Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Recently someone told me about a church in a certain city where my name had come up in a conversation. Evidently someone in that church had suggested that I be invited to come and preach or consult with them and “they” (whoever “they” might be) said, “Randy has an agenda, we are just going to preach the Gospel.” Now, I am not sure how accurate this is, I certainly wasn’t told this to my face, but I did find the whole thing interesting. I feel like I need to write an apologetic for myself.
I have been preaching for well over forty years and at times I have felt that some churches and preachers were putting me in a “box,” so to speak. Maybe they thought if they wanted to have someone speak on mercy, or poverty, or race, or justice, or reconciliation then I might be a person they would consider, but not for other Biblical or spiritual issues. Of course, some put me in that box because those were things they didn’t ever want to consider and so those particular churches never invited me to come and visit.
Thankfully I am not writing about this because I suffered from not getting enough speaking engagements. I am humbled by the fact that I have often been invited to preach, and now even more so. It has been a joy to go to other cities and churches and preach the Word of God. I have been blessed to preach to those who were enthusiastic for what I said and even for those who have been skeptical.
My apologetic has to do with what it is that I preach. I use the word not in terms of giving an apology, and not as an admittance of failure or guilt. I give it as a defense of my calling, the Scriptures, and my life. It is good for me to ask myself as a preacher if I do indeed preach the Gospel. When I come among other churches and believers, and even unbelievers, have I known something else besides “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” when I proclaim the Word of God?
It would be interesting of course to ask other preachers in my own denomination if they have had a particular agenda, maybe such as “Reformed Theology?” Is that what they were known for in their preaching? Would they consider that wrong? Would their defense be that they were attempting to preach “the whole counsel of God?”
I wonder how many preachers of any stripe have preached “hobby horses” (a tendency to always come back to one of their favorite subjects) and maybe in the midst of a moral encouragement, or theological explanation, seemed to have left the cross of Jesus completely out of the sermon? Maybe a sermon was given on marriage, or how to raise children, or how to manage money, or maybe on social issues like abortion, or homosexuality, and somehow the explanation of salvation was not given, the hope of the empty tomb completely left out?
Now, I admit there has been a movement to preach “only the Gospel,” and by that I mean a preaching of grace that refuses to make Christianity into a “works” religion by putting obligations for righteousness on God’s people other than believing in Jesus and his accomplished work. There are those who become nervous with any moral or ethical implication or challenge as it might tend to make people feel guilty. Maybe the thinking is that those who have believed in the justification they received from Christ, the imputation of his righteousness to them, and his adoption of them as his sons, (as well as sanctification being the work of the Holy Spirit), might be led (actually misled) into thinking that they have to do something besides have faith in Christ in order to be saved.
This is a delicate subject because I do believe many grace and Gospel preachers have been maligned as antinomian, and some even ridiculously painted as those who are soft on sin. Now that may be true of some, but those whom I have admired in the strong teaching of grace, and our relationship to God as sons, actually teach a strong message of our fight against sin.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church where the central preaching of the cross, the substitutionary atonement, and the need for faith was always paramount. The fundamentalism kept deflating the hope of what we were preaching. We were saved and forgiven but there were still so many rules and I wasn’t too good at keeping them. This incipient legalism kept stealing my joy and actually distorted my understanding of the grace that could and would actually help me to live a holy life.
I have never lost my commitment to preach the atonement, the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the necessity of faith, and the power of God to save and deliver. God forbid that I should. In fact I try to weave those central ideas into all my preaching. I have however read the Gospels and the entire New Testament. I don’t think one can read the teachings of Jesus and escape the ethical implications of what it means to follow him. This is the very thing that I believe saved me from simply preaching a “cheap grace” message for most of my life. It is what helped turn me away from preaching a “decisional regeneration” message, where all I did was call people to make a decision and then assure them they were saved, even if they never followed Jesus in discipleship.
I am sure many of those who would dismiss my preaching, or criticize it for including strong ethical components of discipleship, love, and justice, would agree that Jesus wants disciples to live out the faith they proclaim that they have. Maybe their problem with me isn’t that they think I am not preaching the Gospel, but that while I do it I explicitly teach that you can’t honestly claim to have believed the Gospel unless it has changed you. Maybe it is that I often emphasize that it is doubtful that you are actually a Christian unless you love your brother whom you can see as you claim to love the God we cannot see. I mean I’m not trying to make stuff up and add anything to the Gospel message. It is just that when I read the Bible I seem to keep running into things like the idea that loving your neighbor as yourself is important, and Jesus teaching that love is the proof of our actually being his disciples.
Never have I preached that love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and unity with the saints are necessary for salvation, only the required evidence of it, and totally possible through the power of the Holy Spirit that works within us. Much of fundamentalist preaching implied the necessity of moral change to be a Christian, and seemed to confuse what came first. Obviously we believe that grace comes first, then the moral change, or more specifically the moral combat. Liberal preachers may have taught that ethical involvement is what makes one a Christian, and sometimes those ethics were set adrift and cut loose from a firm connection to Biblical absolutes and followed the relativistic politics of the day.
It seems obvious that there might be some disagreement as to how to affect the social justice that the God of justice calls for, or how to heal racial division, or how to provide ministry to the poor. I would submit that one would have to read the Scriptures selectively to leave out God’s great compassion for the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the hungry. Yet, many do just that, while claiming to preach Christ and his gospel. I wonder sometimes if some preachers really know and hear the heart of Jesus in the Gospels, or simply see him as a forensic kind of instrument to take care of their own guilt.
He is my savior from my sin, and I love all that doctrine that the Reformers loved so dearly concerning grace and faith. I confess and sincerely believe (and here I do apologize) that I have at times failed in my preaching. Maybe I have been too harsh, too scary and not gentle enough. Maybe I was too confusing when I should have been more precise. I am sure there have been times when I should have been more encouraging, or even failed to be understandable, and tragically I may even at times have failed to give due glory to God. God forgive me if I have ever been legalistic, loading people with guilt or giving anyone the idea that something other than God’s grace could save them. In good conscience I don’t think that has ever been the case, and certainly not by conscious choice. May God, and the people who heard me, forgive me if I have called on them to do the impossible and not told them to trust in the God for whom all things are possible.
But to imply that I don’t preach the Gospel while “they” are, as they consistently dodge and avoid the hard issues of discipleship, (such as how to live out love and justice in this world, how to confront racism and materialism), while they continue to leave off teaching that it is God’s will to do those good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do is, I believe, not only hypocritical but a slander and a lie. If I wasn’t so busy with all these speaking engagements I might have time for my feelings to be hurt.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
I would like to discuss several different words or phrases in this article. Obviously the two words in the title of this piece are good words, things we should be in favor of and want to see happen. One might often link these two words together and assume that if we have reconciliation, specifically here I am speaking of racial reconciliation, then that will satisfy the quest for justice. My answer to that would be that true reconciliation should and ought to lead to a pursuit of justice, but that the trappings (or even the feelings) of reconciliation don’t necessarily lead to justice.
