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Sin Is The Problem — That’s the Cure? (for Julie)

My friend Julie LaBarr asked me to write something Christmas-y and I had been hoping to write an upbeat piece for awhile, without leaving the world of troubling race issues permanently, but as I explained to her, “stuff keeps happening”. It’s been a difficult second half of 2014, with all of the death and mayhem in the streets this summer, followed by the quiet “death and mayhem” of the courts, and the resulting “death and mayhem” which followed. All of these things keep happening, and they are big things.
It’s easy to lose perspective, but the little things keep happening, too. The sun comes up, the sun goes down — every day. Kids go to football games and later proms, and graduate. People move and meet new friends. People adopt dogs or cats. People fall in love and get married. In nature, the food supply still supplies. In New England, we have Autumn and the colors of the seasons. All of these give us hope, or comfort in the midst of a mad world — both mad as in “angry” and mad as in “insane”. For the brief minutes or hours that we do these things, we lose perspective on the big things and regain our perspective on the small things — the things which really matter…
And then, there’s babies. Babies seem to rebuke the death and mayhem of the Big World simply by their existence. A child is born into the world and the world of its parents stops. Facebook now lights up with pictures of Billy or Sue while the mother is pregnant, just after birth, when the child says their first word or walks or even potty trains. Nuclear war? Yeah, but my kid just said “Da-Da” or “Ma-Ma”!
In the old days, though, it was the same way. We took pictures or passed out cigars or had baby showers or had the relatives fly out all, all because a child was born. My children witnessed the birth of a calf this year and were in awe. There is something about the promise of new life — any new life — that makes us feel good. When it is our own children, it is incredible. Even my female clients, with their drug-addled lives and trauma histories are changed by the birth of a child. Maybe for an hour or maybe for a day, they are hopeful and strong for the baby. Sometimes, that hope and protectiveness — love in two of its forms — lasts forever and they get their lives together, for the sake of that child. Marriages often stay together “for the sake of the children” and — while this isn’t always a good thing — people also work on their troubled marriages and things get better for the sake of their children. Besides, it’s really hard to see your child and not believe that you were at least once in love with your partner.

Deny it all you want, this is — for a period of time — our reality. It’s a lot to put on a kid, but it is where we find hope, and innocence, and warmth– at first, within the placenta, then amidst the poop and pee and snot. A woman in my wife’s parish gave birth recently and my girls (who hadn’t even seen the baby yet) were screaming with joy, alternating with “awwwwww” and “what’s it’s name and how big is it?!”. The kid hasn’t even done anything yet, and they have changed our lives.
Christians take this reality seriously — really seriously — at Christmas. This child, in a stable, surrounded by animals and the stinky shepherds who watched them is an archetype of all that is good and possible in the world. In our mind, the baby doesn’t cry or poop, it just radiates goodness. It is, in a word, innocent. And if we say this about our own kids whom we know, then we really say it about Jesus whom we dream about, put our hopes on, and worship on Christmas.
When we are at our own children’s birth, if there’s sin (and that’s a big “if”) in the child, nobody sees it. There is only joy, and love, and excitement. Multiply that exponentially and you have Jesus’ innocence. People also respond with joy, and love, and excitement, because they remember, in the core of their being, innocence and they respond. The archetype of “innocence” is hard-wired into our brain and we know its reality deep in our souls. But, we as adults know all too well the reality of our world. Who in the world would want to bring a child into this?
With all the options out there to prevent pregnancy, why would anyone choose to raise a child in this going-to-heck-in-a-handbasket world? And yet we do.
The general consensus around here is that the world is getting worse in its depravity, indifference, and cruelty to each other. Childbirth and the possible re-birth of innocence in our lives is the greatest rebellion against the world that is imaginable. Hope, love, and innocence are genuine defiance to our depression, our fear, our violence.
The baby Jesus was born in the politically oppressed community of Israel, occupied by the Romans, and yet he didn’t hate any of the people around him. Our own children may grow up in poverty, surrounded by hatred, racism, and all sorts of political oppression. But at the moment of birth, they don’t hate anyone either. In Jesus’ case, he didn’t learn hate either and he didn’t teach hate either. The rest of us human beings somehow do.
Still, at the moment of birth, no one I know imagines that they’re raising another soldier for hate. The future is not written yet, and the promise that this child — despite all odds — will be the one to fix the world, will at least make it a better place — opens up all sorts of possibilities in the child, but also in us. The child’s innocence draws out the innocence, the hope, the possibilities in us.
We are reminded that that innocence, that hope, that possibility lives in us in the present tense. We could be cynical, but at that moment, we forget all of that. We remember that there are other choices of how to live, because we experience other choices. In that moment, we embody the hope of the world as much as the baby does. Our perspective changes for the better. That is what Christmas is about.
Amidst the family dysfunction, the political dysfunction, the chaos and so on of the holidays — including loss of loved ones for some of us — we become more than functional inside ourselves and it shows outside of us. That’s why the day of Christmas is generally so peaceful.
We Christians like to speak of Jesus’ saving us on the cross of Good Friday and Easter, but here on Christmas we are changed in a real, palpable way. Besides that, any day a child is born to anyone, they are changed in a palpable way. This is why non-Christians, on-again-off-again Christians, even people with no faith at all, can celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.
May we each find, remember, treasure and nurture the innocence, hope, possibilities remembered at the birth of this particular baby, and may we practice it all with the birth of our children.

