
That was right here in our neck of the not-exactly-radical-left-woods. I can’t help feeling like we’re not very far from a fundamental change in how ordinary citizens relate to their elected officials. The emerging anti-trumpism agenda is far more popular than the Tea Party ever was, and the people marching on its behalf are not interested in waiting any more. Danielle Kurtzleben diagnoses this as a case of relative deprivation—that is, the fear of having something taken away from us. Whatever the cause, something different is in the air. Darned right I’m hopeful.
1.↩It’s a matter of some debate whether those fears are justified, but just to be clear: don’t do anything to scare your Congresscritter.
Don’t know that I have a lot of commentary to add to these news items. They are, as the post title implies, just pretty neat, pretty cool.
First, the pretty neat, via the Mennonite World Review:
The teach-in was supposed to happen at a local library. But when President Trump entered office with executive actions that heightened fears among the immigrant community, a larger venue was needed.
Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church shoehorned nearly 400 people into its sanctuary Jan. 31 as the expansion site for a teaching session on immigrant sanctuary by the Central Ohio Worker Center.
Michael Prescott and Sarah Aeschliman, who attend West End Mennonite Fellowship in Lancaster, Pa., join thousands of people demonstrating in support of refugees Jan. 31 at Penn Square in Lancaster. — Dale D. Gehman for MWR
It was just one way Mennonite churches have responded to Trump’s travel bans and statements, which critics view as dehumanizing and provocative…
“The congregation was involved in the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, so we have some history with it,” said Pastor Joel Miller. “There’s an Iraqi refugee family we have adopted through World Relief, so there’s a group of people in the congregation who relate with them regularly.”
Others at Columbus Mennonite work to build relationships with the city’s Somali population, the second-largest in the U.S.
Though the congregation is not an official sanctuary site that would be prepared to house families and individuals in danger of deportation, Miller said he is part of a group of pastors discussing what such a commitment could mean. And he isn’t alone.
Indeed he isn’t. I keep hearing reports of churches joining the sanctuary movement, or becoming an immigrant welcoming community, or simply studying the immigration issue. That’s on top of the wave of support for refugees that began in 2015 and continues—I just now received an email from a congregation looking forward to welcoming a Syrian family who’d been stuck in Egypt by the president’s Muslim ban!
As Rev. Miller alludes to, there’s history here. Many churches—with Mennonites in the forefront—were involved in refugee resettlement in the 1970’s and 80’s, and the sanctuary movement in that latter decade. It seems highly unlikely that Steve Bannon knew what he was messing with when he put that Executive Order under the president’s nose. By now, welcoming immigrants is deeply ingrained in both liberal and conservative Christian churches. They’re not about to put up with cruelty toward them. You might as well try banning food pantries in the U.S.
Now, pretty cool, from the Wisconsin Council of Churches:
The Community Investment Program (CIP) offers an investment opportunity for individuals and congregations of member denominations, as well as denominational bodies, to have funds working for a brighter future for Wisconsin’s low income families and communities.
The Council offers a unique opportunity to local church members, congregations and its member denominations to place dollars in CIP Fund. The Fund then invests in selected community development financial institutions (CDFI’s) throughout Wisconsin. The CDFI’s help distressed communities, low and moderate income people and minority populations to develop housing, employment and business opportunities. A listing of where funds are placed is in the brochure along with their websites which show more about all the work they do.
If you’re a liberal looking for a way to disobey the directives of greed, suspicion and hatred of the poor, and you have a little money to spread around, you could do worse than to invest in a program like this. I mean, what kind of return are you going to get on that 12-month CD, anyway? There are lots of programs like this across the country, run by banks, credit unions, and charitable groups. Again, if you want to do some good, here’s a concrete way to do it.
As I told my congregation this morning, if you feel like you’ve been hearing a lot of messages about social justice or activism lately, your ears are not deceiving you. And no, I haven’t been putting stuff in the scripture that wasn’t there to begin with.
Epiphany—that short run of Sundays lost between Christmas and Lent introducing us to the light of Christ—has a lot to say about justice. Which is of course only another way of saying that Jesus has a lot to say about justice. Who he is has a lot to say on the matter.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at this morning’s lesson, another excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus instructs and exhorts his early disciples.
