I've been fermenting and fomenting a post in my head for the last couple of days. I am doing this because of a post I found through the Bilerico Project that led me to a post over at POZ magazine. In this post, lay leader Bill Day out of San Antonio, was arrested for participating in the controversial needle-exchange program. It is so controversial in Texas that the state has made the activity illegal. New York City has a wonderful non-profit organization called the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center that engages ways to decrease the harm that affects those to whom Jesus might classify as his "least of these" (Matthew 25:40).
So this has got me thinking: who exactly would be those Jesus might say are the "least of these". One might assume that would include the poor and disenfranchised. And I would surely agree--but the poor fall into so many categories. The disenfranchised is a category all its own that is usually left up to interpretation. Would all the disenfranchised be included in this list? What about the folks who purposefully fall into that category rather than those who accidentally fall into it through no fault of their own? It's this category that has me wondering.
Would drug users who shoot heroin through their veins be part of the disenfranchised? Did they opt out of reality? Did circumstances fall upon them that encouraged them to make that decision? And then, once addicted, should we have less compassion on them because getting off heroin is very difficult, but not entirely impossible?
Or how about prostitutes? Especially young ones? Do they fall into the disenfranchised category? I lived in NYC for about 10 years and was fortunate to participate in a street outreach to homeless youth, many of which were gay or transgendered. Of those youth, many have been solicited for sex in exchange for money or a place to spend the night. One youth told me, "You do what you have to do, when you're living on the streets." And few of us would disagree with that. However, why would a youth be on the street in the first place? Many homeless youth, who self-identify as gay or transgender, while in their teen years risk being thrown out of their parents house--esp those who are religious. There are estimates that suggest 25-40% of the homeless youth self-identify as gay or transgender. Would these kids, some through no fault of their own, be classified as true disenfranchised?
Or how about illegal immigrants? Just this week, 52 immigrants were arrested and are facing deportation in Arizona. What about the families of those arrested? The women and children? Not having a breadwinner come home to provide for them leaves them destitute, impoverished, and at risk. Does our nationalism give us an excuse to break apart families and leave them in such a horrible situation?
It is a controversial discussion when we think about those who 'deserve our support' and those who 'get what they deserve'. Where do you draw the line? Do we make anything our government declares to be illegal the litmus test for our compassion? Or, do we point and say, as some might do to an overweight person at the all-you-can-eat buffet line, "Hey, fattie--got heart disease yet?" In other words, do we hold back our compassion on anyone we determine (at face value) can help themselves?
As we educate ourselves on the challenges of the disenfranchised, many of us learn that it isn't so easy to determine who can help themselves and who can't. Given the advancement of science, we're learning that some of us are hard-wired in ways very different than we are. And, given the challenges of obesity, consumerism, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and pride, is it any wonder that there are so many people who have fallen through the cracks. When someone does fall through, how responsible are we to help them out?
I believe Jesus tells us how responsible we are. To him, it's very simple. When he tells us that when we care for and defend "the least of his", we are actually caring for and defend Jesus himself. And, when we fail to do so, we are failing him. Why would the Son of God so link himself to the raggamuffin's and ne'er-do-wells of society if he didn't think it was so important to care for them? Maybe because it is so important to him, that Jesus tells us this very thing.
In Christian soterilogy, there is a tenet called Substitutionary Atonement. Many Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, taking our sins upon himself and offering himself as a sacrifice to God. As a result, when we believe in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. For those who hold fast to this salvation narrative, is it any more difficult to look to Jesus as taking the lives of the disenfranchised upon himself and telling us, that if we don't care of them, we're not taking care of Jesus?
Okay, so if this is so--and Jesus has told us that if we don't care for the poor and suffering, then we'll go to hell (he really says this!), then how exactly do we care for them?
There are many ways we can do this--and some would argue, many ways we shouldn't do this. Handing out clean needles to heroin addicts prevents them from acquiring deadly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. Is cleaning the needles encouraging more drug use? Is it condoning it? It is buying time for the drug user to get clean?