Peace,

John

An Open Letter of Apology to My African-American Friends

My God, this is horrible. After recent events, and as a follower of Jesus, I feel like a disciple at the cross today, watching a friend die, or living with the possibility that they might. The last time I felt like this was when I thought of my daughters on the day of the Newtown shooting. They weren’t shot that day, but what if they were? My life would never be the same and I would be upset until the day I died.

My White brothers and sisters don’t hear of your plight because they don’t know you and our media never tells your stories in any sort of way that seems moral or spiritual or decent people.

I, however, am different. People may not know it now, but nearly 20 years ago I was the only White clergy person in the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance — the ostensibly Black Clergy group. I helped bring an African-American church into our church’s building, and met my wonderful friends, the Claytors — Benny and Gerri and their daughters. I was the chair of my local denomination Committee on Racism. I led a suburban/urban camp for the CT Conference UCC, and — in one of the proudest moments of my life, at the behest of some congregants, was acknowledged for my work with diverse communities in Bridgeport by the CT State Senate.

I should be proud of all of this, and I am. But today it is also the cause of my shame. All of this is speaks to how much I knew about your situation….Yet, here we are nearly 20 years later, and you are dying. I can’t imagine a worse fate for either of us, but mostly for you.

Ferguson is just the start. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we have heard more and more and more and more stories of policemen and African-American men getting killed which give testimony to the African-American condition in this country. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, I have heard about an African-American woman who was standing her ground against her violent man and the law that got George Zimmerman off didn’t apply to her. The list goes on.

This last thing, though, kills me emotionally. In Ferguson, the Grand Jury was given the WRONG burden of proof to determine Darren Wilson’ s guilt. The Grand Jury heard from the defendant, which is not supposed to happen. The officer involved went home with the evidence. His superiors talked to him for hours privately. His gun was washed off! The police militarized and attacked non-violent demonstrators — all to protect the man they feel killed Michael Brown. Darren Wilson is a problem, no doubt, but he is by no means the only one. The ADA, the clerks, the lawyers, the police, the National Guard ALL conspired to prevent justice from happening.

As the stories come of 12 year old being shot by police and a man who — after being beaten by police was charged with destruction of property because he BLED ON the uniforms of those who beat him, after those stories become more and more frequent, somehow I — who knew how bad things had been — had forgotten to watch after you. I had been led into a false sense of security while places like Ferguson, MO existed.

I was aware of concepts like systemic racism which are vague and require proof to the White community. But I was also aware of the harsh realities of my African-American friends, brothers and sisters. But, somehow, if someone had told me that whole communities like Ferguson still exist in America in 2014, I would not have believed it.

But here we are and I am shocked. You are dying because of our sins. You are dying because slowly we stripped away your rights and your growth and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything when the clerk in the grocery store or the bus driver gave you a dirty look. I didn’t say anything when someone told a racist joke, or portrayed President Obama as a monkey or… or … The list went on.

Now, if anything happened to my friend Greg or Margo or Gerri or Bennyta or any of the Black clergy in Bridgeport or anywhere else, it would be as if someone shot my daughter or my wife in a senseless tragedy that I should have seen coming.

