We Need to Reign In Deadly Force…

There has been some interesting news lately regarding the rash of police shootings of citizens that plagued our country in 2015.

  1. In a study of Chicago police and a wider policing, many of the police who have killed people recently have a history of abusing their power.  That means that fewer police are actually involved in the shootings we saw last year.
  2. Today, the Huffington Post noted that none of the fifty states have laws regarding when deadly force is appropriate/ is not appropriate.

I have struggled with what to do re: racism and police treatment of Blacks in this country which became so much an issue last year. There are so many forms of racism to deal with that it was difficult to know where to start, and how to make any strides against it — specifically how to change people’s hearts and minds and treat each other decently.

At the same time, there were so many mass shootings last year, it appeared that the world had gone off the deep end. While, as a pacifist, I’m not a big fan of guns or killing in general, I can understand people’s need to feel safe and the world felt very unsafe last year.

It is bad enough to feel unsafe and out-of-control, but to be made to feel unsafe and out-of-control by the very people who are supposed to keep you safe and society in control is beyond my comprehension. I see every day what happens, and its lingering effects, when I see clients who were or are abused by their parents, who are supposed to protect them.  What must it be like to be a victim of a crime and not be willing to call the police, because they’ll abuse you as well? This is the plight, apparently, of African Americans who already don’t trust the police (e.g. “driving while Black”, laws written with minorities in mind for more persecution (ever wonder why powdered cocaine had one penalty and rock cocaine had another?)).

How can we love each other, care for each other, see each other as Americans if we have two sets of standards and two sets of laws or two very different applications of the law? And how do we define morality — good and bad — when the good guys do bad things and get away with it?  We expect the bad guys to do evil things. When the good guys do evil things, what does “good” even mean?  None of us feel safe in a society like that.  If we equate “good” with being violent — via guns, choke holds, tasers, intentionally had driving — we had them all from police last year — then the more violent we are, the more “good” we claim?

The problem isn’t that bad cops are the norm. They aren’t. The problem is that cops are — by definition — supposed to be the good guys. When they aren’t, it’s a larger drop in our confidence, a larger drop from what we expect. In short, it messes with our heads and our sense of order in the universe.

If there’s anything that last year taught us, it’s that between corrupt Grand Juries, rebel police who shoot innocent victims in the back, Chicago’s “black ops” station, and ridiculously strong police unions, it’s almost impossible to convict a bad/killer police officer.

Society needs to make a statement that no one is above the law, that the law applies to everyone, that violence is a bad idea. For states or the Federal government to create laws about when “deadly” violence  might be appropriate — and therefore isn’t appropriate, is to make all of those claims, and to restore some portion of justice to America’s racial problems.

This is something we can and should do.

Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”

Editor’s note: Every once in awhile, I have a sermon that expresses an important (to me) theological point. This is one of those. The beginning piece is from the morning’s news about Tamir Rice.

Sermon given at Center Congregational Church, Torrington, CT 10/11/2015

“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”

            Ask my friends. I’m generally a very loving guy, generally calm, generally peaceful, opinionated, but kind, for the most part. But I have my pet peeves, things that just set me off. Dead kids is one of them. Racism is another. Unhealthy systems is another, which is why I do the work I do — whether for families or churches. This morning I was awoken to the news that all my buttons were set off at the same time. I am so upset, I could spit. Tamir Rice and his family were hurt again this morning. According to the New York Times this morning, “2 Outside Reviews Say Cleveland Officer Acted Reasonably in Shooting Tamir Rice, 12”

            One of the reviewers said “The question is not whether every officer would have reacted the same way,” Kimberly A. Crawford, the retired F.B.I. agent, which noted that Officer Loehmann had no way of knowing Tamir’s gun was fake. “Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.” What she is saying is that the police system has policies that, under the same circumstances, with the same report/ call to the police, would have left open the door to using deadly force.