You’ve probably heard before that salt, like yeast, is a transformative agent. It only takes a little to change a lot. At the same time, it still has to do something. A spice that doesn’t taste like anything isn’t worth much. Like Jesus suggests, you mights as well just throw it out. (Trampling it underfoot is optional.)
Disciples are supposed to be like that. We don’t have to be salty in the sense of using bad language, but we are meant to change a lot.
To do that, disciples have to remain distinctively Christian (think about those Beatitudes that we heard last week).
It’s more or less the same with being the light of the world. This doesn’t really mean that we’re supposed to be a sunbeam for Jesus, though we could say that about someone like Gloria1 and not be wrong. Jesus, however, refers to God’s calling to the people of Israel to be a “light unto the nations.” That is, to show the world how good the Lord God really is. This is why the Pilgrims talked about their colonies as a “city shining on a hill.” Their purpose was to testify to God’s glory.
This is all very well and good, Pastor, you say. But where is this stuff about social justice you were threatening us with?
God calls the Israelites to be a light to the nations through their practice of social justice. The lesson from Isaiah that we didn’t read spells out what that means:
- “Look”, God says, “you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”
- “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”
- Then, later: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…?”
- “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Now, working toward social justice are not all Jesus sends his disciples out to do. They also go to heal, to preach, to cast out evil spirits. But it’s definitely part of the program: to fight injustice and oppression, to share bread, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked, to care for the people in our community. Not only that, but as Jesus tells his disciples, we have to above and beyond what the law requires:
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
You can’t cheat at social justice and expect to get into the kingdom. On the other hand, as Psalm 112 says, “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.” Doing the right thing is good for us, just as Isaiah tells us: “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”
I really don’t have a specific program in mind, but I will suggest three things:
- Take your Christian values home with you. Live them from Sunday to Sunday, not just while you’re in church.
- Most Christians are all good on ministry to the poor, the hungry, the homeless—but we must not forget to fight injustice and poverty. We have to ask why these things come about and seek to remedy the causes.
- We as a church want to be a light, don’t we? Isn’t that we say: that we want to show the love we know from Christ and one another to the wider world? To do that, we will have to show our commitment to justice, not just friendliness.
I ended the sermon at this point, but during the joys and concerns, suggested at least one possible application of its message. Families with relatives in nursing homes are often concerned about the care they receive there. This turns out to be amazingly common: one article I read put the number of nursing facilities out of compliance with federal law at something like 90%.
This, I suggested to the congregation, is something that we could actually do something about. We could push for better standards and regulations and better enforcement. Or, we could look at Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements, which provide a lot of support to nursing homes, but which are ridiculously low, and prevent them from attracting and retaining qualified staff. We could advocate for those things to our elected officials and see what could be changed.
I’m often reluctant to bring such things up to churches. Small churches, and especially small churches in conservative rural areas, typically treat anything even remotely political like the plague. But there were a number of heads nodding up and down while I spoke, and darned if it didn’t turn into a conversation about the best ways to reach members of Congress and how to lobby them effectively. Those guys in Washington better look out. They’ll never know what hit them.
Apparently, neither will I: this is two weeks in a row my church folks have surprised me.
1.↩The beloved mother of ten and grandmother of several dozen more who died recently and whose funeral was at the church yesterday.
2.↩They didn’t think it was funny either.
Remember how I said religious dissenters from the extremist agenda should use all the symbols at their disposal? Well.
Listen for the silence.
A reader wrote in the other day to ask for some advice:
I’ve never been angry like this politically, and I feel—I think I hate [the president]. I think I hate his minions and his froggy supporters. Please understand that I’m a Medicare-dependent disabled single mother living below the poverty line. My illness is manageable but potentially fatal without treatment, and I feel like I’m staring down a very bad barrel.
I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone before. I’ve never felt like this before, anyway. And I know it’s wrong and I can’t seem to let go. What are you telling people about forgiveness and not hating any of their neighbors, however deplorably they may be acting?
I’m so uncomfortable with being this upset with people. I just don’t know how to start to forgive.
Let’s talk about the feelings here first before we get into the bigger implications. Anger is something we feel in response to a threat, whether to our body or our values. Given your situation and the immediate threat to your well-being, it’s not surprising that you would experience visceral anger toward the extremists running the GOP. You’re not alone: it doesn’t take long to find people who feel deeply angry at this regime.