Some people, and it might be correct to say “white people” seem to think that reconciliation is when they recognize their prejudice or bias, repent of it, and try to make peace with black people (or other minorities) they have excluded or feel alienated from. When those who were former strangers and even enemies make peace and come together and establish a relationship there are some strong feelings of love, forgiveness, and unity. Those are good, if not great, feelings. Reconciliation is a good thing, and should be pursued by those who have alienated others or been alienated by others. However, it doesn’t automatically result in a consequential removal of disparity.
That there is bias, and has been bias, there can be little doubt. Some may be in denial but it is hard to deny the racial and indeed racist history in our American heritage. That there is disparity across the statistical spectrum of racial demographics is a matter of fact. Despite the achievements of the black middle class, despite individual success stories, despite the reality of some wonderful black families and black entrepreneurs, black intellectuals, and black entertainers and athletes, nevertheless the statistical disparities in almost every area are dramatic and sometimes horrifying.
Single parent homes, failing schools, unemployment, renters not owners, low skilled and low income employment, inadequate intellectual formation for school, school suspension and expulsion, drop-out rates, graduation without literacy, juvenile detention, adult arrests, violent encounters with police officers, insufficient legal representation and plea bargaining, convictions, felony convictions and loss of voting rights, incarceration, length of sentencing, rates of violence, rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS, death by homicide, early death, early infant death, obesity and diabetes and other health issues, toxic proximity environmental health issues, failure to achieve loans for farmers and home owners, loans only given at higher rates; these are all categories in which there is statistical disparity.
Why do bad neighborhoods exist, why do bad schools exist, why is there no work and no men to do the work? Some still in their oblivious disconnect will make it simply a matter of personal initiative and responsibility; “He’s lazy and I’m not!” You will notice that some of the disparities above might be true even for middle class or wealthy African Americans. Test after test for hiring, purchasing homes, admission into schools, and treatment by government officials continuously reveal patterns of bias. Bias continues to create and reinforce disparity.
Does bias and disparity relieve anyone of personal responsibility? Of course not, and the glory for any individual who rises above the obstacles is what Americans love to hear and believe about themselves. Sometimes this is true, and often it is not. Do bias and disparity make it harder for people of color to achieve? Absolutely! Does it absolve the gang-bangers, dope pushers, and those who commit criminal acts even in the name of feeding their families? Again, of course not! Did bias and disparity help form the neighborhoods and communities where such things flourish? Again, absolutely!
Do bias and disparity help to crush hope? I ask ridiculous questions here. Will the end of bias in individuals help to end disparity? Ah, that is the question I am really trying to get at. Certainly if someone is racist and full of prejudice and they truly see it in themselves and repent of it, but then they begin to treat people fairly and give everyone the same opportunities they formerly denied to people of color, then justice begins to take shape; at least in their personal sphere.
However, the systemic and structural aspects of historical bias and disparity still need to be identified, dismantled, reformed, and sometimes whole new systems and structures need to be created. This is where justice is harder, more expensive, longer, and often more confusing. This is where issues become economic and thus political. It is often in the face of such barriers that some people deny the disparity, (which is to deny white privilege) avoid the guilt and shame of it, and disparage the discussion of such things. It is also where some of those who have suffered from the bias and the disparity don’t want to talk about it because they think it will just continue alienation.
Friendship is often the beginning of restoring things to justice. Two people walking down the street holding hands, with only one having something to eat, only one having clothes to wear, only one getting respect and greetings as he passes along, only one not attacked by criminals while the other continues to suffer seems to be a strange friendship. While we may never achieve full equality as human beings surely , if we are friends, we can eliminate some of the disparity. Surely if I have something good in my right hand I will share it with the one holding my left. Surely if the one I allow to hold my hand is attacked, his fight will become mine.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Recently I was at a committee meeting and it was discovered we needed more people to serve on it. As we discussed potential candidates to fill up the committee I mentioned someone I will refer to here as “So and So.” So and So happens to be a good man, and would have made an excellent member of the committee since So and So is capable, a good leader, wise, and easy to work with. Unfortunately for us So and So said, “no!”
I admire So and So for saying “no.” He said “no” because he is at the stage of life where he has to care for an elderly family member and cannot risk taking on more commitments. He has said, “yes” to his family and this forced him to say “no” to us. His “yes” is enhanced by the times and circumstances in which he chooses to say “no.” It is not that he was saying “no” to something which was a bad thing, or outside of his field of knowledge, or even outside of his responsibilities. He is part of a larger group that decided to form the committee and as a member of that group he shares a responsibility to make the larger group successful.
Yet, he is one among many (all) of us who have to make choices about our time and how we will spend it. We all have the same amount of time in any given day and the same amount of days in any given week. We are different in the amount of days we are given, but while we have them they are all exactly the same size. Obviously part of living a good life is making choices not to waste our lives in what might hurt us or other people. In short a righteous life is saying “no!” to things which are wicked or sinful or evil. Let’s grant that some of those choices are not so easy to make for many of us but it is fairly easy to see doing “bad” things as a bad choice.
The problem in saying “no” for many of us is learning how to say “no” when it is a choice between what is good and what is best, or what is good and what is actually the right thing for us to be doing at the time. These choices are not so easy especially if we have a personality that hates to think people might be disappointed in us. These choices are not so easy when we know we could actually help in the situation; that we have the knowledge, skills, energy, and resources to make a difference. Yet, we must give it up so that we might do something more responsible. It is hard to make such choices when the good thing that opposes the right thing is actually more fun to do than the exact right thing we ought to be doing.
Again, we are not talking about the choice between sin and righteousness here, though it might be a choice between being sinful versus being righteous. Yes, we can be sinful in doing something good which robs us of the time to be doing what we should. Sometimes we can get away with the inferior choice because no one sees the best thing left unattended. No one who sees us doing something ordinarily good has any reason to condemn us. In fact, they might heap praise upon us for being with them, or helping them, or serving some need.
Some of us make incorrect choices in commitments of our time because we are “people pleasers” and some of us make bad time choices because we are driven by guilt or some over- developed sense of being essential. All the times we say either “no” or “yes” we sacrifice its opposite. If I say “yes” to you I must being saying “no” to someone or something else because time is also bounded by space. I cannot be in two places at the same time.
Choices come with a cost and it obviously takes wisdom, sometimes gained only through hard experience, to be able to count that cost before making a decision and not simply paying the cost afterwards. Regret, frustration, broken relationships, stress, burnout, and anger are all prices to be born from being over committed.
On the other hand there are some who make such choices (especially in saying “no”) out of selfishness or laziness or irresponsibility. That too carries a cost, both personally, in our families, and socially. That is another kettle of fish as they say. Primarily I am speaking to those who are usually driven to agree to help, attend, serve, and do but who just hate to say that very blessed and essential word which can help us retain sanity, physical health, and familial connections. I am saying that “no!” is sometimes a good thing to say. I wish I was better at it.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Recently I had the privilege to sit in a room with several (six to be exact) African American women who were graduates, or soon to be, of three different Reformed seminaries. These women had been or were in Master of Divinity programs. Needless to say, but needful for you to know, they are smart, gifted, and love Jesus. I did not take a poll to see if each was committed to complementarianism, but took it that most of them were. That they were Feminists, in a less liberal/radical but yet determined fashion with a more respectful and kind demeanor, would I think also be fair. For a fuller self-disclosure I see a profound philosophical difference in a feminism of Biblically informed justice rather than an imposed feminist ideology upon a non-authoritative Bible, or a complete rejection of the Bible as the Word of God.