Or how about outreach services to prostitutes that provide limited health care, such as STD screenings and food or a place to spend the night, free of hassle? Does offering these services condone the activity? Make it more attractive to stay in it? Or does it buy time for the prostitute to leave that way of life?
Would providing legal aid to immigrants condone their presence among us? Would it encourage more immigrants to come to America, use our healthcare system, and make a better life for themselves at our expense? Or, would it help alleviate the emotional cost of broken families? Would it help poor women whose husbands have been arrested and/or deported, feed their families?
How do the laws of caring for illegal immigrants speak to our faith? If Jesus were walking down the street and stopped to aid an illegal immigrant by offering him a piece of bread or a place to sleep, should he be arrested? Do you think the State's actions would be justified? Do you think Jesus' actions should be criminalized? As of right now, there is a legal Act that does just this.
When we speak of our faith and what it means, does it mean more to be an American, caught up in its consumerism and prosperity gospels than it does to help the helpless? If Jesus were an illegal Mexican fallen down, beaten and unconscious, what is our responsibility to him? I don't think I need to actually answer that question. If you're familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, then you know the answer.
But what about prostitutes and drug users? Can you imagine Jesus shooting up with a needle late at night in a Lower East Side tenement? Or, could Jesus be the face of a runaway teenager sitting on a stoop in Greenwich Village looking for a place to sleep, and being willing to do anything than spend the night sleeping on a park bench in Washington Square Park?
If you can imagine that far, then let me also encourage you to answer this question: What are you going to do about it?
This is an eloquent and insightful video of a Moyer's commentary on Jeremiah Wright. In many ways, a subtitle could be added that might read: Wright and America's Politics of Racism. This video is fairly short and is worth watching and listening to.
I returned from the Everything Must Change conference last night needing a long nap. My day had started early and realizing I must've picked up a cold or other sickness bug while at the conference, by the time I got home I was more tired and worn out than usual. The conference itself was incredible and I am glad to say that I wasn't disappointed (I was worrying that I might be after the previous night's implication of white privilege introducing the "cure' the world needs to hear from us, the privileged white Christians.)
The conference began with music and time to get acquainted. Following that, the morning consisted of personal testimonies that reflected on our need to be "in the world" but not "of it". Sure, this is Christian-speak but it simply means that Christians are to live by the values of Jesus rather than of the values that demean, destroy, and promote unsustainable wickedness. These testimonies began with coffee...the free coffee that was provided was of the Just Coffee category--coffee that isn't just free trade, but grown, packaged, and sold by farmers for farmers. This basically meant that the coffee farmers received a fairer share of the profits than through the normal ways in which they receive less.
Afterwards, a panel discussion was provided with a talk-show-like conversation between McLaren and 5 Latino workers from the church where the conference was held. One worker was the pastor of the church, one was an evangelist, two were social workers, and the last was the pastor of a recent church start in Harlem. These particular workers were and are involved in the restoration of the South Bronx (which historically has been a hotbed of crime and ridiculous poverty). These workers shared their vision of equality, hope, sustainability, and Jesus. It was a powerful time of testimony. And, what made it even more interesting was their critique of McLaren's way of confronting the 'suicide machine' by showing how "we" help to keep the machine moving. One of the panelists named Gabriel (the evangelist) explained it by commenting on a liturgy we all recited about our involvement in creating the continued atmosphere of destruction, "When you say 'we', I was shocked because I didn't create it, I am living in it. I am living in the machine that you created!" While victimhood often precludes a person from thinking they are ever a part of the system they are condemning and deconstructing, Gabriel made a great point. He explained that one reason the machine continues to dominate our culture is due to racism--he explained it further, "If a Spanish man had led this conference, would you have come? If I spoke in Spanish, how many of you would have understood me (he illustrated this point by, yes, speaking in Spanish)?" He concluded his testimony by underscoring everyone's responsibility to share in each other's framing stories so that the smaller voices can become larger ones. Seriously, this was one of the most powerful testimonies I've heard in a long time and the audience agreed with an eruption of applause, Amens, and the recognition that Gabriel was more than right.