            A 10 year old Black child is dead at the hands of a white police officer, without discussion, without attempts at de-escalation, because the officer shot “was in fear for his life” from a 10 year old sitting openly in a gazebo, while he was inside a metal automobile? Really? Under those circumstances, deadly force is “reasonable”? If that’s the view of the wider law enforcement community, there is a problem with the law enforcement community’s system. From a Christian perspective, it is wrong.

            Now, there are some you who will point out that racism isn’t an issue here, and that the dispatcher didn’t mention that the child was African-American. The fact of the matter, though, is the officers responded quickly to the situation and had to rely on their “intuition” or “instincts” and their instincts told them that that 12 year old was dangerous when any child of 12 like the ones who were just in the children’s time probably wouldn’t. It’s society’s racism that poses for the cop’s “instinct” or “intuition” that led to this shooting.

************************************

Last Week, at the beginning of the sermon, I talked about the recent shooting at a community college in Oregon. This past week, in my “other life” as a therapist, I had a client who was — with her brothers and her mother — smacked across the knuckles by her drunken father and told not to cry because he was trying to toughen up the kids. In the next few weeks, members of the Connecticut Conference will make decisions about various things. All of these things, though quite different, have something in common — they each require an ethical response, and — for us as Christians — they require a Christian ethical response.

There are those who would offer a Republican ethical response or a Democratic ethical response or a capitalist ethical response or a socialist ethical response. There are those who would offer a philosophical ethical response and those who would offer a military response, or an American response. None of those are the same as a Christian ethical response.         There are lots of competing ideas and choices out there on which to make our ethical decisions, and it’s easy to find some idea to hang our hat on and be loyal to.

As Christians, though, we can’t be Americans, or Republicans or Democrats first. We are not socialists or survivalists before anything else. We are Christians — who live in this country, who belong to a party or like a philosophy or whatever, but we are Christians first, because as Christians, we know that if we go mixing loyalty to the country with Christianity, you get “Deutschland Uber Alles” — Germany above everything — being preached from the pulpits, and that doesn’t work. God doesn’t like it when we split our loyalties or worship things that aren’t God, because they inevitable lead to… well, unholy results.

So how do we make difficult decisions — or easy ones — in life? How do we live? How do we know what’s good and what’s bad? And how can we trust others to make good decisions that resemble our goals?

Let me start with an odd source. …Years ago, in private practice, I had a client who was a recovering alcoholic and cocaine user and, well, she had been messed up by every drug she had tried and she had tried a lot of drugs. Early in her recovery, though, she had learned something I had never heard of before: “Do the next right thing”. If you want to live life and you’re not sure what to do, do the next right thing”. It’s as simple as that.

In therapy, we do a thing called “treatment planning”. If a client comes in, and they want my help, I first listen to who they are and what they think is the problem. Then I ask where they want to go with their lives. Between point A (where they are) and point B (where they want to be) are all of these dots that need to be filled in, all of these days to be lived before they get “there”, wherever “there” is for them.

Christians and Christian churches can be like my former client — spun around so many times mentally by all of the different choices and temptations out there that they no longer know what they think or what they feel. Treatment planning in that case looks a lot like interim work. While they first recover, I focus them back on listening to themselves, and feeling what they feel, just to get their bearings.

What do we do in the meantime? I point them in a healthy direction and — using their own senses and intuition — they do the next right thing. Then the next right thing, and the next, then they’re on the yellow brick road until they can click their heels and get “there”. As I like to say, “if you put your ducks in a row, one day they’ll start walking”.

But here’s the real question: How do we know what the right direction is? The early church talked, as I said last week, about “the way of life and the way of death”. We can start by taking Jesus at his word, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we want to follow the way of life, we could do worse than ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?”. Along with that, what did God do? What does “of God” mean?

In this morning’s texts we see what it means to act in a Godly way. It’s “godly” because, by definition, it’s like God.

1) God creates and likes what God sees. God rests and sits in awe.

2) God creates new things.

2) God, in Jesus, resurrects people.

So, this is the basic character of God: give life to things. Angry people with guns — or mentally ill people with guns or however you understand that whole thing — take life from things. That’s not Good, and that’s not God’s will. What gives life is “of God”, what doesn’t…isn’t.