I was delighted to be with them and honored to be part of their conversation. I am also curious to see what God is going to do with them and how the larger church will treat them. I earnestly hope that years from now they will sit down somewhere and talk about how God led them, used them, and kept them. They represent a tremendous resource for the people of God and I certainly hope they will be treated as the treasure they are.
I have fears for them as well. I am sure there are more women who are not women of color who have also earned a Master of Divinity degree and have had, or have, their own struggles. Black women M.Divs are going to have even a harder challenge in a predominantly white Reformed community. I have fears for them, but I am not afraid of them, as I suspect some might be.
What do you do with a bold, gifted, and theologically astute black woman? The short answer is “nothing”, that is not our place, and might be intimidating to try. It is God’s place and my hope is that the rest of us would open the doors so He can do as He wills, especially in denominations that don’t accept women as pastors and preachers. This is where the fear of such women might be a problem, to suspect they are attempting to change the rules, that if we let them do anything in the church they will overthrow our view of the Eldership and the standards for ordination. You can’t be around these women long to realize that some of them have stronger verbal and oratorical skills than many of our preachers. To fear them would be a real failure of trust and faith in God, and a lack of respect for the humility in these women.
Their education and giftedness are assets for the church but like all the rest of God’s folk are only applicable according to character and servanthood. Education, intelligence, and giftedness become intimidating for us when we only look at an individual on that basis. Sometimes we meet people via introduction with all their credentials, sometimes we know of folks according to their Curriculum Vitae. People known on that level are either wonderfully impressive or scary, and we tend to put them in some kind of box that limits our relationship. The experience and expertise we bring with us does not qualify us for spiritual service. Spiritual service rests on spirituality and godliness, and then the position is filled according to qualification after that foundation is set, or should be.
As a former pastor and older leader in the church I am concerned for them, and jealous to see them included and well used for God’s glory. I hope for godly husbands for them, even though it is not necessarily God’s plan for all of them or none of them to be married. I do not necessarily think they all need husbands to be happy or well used. Yet, I assume some of them may want that and I hope men of God will see into their characters and personalities and pursue them as God directs. Too many Christian men have no courage in pursuing strong women when my experience tells me that what one might see as strength on the outside does not preclude humility and gentleness in relationship and in the home.
One of my concerns for all congregations is the lack of imagination we have in religious vocational positions. We have “offices” that are entered via ordination and thus reserved for men. We seem a bit schizophrenic in determining what ministry can be done in and through the church. Sometimes we proclaim all the members should be doing ministry, and then we insist that only “ministers” do ministry, and we get real sticky about titles. We have had Directors of Christian Education, we have had Church Administrators, we have had Directors of Urban and Mercy ministries, Directors of Music and Worship. We have had Counselors, we have had Directors of Children’s Ministry, we have had youth workers at various levels. We have had Directors of Women’s Ministries, ESL, Special Needs, etc. All of these positions can be filled by ordained pastors, and as far as I know all of them can be and have been held by women who are not ordained.
When we send folks to the mission field the possibilities seem even greater. Works of mercy, medical, development, orphanages, schools, higher education and ministries of all kinds have been done by women who come from denominations that preclude them from the pulpit, but who have given them very powerful, meaningful, and effective areas of ministry. This is not an embarrassment, nor is it hypocritical, but it is sometimes not celebrated and advertised as it should be. I would love to see a comprehensive list and description of such religious vocational ministry, and I would love to see women come together to encourage each other in these positions. I would also like to see more active mentoring of women to pursue these positions rather than leaving it seemingly (I am a Calvinist) to serendipitous chance, or the unavailability of a qualified male.
This is a call to recruit these women into ministry so that the church will be blessed and they will be fulfilled and will fulfill their calling to serve Jesus.
Monday, August 31, 2015
The other day I posted a little (cynical) quip about the options some churches are offering at communion. I think some might have been offended either by my quip, or the comments that came afterward. Most of these were simply people telling stories of what they had seen offered or done. I wanted to clarify how I feel about Holy Communion.
I have the opportunity to visit a lot of congregations, and sometimes have the joy of celebrating communion with the saints. I don’t have the opportunity to officiate at it as I did when I was a pastor, which was one of the great joys of ministry for me. As with most believers celebrating Holy Communion is very important and meaningful to me and I am concerned when it is not done with seriousness and/or especially when it is not done Biblically.
I try not to be judgmental about little differences, and I don’t want what might be simply my personal preferences to cause division with my brothers and sisters. Every once in a while I have actually refrained from taking communion because I thought what was happening was more of a political statement, and was forcing me to accept that statement, rather than an opportunity for me to partake in free conscience. I have been distressed when the table was not fenced, no warning given, no call for self-examination. I have been dismayed when I thought the administration was perfunctory, where the pastor just said some of the basic statements in the ritual without any explanation or Gospel warmth.
I am a Presbyterian so that makes me pretty conservative as to where and when I will serve communion, and to whom. I have always felt it right to leave the taking of the elements to the conscience of folks, but tried to make sure that conscience was well informed. I have always tried to reflect the joy and thanksgiving side of it along with the scary warnings part of it, but I have never refrained from spelling out the sobriety of it. This is another reason why I don’t believe it should be a children’s festival, nor an attempt to make it a new version of Passover where children are given an object lesson. To take communion is a decision that has consequences, at least as far as I read my Bible. It is and ought to be tied to the discipline of the church.
I am not a Roman Catholic so I don’t approach the elements as a priest would, seeing the wine and host as the actual body and blood of Christ so that it must be consecrated and must be disposed of only in a certain way. However, I tend to think the frivolous way some churches handle the elements, spill things, let children attack the bread and juice after the service, is and can be offensive to those who have a high view of what is happening in this meal.
I think it wise that Elders pray and discuss what elements they will use and why (choice of wine or juice, leavened bread or unleavened, etc.). Being offered a buffet line of choices certainly bothers me some, but it doesn’t keep me from participating. I see this meal as part of the worship, not part of a church lunch or supper, because I think that is exactly how the church in Corinth got in trouble in the first place. I think it wise the Elders decide on the frequency, and I don’t think this is worth fighting over, unless the sacrament has become so formidable hardly anyone gets to take it, or takes it so lightly it is not given its deserved seriousness and deliberation.
What I love about the Supper is the Gospel. The Gospel over and over again, and my desperate need of it, is what is felt in my heart when I take it. It makes me feel my failure, see my hypocrisy, and hate my betrayal of my Savior. It makes me remember how He is never willing to abandon me, never gives me up, never turns away from me and what that radical and complete commitment cost him. It gives me hope that the Spirit of Christ is in the meal forgiving me, renewing me, healing me, and that His grace will be with him in the battle to come. This is the strongest relationship in my life, and it is renewed every time I take the meal. It is one of the places where I think the church guards sacredness, spells out a difference from what is profane and what is holy, all in the context of exquisite and serene joy.