Anger is a motivator. Its “job” is to get you to respond to the threat. Sometimes that can harden into hate, a continuous devaluation of a person, or rage, the desire to completely and immediately obliterate the source of the threat. Again, that’s not surprising given your situation. You feel like punching Nazis all day long, which is understandable, if ill-advised. And again, you’re not the only one.
One more thing to know about anger: it’s not an automatic response. It’s a product of our thoughts and perceptions. That means it can be, yes, managed by looking at what we bring to the table. It also means that anger isn’t something to hidden or repressed. The first step toward dealing with anger is admitting that you’re angry—sometimes with good cause. Still, like you, most people feel uncomfortable with emotions like anger, much less hate. It’s unsettling to feel that way about another person.
Now, let’s talk about forgiveness, the voluntary remission of claims you might have against another person who has done you wrong. That can be legal, as in forgiving a debt. It can also be emotional. When some family members of the people murdered by Dylann Roof offered him forgiveness, it was a statement that they were giving up on their legitimate claim to hate him forever, not a release from the legal consequences of his actions.
It’s unjust to expect to victims of wrongdoing to offer forgiveness. In fact, abusers use that expectation to manipulate victims and repeat their actions. Forgiveness can only be given in freedom, and being burdened with a demand for forgiveness is not free. Offenders have to know they have done wrong and be willing to make up for it in order for forgiveness to be complete. Obviously, that’s probably not going to happen in this case. Even if these extremists were of the mind to suddenly repent and undo their wrongs, they’re public figures. They can’t know what’s on your mind, much less how to put it right. That makes it hard to forgive them.
But you can work on it, to free yourself from the burden of anger, hate and rage, if nothing else. There are three components here: letting go of attachments, recovering the humanity of the person who has wronged you, and time. None of it is easy.
It’s not difficult to forgive a child for carelessly breaking a lamp, for example. Most of us aren’t very emotionally attached to everyday objects. It’s much harder when someone hurts your child, or when they endanger your well-being. We obviously shouldn’t be expected to give up our attachment to a loved one or ourselves. What we can give up are things like the need to be right, the need to be superior, or the need to enforce justice. A lot of anger is generated by people who think anyone who disagrees with them is stupid or evil. Give that up, and watch the steam evaporate.
Likewise, it’s not always easy to see amoral monsters like the President or Steve Bannon as people like ourselves. The important thing is to understand we’re more like them than not. We have hopes, dreams, fears, needs. In some cases, those may be grossly distorted, such the President’s apparently bottomless desire for approval and attention. But we all need to feel loved, don’t we? Recognizing the brokenness of someone who has wronged us increases our empathy. Recognizing that we share the same needs helps to relativize our feelings of superiority. And remember: monsters are monsters because they can’t see other people as human. If you can do that, you can legitimately feel a step ahead of them.
Some people might say this is making excuses. I don’t believe so. It’s developing a clear-eyed view and increasing control over our own emotions, so that we don’t have to react in paralyzing fear and anger.
Again, none of this comes easily. It takes time. Forgiveness is a lifelong practice. We often see that those who are able to master the craft—Sandinistas forgiving torturers or Anabaptists their oppressors—come from communities that stress the need for forgiveness and count it as a form of discipleship.
Christians like myself believe that forgiveness is sponsored by God, reflecting the divine nature. It’s furthered by Jesus, who teaches his disciples to forgive as they are forgiven, and whose death on the cross accomplishes a permanent forgiveness between God and humanity.
Even for non-Christians, it should be apparent that forgiveness is a form of both power and freedom. Forgiveness at least limits the ability of another person to make us miserable. It opens up possibilities for alternative behaviors not rooted in coercion and domination. Specifically, forgiveness makes possible solidarity: with the victims by placing ourselves freely among their numbers, and with the victimizers by refusing to give up the hope that they can change.
All of this is challenging at best and scandalous at worst. It’s often charged that arguing for forgiveness diminishes the suffering of victims, and it can. The point, however, is for things to be different, not reversed. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of domination and humiliation.
Forgiveness, our defenses tell us, is a weakness. It is not. It is a source of strength and hope because it testifies to the possibility that the world could be other than what it is now. It begins with the desire to forgive, even before the ability.