For Better or Worse, Values Inform Actions

In a blink-and-you-missed-it article in the New York Times, it was reported that a twenty year veteran of the Muskegon, Michigan police force was terminated this week. Photos of a confederate flag and framed application to the KKK were posted on social media by an African American couple who looked at his house which is currently for sale. This spurred an internal departmental investigation of Charles Anderson and later led to his termination.

Beyond what is obviously disturbing about this is a seemingly offhand comment by the Chief of Police that “Nothing was revealed to us that shocked us.” This suggests, at minimum, that Anderson’s proclivities as a white supremacist were known to some on the police force. This raises questions about Anderson’s treatment of minority suspects including false arrests and potentially inflated charges when dealing with this population.

Another disturbing aspect of this story is that there is nothing in the Police Department’s policy manual that specifically bans private displays of prejudice, but says officers should “perform all duties impartially, without favor or affection or ill will and without regard to status, sex, religion, political belief or aspiration.”

Values inform actions.  That is part of what values are for.  They form the true north of our moral compass. To state that it is possible to perform duties impartially while harboring secret prejudices is ridiculous.

We see evidence of this in many aspects of law enforcement and the justice system.  Felicity Huffman received just two weeks sentence for a college admission bribery scam worth thousands of dollars. This stands in stark contrast to the Bridgeport, CT, woman who was sentenced to five years in prison and five years of probation for sending her six year old son to a Norwalk, CT, school.  Tanya McDowell was convicted of first degree larceny for stealing an education. 

Kelly Williams-Bolar was sentenced to nine days in jail for using her father’s address instead of her own in an attempt to have her daughter attend a better school.

In the world of collegiate sports there is tremendous disparity between black and white athletes when it comes to atrocious behavior.  Cory Baty was a 19 year old Vanderbilt football star who, while intoxicated, raped an unconscious woman who was also intoxicated.  He was sentenced to 15-25 years in prison.  Contrast this with Brock Turner an up and coming swimmer at Stanford who raped an unconscious intoxicated woman.  He was sentenced to six months with the probability that he would be out in three.  It doesn’t take a genius to guess which one is black and which one is white.

African American men serve an average of twenty percent longer prison terms for the same crimes committed by their white counterparts. Our correctional institutions are disproportionately filled with people of color.  

Violence in the transgender community is on the rise as well.  Dana Martin, a 31 year old black transgender woman was fatally shot in Montgomery, AL, on January 6th. Jazzaline Ware, a black transgender woman was found dead in her apartment in Memphis, TN, in March. Ashanti Carmon, a black transgender woman was fatally shot in Prince George’s County, MD, on March 30th. Bee Love Slater, 23, was brutally murdered in Clewiston, FL, on September 4th. Johan Medina, 25, died at a hospital in El Paso, TX, hours after being released from ICE custody. She suffered severe health complications that went untreated while she was in detention. Layleen Polanca was found dead in a cell at Riker’s Island on June 7.

 The collision of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are played out in the increasing violence toward the trans community.  It is routine for transgender persons to be misgendered in police and hospital records. Violence against gays and lesbians is on the rise around the country. These murders and instances of violence are far more likely to remain unsolved than other types of violence, especially when that violence is in the Anglo cisgender community.

The time is here when being a white supremacist, racist, homophobe, transphobe prejudiced individual makes one unfit for public service on police departments, government and justice officials as well as first responders where such values impact the type of services one provides.  While it is impossible to be the “thought police” there are clear ways to track the record of service providers and look at whether equal services are provided to all, to track the rate of arrest in cases involving violence against minorities and to see how justice is meted out to minorities when they are convicted of crimes.

To think for one moment that one’s values do not impact how one does their job is patently foolish. Yes, private belief does matter.  Yes, private belief does influence action.  Values influence behavior.

 

 

Sometimes I Wonder

I wonder about the simple fact of this existence. It renders me silent. The wonder and mystery of dew drops snared in a spider web or the sun inching over the horizon and chasing away the night are occasions for marveling. When morning mist on the water of the bay clings like a grey shawl or the moon and stars appear with predictable comfort, it all fills me with wonder. I am truly awestruck.

The word awesome has become cheap. So many things are awesome.  I’ll be there at 6:00.  Awesome.  I can do that tomorrow after all.  Awesome. Awe means to be filled with wonder, overcome with emotion by the sheer beauty, mystery, complexity or simplicity of being human.  It is reserved as a superlative for human experience.

