Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Different Way

In this hot political season, with voices raised about guns, immigration, jobs, money in politics and more,  I find myself pausing to ask: which Way am I called to follow? Whose priorities should I pursue?

Before Christians were called Christians, they were called Followers of the Way. The Way was Jesus: simultaneously the path itself, guide and example, companion on the journey. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

But he also said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). 

The way to relationship with God, to the full life Jesus promised, is through Jesus himself, but also through following the path he shows us, walking with him the road of sacrifice and self-denial.

I’ve been listening to Christian leaders tie themselves in knots trying to explain why followers of Christ would also follow Donald Trump, who knows less than any potential leader I've seen about sacrifice and self-denial.  I’ve read carefully the explanation that while Donald Trump may not be as pro-life, pro-family, pro-faith as Christian leaders might want, the fact that he’s the Republican nominee makes him “the only hope.”

That sounds a little blasphemous to me.

Following the Way of Christ starts with a willingness to set our habits and loyalties aside. 

Jesus said again and again: "leave your nets, your fields, your money, your life, and come, follow me."

The early believers understood that the first step of the Christian journey was a step away from all prior allegiance, including allegiance to self, to comfort, safety, the right to be right, the mistaken idea that somehow we, on our own, are good people, better than those others.

Allegiance to party platform.

Even national pride.

The Apostle Paul understood this completely:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. (Philippians 3) 
The early Christians understood that the leadership of Christ stood in stark contrast to the leadership of Caesar. 

The Roman Empire proclaim evangelion, the good news (or gospel), that Caesar Augustus (the Exalted One) would bring peace and prosperity. Caesar’s peace had winners and losers: subjugation of non-citizens, slaughter of enemy barbarians, prosperity for Caesar’s favorites.

The followers of Christ proclaimed a new loyalty, a contradiction of the Roman good news. The Christian gospel was not about the political rule of a forceful human leader, but the unexpected narrative of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection and the announcement of a risen savior who would bring peace for all, not just the Romans favored by Caesar.

Jesus said, “Peace I bring to you, but not as the world (Rome) brings.” New life in Christ was by definition in stark opposition to empire, power and violence.
Several centuries later, Athanasius of Alexandria  (ca. 296-298 – 373) described the visible influence of the Way of Christ  on the surrounding culture:
Christ is not only preached through His own disciples, but also wrought so persuasively on men’s understanding that, laying aside their savage habits and forsaking the worship of their ancestral gods, they learnt to know Him and through Him to worship the Father. While they were yet idolaters, the Greeks and Barbarians were always at war with each other, and were even cruel to their own kith and kin. Nobody could travel by land or sea at all unless he was armed with swords, because of their irreconcilable quarrels with each other. Indeed, the whole course of their life was carried on with weapons. But since they came over to the school of Christ, as men moved with real compunction they have laid aside their murderous cruelty and are war-minded no more. On the contrary, all is peace among them and nothing remains save desire for friendship.  (On the Incarnation) 
As followers of the Way in the 21st century, we face a challenge not known to those new Christians of an earlier world. We carry the heritage not only of those whose lives mirrored the example of Christ, but also of those who in the name of Christ went on with their war-minded ways, killing and conquering, justifying slavery and sexism, suppressing scientific study, shouting down opponents, carrying signs saying “God hates.”

No one said the Way of Christ would be easy. 

Russell D. Moore, Southern Baptist pastor and theologian, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been working valiantly to encourage white evangelical American Christians to extricate themselves from unexamined allegiance to the Republican party and its current candidate.

In a 2015 New York Times op-ed he set forth as clearly and as calmly as I’ve seen the deep divide between the “way” of Trump and the way of Christ.
[T]he problem is not just Mr. Trump’s personal lack of a moral compass. He is, after all, a casino and real estate mogul who has built his career off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate. When Mr. Trump’s casinos fail, he can simply file bankruptcy and move on. The lives and families destroyed by the casino industry cannot move on so easily. 
He’s defended, up until very recent years, abortion, and speaks even now of the “good things” done by Planned Parenthood. In a time when racial tensions run high across the country, Mr. Trump incites division, with slurs against Hispanic immigrants and with protectionist jargon that preys on turning economic insecurity into ugly “us versus them” identity politics. When evangelicals should be leading the way on racial reconciliation, as the Bible tells us to, are we really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician? 
Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.
The Way of Christ leads us away from the longing for an earthly savior, away from allegiance to a political gospel of physical power or personal prosperity or the need to "win" at the cost of integrity and witness. 

It leads us away from slogans, mockery, hostility toward the opposition, nostalgia for comfort and ease at the expense of others unlike ourselves.

It leads us deeper into humility, deeper into the longing for wisdom, the repentant awareness of our own lack of love, our own inadequacy in the face of complex, overwhelming need.

And along that Way, as we read the words of Jesus, as we pray to hear and know his voice, as we ask to see with his eyes, to love what he loves, we find our hearts changing. 

As we follow his way, we find ourselves claiming, with him, a purpose and passion like his own, priority enough in this conflicted season:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4)

Christ of the Breadlines, Fritz Eichenberg, 1951

This is a revision of a post from 2012, Which "Way" Am I Called to Follow?