The woman who was abused as a child? Her father deadened her soul. That’s not God’s will. His acts didn’t inspire her, he didn’t make her more alive. They didn’t make her be in awe of the universe. They didn’t help her to rest and appreciate life. They didn’t resurrect her spirit. That’s how we know they are wrong. God is the founder, and fountain of, what some theologians call “life-givingness”. Anything that doesn’t make you feel more alive, or doesn’t leave the person you’re trying to help feeling more alive isn’t “of God”. It is as simple as that. Anything that does — anything that makes you more hopeful, more alive, more creative, more forgiving, is “of God”. “God” does not equal “hurt”, and if somebody tells you it does, they’re lying. OK, I know I said “it’s as simple as that” and — generally , it’s true. As a starting point, if you ask yourself, “will I feel more alive?” when thinking about your choices, you’re generally going to be on the right track. If you ask yourself “at the end of this, will the other person feel more alive or less alive?” you can figure out the “next right thing” and go that way, building strength on top of strength.

In a few weeks, the CT Conference will vote on some things. In this church, on every committee, people will vote on things. Each of us — individually and together — will make decisions. If you start with the right question, and listen honestly for the answer, you’ll be doing the next right thing.

Having worked with addicts, though, I have to tell you it’s not that clear in the short term. It’s still very clear in the long term, but right now, at this moment, feeling “good” will hurt and feeling “bad” will lead toward healing. This is why addiction is a lie. People who use cocaine, for instance, I understand, feel better-than-great for some period of time — perhaps 20 minutes or so — but — and this is a big “but” — then they feel horrible and broke and mad at themselves for days, weeks, even years.

But what happens when we non-addicts — do a version of this ourselves? What happens when we — trying to do the right thing — do something with unforeseen consequences? What if — while trying to do the right thing, we do the wrong thing? What if our lives have been turned so upside-down that we don’t know what feeling good looks like anymore and we act out of the lies which have led us there?

Nothing is over til God says it’s over. Richard Bach, in his book “Illusions” says “here’s a test to see if your mission in life is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t”. As long as we’re alive, we can resurrect our souls, and regain our sense of truth and reality. After we’re dead, God does it because only God can. During life, as Robert MacAfee Brown noted in our Bible Study last week, people can feel resurrected (alive again) when they bring their mistakes to God and repent.

Now, by “repent”, I don’t mean say “I’m sorry”. The Biblical Hebrew word for what we would now call “repent”, is the word “shoov”. It means “turn around”, “go back”, do the opposite of what you were doing and return… to yourself — to the truth and the way that leads to life. In the story of the “Prodigal Son”, it says “he came to himself” and returned home. God wants that for you. So again, the goal for our decisions, if they are to be godly, is fuller life for everyone involved.

If you, or your corporation, or your denomination, or your church, is planning something that will hurt someone — take over their land, destroy the earth, shoot them, whatever — if, at the end of your actions, you will see sad faces, or people in pain — it’s not the right thing to do. Don’t do it.

If people will, or do, have new hope, then it is the right thing. If it allows for forgiveness with repentance, it’s holy. If it doesn’t, there is no hope, there is no resurrection, and God is not there.

To illustrate “the way of life vs. the way of death” My friend Dave used to tell a story of a man with a peaceful lion and an angry one in front of him. When he asks a wise man, “which one will live?”, the man answers “whichever one you feed“.

We need, as Christians, to be about the feeding of the good things in life and starving those things which would feed into evil. Which brings me to my final point. This is the first of four sermons with a stewardship theme in them.

If you believe that this church has enriched your life, and fed your soul, brought you closer to God’s creation and awe or helped you turn your life around, then you want to feed it. If you have hope for it, then it’s doing the right things, and you should feed it.

If, on the other hand, you feel abused by this church or by its members, don’t feed it. You know what your experience is. I don’t. We should never expect you to feed our coffers if we don’t feed your soul or bring joy into your life.