Sometimes I how wonder how life has become so cheap, so ordinary and so common that we have lost a sense of the wonder of it all. Think about the simple mystery of breathing, the wonder of seeing color and depth; the enormity of human emotion; our capacity for both incredible joy and wrenching sorrow; the gift of curiosity and the thirst for knowledge, understanding and wisdom; the tenacity of the human spirit that keeps us trying despite the odds, despite multiple failures and the mocking of others. I wonder how it is that we humans have the unique ability to imagine how things might be and then set forth a plan to move toward it.

Sometimes I wonder about the simple fact of this existence.  All of it.  I marvel at the gift of sleep and the miracle of awakening and how it is that I breathe without thinking about it. I am overcome with the feeling of my feet as they reach the floor and of being able to stand.  I ponder the mystery of remembering yesterday and planning for tomorrow.

Sometimes I wonder about the simple fact of this existence.  Why birds are so many different colors and sizes and their songs so unique. I marvel at the sheer size of moose and elephants and teeny tiny bodies of mice and salamanders. I marvel at the trust and loyalty of pets and the richness they bring to our lives.

I am drawn into the deep green of late summer leaves and how different they are from the fresh, pale green of spring. I am amazed at the vividness of fall colors and the ever shortening days.

And in moments of cynicism I marvel at the seemingly unlimited capacity we humans have to screw it all up and how history repeats itself again and again. I wonder how people come to hate with such white-hot hatred, how it is that people become so broken and how they can be relieved of their pain.

Sometimes I wonder how we can so blithely abuse our planet, dumping thousands of tons of trash into the ocean until there are floating cities of plastic and refuse in the oceans around the world. I wonder how kids can be so cruel to each other. I wonder if it is true that most mass shooters were the misfits and the bullied, the ones who didn’t fit in for whatever reason. I wonder why we shame fat people and shun those who don’t look right, smell right or have the right clothes. I wonder why we are afraid of or disgusted by the homeless when most of us are no more than two or three paychecks away from homelessness ourselves. I wonder about the underbelly of human pain.

When cynicism, fatigue and sheer disgust threaten to overwhelm me, I choose to wonder about what is good and beautiful and gracious in this life. It’s not a cop out; it is sustenance for the soul that allows me to go back to all that is broken with renewed commitment to doing what is my part to do. I depend on the miracles in life so I can deal with the brokenness of life. I depend on the beauty of life to deal with the ugliness that sometimes threatens to swallow me whole.  I depend on the graciousness of human beings to ground me so I am not soured on humanity’s cruelty, rage, greed and apathy. I depend on the present moment as an opportunity for change so I do not despair about the future. Each present moment folds into the next moment and all are occasions for change.  I resonate with Carrie Newcomer as she comments, “I can’t change the world, but I can change what is three feet around me.” If we all changed what is three feet around us the world be very different place.

Sometimes I wonder what this moment, and the next and the next would look like if we all did our three feet.

Labor Day: More Than Burgers and Beer

While many of us shared some kind of gathering with family and friends to celebrate the unofficial end of summer, the foundation of Labor Day is ironically absent from our minds.

Labor Day began at the height of the Industrial Revolution. As commerce boomed with new and exciting inventions that were transforming American life, the plight of workers became increasingly dismal.  Most workers labored seven days a week for up to twelve hours a day. Children as young as five or six performed menial tasks, cogs in the wheel of the industrial complex.

Many of these American workers were recent immigrants and faced discrimination in addition to their poor working conditions. Doors to the factories were often bolted shut from the outside. Fires in the garment district in New York were common and workers perished because the doors were bolted shut. Other unsafe working conditions in factories across the nation plagued all workers, but recent immigrants faced the most difficulties.

Our national batting average with immigrants is pretty low. It is a long and wretched history.

In response, workers across the country began organizing to protest the predatory economy they were coopted into as slave labor. Unions first emerged in the late 1800’s and quickly evolved into organizations that organized strikes and rallies to protest unsafe working conditions.

Two strikes are worth noting. The Pullman strike and the Haymarket riot, both in Chicago, marked turning points in the labor movement. The Pullman strike pitted employees of the Pullman Company against the railroad and the government. It crippled rail travel nationwide. The Haymarket riot pitted labor members against police. It turned violent when striking workers threw a bomb at police and chaos erupted.  Both strikes were crushed by either government troops or local police.

Such strikes and riots were common in the late 1800’s as workers organized and fought for better working conditions, eight hour work days, child labor laws and weekends off. The protests incited widespread hysteria against immigrants and labor leaders.

