Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Blaming the Poor in St. Joseph

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.
            I don’t make it a habit to listen to the public comment time in St. Joseph City Council meetings, because I’m afraid that much cringing might give me a stroke or a seizure.  Hats off to the council members for sitting and listening with a straight face to members of the public, many of whom show up to vent their spleens in offensive and ill-informed ways.  I did, however, watch the public comment times at the last two council meetings (April 2 & 16) after being urged to do so by several people.  The discussion was concerning low-income housing in St. Joseph, and the tone of it left me troubled.
            At the April 2 meeting, a number of individuals came and spoke about legitimate concerns in the community where they live (which seemed to be Midtown for the most part), such as crime, declining property values, an underfunded and stretched police force, and landlords who do not keep up their property.  Unfortunately, the manner in which these legitimate concerns were expressed was largely in language and generalizations that blamed poor people.  The cause of the problems, according to the speakers, was the number of Section 8 housing vouchers being issued.  More vouchers mean more poor people.  More poor people mean more crime and drugs.  No distinction was made between low income people who are involved in criminal and antisocial behavior and low income people who are not involved in such things.  Just as unfortunate was the fact that no council member asked for such a distinction to be made.
            I’m glad to say, however, that over the next few weeks at least one council member heard from members of the community offended by the generalizations and language of blaming the poor for society’s ills.  At the April 16 meeting, Joyce Starr, council member for District 2, reported about the feedback she had received and then issued an apology on her own behalf for allowing the discussion to occur in the manner it did.  (Thank you, Joyce!)  Some of the speakers from the previous meeting stood up and offered the sort of non-apologies which are fashionable these days (“I apologize to anyone who was offended. . . “)  There was discussion of the code of conduct for the public comment time and a desire by one council member to investigate publicly supported low-income housing, but there seemed—at least to me—to be little understanding on the part of most participants that blaming low income people does not solve the problems of our community.
            Do you ever wonder why there are cries of “class warfare” when there are criticisms of high income people but not when low income people are criticized?  It is because high income people have the resources to fight back when they are criticized; most of the time low income people do not.  It is easy to blame the poor, because they do not have lobbyists or spokespeople or PACs or large checkbooks.  Only when low income people organize together do they find a voice to repel the attacks against them.  At our last two city council meetings, no one spoke for the poor.  Thankfully, we have one council member who actually listens to low income people in her district (Joyce Starr) or else their voice would not have been heard at all.
            In no way would I ever ignore individual responsibility for destructive behavior, but what the speakers at the council meetings and maybe even the council members seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge is the responsibility that falls upon our entire community to deal with issues of crime, drugs, economic problems, poverty, etc.  When a community refuses to raise taxes in order to adequately fund a police force for a city the size of St. Joseph, resists any real effort of economic development and refuses for decades to invest in its schools, at some point that community reaps what it sows.  To declare that the solution to our city’s ills can be found in limiting the number of poor people we allow in the city (which is in effect what was argued by some speakers at the meetings) is to scapegoat low income people and to absolve everyone else of responsibility.
            Not long after I came to St. Joseph, I spoke at a city council meeting in favor of building a new homeless shelter.  Opponents to the project claimed it would attract even more homeless people to St. Joseph and make current problems worse.  Thanks to community support, the shelter was allowed to be built and five years later the number of homeless people in St. Joseph is not appreciably larger, even in a bad economy.  Since that time, I continue to hear complaints that St. Joseph is a magnet for poor people who are destroying our town.  It is declared that St. Joseph is too generous and we give too much to people who do not deserve it.  It’s the same song different verse in recent weeks—blame the ones least able to defend themselves and take no responsibility yourself.  What exactly do you expect to happen when jobs are scarce, the local government is stretched thin and most of a city’s population refuses to make any sacrifices for the common good?
            As a Christian, I believe loving my neighbor does not mean making generalizations about a group of people based upon the bad actions of a few.  I also believe loving my neighbor means taking responsibility for doing what I can to help the community in which I live.  I am pleased to be involved with a number of faith groups in our community working to address issues of poverty and doing so in a way that seeks to respect and empower low income people rather than scapegoat them.  If you also believe loving your neighbor means these things, I would be glad to help you get involved in one of these groups so you can make a real positive difference.
            Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Father Thinks about Trayvon Martin

I've avoided commenting publicly about Trayvon Martin, because as a Caucasian man I'm not sure how much I have to say on the matter is particularly informed--what do I know about being viewed with suspicion because of my skin color?  Nonetheless, I was deeply moved by this essay by Otis Moss, III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Barack Obama's old church--Moss followed Jeremiah Wright who was Obama's pastor). 