If you’re one of those people that hurts others, and you want this church to succeed, then you want to stop hurting others, you want to repent — both by saying you’re sorry and by not doing those things again. You can get more bees with honey than vinegar. If all you’re putting out is vinegar, then you need to stop. Or if you think that honey must always be “flavored” with vinegar, you need to re-think your plans. We are each responsible for our actions and God offers us new choices and new lives if we do — the way of life and the way of death. This church should be about “life”.

But back to the larger picture: as long as I am here as your pastor, I will do everything I can to feed and protect the best parts of who you are. If you see that happening in this church, feed this church. If you see it elsewhere, then feed that other one. If you feel hopeful about this church and enjoy the people you meet here, if you feel renewed by the sermons or the music or the children or whatever, then support it. We’re doing good things for the world. And if this past week has shown us anything, it is that the world needs more good things — things on the way of life, not the things which lead to death.

Amen.

This S— Has Got To Stop. It Just Does.

Today, more people died in a school massacre. I don’t need to publish the date, because — unless we do something NOW that first sentence will still be appropriate.

Apparently, there have been  142 (One Hundred and Forty-Two!!!!) School shootings since Sandy Hook.  This doesn’t include Columbine or the Colorado movie shooter!
This has got to stop.

“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America — next week, or a couple months from now,” said President Obama. The President has been trying to do something since Sandy Hook. When a problem of this magnitude can’t be solved by the “leader of the free world”, there’s something wrong — seriously wrong — with our society.

Apparently, the NRA has more power to govern (at least regarding gun laws) than our government does. I don’t know how many members the NRA has, but as a percentage of the US population, it shouldn’t be enough to overcome majority rule. It’s not. That’s a problem. Money in our political system has made things this way. We need to get money out of our electoral process. Overturn “Citizen’s United”? If it’ll help, let’s do it.

Gun control is next up. Clearly, we can’t agree on anything regarding guns in this country, but we need to take the health crisis of “lead projectile enters body and causes death” seriously. I’m not making this up. The CDC has said this for a long time. For whatever political reasons there may be, no one can justify the sale of assault rifles, machine guns, gattling guns or anything like them to a civilian population. They are weapons of war. Unless we want to live in a war zone, we need to stop selling them, period. Another means to control this here would be to stop selling bullets that go in those type of guns. This is not a solution to gun violence, but it is solution to mass gun violence.

To those who say that the Constitution says that people need guns to overthrow corrupt governments, I will even give them that. Yes, the Constitution seems to say that. The Revolution that started all this — the American one that those people are so in love with — was fought with single shot rifles and their leaders told them to wait “until they see the whites of [the British Army’s] eyes”. If you can’t have your modern revolution with single shot rifles, maybe you shouldn’t be considering it at all. If that’s all it took the first time, that’s all it should take now. The idea that one weapon can get off more shots  in a shorter time than all the guns at Lexington and Concord suggests we don’t need it. Enough is enough. Ban Assault weapons now. Ban the bullets that fill assault weapons now. Either one of them will work. I’m for both.

For those who say, “those shooters are mentally ill”, you’re probably right. Either that, or they’re simply evil. I’ll get to the “evil” option next. If they are mentally ill, then cutting services to the mentally ill as part of our plan to build a safe nation is not going to work. Stopping Obamacare will mean that the mentally will have less chance at services than they have now. Insurance rates increasing or not covering mental health services also isn’t going to work. We have a Mental Health Parity Act in place but the desire to enforce it isn’t always there. Besides that, therapists need to understand that poverty (or simply the inability to pay bills) is one of the greatest stressors I know of. The AAMFT used to have a rule that said we couldn’t turn away people for the inability to pay. I don’t know if we still have that rule, but there are a lot of folks in my profession who don’t deal with the issue because they would like to make a good living, rather than simply making a living. Mental Health Care in this society MUST become a priority. Making it less of a priority makes it more likely these shootings will go on.