The government began to recognize the plight of American workers. Legislation to regulate industry gradually emerged.  It was never easy for workers.  Many of the benefits American workers enjoy today such as over time, weekends off, reasonable work hours and child labor laws are the fruit of these early struggles.

The parallels to our time are worth noting.  There has always been mixed reviews for the place of unions in American labor. Immigrants still face the worst working conditions in manufacturing and agricultural jobs. Low wages and long work hours require many American workers to work multiple jobs at minimum wage to make ends meet.  Despite working forty or more hours per week at multiple jobs, many American workers still rely on public assistance to feed their families and access health care.  This amounts to government subsidy of some of the largest companies in the US.

While corporate salaries have risen 2000% or more, workers’ wages have remained essentially stagnant. Striking workers face the rage of management while public sympathy for striking workers is waning.

Opportunistic pricing of goods and services, free market capitalism and collusion between political leaders and big business always spells loss for workers.  The promise of low prices for consumers always means low wages for workers. Businesses are free to send jobs overseas for cheaper labor creating predatory economies in the countries they target. Meanwhile unemployment rises here and workers are faced with low wage jobs.

It is impossible to have access to cheap goods and services and a just wage for workers. Business will always choose profits over people, as witnessed in the injustice toward labor across the centuries.

What the unrest in the labor movement across the years has in common is the effect of a predatory economy.   Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann summarizes this when he observes that biblical texts are critical of “…an economy of extraction whereby concentrated power serves to extract wealth from vulnerable people in order to transfer it to the more powerful.  That extraction is accomplished by the predatory if legal means of tax arrangements, credit and loan stipulations, high interest rates and cheap labor.”

The witness of Scripture is for an economy of reconciliation. While we treat it as a side issue occasionally referred to, it is actually central to the biblical message. Distributive justice, described most simply as a just wages for just labor is central to the prophetic witness.

What is needed in this time is more than food pantries and used clothing stores, though they serve a vital need in our communities.  What is needed are just wages and equal access to health care, affordable housing and childcare, and better public transportation. These are components of distributive justice that make a quality of living available for all people.

Labor Day is a time to remember the historic witness of the labor movement and the gains it brought to American workers.  It is also a time to reflect on the erosion of those gains and the effects of a predatory economy in our day.  

The occupant, the Middle East and Finding Balance

The occupant’s claims that anyone who votes Democratic is being disloyal to Israel, along with his intimations that people think of him as god, show a new level of bizarre behavior. Just when you think it can’t get any weirder he opens his mouth again.

His most recent delusion began several weeks ago when he called Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar anti-Semitic because of their pro-Palestinian stance. Tlaib and Omar spoke openly about their disagreement with US foreign policy regarding Israel. The United States gives Israel over four billion dollars a year. The human rights violations Israel embodies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories would be enough to earn other nations harsh sanctions.  Instead, the US just about throws a ticker tape parade for Israel, while ignoring calls from the United Nations and the World Court to cease persecution of Palestinians.

The rhetoric of the occupant, along with US policy shows a lack of understanding of the complex history of the region as well as a deep disregard for the human rights abuses of Palestinian Christians. To speak critically of Israel has long been taboo in the United States; however, there are some issues that need to come to the fore. Mainline Christian churches have long sought to bring a voice of balance and reason.

As early as l967, the United Church of Christ spoke about the Middle East Conflict. In a gathering of national United Church of Christ representatives, the following statement became part of official UCC history and policy: “The UCC General Synod calls on churches to understand the Middle East Conflict and develop public support for the United Nations and call on the US Government to safeguard the aspirations and interests of all peoples involved in the conflict.”

 Mainstream protestant traditions joined in a call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Beginning with the unwavering assertion that Israel has the right to exist, leaders called on both sides to engage in peaceful negotiation of internationally recognized borders that create a secure state for both Israel and Palestine. In 1997 leaders called on Jerusalem to remain a diverse city both religiously and politically. The statement further asserted that no party has the right to change the status of Jerusalem unilaterally. In 2015 ecumenical leaders issued a statement that “…Jerusalem should be open to all and shared by all…two peoples and three religions.”

In 2015 the United Church of Christ issued a statement calling for divestment and boycott of companies that profit from occupation of Palestinian territories.  This included Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, Motorola, G4S and Veolia Equipment and all their subsidiaries. This statement had parallels in the Presbyterian, Mennonite and Episcopal churches. Further, the statement called on faith communities to participate in the boycott as a peaceful means of protest.