Saturday, August 22, 2015
By Randy Nabors, (the imperfect husband)
1. Sometime in the relationship you have to choose to love the person they are, and accept the idea that they don’t have to be (maybe will never be, maybe should never be) the person you want them to become.
2. Sometime in the relationship you should finally want and try to be the person they hoped you would be. The speed in the pursuit of this desire should be in direct proportion to their concept of the ideal you which matches conformity to Christ.
3. Hopefully, soon in the relationship (and for the rest of your life,) you should begin to attack your own essential selfishness and carry your own part of the load, and some of theirs.
4. If, or when there comes a time in your relationship when everything has become routine and there is no spark or joy in your daily interaction, you should refuse to settle for the status-quo and take some practical steps to re-connect and re-ignite emotionally. Take action on this quickly, and reject the tendency toward emotional laziness.
5. Hopefully, sometime soon in your relationship (and for the rest of your life) you should care about the spiritual health of your spouse, and pray for them. Seek to listen to them with spiritual discernment and compassion. The primary verb here is to “listen” and not to correct, fix, preach, or criticize.
6. If you love them you will pray, work toward, and plan how to give them some spiritual support, without condemnation, manipulation, condescension, or ultimatums. Here, make a practical list right now:
7. If you love them you will think about the ratio of what encouragements, thank-you-s, and compliments you give compared to the amount of criticism or silence you share. Make sure the silence you share is the message you mean to give.
8. Being nice, polite, and kind is its own kind of romance.
9. Keep flirting (with your spouse) and be funny. Write your own memoir on “how not to be boring!”
10. Get over being resentful when your spouse tries to help you or compensates for your obvious weaknesses.
11. Count the number of “no’s” you keep giving to their ideas, plans, or desires and ask yourself if that is the signal you want to send about your love and care for them. Work on generously pleasing your spouse.
12. Every once in a while, just for the love of them, do something for them (and I emphasize here for them) that they aren’t expecting (especially when they aren’t expecting it) that you are pretty sure they will like. Birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas is obligatory so go beyond the norm. Don’t be “norm,” unless you are.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Recently I read an article from the Atlantic Monthly (Why So Many Black Men Are Dying In America by Jeffry Goldberg) in which it cited that 260,000 African American men were murdered between 1980 and 2013. I have also heard that the number of homicides annually is about 15,000 in America. These are frightening numbers, but just like all statistics it doesn’t really strike home until it happens to someone you know, or in your family, neighborhood, church or even to you. If it happens to you then of course it will have to be others who are shocked because you will just be dead.
It is helpful sometimes to do that with statistics, not to simply read them but to imagine someone you love could be in that statistic, or that it might someday be you. Driving down the interstate the other day I saw posted on one of the electronic boards the number of people killed this year in Tennessee, and then it hit me that I knew one of those people and had called him a friend. The moment went from a sober warning to “damn,” because it hurt. We need to move from ignorance about this bloodbath to knowledge, and from knowledge to empathy, and from empathy to enough outrage to do something about it.
The public outrage over the killing of unarmed black people by police, as well as videos of sometimes vicious police beatings of handcuffed individuals, has sometimes been met with a scolding comparison of black on black violence and murder. This comparison seems (at times) to be offered as a way of minimizing the injustice of oppression and brutality by authorities, and is met by frustration if not anger from those who are calling for justice. It seems to be offered as a way of saying, “if you were really interested in black people being killed you would do something about the violence in black communities by black people.”
The evaluation of what black people are concerned about when measured by a distant white population may have more to do with the national media and what they chose to cover, and events that are “coverable,” then it does with reality. The estimation of whether or not African Americans are concerned about the rate of violence in their communities cannot be measured by riots showing anger, or the burning or looting of stores, which sometimes happens in the frustration of reacting against oppression by government authorities. While in not in any way seeking to justify those reactions, how would those kind of activities make any kind of sense or be at all a symbol of frustration for something that doesn’t present an easy target such as the cultural reality of violence and murder?
I suspect that an immediate response to the protest of police misbehavior by bringing up black on black crime is a cynical way of using a problem the critic is probably not really concerned about to deflate the legitimacy of black anger. Whether this is a racist response or a political one I am not always sure. I also strongly believe that those who are concerned about police misbehavior cannot, and must not, diminish the urgency about what is truly a national tragedy and scandal, and that is the murder of so many of our nation’s young African Americans. Both of these issues are of immediate and fundamental concern to the African American community, but should and ought to be of immediate concern to everyone.
These two concerns are not totally unrelated but they should not be used against each other to diminish the pain of either. Certainly the violence that has caused the deaths of so many young African American men has also brought many of them into conflict with the police, and sometimes created a climate of fear even among some policemen who throw suspicion on all young black men. One unfortunate result of the alienation from the police by the population of young African Americans in the inner cities of America is the difficulty in using the police to effectively cut down on the violence. It has usually been true in the matter of homicides that most people kill other people within their own racial group. The problem of black on black violence is not that fact, but the facts revealed in the numbers. The enigma that needs to be unraveled is why so many black people get killed by other black people.
Why should we be so concerned about this violence, since this is really just a problem in the black community? Are some of those who have been killed guilty of murder as well? Yes, some were. Are some of those who have been killed gang members? Yes, some of them were. But, were some of them kids walking home from school, athletes playing ball or coming back from practice, children sitting on a porch or playing in their yard, or watching television in their own home and bothering no one else? Yes, too many of them were. This is where we dare not let the numbers or the frequency make us callous to the bloodbath. Death by murder is a sin, a crime, a tragedy to the victim, their family, and a loss for the future of the community and the nation. It is injustice, certainly in a personal sense, but also in a national sense if we will not rise to help put an end to it.
Why, and from whence, does this bloodshed arise? What brings about this passion to kill one another? Why are so many of the “brothers” killing “brothers?” The rate of women being murdered in gang and vendetta killings seems to be rising as well. What has made life so cheap? That quantitative query begins to get at the heart of the philosophical question and I would say it is a theological one as well. We are speaking of a lived out anthropology, in the sense of, “what is a human being, and what is he or she worth?”
God’s book, the Bible, has an anthropology. It has a measurement of the value of men and it has a perspective on their identity and purpose. Each one is made in God’s likeness, and when we hurt people we are attacking what rightly belongs only to God. Though each man’s “God likeness” has been marred by sin, and though every human is broken spiritually and morally, God proved our worth by sending Jesus to die for us. Our worth is proved throughout the universe by this simple phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”
God’s book, the Bible, has an anthropology. It has a measurement of the value of men and it has a perspective on their identity and purpose. Each one is made in God’s likeness, and when we hurt people we are attacking what rightly belongs only to God. Though each man’s “God likeness” has been marred by sin, and though every human is broken spiritually and morally, God proved our worth by sending Jesus to die for us. Our worth is proved throughout the universe by this simple phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”
The irony about all this killing among young black men especially is that the life of another becomes cheaper the more one strives to makes one’s own life count, not just physically but emotionally. The more someone feels threatened, disrespected, and insulted the more they might want to authenticate the value of their own life and that might be by the killing of the one who dared to insult, disrespect, or attack them. So, in a vicious cycle, the hunger to feel worthy creates a devaluation of another’s life (the insulter), and ultimately diminishes the value of the one feeling insulted as they become an insulter, violent, and a killer in return.