I may be Caucasian, but I am the father of two bi-racial sons with brown skin.  They haven't reached the age yet where I feel the need to have the talk with them that Moss talks about, but I know that day is coming.

Faith and The Hunger Games

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

 I love The Hunger Games.  I love both the young adult novel and the movie based upon it that so far has grossed over $300 million in just three weeks.  If you are unfamiliar with The Hunger Games, then ask your children or grandchildren; and if you don’t have any of your own, ask someone else’s kids or grandkids.  They will know all about The Hunger Games.  Unlike some other young adult novels and movies (for instance Twilight) that just really don’t appeal to me, The Hunger Games offers a moral message that I think is profound.
            I should offer the disclaimer, however, that The Hunger Games’ moral message is wrapped in a slick and very violent package.  It is not a quaint lecture on morality; there’s a reason it has made over $300 million.  The book along with its two sequels (the movie is an adaptation of the first book with film sequels on the way) are written by Suzanne Collins, who has stated in interviews that she wanted to get young people thinking about war, violence and how politicians and governments manipulate their own people.  She crafted her story and characters to force her readers to question simple dichotomies of “us vs. them” and “we are right and they are wrong.”  In the first book and the movie, the bad guys seem clear enough, but in the sequels we meet the good guys, who ultimately call into question the old dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Sometimes, the good guys have to become as bad as the bad guys in order to win, which means the enemy of my enemy could just be another enemy.
            The books take place in a dystopian future in the country Panem, which once was America before wars and civil breakdown.  A cruel and despotic Capital controls 12 Districts around the country.  As punishment for a past rebellion by the Districts, the Capital controls their food supply which it can mete out or withhold at will.  Every year, in a sadistic show of control and manipulation, two children from each District are chosen to fight to the death in a high-tech reality TV version of the ancient Roman gladiatorial games.  The child who survives to the end gets rewarded and his or her district is guaranteed enough food for another year.
            The heroine of the series of books and movies is Katniss Everdeen (check out this great discussion of the character by two NY Times critics), who lives in what was Appalachia.  When her young sister, Prim, is chosen for the Hunger Games, the teenage Katniss volunteers to take her place.  We follow her journey and watch as she is manipulated and exploited for the entertainment of the Capital.  Her fight to the death and her efforts to resist playing the Capital’s brutal game form the climax of the story.
            Yes, the books and the movies have to do with kids killing kids—albeit kids who are forced to do so, but the movie and the books do a fine job of not glamorizing the violence but showing it for the horror it is.  I dare you to compare the way violence is portrayed in The Hunger Games with how it is portrayed in the video games your kids and grandkids are playing—the latter largely contain no moral center at all.  Consistently throughout the books and films, violence is the tool of the oppressors and the only ones who truly escape the clutches of the Capital are those who learn to find a different way than the violent one offered to them.
            An example of Katniss’ efforts to find a different way than the path of violence comes in the first novel and the movie when she befriends a young girl named Rue.  Rue, a combatant from another District, is quick and agile but ultimately peaceful.  Katniss endeavors to protect and care for her small friend but ultimately must morn her death at another’s hand.  Her attempts to show compassion and friendship rather than to view the young girl only as prey are what ultimately inspire the benumbed populace to remember their own dignity as human beings.   Ultimately, The Hunger Games is corporate entertainment, but it is entertainment of a superior quality, because it dares to challenge its audience.  Although the books and film are not inherently Christian, as a Christian I resonated with the questions they raise.  In what ways am I complicit in a culture that exploits my brothers and sisters for entertainment’s sake?  Am I numbed to the level of violence portrayed in the media as fiction, much less to the violence carried out in my name by my government?  Do I perceive others as competitors to be eliminated or as human beings worth cherishing?  The heroine Katniss Everdeen seeks to protect those weaker than herself and to do for them what they cannot do for themselves.  Am I willing to do the same in whatever way I can for those denied a voice or an opportunity in our culture?  As a middle class American, do I, like the citizens of the Capital, view the rest of humanity as somehow lesser beings who exist for my convenience and comfort or do I see them as fellow children of God?  If the latter, what responsibility does that place upon me?
            The Hunger Games may or may not be your cup of tea, but I am grateful that such a popular story in our culture dares to offer such a moral point of view.
            Grace and Peace,

What Difference Does the Cross Make?