A 2015 statement from ecumenical leaders proposes a fourfold strategy for addressing the ongoing instability in the region:

  1. Engage in an education and empowerment study using the Kairos Palestinian 2009 document, “A Moment of Truth: a Word of Faith and Hope from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering.”
  2. Continuing economic leverage including divestment and boycott of companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian lands.
  3. Continued political pressure to ensure that aid to Israel does not violate the US Foreign Assistance Act nor the US Arms Export Control Act.
  4. Interreligious dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths aimed at reaching religious reconciliation and achieving political resolutions.

Finally, a 2018 statement from ecumenical leaders to Legislators states the following:

“As churches and church related organizations we all share a hope and desire for an end to occupation, an end to violence and terrorism and for equal rights for all people. If our respective denominations and organizations, through debate and reflection adopt policies that employ economic leverage to advance these policy objectives, as we do with many other policy objectives, we believe it is an assertion of our right as stewards of our financial resources to spend and invest according to our theological and moral conviction expressed in our respective denominational and organization policies.

In this case our assertion of this right is an effort to change unjust Israeli policy toward Palestinians not to delegitimize the state of Israel, nor to marginalize or isolate our Jewish neighbors or their enterprises.”

Amidst the political hyperbole of the times, the quiet witness of the mainline Christian church has been steady and unwavering. It is clearly a minority position, but one that is fervently held by people of deep faith who see the conflict with a more balanced perspective that those who simply have blind allegiance to Israel.

The right of Israel to exist has never been in question. It is important to state that unequivocally. Alongside that claim, however, is an equal assertion that Palestine has a right to exist and that both states have a right to secure borders and peaceful co-existence.

Creating Divisions and Suppressing Protest

Denying Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar entrance to Israel is troubling. They have been critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, and US relations with Israel since their election to the House of Representatives. In the United States this is often viewed as being anti-Semitic.

Let’s be clear about the definition of anti-Semitism: “…hostility to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews. It is considered a form of racism.” (Anti-Defamation League)

According to the Anti-Defamation League, hostility toward Jews dates to ancient times, perhaps to the beginning of Jewish history. Jews were criticized and sometimes punished for their unwillingness to adopt the values and way of life in the non-Jewish societies in which it lived.

The rise of Christianity greatly increased hatred of Jews.  They were seen as Christ killers, even though it was the Roman Government that carried out the crucifixion. And let’s not forget that Jesus was a Jew. Fast forward ten centuries and once again Jews were persecuted and forced to live in all-Jewish ghettos. Misunderstanding and outright dis-information led to the torture and execution of Jews. Others were forced to convert to Christianity to avoid death and torture.

By the eighteenth century the Enlightenment lessened the religious hold on society and cultural hatred increased.  Jews were deprived of civil rights and subjected to great hostility. At that time, a movement emerged to try and prove Jews were of a different (and inferior) race.  This later became Germany’s justification for seeking to kill every Jewish person in lands occupied by Germany during WW II, whether they practiced their faith or not. One third of all Jews, over six million, were killed in the Holocaust, the zenith of anti-Semitism in human history.

In the years since WW II anti-Semitism has waxed and waned.  It is on the rise again worldwide in these chaotic, economic and political times.  In the United States, the rise of white nationalism and the inflammatory rhetoric of the occupant have politicized the legitimate questions about US relations with Israel and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ilhan and Omar exercised their right of free speech. They are pro-Palestinian and that does not, by definition, make them anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. These two duly elected representatives, who happen to be Muslim, are questioning the US policy of unconditional support for Israel.

The Israeli government continues to enforce harsh discriminatory restrictions on Palestinian human rights, restrict the movement of people, goods and services in and out of Palestine. The Human Rights Watch has long accused Israel of severe human rights violations.  The United Nations repeatedly calls for the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

When other countries have severe human rights violations, the United Stated imposes sanctions.  The United States instead gives over four billion dollars a year to Israel.  That’s over ten million dollars a day. Tlaib and Ohan were simply exercising their right to free speech, to criticize US foreign policy regarding Israel. This is not anti-Semitism.

Tlaib and Ohan protest the 2011 Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott.  Amnesty USA explains:

“This law makes it a civil wrong to call for a boycott of any entity because of its affiliation to Israel or to a territory under its control, including entities operating in illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. A 2017 amendment to the Entry to Israel Law prohibits granting an entry visa to Israel to anyone who knowingly published a call for a boycott as defined under the 2011 law.  Both these laws contravene Israel’s obligations under international human rights laws.”