But, while racism has put you on the cross because of our sin, I am aware that God will not let this stand. God and the Christian community can and should redeem the whole country, perhaps world, in the face of such tragedy. It has happened before and it can happen again. We can learn from the unnecessary death of Innocents who are confused with the guilty. We can learn from what seems like a summer of slaughter and we can say something about the stray look or the angry man with a gun or the police academy cadets who think it’s good to be aggressive. We can protest the mayor or council person who makes what they think is a cute racist remark . In short, we can repent.

A lot of us out there think that “repentance” means saying you’re sorry. It means more than that, though it’s a good start. The Hebrew word for “repent” is “shoov”, which means “turn around, go back” and it means return to the way it’s supposed to be with God and each other. THAT is what I want us to do today. But as one of my 12-step friends says, “if you walked 10 miles into the woods, you now have to walk 10 miles OUT of the woods.

It has been far too long that we as a nation have been walking into the woods. It is time to turn around, it is time to “shoov”, it is time to repent. It is time for us to travel TOWARD the dream of one of AMERICA’S greatest men ever, Martin Luther King, Jr, rather than away from it .

I, for one, pledge to try to keep my eye on the sparrow and keep walking out of this weird place we’re at in this country when we know better. I knew better. I should have paid attention. We all should have. But never again, brothers and sisters. Never again.

If any of my Black friends around the country were to die because of the way are in this country — for driving while Black or walking while Black or shopping while Black — I would grieve for the rest of my life because they were my FRIENDS. But at least I’d know I was walking in the right direction. For now, all I’ve got is “I’m sorry” . It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Peace,

John

Trouble in Ferguson City? I’m Shocked. Shocked I Am.

I’m not sure there could be more bizarre news in America than the news that Lawrence O’Donnell reported the other night — that the Assistant District Attorney read the wrong law to the Grand Jury as the standard by which they were supposed to measure things. The law that she showed them said that “legitimate force” includes shooting a suspect from behind if they are fleeing. That particular version of the law was written years before and found unconstitutional. Would they have found him guilty on the other standard? We will never know.
That right — and the right to justice for the family — was removed right then. I don’t know much about law, but isn’t it unethical or unprofessional to give the Grand Jury the wrong instructions? That woman should be fired. Whether she is or not doesn’t matter. Michael Brown’s family will never get justice.

OK, as if that’s not bizarre enough, there are reports that Darren Wilson left the scene with evidence, washed off his gun, and came back? Then the fact that no less than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weighted in on the case and said the Grand Jury did what Grand Juries are supposed to not do — try the case. Then, Officer Wilson got to testify before the Grand Jury? That his superiors spent time with evidence? That another policeman didn’t take notes of an interview? Does anyone else hear “systemic coverup”?

I want to believe in the system. I want to believe that the right people did the right things and the right verdict came out — whatever that is. But that is not what happened. What happened is that the wrong people asked the wrong people to do the wrong thing and come up with a correct answer. They did what they were told to do, and not surprisingly, they came up with an answer that had nothing to do with justice. There are two choices here: 1) The authorities didn’t know it was wrong, and are thus incompetent or 2) the authorities knew what they were doing, and did it intentionally, in which case they are corrupt.

Because there are so many parts to this, actual justice — or at least the justice that White people normally get — won’t happen. Once again, African-Americans live in a parallel universe, segregated from the rights promised them by the Constitution.

Make no mistake, there is method to the madness. In my work as a therapist, I have come to realize that when people are stuck fighting about reality nothing can change, and nothingwill.

Whether a bi-product of, or an actual intended consequence, this is what happens. Michael Brown’s death is a loss in the war that is the quest for racial justice/equality. We will continue to remain stuck if we continue to argue about the reality of his case. Ferguson must become a lost skirmish for now. It may need to become a sidetrack that we can return to at a later date.

In the meantime, we need to get back to learning how these things happen. Then we need to do something different. We must look in the nooks and crannies of hiring and election and diversity and how we treat each other and how and why we give respect and authority. Mostly we need to look in our hearts, and teach others to do the same.

THIS just isn’t working.