If these school shooters are simply evil, then there are more evil people in our society than we ever had before Sandy Hook. When you add in Church shootings, theater shootings, gang shootings, terrorist shootings, native-born terrorist groups like White Supremacists carrying out shootings, that’s an awful lot of evil out there. We have to figure out why this is. In addition to long-term biological studies which we will need, we need to do something now. At the very least, let’s stop teaching hate. Let’s affirm that every life matters. Let’s stop having flame wars about poor people vs. rich people, Black people vs. White People vs. Korean, Japanese, or Chinese people. Let’s stop dividing ourselves into the deserving and the “not deserving”. Let’s teach our children (maybe even at a church,  synagogue or mosque) to have the values that give life rather than the ones that lead to death. Let’s actually raise our children. All of us. All of them.  Let’s teach them right from wrong. In addition to looking for outside causes for evil, lets look for inward causes of it.

If we do all of these things, these school shootings won’t happen. If we do some of them, it’s a start, but not enough, I suspect. However we get there, this s— has got to to stop. It just does.

Peace,

John

Reforming our Justice System: What It Should Look Like

Yesterday, some sheriff said that “Sandra Bland” wasn’t a model person/prisoner. Instead of getting a trial, she got killed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Sandra Bland or anyone else (unless, of course, you are her family). It shouldn’t matter if she was Black or anything else. It shouldn’t matter if she’s a model prisoner, citizen, or American. That’s what the system is set up to determine. Good, bad, or otherwise, she’s still supposed to get a fair trial.

When a person gets a trial, it’s supposed to be a fair one. We’re all supposed to be equal under the law. Rich or poor, you should have the best lawyer you can. Justice should not depend on your ability to pay.

When a trial is completed, justice should be done. This is, after all, the justice system. At the end of the system’s process, there should be justice. Punishment is not necessarily the same as justice. Restitution is always justice.

Among other things, people ought to be able to truthfully tell who the victim was and who the criminal was.

If, at the end of a trial, the actual criminal didn’t get tried, then they should be.

If there wasn’t a victim, maybe it shouldn’t be a crime.

White collar crimes should be punished as often as blue collar ones. If the top 1% are the people who are committing those crimes, there ought to be 99 blue collar crimes and 1 white collar crime, just as a measuring stick, maybe.

Punishments should fit the crime. Not all crime requires a punishment, though. What all crimes should require is restitution.

Judges ought to be able to use discretion about sentencing. They are called “judges” for a reason. They are to make “judgements” and “judgement calls”.  What they are now is a referee in the Game of Law.

Being Black — or anything else — is not a crime. It should never be prosecuted as such. Doing something is a crime, being something is not.

Laws ought to be equivalent — Crack Cocaine and Powdered Cocaine are the same drug and should be penalized the same way.

Just because a person is a man or a woman doesn’t make them better people than the other gender — not more reliable, not more deserving, not more anything.

If a person is found to be innocent after they have served jail time, they should be immediately let out. There is no process which needs to be gone through to determine if a person gets out. Criminal = in jail, not criminal = not in jail.

Even if the above changes were put into place tomorrow, there would still be a problem — the human heart. Yes, there are systemic issues to be solved, but a police officer, a judge, a jury member cannot make a reasonable decision if they view they case through an unreasonable prejudice. All prejudice, by the way, is irrational and therefore unreasonable. So, then, our justice system requires change from outside its walls and inside our homes.

Peace,

John

Who Are The Police Responsible To?

Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant”. Matthew 20:25 – 26

Today, the  Baltimore Police Commissioner was fired, in the wake of the recent riots there, which came in the wake of Baltimore citizen Freddie Gray. According to the Huffington Post:

“The announcement about [Commissioner] Batts comes just after a report was released by the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 detailing the lack of structure in the Baltimore Police Department during riots in the city that followed the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed man who died in police custody.

The union “received many reports from members who were deployed to the defensive efforts, stating that they lacked basic riot equipment, training, and, as events unfolded, direction from leadership,” according to the report. “The officers repeatedly expressed concern that the passive response to the civil unrest had allowed the disorder to grow into full scale rioting.”

I’m confused. The Police Commissioner was fired because he wasn’t good enough to the police? The Police Commissioner wasn’t fired because the police killed a man on his watch and then lied about it. He was fired because the police didn’t receive enough training to handle the riots they caused? The police response was too passive, according to the Police UnionTheir killing of an already injured man didn’t seem too passive to me.