The occupant’s inflammatory rhetoric regarding their protest politicizes the issue and casts dispersions on the Democratic Party. It also furthers Islamophobia in the minds of those who do not understand the complex history of the US and Israel, the history of the occupation or the gross human rights violations.

We have a moral duty as human beings to stand up to unjust laws, to protest what offends our inner moral compass and act with equanimity regardless of politics.

Dissent is a time honored, constitutionally guaranteed legal form of protest in the United States. When dissent and disagreement are seen as disloyalty and duplicity, we are sliding further down the slippery slope of nationalism and totalitarianism.

From the Tea Party to the Civil War to Women’s Suffrage to Viet Nam, to Me Too, dissent is patriotic.  We can and must love our country enough to protest its policies and costly political alliances. If we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything.  Stand for human rights, stand for the poor, stand for representatives who have the courage of their convictions.  Stand for those who refuse to drink the Kool-aid.  Join their number.  Our country is counting on you.

Inflammatory Rhetoric and the Demise of Civility

Two mass shootings in less than twenty four hours.  The response is predictable and we have heard it all before. We witness the stagnation and stalemate that prevents any action.  Politicians wring their hands and shift the focus from gun control to mental health. Mitch McConnell single handedly prevents any meaningful gun legislation from reaching the Senate floor. (He has also received more than four million dollars from the NRA through the years.)

We are a nation of the hunting and the hunted.  Islamic terrorists are a threat, but we are as much at risk from young (for the most part) white men with connections to white supremacist groups.  It is inappropriate to call them domestic terrorists.  Terrorists by definition seek to overturn the regime of the government.  These shooters are in concert with the regime, acting in ways that are modeled by the occupant.

What the shooters have in common is an online presence that is filled with right wing hate speech.  These sites are protected by the First Amendment.  We are free to say what we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want.  These sites appeal to those feeling fearful and disenfranchised by an eclectic society of diverse people.

Traditionally, the right to free speech has meant one doesn’t scream “fire” in a crowded movie theater out of basic human decency and a concern for the safety and well-being of a crowd.  It seems no such concern exists these days.  Inflammatory rhetoric abounds and the standards for human decency are being eroded at an alarming rate.

The occupant is a major contributor to such erosion.  It is not all his fault that these awful things are happening; however, his consistently inflammatory rhetoric lowers the standard for public discourse in the common experience of the American people.  The occupant uses derogatory language to speak of migrants at the border. He fails to stop the “send them back” chants that marginalize four congresswomen of color. He smirks when murdering immigrants is suggested as a solution to some of our social problems. It sends a powerful message about what is acceptable.

In previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat, the highest office in the land has modeled the standards of acceptable speech.  No such modeling happens with the current occupant.  He incites hate speech and hateful action with no checks and balances. Such behavior allows what has always existed in the underbelly of public life to come to the fore.

Hate speech increased 226% in areas where the occupant has held rallies.  This is not a partisan statement; it is a statement of fact.  His party affiliation is irrelevant.  This is behavior, pure and simple.  The tragedy is that the spineless members of his party fail to hold him accountable for fear of how it might affect their re-election campaigns. It becomes a partisan issue when it immobilizes an entire political party.

Supporters of the occupant are willing to wink at his behavior and this alone is mind boggling.  The occupant has successfully manipulated the fears of the American people to believe that immigrants are the problem, the poor are ciphers on public resources and the differently abled are objects of ridicule who are unworthy of public and social support.  Years of social progress and raising the bar on socially acceptable behavior are diminished by his behavior.

Politically correct has become something to make fun of, to eschew as a way of being in the world. The erosion of public commitment to being politically correct means it is okay to make fun of and marginalize the groups we were learning to speak of with compassion and acceptance.  Being politically correct was a standard of language that raised the bar for public discourse.   No such bar exists now.

Despite the occupant’s recent comments about needing to condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy, his rhetoric and behavior through time belie any commitment to doing that.

In ancient Israel it was believed that to speak a word was to invoke its power. Speaking the name of God invoked God’s power.  It’s why taking God’s name in vain is such a big deal.  Sometimes Jesus healed with just a word.  The Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges that words have tremendous power. Talk is anything but cheap.

When inflammatory rhetoric is used by the occupant of the most powerful office in the land and the leader of the free world, it begins a downward spiral of public decency and socially acceptable behavior.  Our corporate commitment to acceptance and integration as desirable goals for a diverse society are diminished and our common decency as a nation is set back decades.  It is all related: hate rhetoric, hateful action, white supremacy, mass shootings, fearful responses to the “other” and respect for one another as human beings. 