Peace,

John

Conflict Resolution and Ferguson — The Good News

As a therapist, I can tell when a couple is doing well and when they are not. When both people act like jerks to each other and say, “We’re great”, I can see that they are not. When both people act lovingly and say “we’re great”, I can agree that they are.

When both parties get angry and let it all out, I see that change is in the air, because all of the real issues are out on the table, all of the false impressions and the true ones are on the table. Misunderstandings come to light and people can find a common language to describe what’s real. Does this always work? Well, to be honest, divorces still happen because once the work becomes clear, some people think it’s too much work to do.

But, more often than not, going from cold rage to warm passion is a good thing and it can lead to good make-up relations in the short-term and — if the work is done, a healthy relationship in the future.

This is what Ferguson has done. We have gone from a cold disrespect and rage to a hot expression of serious anger. “The truth shall set you free, but first it’ll make you miserable”. By the time this is over, we will have been through plenty of misery. But the anger will subside because there’s only so much of Ferguson to burn down and so much anger to go around. NOTE: I am not saying that violence is ever the answer. There are better ways to express anger and it’s easier if it’s done sooner rather than later. But here we are, and violence has already happened and will continue until it doesn’t anymore.

But, after this, White America can never say that they don’t know what Black America thinks or how upset they are. As my friends and I pour through all of this, we define and redefine our words. On this blog alone, we have differentiated between “race hatred“, “racism”, and “systemic racism”. We’re not throwing names at each other, we’re clarifying our version of reality. Black America probably already knows what White America thinks of it, but as both Sean and Bob point out, it’s not as cut-and-dry as that. I hopefully shed light on that thought as well.

Sean wants rationality and I don’t blame him for wanting that. I do, too. I think Bob does, as well. The difference is that I don’t expect rationality from people when there’s this much rage, and I’m aware that there is. So, let this thing burn itself out. It will. At some point, when there’s only cooler heads left, we can understand each other and correct our behavior according to what the other needs, even if we don’t “get it” on a gut level.

Police and administration in Ferguson can see what they did wrong, and what they did right. Protesters can see what they did wrong and what they did right. People will learn what “buttons” not to push, and what kinds of things just appear stupidly horrendous to the other, so as to avoid them. There are good people on the ground in Ferguson — among others, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, I am told. Nobody likes their city being burned to the ground because it is, after all, their city. A client recently told me that “anger is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will get sick”. Once people realize they are getting sick due to their anger, the chance for real healing exists.

I, for one, am willing to do the work, and I believe my friends are, as well.

Peace,

John

Ferguson, Race, and Police: What Now?

My friend Sean Murphy was right. According to the Grand Jury of Ferguson, MO, Darren Wilson didn’t do anything wrong, or at least criminal. I don’t like the verdict, but if those are the facts, those are the facts.

My African-American train friend  and I were talking about the case and I asked her about “The Talk” with her daughter. I knew that parents had “The Talk” with their sons about interacting with the police, but I didn’t know if they had it with daughters and she assured me that they did. She spoke about what to do when pulled over and where not to go, because African-Americans “stick out” there.

You know we’re going to make a moral out of the story, right? The news will cover it, and people will write on Facebook and Twitter and we’ll all say what it means. What does this case mean, then, for life in America and whether we’re “post-racial”. Should she stop worrying? Should she tell her daughters not to worry?

I have to ask her, but I don’t think she’s going to go for it. Here’s the problem as we discussed it, with my spin on it somewhat. Most normal White people would not do anything as racist as beat someone up or shoot them simply because they were Black. In fact, most normal White people can’t even imagine doing that. Because they wouldn’t do it, and because they don’t experience it, they have a hard time believing it happens. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It just means that it’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there.

Still, every day as a therapist, I hear about actions that no normal person would ever engage in. Incest, rape, and molestation are a lot more common that anyone can imagine. Drug use and robbery and domestic violence and male rape and … the list goes on. Did these things happen, as my clients maintain? In reality, I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I choose to believe them. Why? Because they can’t imagine it happening, either, and they are frequently in shock. I believe them because something happened, because their bodies and their psyches are out-of-whack and they no longer act normally. They have experienced the unimaginable and believing them seems to relieve their misery.