The problem wasn’t that the police weren’t trained in riot control. The problem was that there was a riot in the first place! It was caused by the very police force that had to control it later! If the police force can’t figure out what the problem is, they can’t solve it.

In a situation like this, one has to ask, “Who do the police work for?”, “What are they trying to do (aka “What Is Their Job?”). Finally, “Who are they responsible to?”.

Frequently, I hear interviews where police say, “This isn’t a matter of Black-and-White. This is a question of Blue”. Blue and who? Police seem to isolate themselves and draw ranks/circle the wagons when they are involved in a conflict. The fact that police whistle-blowers become pariahs and are attacked/killed says that there’s a code of “honor” and the police are responsible to … each other? their image? I’m not hearing the citizenry in any of that. If that is true, then “what are they trying to accomplish?” and “how are they compensated”?. Usually, people are responsible to their boss, and their boss is the person who pays them, but they don’t see that. Is their boss their union rep? Is their boss the commissioner? The mayor? I seldom (if ever) hear of police forces welcoming a citizen’s advisory board. What I hear frequently is “We don’t want people who aren’t us to tell us how to do our jobs”. I understand this impulse very well, and I believe that being a police officer is difficult.  At the same time, though, the people who give you your job and whom you’re sworn to protect ought to have some say in how you do your job. Further, if you can’t live with that, you shouldn’t have your job because you can’t serve someone without asking them how they want you to help.

This is a rant, yes, but it is not a rant against any individual officer. It’s about a dynamic I see and the tragic consequences of that dynamic. I am against the culture that police officers seem to have created. I think they need to have a different identity than “order keeper”. I think they need to think of themselves as civil servants that the community likes because we’re on the same side. I think “respect” is given way too much importance as a goal. If people like you, they’ll respect you.

A piece of steel on your chest gives you instant authority. It doesn’t give you instant respect. Respect is earned over time, through the judicious exercise of authority. In other words, if you use your authority well, you’ll get respect. If you use it poorly, you should be fired because you work for us — all of us. To blame the commissioner for not giving the police enough authority or training in authority makes no sense when you can’t handle the authority you’ve already been given. When the police prove that they can handle their authority, they should be given respect. Until then, I think it’s unrealistic to expect it.

This is how the individual police officer should be able to distinguish themselves — by not being violent, by not adhering to racism in their jobs, by not using their authority as a weapon against random parts of the citizenry. By the way, we as a society need to stop telling police that violence is heroic, that they should “shoot first, ask questions later”, and that we need protection from “those people”. Those people are us.

Anyway…

Peace,

John

From Jesus to St Francis to Jeff Brown — Ministry Where The Action Is

In one of those “small world” stories, I went to a conference with my wife where we had dinner with the chaplain (Rev. Jon Scott) that was there at the birth of my second daughter. While reminiscing about our time in seminary, we got to talking about a mutual friend, Rev. Jeff Brown. Jon asked if I knew what Jeff was doing and I didn’t. I suggested Facebook, and Jon doesn’t do Facebook, so I thought I’d track down Jeff and found him easily enough. I gave him Jon’s information and added Jeff to my “Friends” list and went on with my life.

Then something weird started happening — after the Ferguson chaos, Jeff would appear in a picture with the Vice-President of the United States! Joe Biden is heard on one of the videos that he remembered Jeff from some project with clergy in Boston years ago. A week or so later, Jeff is seen talking to the President of the United States about building bridges between community and police to decrease violence. A guy I know knows the President of the USA! and it’s on my Facebook page!

It turns out that Jeff is hanging out with famous people — he’s a one of a small bunch who were chosen to give TED talks this year — along with, among others, Monica Lewinsky. Jeff’s TED talk came out recently and I heard the story of how a guy I knew went from a guy in a church to a national (albeit not famous publicly) leader. Jeff is the opposite of the Cardasians and what is wrong with our society. Jeff is not famous for being famous and doing nothing. Jeff is not famous while doing something incredibly meaningful.