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

As I write this column, I’m also thinking about what I will say in the community Good Friday service (7:00 PM Friday at 1st Lutheran Church).  I’ve been assigned to read and speak on Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  When I found out, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and groan.  I grew up Southern Baptist, so I have done my time with the blood of Christ.  I can’t tell you the number of times I sang hymns with lyrics like “washed in theblood” or “there is a fountain filled with blood” or “nothing but theblood.”  As I grew older, I realized that there was a price to pay for all this emphasis upon the suffering of Christ—namely one’s view of God.  Since God is the ultimate cause of Jesus’ suffering—God’s justice demands that someone pay for the sins of humanity after all, God must be pretty sadistic (or masochistic depending on one’s view of the Trinity).  In a culture addicted to violence (Have turned on primetime TV lately?  It’s filled with graphic depictions of homicides on every channel), I think it is fair to ask if Christianity’s emphasis upon the suffering of Christ does more harm than good?
            It’s been common for some time for Christian retailers to sell t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, etc. which “Christianize” the logos and slogans of businesses and products (think a red t-shirt with lettering that resembles a Coca-Cola can that reads “Jesus: the Real Thing”).  One of the worst, in my opinion, is one that adapts Budweiser’s “This Bud’s for You” campaign by showing an iron spike being hammered into the palm of Jesus complete with blood spurting out above a caption that reads: “This Blood’s for You.”  In a nutshell, as tacky as that t-shirt may be, it does express the dominant understanding of the cross held by American Christians.  Human sin is bad and deserves punishment.  Someone has to pay.  God loves us and doesn’t want us to suffer, so God sends Jesus to suffer in our place.  Yet, what if I was to tell you that this understanding of Jesus’ suffering has not been the dominant one for much of Christian history?  What if I were to tell you that this is only one view among many about Jesus’ suffering in the New Testament?
            Some writings in the New Testament do speak of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for our sins, most notably the letter to the Hebrews (cf. 7:27, 9:24-28, etc.), as well as some references in Paul’s letters (Romans 3:25 and the Gospels (John 1:29, etc.), .  It should be no surprise that a religious movement with its roots in ancient Judaism would find a metaphor in its system of animal sacrifice to explain Jesus’ death.  The ancient world was filled with sacrifices to gods for various reasons, but since we don’t often slit the throats of animals as a part of our weekly worship, this particular metaphor is a little distant from our current context.  That’s right; I said metaphor.  For some Christians, calling the Christ’s death for our sins (the doctrine of substitutionary atonement) a metaphor is to imply that it is somehow less than real, but It is, after all, only a means of understanding a deeper truth about what happened on the cross, one among several.
            In Paul especially and also occasionally elsewhere in the letters and Gospels, Jesus death is described as a “ransom” paid to redeem humanity (Mark 10:45, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23).  Although this image isn’t fully developed in the NT, its roots lay in the concept of armies paying ransom for the release of captured soldiers and buying people out of slavery.  In the succeeding centuries, Church theologians developed this idea and used it frequently to describe how Christ’s death “bought off” the powers of evil, especially Satan.
            Some verses in the NT describe Jesus’ death and resurrection as a victory over evil powers, although exactly how this is accomplished is not entirely clear (Colossians 2:13-15, Philippians 2:10, Hebrews 2:14)  .  Later church writers would describe Christ as the “victor” over evil.  Evil threw everything it had at Christ, but in the end the powers of evil could not kill him.  Some even described Jesus’ suffering and death as God’s tricking the forces of evil before ultimately defeating them.
            Paul also speaks at times in terms of Christ suffering for our sake but not in terms of taking our place.  Christ is faithful to God even to the point of death and it is this faithfulness that accomplishes what we cannot accomplish for ourselves—reconciliation with God (Romans 5:8-10, Ephesians 2:14-16, Colossians 1:20).  The reconciliation occurs not because Christ suffered—it is not the suffering that accomplishes anything—but rather Christ was faithful.  We humans can never be fully faithful, but God in Christ can be, so somehow in Christ’s life, death and resurrection God accomplishes for our sake what we cannot do for ourselves.
            I could go deeper, but I hope you get the idea.  If you, like me, have had your fill of an over-emphasis upon Jesus’ suffering and blood, take heart there are other ways to understand just what Jesus’ death accomplishes for us—more ways than I’ve even discussed here.  As you walk through the rest of Holy Week, may your heart and mind be open to hearing the old, old story in new, new ways.
            Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why Make Time for Holy Week?