So, Darren Wilson didn’t commit a crime. According to our laws, that’s the fact. Darren Wilson got justice, according to the law. Does that mean that “driving while Black” isn’t a reality? Does it mean that parents don’t have conversations with their children? Does it mean that the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t exist? No, it doesn’t mean any of those things. Does it mean that we don’t need to consider what “appropriate force” is again? Does it mean that laws and consequences aren’t used more harshly against Blacks than Whites? No. It doesn’t mean that either.

Does it mean that we shouldn’t believe Blacks anymore — because of Tawana Brawley and now Michael Brown? Like everything else, we have a choice. We can listen to them and believe them and build friendships and trust or refuse to believe them and watch the divide between us widen. Listening and believing leads to healing. Not listening and not believing leads to a colder world and a divided world, and the fear that everybody’s crazy.

I am convinced that we need to reach across color lines in our day to day lives, that we need to listen and believe what we hear — not stupidly or blindly — but with open minds and hearts. If we do that, we will experience the racism which is so hard to imagine. If we see each other as brothers and sisters to start with, we can experience each others’ cultural experiences. Where we experience pain and the unimaginable, then we can become motivated to change things. Where things turn out to be lies, we have enough of a relationship to cope with it or claim the reality without the rest of the world being impacted.

These are our choices. In whatever stories we hear, this should be the process — 1) listen with an open mind 2) get the reality of the situation 3) make decisions based in the reality of the situation. That has happened in the case of Darren Wilson, as far as we know. Let’s make it so for everybody else in America.

Peace,

John

“Career Creators” vs. “Job Creators” — Education and “Reform” (for Dawn)

I have wanted to write something for my friend Dawn, who is a teacher outside of Boston, for awhile. She posted on Facebook that some new ruling/department decision was making it nearly too hard to do her job. There are two or three things you should know about Dawn — 1) She loves teaching; 2) She’s not a particularly political person; 3) She never complains. In short, she is normal, but unrepresented in the press. She goes through life, raising her kids and her students, whom she sees as “her kids”. She goes to work, does her job, and goes home. She cares about people, wouldn’t rip anybody off because, well, she wouldn’t. She pays her taxes and — though you’ve never heard of her — she makes the world better in her corner of the world.

For the world to lose such a person in such a career would be a terrible waste and a sign that something is wrong. When we make life hard for the average person who isn’t doing anything wrong — and in fact, is doing things right — there’s a problem. When the political among us write and say and do things, we expect backlash. When non-political types start having difficulties, there’s a serious problem.

Education reform is a complicated thing based in a lot of factors, mostly politics and money, test scores, standardization, privatization and unions and/or union busting. Given all of that, it’s hard to understand the situation and I have generally refrained from saying something I don’t actually understand.

Turns out, I know a lot of teachers and I hear from them all about the complex system that causes them pain when, frankly, they’d rather just teach. They teach because they believe in education, they teach because they like kids (on a side note, there are a lot of teachers who don’t like kids and are working out their own issues of control on students — especially inner city ones — but that’s a whole other blog piece) and their kids get smarter because of it. College professors, high school teachers, early-education teachers, elementary teachers, generally teach because they believe in education and creating fully functioning individuals who know things about their world.

Schools where students are overwhelmingly violent are not schools, really, but warehouses until those kids can be let out in into the world and society can say “Good luck!” to them. No teacher should be forced to work in a situation like that and no student should try to learn in a situation like that. So, yes, there are things that parents should be doing in this whole educational process. This is difficult when there’s one parent or when both parents work, so economics again effect things. Aside from that, though, it seems like we’re doing things wrong in schools.

This is what I think is wrong: as in much of America today, we’re too short sighted. The new basic philosophy is that students should be 1) productive and 2) ready for work in the jobs we foresee coming. In short, those “job creators” we pay so much attention to want people to fill those jobs and it’s the educational system’s job to create the people who can do that. Further, they want teachers to prove that they are doing that, so that they can keep their jobs.

Put succinctly, they want education to produce people who know things, not think about things, or create things. I think we’re starting with the wrong premise. we are aiming for people who know what we know about, rather than people who can face anything. I always kind of thought it was stupid to publish lists of careers that people should go into because a) people already know what they like to do and b) if everybody rushes toward those jobs and college takes 7 years, by the time they get there, the job market will have changed and people already in the field will have taken those jobs. Oops.