Ultimately men cannot diminish other men but only themselves. Worth comes from God and not by how we are treated by others; psychologically painful as abuse may be. The psychic pain during any dehumanizing attack comes from a lack of the knowledge of the love of God for ourselves within ourselves; from a failure to know or believe the value he puts on our lives. We cannot increase our worth by illegally and unjustly taking the life of another. Street cred doesn’t really make anyone more of a man. Our lives already have worth, no matter how poor, ignorant, ugly, or bestial they seem to be. Each person is made in God’s image, and when we despise a man or a woman we despise God.
The culture says otherwise. God puts in us a sense that we are worth something, and we each yearn to see that realized in ourselves. Yet, the culture tells us anyone but ourselves is not worth that much. The sense of self-worth, especially for those without fathers and who are poor, comes from the thrill of instant gratification (such as the killing of my enemy), a quick climax of feeling that proclaims we are loved, a winner, and worthwhile. In fact the opposite is true, as there is no accomplishment in the murder or maiming of others. All that remains is the guilt, if we still have that sensitivity, or the callous numbness of being a socio-path, or the uselessness of a life lived in a jail cell bordered and hemmed in by memory and the feeling of futility.
This is a culture of death, and it is one segment of the broader cultural definition of a materialistic and mechanistic view of human life. This culture of death limits every person’s view to the immediate plus or minus benefits in each relationship. Could a culture that produces so much abortion possibly be related to the casualness of life and death in ghetto gangs? Could the disrespect of police against those citizens they are in the act of arresting have something in common with the disregard for life by gangbangers? I am sure some policemen would be insulted to think so, as would those who might think it is time to end the life of grandma since she is a drain on the pocketbook. They might think their actions are within their rights and so much more nuanced and intellectual, but it sure seems to look like a cost-benefit ratio. My life counts and yours doesn’t is the mathematical formula, if it interferes with my prospects for happiness. We seem to live in a society that says, “I really don’t owe you anything unless I am forced by law or public observation and opprobrium to give it to you.
Men and women are more than that and we owe each other more than that because God has made us more than that. We still believe the conscience tells everyone this fact, no matter how the present evil day tries to shut it up and shut it down. This present philosophical-cultural devaluation of human life, the agonizing emotional quest to think of ourselves as important and necessary complicated by the spiritual emptiness left by absent fathers plus the peer attraction for young men by other young men involved in action and violence drives the frequency of using the seemingly ubiquitous availability of guns to settle the question of identity and worth.
We all ought to be tired of seeing and hearing people use one tragedy to diminish the pain and importance of another. This is collectively our country, our society, and our culture. We are all walking in the blood and we don’t just need more impermeable boots to feel comfortable in it. We need to change our thinking so that we can change the way we are living, and killing, and dying.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
There are two dynamics of current American life that are on my mind as I write these articles. One is the too often tragic confrontation between African Americans and police officers, which I will write about first, and the other is the mass killing of African American young men. These two experiences are related in some ways, and unrelated in others. I believe the relation that these two kinds of events have in common are shared with other dynamics in American life as well.
My sense is that this commonality follows from a philosophy that underlies a lot of behavior in our culture, and most likely a philosophy that is often unconscious, but which affects behavior nonetheless. The philosophy of which I speak pertains to the arbitrary value of persons and this is in direct correlation to how some people think of other people as made in the image of God, or not. The prevailing philosophy of which I speak is the denial that human worth (or even person-hood) is simply due to a person’s existence, but that worth can only be affirmed when there is pragmatic utility, cooperation in the general stream of my or “our” corporate sense of security and well-being, or potential to be a contributor to such.
If this philosophical cultural stream is not changed then that stream will continue to take us down the river of death. We are going to have to expose it, refute it, repent of it, and change streams in mid-boat as it were if we are as a society going to see a real difference in how we treat one another.
If all human beings are made in the image of God, in God’s likeness, then their lives are important. They matter, and they have worth, and they are worthy simply because they are human, alive, and have that life as a gift of Almighty God. Of all people police officers need to have this belief. It doesn’t matter how well some have lived that life, how mean or impoverished their circumstances, how ignorant or vile their lifestyle, how uneducated or uncultured, or even how limited we sense their potential might be. Their value is not bestowed by men, their worth is not determined by other humans, since no human being had the ability to create that life. Biologically men have the ability to beget, and women have the ability to bear, children. None but God have the ability to create and give life.
If this is so then only God has the right to say when a life should be taken, and for those of us who believe the Bible we think he has done just that, by creating limits on who, and by whom, and when a life should be taken. This limitation is not just in the sense of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” (which I understand as a prohibition to murder) but also in the acceptance of the sacredness of the image of God in man. James, in his epistle, reveals this sense of the sacred as he speaks about how we use our tongues, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9) Once this sense of sacredness (seeing God) in other human beings is gone then anything becomes possible; seeing certain groups (of people) as obstacles to our economic progress, abortion, torture, murder, and even genocide.
Many unbelievers and scoffers of Biblical literature see it, the Bible, as a bloody book. Certainly the history it reveals has some bloody parts to it, and admittedly some of the God directed acts of violence make it seem as if it is not in touch with our modern sense of morality or human rights; as if modern morality was better, or more humane, or that modernity had allowed us to view human beings today with greater kindness and compassion than the Bible does. I don’t think a fair reading of modern history, or the philosophical trends that have guided how we have treated one another in our present age can possibly be compared favorably to a Biblical ethic or value on human life. In fact the vestiges of a Biblical world and life view might be the only thread holding us back from wholesale slaughter. Even directions in the Bible for the execution of those guilty of murder was due to the worth of that lost human life, and it is an affirmation of the dignity of the life of the guilty that makes them forfeit it.
The conflict between certain policemen and members of the African American community have exposed what I believe are examples of this human denigrating operating philosophy. We are living in an age of social media where immediate accountability by video allows the general public to make assessments as to whether authority is being properly exercised in the use of force. Fast leaving us are the days when we could just accept the word of a policeman as to why someone has been arrested, or why someone’s face looks like it has been beaten, or why someone is now dead.
These videos have shown us one alarming fact, some policemen and police departments have lied about how they have treated citizens. That fact ought to be alarming to all of us. For those in inner city communities this does not come as a surprise, but it has to some in the privileged class who seem to have had the expectation that authority figures never lie.