It's also part of a series on What's Your Platform
Beyond the Party Platform July 24, 2016

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Beyond the Party Platform

The news has been full this week of the Republican National Convention. Delegates caroused through the streets of Cleveland, waving flags and cowboy hats, chanting “lock her up” with glee. 

Donald Trump had his say, promising to recreate a world that never existed. Respected Republican elders, including both George Bushes, stayed far from the fray, shaking their heads at what their party has become.

As I write, delegates for the Democratic National Convention are gathering a short train-ride from my home for their own speech-a-thons and wrangling over platform and party rules. #StillSanders fans are planning odd activities to show their unhappiness. Occupy DNC has been scheduling protests.

It’s an odd, unsettled time.  I sit on my back patio, watching an unsettled sky. It’s the hottest week of the summer, the hottest summer on record and we’ve been having strange storms. One seems to be brewing now.

Four years ago I spent some time sifting through the party platforms, thinking about my own. This year it all seems closer, more urgent, far more difficult.

I’m an unaffiliated voter and have been for years. From what I can see, both parties have lost their way. Both sides are far more interested in capturing the legislative process and blocking out opponents than in anything resembling good governance or reasonable solutions that promote the common good. 

That’s a wild generalization, I agree. I have the honor of knowing and admiring politicians who stand against that tide.

Unfortunately, they are few. As election rules are manipulated by undisclosed money, as sound bites control the air waves and reasonable discourse vanishes, less reasonable people will seek elected office. 

And the least reasonable will win.  

I am registered as an unaffiliated voter because my stronger affiliation stands in sharp opposition to the party platforms and behind-the-scenes practices of every party I can find.

That affiliation is to Jesus Christ and the written Word that governs my belief and practice.  

I am fiercely committed to learning to love my neighbor as myself.

I am equally determined to pursue justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

I am opposed to any system that gives preference to the wealthy, that drowns out the voices of the poor, that oppresses the weak.

I am committed to following the Prince of Peace who invited his friends to give their lives for their enemies.

I will not follow or support anyone who uses hate, fear or anger as a weapon of control.

There’s been plenty of all three on display, expertly fanned into flame for partisan or more personal purposes.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump is so far the undisputed expert.

I’ve been struggling to understand Christians who pledge allegiance to Trump, who defend his name and reputation, who insist he’s God’s chosen man for our time.

I agree that some of our media is skewed and sometimes it’s hard to find the truth.

But in this case, the truth is not hard to find. Read his own writing, watch his own speeches and the evidence is plentiful. The man is a braggart: not just about his magical ability to accomplish what no president can legally accomplish, not just about the grand, inherited wealth squandered in fraudulent businesses, not just about sexual conquests, IQ, looks. He even brags about bragging.
He’s also a bully, comfortable brandishing empty threats: to deport, dismantle, lockup, torture, kill. 

He’s a prodigious, legendary, unabashed liar.  On anything and everything.

His philosophy is unapologetically clear: he believes in money, power, self-indulgence, getting even, hitting first. One observer put it this way: "I win. You Lose." The people in his life - children, wives, colleagues – are props for his ego. There is no hint of compassion in anything he says or does.

As I said, I’ve been struggling to understand Christians who support him. I can understand those who say “I can’t vote for Hilary Clinton.” I’m not sure I can do that either.

But I can’t understand those who support Trump without hesitation, without great regret that the choice has come to this.

Like many other observers, I’ve been digging back through the history of the church in pre-World War II Germany.

Sixty-six percent of Germans were Protestant Christians.

Thirty-three percent were Catholics.

One percent were Jews.

I know Christian Germans who still look back with sorrow that their parents, their grandparents, were among those who supported Hitler.

He promised safety.

He promised respect.

He promised a return to a strong, pure Germany.

He promised to remove “that element” he described as a threat to German happiness.

He appealed to fear, to anger, to bitterness and division.

He offered to use unauthorized power.

Then followed through on that promise.

The Confessing Church of Germany, Christians who opposed Hitler, was never large.

And sadly, it was mostly silent.

I posted recently about what it means to be a citizen: commitment to the common good, governed by the ideals of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. 

We are in a season where it’s not enough to simply vote.

Not enough to trust versions of reality a highly skewed media offers.

Not enough to sign-on to the party platform, vote the party ticket.

Not enough to be silent.

It’s time to review our own personal platforms, our own political priorities.

Time to find ways to engage in informed, respectful discourse.

Time to inspect motives.

Time to ask probing questions.

In the weeks ahead I’ll be reviewing my own earlier posts listed in “What’s Your Platform,” revising and adding where needed.

I’ll also be praying and thinking about some underlying questions:

Does our binary, two-party system deepen our divisions?

Are there people of faith who survive in politics without compromising their deepest convictions?

Do new models of communication offer opportunity for constructive public engagement?

Has the witness of American evangelical Christianity been destroyed beyond repair by alignment with unbiblical agendas?

Please join me in this exploration.

Informed, respectful comment is always welcome.