The best teachers that I know want kids to know things, to think about things, and to creatively face whatever challenges face them. They want kids to learn because they are curious more than anything else, and they see kids as full people who need to know about the world they live in.

I still can’t believe it when I see what my kids are expected to know and do in school and — right or wrong — I go back to my own childhood. Kindergarten was a half a day because kids can’t be expected to produce all day long. They can be expected to play. Our “texts” were “We Read Pictures” and we played with trucks and sand and dolls from 8am to noon.

Later, in elementary school, we learned basic fundamentals by rote. I know that this is not every teachers favorite style of learning, but it worked. I can add, subtract, and multiply in my head to this day I have a fairly good vocabulary. I do believe in learning facts and I think that may have been where the problem was that people felt we needed to reform.

In junior high, aka “Middle School” now, we started developing Selves — figuring out who we were, who we wanted to be and what we were good at. In High School, we began to think about what it all meant. We could learn about atoms in elementary school, figure out that they were cool in junior high, and think about the ways they should be used — or not — in High School. If we wanted to think more or think in depth, we could go to college. If not, we could think on our feet and adjust to life. We were supposed to be “well-rounded individuals”. Out of that, I got an undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees. I got a career or two and a way to decide what to do with my life.

In those days, though, we had recess. We had art, we had music, we had vocational and tech ed. Now, like everybody else in America, we want our children to do more with less. We take away art as not “practical enough”, we take away music as “not practical or productive enough”, we de-fund programs for hands-on learners and then we test them about what they know.

Brains don’t function that way, though. Music and beauty and fun and time to think and time to play are all important to learning, and they make the difference between smart people and wise people. It’s like an orange and orange juice are better for because of things that are in the peel than reduced to their core, processed, and put in a can. It’s the whole thing that makes it work, not just the obvious, and not minus the obvious. (Orange peel is no substitute for a whole orange, and it doesn’t make much juice).

We should educate kids as they are, and we should let teachers teach to kids as they are. They know how to teach. They know what it takes to make wise, well-rounded adults. The Powers That Be won’t let them do that. They have different goals in mind.

Kids coming out of the way of education I experienced have careers, not jobs. They have callings, not an 8 hour day. They create new industries, rather than jobs for the old ones. Let Dawn and all the teachers like her do their job. Fund education, let kids be kids, and let them use their whole Self. It might make things messier, but it’ll be a whole lot more useful.

Peace,

John

Full Citizenship and The Realm of God (For Gerri and George and Ken)

I dreamed last night about a T-Shirt/Bumper Sticker that said “Full Citizenship for African-Americans!”. I woke up this morning to my friend Cat Chapin-Bishop’s posting of a video where a Black man discuss being pulled over by the police as a time when he feared his life is in danger. After this summer’s events, it seems to me that from the experience of African-Americans, they might believe that they don’t have full citizenship in America. By “full citizenship” I mean the right to use our roads without fear of the government (yes, police are the government). If memory serves me right, I also mean the right to live where you want, instead of being steered to areas in certain zip codes. In the present,  I also mean the right to go into a store and not be looked at suspiciously, or the right to vote without having to prove you live in a town you’ve lived in for eighty years. Further, the right to be assumed to “belong here”, wherever one may roam in the U.S. is part of what I would call “full citizenship” in the United States.

It occurs to me that women don’t have full citizenship, either, by the way, but the same principles apply — the right to become Leader of our country, the right to the same pay for doing the same job, the right to not expect the glass ceiling, the right to be considered for all types of job if you can do them, the right to make decisions about your own person — these rights are part of full citizenship, as well.

The poor don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges that others do either — they are kept out of the gated communities of the rich, kept from the benefits of medicines, kept from all kinds of things which your average person can afford, and — if a person dares to show their class via language or etiquette, they are often discriminated against.

None of this means that others have full citizenship in the U.S., either — every group and individual is probably kept from reaching their full potential in some way or another by government or the society it supposedly represents.