After the panel discussion, we were led in a time of prayer and meditation. The meditation focused on artwork created for the conference series presented 15-or so cities across the country). At the end of the evening, everyone was to be (and was) invited to Union Theological Seminary's James Chapel to see the artwork that was shown on the monitors and copies of the artwork that was included in the information packets handed out at the beginning of the conference. The prayer and medication lasted for about an hour, that also inclued written and shared poetry, flow poetry (that is also called Slam Poetry here in NYC) and song.
Following this, we broke for lunch. And let me tell you, it was tasty!
We regrouped after lunch and heard more testimonials from those in the evangelical circles sharing what they are doing to reimagine church. One such person that I later made a personal contact with was Jeff Kursonis, the developer for EmergentVillage.com, an online gathering spot for emergent cohorts (small meeting groups) that meet across the country.
There were also a testimonial and presentations from one of the sponsors of the conference Mars Hill Graduate School. Later, we heard a testimonial from Jay Bakker, the infamous son of Jim and the late Tammy Faye Bakker. Jay is the pastor of Revolution, a new church start in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, focusing on a newer generation of post-modern and hip Christians. You'd be surprised by his tattoos. They are ALL over his body and some of them even made those sitting around me cringe. Personally I love tattoos (and even have one off my own). Later I had a chance to meet him personally. He has such a spirit of peace about him.
After a brief break and a time to pick up some books from the bookstore (I bought McLaren's Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, Diana Butler Bass's Christianity for the Rest of Us, and Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination), McLaren took the stage. He preached a good sermon on Jesus and the need to bring him into the conversation of restoration, reformation, and social renewal. He showed us ways in which we can begin to be a part of the renewal process by getting involved in environmental causes and concerns, using our buying power to shop wisely and support companies that promote the vision for a cleaner and better earth, and how our faith can speak to those who challenge us (and we will be challenged and confronted, he said). He showed ways to integrate these ideas into church liturgies, sermons, and faith conversations. After his sermon-like presentation, we concluded the conference with a time of prayer and a fun exercise whereby everyone wrote messages on their hands, they were photographed to be used on a larger montage for the conference itself, and joined together in closing liturgies, prayers, and song.
All in all, I had a nice time. But not everyone did. My friend Michael continued his frustration from the evening before with what appeared to be 'white privilege' revealing itself again during this day's conversations. Sure, that could be gleaned but it was actually named and identified from the panelists and later from McLaren. Still, this didn't sit well with him and I have asked him if he wouldn't mind letting me post his concerns here in another post later. He said that he'd think about it.
As for me, I found it to be the continued motivation to bring Jesus' call for unity and societal justice into a larger framing story that epitomizes my own call and ministry. It was a time of personal and spiritual renewal for me. I am glad I went. And, I am glad to have met new friends as well as sharing my time with old ones.
Last night I attended Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change tour in the Bronx. Thinking I'd be the only one there I knew, I was pleasantly surprised to find two friends walk in the door, Elise Brown and Michael Caine, my former Conference Minister. Naturally, we all three sat together. They too, thought they'd be the only ones they knew at this thing.
The evening started with lots of free trade coffee and all the cookies and brownies you could eat. People were mulling about. There is a nice and yet not 'over the top' bookstore available. Arriving early, I got the chance to talk with Brian McLaren again (I met him last year at the Fosdick Convocation held at The Riverside Church, in NYC).
The conference started with some singing and liturgy. Following that, opening remarks and instructions set the rules for the weekend. Then, Brian McLaren took the stage. He spoke for about 2 hours and discussed an overview of his book, Everything Must Change. He talked about the four pivotal crises affecting America gleaned from a host of others who broke down the crises from much longer lists. Each of these lists detailed global crises of hunger, poverty, and differing degrees of environmental challenges.