Enough is enough. Use your words. Speak truth to power. Hold up the standard for decency and public discourse. Do not remain silent.  Silence is complicity. 

The Myth of the Christian Nation: Clarifying Our History

There is a widespread misconception that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  It is a position touted by lots of people, usually with the assumption that making the United States Christian (again) is a priority.  It feeds anti-Semitic, anti-Islam and anti-anything-other-than-Christianity-sentiments.  It fuels the fires of intolerance and, more importantly, distorts our actual religious history.

Most of us learned a version of history that goes something like this. The Pilgrims came on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620.  The Puritans soon followed.  Other religious groups that came in the early centuries of the new British settlements found a wonderful welcome and freedom to establish their own houses of worship without interference.

The problem with this narrative is that it’s bullshit.

In 1564, fifty years before the Mayflower and the Puritans, a French Huguenot settlement was founded at Fort Caroline (Florida).  In 1565 the Spanish (Catholics) established a base at Saint Augustine and then wiped out the Huguenots.  The antipathy between Protestants and Catholics would continue for generations.

In 1620 a group of Puritans dissented from inside the Church of England, boarded the Mayflower to flee increasing persecution, and landed in Massachusetts.  This group became known as the Pilgrims.  Rather than establish religious freedom, they foisted the strictest forms of Puritanism onto people as they settled in Massachusetts.   

The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to British North America sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any society. Which religion was a topic of hot debate. Both groups believed there was one true religion and that it was the duty of civil authorities to impose it.  This included the use of force when necessary. Those who refused to comply, like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished from the Colony.  Others were executed as heretics.

While this appears to have the veneer of being a “Christian nation” there were many religious expressions in the early settlements.  Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, Lutherans, Catholics and Jews were among the early settlers in the British colonies.  It was not a happy melting pot of religious traditions. There was fear and hatred of religious traditions other than one’s own.  

There is a difference between trying to establish the United States as a Christian nation and simply looking for the freedom to pursue religious passions without interference from the state.  This was futile, since most colonies had established state churches funded with tax money.  Despite their best efforts to force conformity, there were always multiple expressions of religious life, both Christian and non-Christian.

Roger Williams settled the colony of Rhode Island as a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution in other colonies.  It is ironic that the religious freedom the Puritans sought for themselves in coming to the New World, they then denied to everyone else. 

 Other motivations were also at work.  The Mayflower trip was financed by Spain, in the hope of discovering new trade routes and bringing back goods to sell on the open market.  By 1640 New Amsterdam, later known as New York, became a focus for international trade.  Entrepreneurs flocked to the new world looking for opportunities to market new goods in Europe and bring European goods to settlers.

The entrepreneurial influence in the colonies cannot be overstated.  To think that the colonies were all about Christianity and making a Christian nation is a gross oversimplification of the complex and conflict filled history as well as the financial motivations of those early settlers.

 It would be years before this divisive past played itself out.  In 1790 President Washington addressed the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island: “All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship…For happily the Government of the United states, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Later in his speech he said, “May the children of the Stock of Abraham (Jews, Christians and Muslims) continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”  

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were in absolute agreement that freedom of religion was essential for a successful society.  In 1786 the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom became the law of the land. Jefferson wrote that the law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Our forebears were clear, the United States was to have a secular government and there would be no religious litmus test for its leaders.  It was a hard won battle after the years of state run churches in most of the colonies.  The early settlers repeated the history they fled from in Europe with the same fractious consequences.

It is high time we learned from history. The United States never was, nor was it intended to be, a Christian nation. The first Amendment states clearly that the state is to have no role in establishing or maintaining any religious tradition. 

The rising tide of intolerance fueled by white evangelical religious traditions is taking this nation dangerously close to overlap in the spheres of church and state.  History bears ample witness to the damage done to both institutions when this happens.  We are a nation of many religions and no religion.  We are a nation where our forebears envisioned each individual having the freedom to worship in the manner of her/his choice. 

Let’s not lose sight of the long game for the sake of political gain in the moment.  There is too much at stake. 

Reclaiming our Democracy: A Social Ethic of Responsibility and Care

Few would disagree that the very soul of our country is in peril under the current administration.  Elements of fascism, dictatorial leadership, intentional misinformation and vilification of a free press are among the greatest risks to our democratic republic. 

I am indebted to Parker Palmer and his paper on the five habits to sustain a democracy for this week’s blog idea.  You can find a link here

Parker Palmer suggests five habits needed to sustain a democratic way of life. They are habits, because like other behaviors they are learned and they require intentionality.  To develop a different way of being in the world requires a different intention, an exploration of our most deeply held values and a willingness to let those values be enriched by different voices.

Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.  There is no “us” and “them.”  It is all “us.”  We are a local, national and international community. Dehumanizing another is the first step toward denying essential personhood.  From there it is easy to take away benefits and supports that undergird the lives of those whose needs are different from our own. It is part of what makes the occupant’s behavior so troubling.  He is a master at creating divisions among people and marginalizing those with whom he disagrees.

However, there is deep value in connecting with those who are different than we are. All prejudice and hatred have a root in fear, and much of our fear is about the unknown.  The way to dismantle fear is to see another as fully human, deserving respect and care, and sharing the same essential personhood as every other person on the planet.  We have so much to learn from those who are different from us. Our lives are enriched when we interact with those whose religion is different, whose skin color is different, and those whose mental and emotional capacities are different.  Our lives and our understandings are enriched when we take the time to be with those who are different than we are.

We are living in an either/or society.  In the current divisiveness of our time things are one way or the other. They are good or bad, right or wrong. In reality there are few things in life that are wholly one way or another.  Most of the important issues in life fall somewhere along a continuum and our ability to hold seemingly disparate issues and goals in creative tension are part of how we build understanding with others.  Modern life is filled with tensions and our relentless tendency to choose one side over another does not hold the tension. It increases it and creates a power struggle.  We see the evidence of those power struggles every day and we unwittingly participate in them when we choose one side to the exclusion of other points of view. Listening and seeking understanding may not change our position, but it does remove the division that so often attends disagreement.  Lovingly disagreeing and seeking some measure of common ground are necessary for a civil society. Unity does not mean uniformity.

Willingness to enter into loving dialogue with the ones with whom we disagree fosters a sense of personal voice and moral agency.  A consequence of our deeply divided culture is that we have stopped listening to each other. When we are busy thinking up our next argument or response to someone, we have stopped listening to what they are saying in the moment.  When we stop listening we diminish the moral agency of the other. When white people deny there is racism in our country they dismiss the agency of those who live with judgement based on the color of their skin.  When Representative Mike Kelly (R Pa) said that he was a “person of color” as a white man of Irish descent, he systematically dismissed the experience of people of color who are paid less, have fewer opportunities and live with much higher levels of violence and poverty.  It was a slap in the face to every person of color who lives with systemic racism every day.

Finally, we are in desperate need of intentional efforts to build community.  We live isolated lives and most of us have little interaction with those whose skin color, language, physical or mental capacity is different from our own.  As a result, our world view is shaped by homogeneous communities that speak largely with one voice.  To speak with one voice when a community is diverse creates harmony instead of one unison voice singing the same tune.

Building community, enabling voices other than those like our own, learning to hold tensions in life giving ways, deepening our appreciation of those who are different than we and realizing we are all in this together are the keys to undoing the damage done to our democracy by an administration hell bent on creating division.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We may have come on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”

“I’m Fine, Thanks”

Living with chronic pain occasions the question, “How are you?”  People often respond, “I’m fine, thank you,” because others don’t always want to hear or talk about it. This is also an honest answer, for what is true in the moment.  However, behind this answer are a few things people who live with chronic pain have in common.

Chronic pain never goes away.  It waxes and wanes; some days it is unbearable and other days it is manageable. It is unpredictable and different for everyone.  It is hard to make and keep plans. Chronic illness and pain are very isolating. However, it means a lot to not be forgotten.

The same disease does not produce the same symptoms in everyone. People with the same disease have different symptoms and issues. Don’t assume that knowing someone with the same disease means you understand what it means for another person.    

Fifty million Americans live with chronic pain. Of that, twenty million have high impact pain which limits their work and social life.  This is just over twenty percent of the population.  You know someone who lives with chronic pain.

People living with chronic pain do not want your sympathy or pity.  What is needed is understanding and compassion.  Please don’t say, “Tomorrow will be a better day,” because there is just as good a chance that tomorrow will be a worse day.  Please don’t try to fix it or say just the “right thing.” Often people are uncomfortable with the changes that come in the life of a person with chronic illness. It is understandable. Know it is enough if you just express your care and compassion.

Fighting for needed health care is a part time job.  Keeping track of medical billing, paying co-pays and bird dogging our dysfunctional health care system is a task that takes time most weeks. 

Energy is a limited commodity.  There are no reserves to “suck it up” and do the next thing.  When energy is gone, it is gone and there is no more.  Pain saps energy.  Some days getting dressed and eating take all the energy there is.