This is why being a believer in human depravity is fairly stabilizing. Who would think educated lawyers would ever deceive (except when they become politicians), or doctors would lie about treatments and costs to get richer, or students at elite universities would cheat on tests so they could pass or keep a good grade point average? Who would think judges would take bribes to send children to detention to enrich the owner of detention centers (as was recently done in Pennsylvania)? So we see that sometimes the real criminal is not the black young man who was driving while black, but possibly a brutal thug wearing a uniform and a badge who decided it was okay to be abusive and then lied about it.
This abuse of authority is especially galling because it strikes at the heart of our democratic system. If our history is correct it is one reason our forefathers fought the revolution so as to create this country, and why some of us have fought to maintain its principles. When authority is abused it puts not only individual citizens at risk, but the very system which requires respect and support from the entire community to be effective. It also puts the lives of officers at risk, as sooner or later citizens in their anger take upon themselves the role of vigilantes to overthrow what they think is abuse. This was done from time to time in towns in the old West as marshals were run out of town, as I believe happened to the Earp brothers a time or two.
The moment a police officer thinks or acts as if this “perpetrator” is less worthy of respect or less deserving of human rights than he is, despite the pragmatics and necessity of his job, he or she is devaluing the worth of that person. Here is a counter-intuitive thought, the consciousness of the sacredness of persons is most important when bad behaving persons need to be constrained, restrained, arrested, or stopped by deadly force. When we argue that it is okay to torture those in prison for terrorist acts because they are no longer worthy of human rights, we have stopped believing in the sacredness of persons.
The use of force by police is supposed to be progressive and proportional and only escalated to the point of deciding the issue so the offending person is controlled. Some officers have taken this to mean that they have the right to smash heads into the ground, pound suspects with fists or batons even though they are handcuffed and immobile, gratuitously body slam others, and even use deadly force (though not in moments when their life is in danger) simply because they were afraid, nervous, or angry.
The wide space of an officer’s discretion as to what constitutes “resisting arrest” has allowed for too many abuses. For the record let me state this clearly, in all the thousands of incidents between citizens and police on a daily basis most people are treated with courtesy and respect, even when they get arrested. Nevertheless, the continued occurrence of deadly decisions between armed officers and unarmed, and now deceased, African Americans is and ought to be a cause for national concern.
Now, any of us, even while believing that people are created in God’s image might still become angry and lose our self-control and hurt someone. Yet, I think we are dealing with more than the immediacy of our emotions in many of these confrontations. We are sometimes dealing with a despising of certain groups of people by authority figures and a reckless disregard of their human dignity when they must be brought into restraint or, even more on point, when they don’t have to be restrained but an officer simply wants them to be.
We readily admit that there are many people who act nasty, show disrespect to officers, are threatening and intimidating, and whose general behavior is disgusting. We admit there are some very bad people out there who are dangerous and need to be locked up, and we need the police to do that. The police have such a very hard job to do. Their vocation necessarily calls for them to suffer, but I am afraid that the present practical ethos in some departments calls for them to avoid suffering by making others suffer first.
All lives do matter, though some who have said this have misunderstood the context and injustice of not admitting that “black lives matter” is an important and necessary statement for our nation. This is because it has been the evidently widespread and too frequent occurrence of the shooting and killing of unarmed black men which has led to such community tension over the last year. It is not new, and that just gives impetus to the fact that change is long overdue.
We will speak next as to the devaluing of human life and how it plays a part in the slaughter of so many young people, mostly by gun murder, in the African American community.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Dear Brothers in the various Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America,
Greetings to all of you in Jesus name! I am writing as a response to the events at the General Assembly held this summer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am writing in an attempt to provide some ideas as to how Presbyteries and Sessions might proceed in thinking about and responding to a call for repentance for the actions or non-actions of our founders , or ourselves, during the time preceding and during the Civil Rights Movement and our national historic break with a segregationist past.
Now, I am aware that this letter may be unwelcome by some of you if you have already come to the opinion that there was no sin on our part, or the part of our founders, and think therefore that no corporate confession or repentance is necessary. There may be no acceptance that the sins contained in what we know as racism are continuing or that we (as PCA members of the dominant white culture in America) may have some responsibility concerning their reality and continuance. Obviously that conclusion has to be made first if there is to be any humble and open discussion of these matters.
I know that some Presbyteries have already begun to discuss this, with the assumptional foundation that there has indeed been sin, either of commission or omission, in regard to loving African Americans in particular and other ethnicities, besides ourselves, in general. Having been asked by several presbyteries about guidance in these matters I thought I would send out a general letter with some things to think and pray about that might help you as we prepare for next year’s General Assembly when these matters will again rise for discussion and action. I write this as an individual Teaching Elder with some experience in these matters, but I speak for no agency or organization as I do so.
I do write in the joyful optimism of the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the Body of Christ, and the anticipation of a reconciled community. I am in no way suggesting a kind of “witch hunt” or a shunning of people who have not yet come to my conclusions. I don’t believe racism is the “unforgiveable sin” except in the hard standard of the book of I John where hatred of our brothers means we cannot truly love God. I am writing with an awareness of my own sinfulness in so many areas of my own life, and an appreciation of God’s wonderful patience with me and the patience of many Christians who have prayed and yearned for my own spiritual growth and maturity. I yearn for it too.
Please forgive me for my presumption in regard to giving you any unsolicited advice, as I know not all of us have reached the same conclusions in these matters, although many have. I understand that if this letter offends you that you most likely won’t use any of my suggestions. Obviously I am writing with the conviction that there certainly has been sin in America, and sin in our churches, and sin in our hearts as members of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is neither about the sins of government, nor about society in general, but our sins as Christians and by our denominational forefathers, and the negative results of sin that we might still encourage by our silence or passivity.
CONSIDERATIONS OF OUR PASTAND PRESENT IF SINFUL:
1. Were our denominational antecedents supportive of segregation, and resistant to the integration of minorities in our congregations?
2. Was our particular congregation supportive or active in segregation, and resistant to the inclusion of minorities into the life of our congregations due to racial attitudes of superiority, or disdain for minorities?
3. Did any of our congregations begin on purpose as a segregated congregation?
4. Were any of our founders, as expressed in their actions and writings supportive of segregation or held racist views of minorities, and have we failed to confront them?
5. Have any of our founders or present ministers used the Scripture in ways that distorted and misinterpret the Word of God due to a racial bias, to include such teachings as the curse on Canaan in Genesis 9, the using of ethnic and national segregation for purity purposes in the Old Testament as a prescriptive teaching for our own American experience, the teaching in 2 Corinthians 6 about not being unequally yoked together with unbelievers as a teaching against inter-racial marriage? Have we failed to call them to a more correct use of exegesis and interpretation?
6. Have we indulged those who were racist in our congregations and failed to confront them in not loving their neighbor as themselves, or not loving their brothers who also confess Christ?
7. Have we told racist jokes from the pulpit or in company with other church leaders and members?
8. Have we cast minorities as negative stereotypes in our sermons and teaching?
9. Have we purposefully made choices about our evangelism and discipleship to avoid racial and ethnic minorities, or as an attempt to resist their entrance into our churches, schools, or agencies?