Party line responses – from any side – are not.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Simple Question

Brown at 60: The doll test NAACP LDF
Sometimes just a simple question can open our eyes and rearrange our thinking.

Sometimes that question can come from an unexpected source.

For me that happened in the fellowship hall of a West Philadelphia church.

I was sitting on the threadbare carpet, watching my not-quite-two daughter rock a plastic baby doll in an area sectioned off as a makeshift nursery.

A little boy beside me was watching too, with a thoughtful look on his face.

“Does your daughter have black dolls at home?”

Black dolls? This was 1983. Had I ever seen a black doll? Did anybody make them?

David was five. Maybe six. A quiet little boy. I’m not sure I’d ever heard him speak to any adult except his parents.

He looked at me earnestly and asked the question again, then looked past my wispy-blond daughter to his own little sister, Katherine, a tiny, dark-skinned girl with tight little braids framing her face. She was holding a plastic baby doll just like my daughter’s. Both dolls were pasty white.

I followed David’s gaze from the little white girl with the white plastic doll to the little black girl with the white plastic doll to the basket of dolls, all white, beyond them.

David was waiting.

“She doesn’t,” I finally said. “Does Katherine?”

He nodded yes.

I knew Katherine’s mother. If there were black dolls to be had her children would have them.

“I guess we should have some here,” I said.  

He nodded yes.

“I’ll talk to your mom about it.”

That was over three decades ago.

We still have some of the dolls we bought  for our daughters in the years after that conversation: a healthy mix of shapes, colors and hair styles. Just days ago, after a family gathering, I walked past the little doll corner we have in our basement playroom and saw a cheerful assembly of friends dressed and gathered in what appeared to be a party.

But David’s question wasn’t really about dolls.

It was more about belonging, imagination, seeing oneself as an accepted, even treasured member of the world we live in.

From 1939 through the 1950s, Dr. Mamie and Kenneth Clark used dolls to test children’s perceptions about race. Children of different ages and colors were asked questions designed to measure attitudes about what skin color has to do with being “pretty,” “ugly,” “good” or “bad”.

Their troubling conclusions were part of the evidence offered in the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954:  
To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
It’s been a long time since segregation was a legal educational policy.  It’s still around in other forms: housing patterns, hiring practices. We still have unwritten codes about who does and doesn’t belong.

I’ve been wrestling lately with the intersection between criminal justice, racial bias and political representation.

I’ve posted about these topics before: the steep imbalancein incarceration rates, the  high number of people held in jail because they can’t afford bail,  the misguided policies that pour money into prisons rather than educate the children who otherwise land there.  

This week my focus has been the Census Bureau’s decision to continue counting incarcerated persons as residents of prison districts, rather than their home communities. Despite a recent federal court decision declaring the practice unconstitutional, despite Pennsylvania state law describing place of residence as last known address, despite testimony from experts, the Bureau recently announced that the practice will continue.

In essence, prison gerrymandering, as it's sometimes called, dilutes the voice of urban and minority communities, amplifies the votes of rural communities where the prisons are based, distorts democracy.
Pennsylvania is among states most strongly impacted, because of high disparities in incarceration rates for people of color and because so many of our prisons are in rural, predominately white districts

I sit and dig through data, pour through websites, study the correlation between maps of party leadership, maps of skewed demographics, maps of underfunded schools.

We wrestle with principalities and powers, systems and structures, embedded injustice so entrenched, so complex, so subtle, so strong, it’s easy to lose hope.

Is change possible?

I had hoped the Census Bureau, after recent legal challenges, would decide to count prisoners in their home communities.

They didn’t.

It’s still possible if there’s enough public outcry.

But the comment period ends August 1 and the news cycles are busy jumping on stories about Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton and tragedies near and far. 

Prison gerrymandering looks like just a tiny ripple at the edge of a very active pond.

Yet small things shape larger.

Sentencing guidelines, decisions on where and when to build prisons, funding for public defenders, training for policing, investment in public education: all are shaped by elected officials.  

Whose interests will they represent?

I’m working this week on encouraging individuals and organizations to offer public comment. Links, talking points and reasons are available here.

I’m working as well on strengthening the work of FairDistricts PA, still promoting our petition, still asking for donations to help spread the word about gerrymandered districts. 

I’m leading a conference call this week with stakeholders who wonder: is it worth the investment?

Meeting with minority advocates who know this all matters, but wonder if there will ever be enough comfortable white Pennsylvanians willing to help shift the balance of power.

Joining a small group of motivated activists who scheduled a meeting with a key state senator.

Around it all, I’ll be praying: for families I know impacted by our inequitable system of injustice, for politicians considering the risk of supporting change, for potential allies weighing their own tangle of priorities. For grace, wisdom, persistence, resources, hope.

We are all part of this unfolding story.

We can speak out for change or endorse the status quo.

We can find new ways to be a neighbor, new ways to embrace others, new ways to encourage, befriend, affirm.

Or we can shrug and say it’s not our problem, not our kids, not our future on the line.

I look at the photo of PA legislators. 

Mostly white. 

Mostly male. 

Mostly fine with the way things are.

I wonder: do their children have black dolls at home?

Do yours?