Oddly, many of the people that speak of Freedom with a capital “F” seem to be against other people having the basics of freedom — the right to be left alone unless you’re doing something wrong, the right to go where you want, the right to be who you are without punishment or scorn or ridicule, the right to work and eat, the right to vote, the right to control your own destiny and your own body. If those people who rail against losing their freedoms actually had to deal with their basic rights infringed upon, we’d never hear the end of it — with good reason. So the idea that it’s not okay to complain when your basic rights as a Citizen are being kept from you is absurd, but there are always those who say “complaining shows that you are weak (and therefore undeserving)”.  The people with the most rights often claim their Christianity as the reason they deserve to be free. They say things like “we founded this country and don’t you forget it!”. They say things like “we came to this country to exercise our religion. Don’t take that away from us or pretend it isn’t that way”. They are right for doing so. Their facts are correct (if you don’t consider Native Americans, who belong to their own sovereign nations.)

But here’s where it gets messed up: The rights of citizens here in the U.S. are supposed to be based on the rights that God will/does give people in the “Kingdom of God” (or the Realm or Reign of God if you’re into inclusive language). The point of establishing cities in the New World was to establish cities that Christians could and should live in. “The kind of cities that Christians should live in” were the ones they envisioned in heaven. As Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven”.  But in the Realm of God, everyone is supposed to be given Full Citizenship — the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner and stranger in our midst, as well as those nice people in the Temple who do the will of God. The law in heaven is supposed to be something like “love one another as I have loved you”, once you cross into the pearly gates, however you get there.

That kind of Full Citizenship is the kind we should be giving people in America as well. If you think it is “this way” in heaven, then that is the standard we are to use here on earth in a democracy as envisioned by our Founding Fathers. Granted, of course, that their interpretation of scripture might be different than ours — the principle is the same. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr had any vision of what the country should be in the mid 1900’s that included former slaves that many of the Founding Fathers couldn’t even imagine. The idea that we have lost ground, or that there is unfinished work to do toward King’s dream is proof that we are not the Christian country we claim to be and used to strive to be.

This works on two different levels: The personal/spiritual and the legal/practical. We ought to think about each other as Full Citizen’s in God’s Kingdom/Realm so that we don’t assume that the guy with the hoodie is a criminal or the man walking down the street doesn’t belong there or that a woman doesn’t want control over her own body. This is us, as individuals, responding to other individuals as full citizens, in the way that God would want us to. This is the area of our hearts and minds that should show forth from The City on The Hill or the unhidden lampstand. What’s the point in being a beacon if you don’t want to call people your way? This is something to consider in the immigration situation we currently face in the Southwest and other places. If we are doing things right, people should want to come to our Kingdom of God on Earth and we shouldn’t keep them away or dim our lights.

Legally and in the world outside of our hearts, our country, founded as “like the  Kingdom of God in earth” should reflect those same values that we’re supposed to have in our hearts. If we claim to have integrity as a nation, then our outsides should reflect our insides, and our insides should be better than they are. Spiritual laws like “everyone’s important and everyone’s opinion matters” should have their equivalent in practical laws like “everyone gets to vote”.  “Everyone is loved by God” should be enforced as “No one shall make someone else not live up to their potential as human being”. If God makes food for all to eat, then our laws should say that “everyone should get what they need”. If we’re making laws that say “some people are allowed to be de-valued”, then we are not doing our law-making right.  If God offers mercy, then our laws should do the same. If God “loved us when we were yet sinners”, our laws should say that we do the same, even if we only suspect our neighbors might be up to no good.

This is the kind of Full Citizenship that African-Americans deserve, and Celtic-Americans deserve and Polish-Americans deserve and Mexican-Americans deserve. This is  the kind of Full Citizenship that Male Americans and Female Americans and everything in between deserve. Fat Americans and Thin Americans, Short Americans and Tall Americans deserve this, as do both the mentally ill and the mentally capable, the physically ill and the physically capable. This is the vision that Christianity gives to this country.

I am sure that other religions offer similar visions of The Way Things Should Be but, as a Christian, I can only speak authentically about my faith and my understanding of history. I suspect people of Islam or Judaism or Buddhism come here believing in Full Citizenship in America should look their best world-view as well — “the land where the streets are paved with gold”, or “nirvana” or “the place where justice and peace prevail”, etc.

In any case, I believe that  our view of “what the world can be if God lives with us” should be the same as our vision of  “what our laws say we are to be” and “what our minds should see when we look at our fellow citizens”. If our laws said “do to others as you would have them do to you”, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. We should do what we can to make it that way.

 

Peace,

 

John

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