10. Have we cared nothing about justice for minorities, or those who have been oppressed socially in this country, and stood by and said nothing about prejudice, attitudes of racial superiority, laws and policies that economically exploited and hurt ethnic groups purposefully and in return acted to our own racial and ethnic advantage? Have we neglected the weightier matters of the Law?
CONSIDERATIONS OF PROCESS TO DISCUSS AND PRAY THROUGH THESE MATTERS:
1. Schedule time to discuss, think, and pray about these matters in your meetings.
2. Have someone preach from Scripture relevant to these matters.
3. Invite experienced Teaching Elders who think, write, or teach about these matters to speak to your Presbytery, Session, or Congregation.
4. Have open discussion times, or a Committee of the Whole, to discuss these matters.
5. Welcome personal moments of testimony or confession, and cover those saints with prayer and assurance of love.
6. Find and circulate a reading list about these subjects from a Biblical perspective, buy books and distribute them to your members to help them.
7. Pursue ethnic minorities for discussion and input, ask for their advice.
8. Don’t place the burden of plans for action on the backs of ethnic minorities by asking them what we are to do, but certainly ask for their wisdom and perspective on these things. Remember, no one person can speak for a whole people group and it is not fair to ask them to do so. Minority individuals may differ in their opinion concerning these issues or what actions we should take.
9. Come up with a Presbytery plan of action. Is there a committee that should be established to help the whole presbytery think about issues of justice and inclusion on a regular basis? Is there an overture that should be sent to General Assembly that would help the whole denomination think and deal with these things? Is there a statement that should be made in your own local community or region to ethnic leaders or ethnic and minority congregations and pastors? Is there some kind of meeting that should be held with them to help bring reconciliation?
10. What meaningful discussions can we have about mono-racial churches, both in the majority population and in minority populations? When and why is that Biblical, healthy, and glorifying to God and when is it not?
IDEAS FOR ACTION:
1. Include racial history and attitudes in your Presbytery exams. If racism is a sign of ungodly character, then hold members accountable for it. In examining for church history make sure candidates understand this part of our denomination’s history.
2. If there are significant minority populations in the area of your presbytery is the presbytery proactive in seeking to plant churches in those areas? What would it take to be successful in seeing PCA churches planted in minority communities?
3. Is the Presbytery active in seeking to initiate Gospel ministry on any HBCU institutions in your boundary?
4. What efforts have we made in insuring multi-racial involvement on any of our agency boards of committees? How can we make sure racial minorities and their perspectives are included in these national ministries?
5. Are we keeping an eye on racial inclusion and racial and ethnic enlargement on faculties, campus ministries, missionary teams and candidates, and staff?
6. Are we encouraging all of our Teaching and Ruling elders to learn cross cultural skills in ministry?
7. What kind of financial support do we need to provide for recruiting, educating, training, credentialing, and deploying minorities into PCA ministry? What plans can we make to raise that money?
May the Lord help all of us move toward peace, healing, and unity in the Body of Christ over these issues. May the Lord give us all wonderful moments of love and reconciliation as we pursue these discussions.
The Peace of the Lord be with you, and His Church,
Teaching Elder(HR), Tennessee Valley Presbytery
Monday, July 20, 2015
Some authorities seem to be having a problem finding a motive for the killing of our marines and a sailor in Chattanooga this July. There seems to be a hesitation to call it terrorism if the perpetrator cannot be proved to have some connection to a terrorist organization. Since the killer was a Muslim the authorities are obviously looking into Islamic Jihadist movements.
There is of course a problem in that thinking, and that is a failure to understand the motivating factor of religion within an individual to produce an act of terror. This attack was against our entire nation, not simply against a location, not simply against individuals, as those who were attacked and killed were representatives of our nation’s armed forces. I don't believe this was typical American work place violence, or done from a despairing sense of nihilism; any target will do for that. This was too political a statement to be dismissed so easily. Two military locations were targeted, although one location might have simply been to draw off the police so the killing could take place in another.
It may be proved that the killer was in contact with some particular organization, or at least reading online encouragement for Jihad and the call to commit attacks against the U.S. by the end of Ramadan. That is when it happened, but again whether that is what the attacker intended is still unknown. Whether he was in contact with Jihadis, or simply inspired by propaganda, or motivated by things he heard and saw while visiting the Middle East, it is still possible something else was at work and that something may have simply been religious zeal.
There is a political conundrum about blaming a religion for horrendous acts against our nation and culture, although those who have been our enemies have consistently and outspokenly explained their murderous and heinous acts as religiously motivated. The obvious problem of simply blaming Islam for the terror is that not everyone who is a Muslim is a terrorist, for which we are grateful. That would make things fairly simple, but overwhelmingly horrible, and the war would therefore have to be horrendous to put it down.
Preachers know that one sermon can make the difference between someone who is a “backslider” or “prodigal” and one who now has a fresh passion and commitment to God. Ramadan is a time of year when Muslims get in touch with their religion, they get back to the basics, they seek for a spiritual revival. The Muslim killer not too long ago had a DUI, which is not a sign of being a good Muslim. I am not sure what he did with his guilt about that, but I have a suspicion. Christians are well aware of spiritual revival and renewal, when our faith is “radicalized” and we become more fervent. This is something common to religious adherents.
What is not common is murder, and this is exactly where Islam and Christianity part company. This is one reason I am so grateful that the Bible is a book of progressive revelation, where the Old Testament unfolds into the New Testament. When a Muslim becomes “radical” in their faith all the teachings of the Koran become motivating to them, even the ones that construe the killing of non-Muslims to be something their Allah would approve. For Christians to become radical means we become more like Jesus, and thus more loving and more forgiving.
All religions have splinter groups that are not consistent with the fundamental principles of that religion. All religions have “cults” and charismatic leaders who delude their followers into stupid and perverted twists on the original religion. For Christianity to be “fundamental” means to love more, but that is not true for Islam. Islamic fundamentalism doesn’t need a cult to make it dangerous, it has always been a militaristic and imperialistic religion, and it is a great blessing to the world for most of its adherents to be “moderate” about their religion. It is a shame for so many Christians to be “moderate” about theirs.
There have been seminars and conferences to bring about some understanding of what has radicalized Muslim young adults. Opinions have been offered about poverty, displacement, alienation, and other emotional and social causes. It seems like it is forbidden to simply say, “ah, how about religion?” If it could simply be renewed fervency of Islamic practice that means it is fairly unpredictable, or very predictable, depending on how you look at it.
The secular West has a very hard time trying to figure this out. We seem to have the expectancy that people will privatize their religious beliefs, be non-intrusive to others, and that religious adherents would subordinate their beliefs to a Western pluralism. Secularists have few tools to understand Islam nor do they have the ideas to clearly speak to its dangers without sounding undemocratic. The mass migration of Muslims to countries of the West without their willingness to assimilate either to Christianity, or to Western secular ideas (and this is not to include materialism or technology which Muslims can readily embrace) makes radicalized individuals, in our midst, far too possible. For Christians being a martyr means to die for your faith, for a Muslim it means killing infidels while you die for your faith.