As Jeff tells the story in his TED talk, he deals with the issues of ego and fame straight out of seminary, but then he settles into his job — the job of doing the work of Jesus in the community where he pastors. Violence escalates in the community where he works — Boston in this case — among teenage gangs and drug dealers and other people most would call “low-life scum” — people from the Wrong Side of The Tracks morally.

What Jeff did is interesting, though. While most pastors (including him at first) would try to build up the Church of Good People, Jeff decides to take a walk into The City of the Apparently Bad People. That’s it. He walked and listened. He met people. Soon he and three other clergy walked at night every weekend. They didn’t do it for fame. They didn’t do it for glory. They did it for understanding and in that understanding came miracles. Boston’s murder rate went down 79% without guns or tanks, without more people ending up in jail, without all the things that happened in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore.

As Jeff talked, what I thought of was not Jeff, but Jesus…and St. Francis…and Jeff.  Each of them share a way of doing ministry that is outside the church (though Jeff pastored in a local church) and involved undesirables. Jesus is well known for hanging out with and reaching out to sinners, prostitutes, and the political hot-potato of the time, Tax Collectors. We all know what happened to the church under his guidance. It grew world-wide.

St. Francis of Assisi recreated that style of ministry with the truly repugnant — disease ridden, smelly (as he would note) and religiously “unclean” lepers in the 1200’s. Francis ministry had over 4,000 followers within a few years and caught the Pope’s notice more than once. The Catholic Church had a rebirth in the process.

In the late  20th century and early 21st, Rev. Jeffrey L Brown and three colleagues began to hang out with drug dealers and prostitutes and gang members and his/their community is changed radically as well. Maybe we’re doing something wrong in our churches. In each of these cases, instead of growing more of what is already planted to reap later, Jeff — and Francis, and Jesus before him — started to see the seeds of hope that hadn’t been paid attention to in the fields of weeds that the world has become. In doing so, they transformed the lives of those they ministered to and –as a secondary gift —  grew themselves and their communities.

Jeff points out in his TED talk that the drug dealers and criminals wanted to see three things: 1) Did they care enough to keep doing it — was it real love? 2) Were they doing it for the fame? 3) Were they going to get hurt by authority? When the answer to all of those was settled, transformation happened.

The parallels in Jesus’ ministry: 1) When Jesus preached to others, they frequently wanted to know why he was talking to them (see the Woman at the Well); 2) Jesus says, “when you pray, don’t do it in public for everyone to see” — the really  important folks/deity will know what you’re doing 3) The demon-possessed in the community are afraid that Jesus wants to hurt them. Jesus want to remove the demonic from them and they are transformed, not hurt.

In St. Francis’ ministry, 1) I’m sure the lepers were confused by his talking to them. Certainly the Religious People were. 2) Francis prayed all the time, not in the Halls of Power, but in the leper colonies, where no one from the outside world would see him. 3) Francis kissed a leper and the leper disappeared, leaving Francis to understand that the leper was actually an incarnation of God. Not only “not unclean” but truly holy.

I have absolutely nothing against parish pastors. They are able to shepherd a group of people through the transitions of their lives. They do wonderful work and support The Good People who still have problems, despite being good, living in a messed up world. Egotistic preachers and judgmental holier-than-thou congregations give me fits. The pastors I know are, for the most part, not them.

Being a person or preacher in the Congregation of the Good People is a good place to be and to stay, but as these three leaders show, it is not the only type of ministry out there. Inside the building, people tend to stagnate. Outside of the building people come alive in transformation. Inside of the building, there is loud judgment about those in the world. Outside of the building, quiet love is needed and respect is given to those in the church.

May we do more of this type of ministry and not limit ourselves to what we think is possible, instead doing the impossible through the God who lives within us.

Amen.

Peace,

John

The Lessons of History?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — George Santayana.

“Head-desk” — a UCC Minister

It’s the 50th anniversary of the March in Selma, Alabama, a turning point in American history in which African-Americans made strides toward voting rights and civil rights. The history of the day is described poignantly in the movies “Selma” which came out in the past few months.