Pain causes brain fog. Some days it is difficult to do just about anything except watch mindless reruns because following a story line in a book or having the energy to do something enjoyable is just not there. 

A sense of humor is crucial for living through most days. Smart ass remarks and sarcasm can be a helpful coping mechanism. It helps to get through the day.  It can also deflect unwanted pity and sympathy.

Most people who live with chronic illness and pain don’t look sick.  Saying so is not helpful. It feels minimizing. Much chronic illness and pain is invisible.  It is more helpful to say, “I’m glad you could be here today. Thanks for coming.” Or, “Thanks for making the effort; I know it isn’t always easy for you to get out.”

The accountability of close friends who inquire about self-care and well-being are helpful. Please don’t assume you are the person to challenge someone to live differently with their limitations. It’s a small circle and you know if you are in it.  If you have to ask, you probably aren’t.

It’s not helpful to say, “I am praying you will get better and I’m sure you will.” Please don’t say, “There are so many others who are worse off.” Yes, it is true and no, it is hot helpful. Please don’t minimize chronic illness with global statements about it not being terminal. No, it’s not life threatening cancer; however, such comments undermine the very real limitations that are part of every day.

So, when you ask a person with chronic illness or pain how they are, and they say they are “fine.” They are. They are managing and coping as best they can with a host of things that are not visible to most people.  They are enjoying life as best they can. Hopefully, they are also discovering a new richness to life that comes from being present to the moment even when the moment is not what they hoped for their life.  They are as fine as they can be in the moment.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

And to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God,

Indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

The pledge has not always read this way.  The original text is:

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands-

One nation indivisible-with liberty and justice for all.”

It was written by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), and published in the Youth’s Companion in 1892.  In 1923 the words were changed to, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

In 1954, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God” creating the pledge we say today.

Section 4 of the Flag Code (yes, there is such a thing) states the protocol to be used when saluting the flag, “…standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart…Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.”

The Bellamy salute began in 1892 with a military salute and ended with the arm outstretched, palm up toward the flag.  In World War II it was decided that the salute looked too much like a Nazi salute and was changed to the right hand over the heart.

When patriotic holidays roll around it is good to be reminded that our pledge of allegiance did not drop out of heaven like the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  It was written by a socialist.  Let that sink in.

For all the hoopla that the people create around however they understand socialism, one of the statements we hold most dearly was written by a socialist.  His intent was that it would be used by citizens of any country as a way of showing their loyalty to their country.

I doubt he envisioned it would become the mantra of patriots and nationalists alike.

Patriotic holidays like the fourth of July are great opportunities to be reminded of the greatness and the shortcomings of our nation.

We celebrate unity, liberty and justice for all. But let’s not forget that:

  • Women still make eighty cents on the dollar compared to men.
  • Unemployment for people of color is many times the national average.
  • Our country is running concentration camps at the border with inhumane conditions.
  • Similar to slave times, children are ripped from their parents arms.
  • The political system envisioned by our forbearers has degenerated into self-serving, wealth focused favoritism.
  • The number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States is medical expense.
  • We are the only developed nation without single payer health care.
  • Environmental protections that have kept our great country beautiful are being rolled back at an alarming rate.
  • Climate change is real; ignoring it will not make it go away.
  • There is no place in the United States where a person can work full time at a minimum wage job and afford basic necessities.
  • Areas ravaged by natural disaster, especially Puerto Rico, have still not recovered and federal dollars have dried up despite desperate need.

People panic when they hear the word “socialism”.  However, Social Security, federal disaster aid, infrastructure grants and state aid for education are all forms of socialism that we welcome because they benefit us.

Let’s be clear; the fit people pitch about socialism is a fear based response to someone getting something WE don’t think they deserve.  We blame the poor for being poor, and somewhere deep inside we believe they are lazy.  If they just worked harder…

We look with pity on the sick who can’t afford health care and think it has nothing to do with us. We pay our premiums and don’t have to choose between eating and buying medication.

We are big fans of “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” as long as we are recipients of the liberty and justice.  Our absence of outrage is the most telling statement of what we think of our country and its citizens.

Before you pledge allegiance to the flag, think about who it includes and who it excludes.  When it comes to who is worthy and who is not, remember it is not ours to decide.  The ultimate strength of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.  Whether or not our country is great depends in large part on where one falls on the socio-economic continuum.

If you are going to pledge allegiance to the flag, pledge allegiance to all the people who are part of the republic.