We are not speaking of crazy people here nor of deadbeats and losers. We are talking about smart, educated, earnest young people who want to make a difference in life. Unfortunately the religion they have become fervent about means that to make a difference might come through murder, beheading, suicide bombing, kidnapping of young women, and taking children into slavery. Since the West has decided it doesn’t know what its values are, or which cultural values it should keep, it has opened the door to all kinds of difficulty in stemming what it will call “inexplicable” acts of violence.
There is another problem that is closer to home for Christians. The question is how can we love Muslim people while understanding that the religion they hold might cause them to act in hate toward us, and might motivate them to kill us, and has motivated other Muslims to kill our brothers and sisters around the world? How can we love Muslims who hold to a religion that might at any time motivate some of them to kill our military members, our own sons and daughters, in the name of their Allah? This is hard, but it has always been hard for Christians to love those that hate them, and yet at the same time it has always been the command of Christ for us to do so. In times like these we will need to believe that the grace of God is able to help us to do just that.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
It seems to me that we have a conflict of compassionate perspectives when it comes to immigration. Sometimes we hear stories of undocumented immigrants who are caught by the reality that though they live in the U.S., possibly came here legally but overstayed their visa, or were brought here by their parents but now because of the law may be sent back to a home they no longer acknowledge, nor do they wish to return.
I have been asked by pastors what to do with someone their church has come to love and to whom they have shown mercy, but the only way they can survive is in a hidden economy, and surviving with the constant dread and anxiety of being caught and deported. How can a local church help them, past consulting with lawyers, providing emergency food and transportation to church, maybe even housing? What the person need's is a legal job, but that is one thing the church can’t provide without actively breaking the law. However, no matter how desperate things seem to get the person will not willingly return to their country of origin. They wait to find someone to marry, or for the law to change in the hopes that they can stay. Most churches come to the end of what they can legally do and continue to assist in some frustrated manner as they wait to see, with the individual, how the story will play out.
Whether individuals or churches become advocates for changes in the immigration law or not it is the immediate response to human need and the limitations of only being able to do so much that usually frustrates them. Advocacy is the long fight while mercy is the near fight right in front of them. On top of this are the moral and ethical dilemmas of seeing some wonderful people live in a shadow world where they choose to break laws to make a living, such as false or stolen identity, driving without a license, fake social security numbers, or living off of a cash economy and not paying taxes.
While it is understandable for people to want a better life, I admit some Americans find it difficult to feel a lot of compassion for people who have lived a lie only because they want to make more money, or live better materially, but face neither real poverty nor political or religious persecution back home. Some of these folks knowingly took advantage of the visa program and stayed when they should have gone home, and now realize that if they do go home voluntarily they will have to wait years before they can ever ask to come back to a country they have come to love.
Americans can be in favor of a generous immigration policy while wanting people to obey the laws we have created to make immigration somewhat of an orderly process. No matter the many stories that seem to show America, and Americans, resistant to a flood of undocumented aliens the truth is that we allow many thousands of refugees to enter and live in our country every year, besides those who apply to legally emigrate from their own country through embassies.
There is another perspective about compassion beside the immediate concern of a desperate individual or family and their fear of being sent back to their country of origin. This is a larger concern about the incentive for migration that inadequate and inept policies, laws, and enforcement have created so that people foolishly risk their lives. Most of us have heard horrible stories of “coyotes” and smugglers exploiting people, of sometimes tragic endings to trips across the desert, or folks who die in shipping containers. I don’t know if anything has matched what has been happening in the Mediterranean Sea, where thousands have drowned attempting to reach Europe.
Another way of being compassionate is to make laws enforceable and sensible so that a tempting incentive doesn’t lead people to take unreasonable risk. Migration has been a constant of human existence. It is rare that migration doesn’t come without some kind of conquest, either in a militaristic or cultural sense. If these migrations were actually invasions nations would fight to protect themselves. They would see the coming of hundreds of thousands of “foreigners” as an attempt to supplant the indigenous folks, or to eradicate their cultural and religious traditions. These modern migrations don’t have tyrants, conquerors, or generals behind them but they are culturally transformative even so. Do nations have a right to protect themselves from that?
Europe especially faces this question, and it is exacerbated by the migration of religious populations that do not want to assimilate into the majority culture. Certainly when the Europeans came to North America they weren’t interested in assimilating into Native American culture, rather they wanted to convert the natives, or supplant them by killing them, depending on which group of Europeans one reads about.
The struggle in the U.S.A. is not the supplanting of Ketchup by Salsa as the number one condiment, but the resistance of some immigrant groups to assimilate into our political and linguistic culture, and the despising of a broken immigration system. The hype about immigrant crime, about exploitation of government aide and resources, and even about Democratic party use of the issue to gain votes isn’t statistically worth the amount of print or verbal debate used on it. We have more than enough indigenous crime and abuse of the welfare system to reveal that immigrants mostly work hard, very hard, and take care of themselves compared to many of our born here citizens. We won’t protect ourselves from bad people by building bigger fences, but by building a better and more just immigration system, and allowing people with an aspiring work ethic to help build the wealth of our nation.
It is my expectation that nations will become more conservative in regard to receiving massive amounts of immigrants, legal or illegal, legitimate refugees or not. They will stop adhering to the United Nations standards of providing safety for these migrants, and they will send them home or refuse to help them. This will especially be true of those nations in the developing world that become “holder” type nations, near neighbors of places from which people are fleeing but which do not have their own resources or infrastructure to care for such large groups of people. It is becoming all too commonplace for huge refugee camps to exist for too many years, condemning whole generations of children to grow up in them as a displaced people. War and famine, but slow national and international adjustments to these realities as well, create horrible results.
For us in America we have to figure out how we can remain true to our heritage as a nation of immigrants, even those forced here by slavery, and provide a sensible, just, and compassionate avenue for the huge amount of folks who want (at risk of exploitation, loss of their wealth, loss of life, and detention) to come and live here. It is not compassionate to simply throw the doors open and think this will solve the problem, it will in actuality make it worse, and create a stampede which will inevitably trample those attempting to get here and create a fresh xenophobia. Since our political hysteria has created a paralysis of using our American ingenuity and “can do” attitude we are now beset with a minority sub-culture of “illegals.” This issue is so full of political demagoguery that any possible leadership on the issue gets sabotaged by the ideological extremists of either party. Somebody in politics hear me, “stop using fear and give us some creative solutions!”
No matter the political attractiveness of a self-righteous call for “no amnesty,” we have to figure out a way of clearing the table for a just system. Clearing the table means an over-haul of how we identify every person who is here in the shadow world and bring them into the light, and make them legal in some form or fashion. We must find a way to incentivize this path. In the case of real criminals they should be imprisoned enough so they won’t just come right back after a fast deportation. If we do this in such a way as to make it clear enough, attractive enough, arduous enough, systematic enough, and inviolable enough from cheating or gaming the system, we can then reform how large the doorway is for new aspiring and legal immigrants. That doorway is too small, and too confusing, and just invites cheating. My call is for a renewal of American generosity, a reform of a broken system, and a strong and enforceable policy that cannot be easily circumvented.