It is the story of hard hearts and closed minds of Southern Whites and the resulting hard and hurting hearts of Southern Blacks, the pull toward violence in the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) overtaken by the non-violent love, dignity and respect for persons given by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Confrerence (SCLC) and King”s leadership.

In the same era as The March on Selma was happening, White Southerners wouldn’t let what were then called  “Negroes” or “Coloreds” the right to sit down in the same restaurants and coffee shops,  From the sit-ins that were a response to the coffee houses and the March came two of the most united times as a people and two of the proudest moments in American history.

In remembrance of these significant events, three stories have come to the fore:

1) The party which now controls Congress has made a point of refusing to send its leaders to the remembrance.

2) Oklahoma Senator Joseph Silk has stated that LGBT people “don’t have the right to be served in every store”.

3) The Ferguson, MO mayor whose city was besieged this past summer, has seen a report by the Department of Justice that says there were widespread abuses and policies which created the situation and resulting problems says that even though “The report stated there was probable cause to believe the police and court routinely violate people’s civil rights. But, Knowles said, “that’s not proof.” He added that “there is probably another side to all of these stories.”

Is anyone seeing a pattern of absurdity here?

To give some perspective here, this would be like this happening:

On the week prior to July 4, 2016,  as the Prince Harry and Kate Upton are preparing to come to America to celebrate American Democracy and Independence and what it has mean to the world,

Members of the Labour Party state in a press conference that they would not send a letter of congratulations to the US on the Fourth of July because they didn’t want to stir up hard feelings. I don’t know if they normally would, but going on record as saying they wouldn’t is a statement in itself.

Following this, A member of Parliament states that Americans are not welcome in England because “many of them” are traitors. Further, people with both American and English citizenship would be sent back to America, because their citizenship in Britain was no longer considered valid.

Shortly thereafter, The Prime Minister states that regardless of what history has said, democracy has not succeeded in America despite the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence, there were no “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States”.  Therefore, the supposed Revolution isn’t legitimate because “there’s no photographic evidence that the events described by the Americans ever took place”. Even if they did happen , the PM went on to add, it would be a matter of “They said, We said” because there are two sides to every story.

Every day that week, there is a new story that tells the decline of relations between the two countries, even while the Prince and Princess represent the “official version of history” and are embarrassed by the news from home.

Can you feel the craziness coming on? This is what it’s like to live in America today  as a “minority” of some sort, or as a supporter of a minority.

Here’s the reality and good news of the Civil Rights movement:

1) There was a problem of civil rights for some Americans.

2) When Americans of all stripes saw how bad the problem was, they fixed it. White people (LBJ and Congress) gave to Black people what was due them and felt proud of themselves for doing so,

3) The option for violence was presented again and again and — for a time — the minorities remained non-violent and looked to heal America.  When the leaders of the movement who had tried so hard to love were killed. Violence erupted against those in power and divided us again.

Those are the facts of history. We became a better people because we faced our own issues and dealt with them. We were proud to be Americans. When we didn’t deal with our issues, there was violence.

Now, there are people in power who say that we should be divided, that we shouldn’t be proud, and that violence will not erupt as we revoke the civil rights of some of our citizens, because our democratically elected (twice) president might have a bias. Those who can’t remember their past…

There are usually two types of hurts: Intentional hurt of others and ignorant hurt of others (someone didn’t know the situation and, as a result, hurt someone unintentionally.) While many of us are trying to argue the latter of those two regarding Ferguson and others, leaders have now added a third category — refusal to acknowledge the hurting of others and blaming them for being hurt.

So these are our choices as I see it: 1) Pride, dignity, and respect for us, unity, support for each other and belief in one America or 2) chosen ignorance, no respect for us by other countries, a diminished sense of unity, less pride in what we have accomplished, less love and more violence.

It’s oddly exhausting and feels crazy at times, because others shout louder and lie more aggressively, but I’m going to go with option 1.

Peace,

John