McLaren created his new list from the lists of others to what he felt were the foundations of the crises: prosperity, equity, security, and a suicide machine. He explained that these differing areas meant that everyone wanted the basic resources of a sustainable life (prosperity) but that it wasn't evenly divided creating tension (equity), and therefore needed security to either keep one's resources or fight to achieve one's equal and fair share (security). The idea that we're consuming more resources than the earth can replenish is causing such tension that the world may ultimately destroy itself (suicide machine). He concluded his talk by explaining that the only solution to these crises is Jesus--and McLaren explained that historically, the church has spent most of its energy and resources addressing issues of church life rather than societal issues that are destroying it. For McLaren, the real issues aren't morality and church strife; rather, the real issues that matter have a larger concern and Jesus' call for renewal was addressing these larger ones.
The service ended with an opportunity to pray and make a spiritual assent to continue the conversation about how we can be the agents of change in our world.
After the conference, Michael Caine and I went out for dinner at this great Dominican restaurant in Washington Heights. Together we talked about McLaren's points and felt that while is perspective has merit, he was talking from a position of white power and privilege. To that end, he may not be underscoring the base problems as clean as he thinks he is. When he used terms like 'prosperity' to describe a sustainable wholeness (two words that were gleaned from a time of small groups during his presentation), he betrayed his own faith's influence by attaching a terminology that also means wealth and entitlement. His commentary was a like a white man telling us why the black man is oppressed--rather than having a black man tell us his story. His words would have been more powerful with personal testimony from the four categories rather than having his own interpretation.
On the whole though, it wasn't a bad introduction. I've actually read his book Everything Must Change and used it as the catalyst for preaching during last year's Advent season. I love the book but am careful not to interpret for the oppressed from a viewpoint of privilege. Instead, I like to go and hear from the voices of the oppressed themselves.
I am looking forward to today's conference and see how we'll use McLaren's vision of Jesus' Kingdom conversation to address and deconstruct societal ills. It should be a good experience. I'll write more about today's conference when I return.
Church member Steve Moldt writes his second installment explaining faith from a Buddhist perspective:
To follow up on my last blog regarding my current understanding and questions about suffering, I would like to discuss the four noble truths of the Buddhist tradition as I understand them. I should say that I have had no formal training and this is my understanding of these principles at this stage of my own journey.
The first of the Four Noble Truths states that life means suffering, or life is suffering. We are born into suffering, have hungers, thirsts and anxieties. We suffer through fear, illness, desire, pain, insecurities, etc. There are as many ways to suffer as there are beings to experience it.The second Truth states that the origin of suffering is attachment. We suffer because we become attached to transient things, not only objects, wealth and power but ideas, desires, passions, even our notion of our “self” as a separate entity, instead of a part of the on-going ceaseless becoming of the universe. Craving and clinging keep us from our greater realization of our connection to all things.
The third Truth is that cessation of suffering is attainable. This is can be done by remove the source of suffering, by ending the craving and the clinging to transient things using techniques meant to achieve a dispassionate state know as Nirvana. Nirvana is the freedom from desires, complexes, insecurities and ideas. It means openness to all levels of experience without judgment and without limiting knowledge. It is the experience of the unity of all things.
The fourth Truth describes the way to the cessation of suffering by way of the Eightfold Path which, briefly, consists of Right View and Right Intention which are manifestations of Wisdom; Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood which are manifestations of Ethical Conduct and Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration which are manifestations of Mental Development.
When I first came upon the Four Noble Truths, I was astonished by the simple logic. In our ‘modern’ world there are literally billions of dollars that are spent on ways to alleviate suffering. The range of drugs alone used to treat depression, phobias, anxieties fuel an entire industry.
The Buddhist way does not deny suffering. It recognizes it as an unavoidable, even essential part of life in this existence. By recognizing suffering as integral to the process of life, it is not such an overwhelming force and can be addressed by pursuing the eightfold path. This is not to say that the way is easy, but the difference in perspective from the way we commonly address suffering in our material society makes sense to me. What do you think?