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.
Every year when Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday roll around, I always am curious about the people that show up out of the blue at church.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’ve come, but I’m curious as to what made them show up.  Why come to church for these Sundays when you haven’t made the effort before now?  The simple answer is because it’s Holy Week, but I want to ask so what?  If you have not been an active part of a worshiping community of Christians in any real sense for some time—since your kids grew up? since childhood? since never?—why come at all?
It’s not as if our cultural depictions of Easter inspire much interest in it.  Despite the best efforts of advertisers and corporations, no one announces how many shopping days are left until Easter.  Other than marshmallow chicks and some chocolate eggs, most retailers see little profit from the Easter season.  Christmas has its heartwarming nativity scenes, carols and the glut of gift giving to engender interest.  Easter gives us some leftover images of fertility from our pagan roots—eggs, rabbits, chicks, etc.—to decorate our front lawns; they’re just not the same as Christmas lights.  Besides, marketing has always had trouble packaging an essential part of the Christian Easter story—the whole death of Jesus thing.  Talk about a bummer.  He may have risen on Sunday, but that Good Friday thing just doesn’t move merchandise like the baby Jesus.
 I’m fascinated by the prospect that there is some sort of religious memory in our culture that can still inspire people to get out of the house on a Sunday morning and make an effort to come to church when they fail to do so the rest of the year.  The cultural expectations of attending church on Easter have long passed away, but maybe there is a dim shadow of it still hanging on.  Perhaps some come out of a dim sense of obligation based upon memories from childhood when more devout parents took them to church.  Perhaps others come out of a sense that they should expose their children to at least a dose of religion.   Do they come looking for something they once had or for something new?  Do they come at the prompting of the Spirit or a need for ritual or for meaning or for. . . ?
In spite of the loss of its cultural cache and the failure of marketers to commercialize it and the failure of the church to make it relevant in a more secular and pluralistic world, they still come on Palm Sunday and Easter.  They are looking for something.  Why do you come—assuming of course that you are coming the next two Sundays—what are you looking for?
Sure, I’m coming because it’s my job, but even if it weren’t my job, I would still come. Here’s what I’m looking for.  Like most middle class Americans I lead a busy life.  It’s full of work, family, events for the kids, favorite television shows, work around the house and yard, e-mail and Facebook, doctor appointments, taking the cars to the shop, etc. etc. etc.  Even though my job is about helping other people to experience the sacred in their everyday lives, I have as much trouble as the next person doing it myself.  Holy Week interrupts that never-ending flow of “stuff I’ve got to do” and forces me to confront some important questions:
·       I say I am a Christian, but what does that really mean and what difference does it make in my life?
·       Am I like the crowds who cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday when times were good but abandoned and rejected Jesus when I was asked to sacrifice my own comfort and safety?
·       In a culture obsessed with status, am I really willing to serve others in the way Jesus took the form of a slave and washed his disciples’ feet on that first Holy Thursday?
·       I hear everywhere I go exhortations to do things my way, but am I willing to follow Jesus’ example and do things God’s way?  What if God’s way means giving up something I want or already have?
·       Our society lives by the ethics of getting even with those who hurt us, so how can I be like Jesus and forgive those who hurt me?  Is it possible for me to resist repaying violence with more violence?
·       Our culture fears death and so do I; do I really believe that God is more powerful than death?
These are not easy questions and because they are not easy, I don’t really want to make
time to think about them.  Perhaps you can identify with that feeling.  Yet, these are essential questions for anyone wishing to follow Jesus.  Holy Week does not let us off the hook for considering them.
            Whether or not they realize it, the strangers who show up on Palm Sunday and Easter are asking similar questions.  They may not phrase them in the same religious language or even know the stories from Jesus’ last week, but they are asking questions about identity, meaning, sacrifice, life, death and love.  What questions do you have?  Are you willing to face them this Holy Week?
            Grace and Peace,