Here’s What You Can Do

Whenever I speak about social justice and social action, this question invariably pops up: “But, what can I do?”

20190212_111001This morning, we met Lois Martin, an 84-year old who moved to Tucson 10 or so years ago to work on immigration justice.  She is a member of No More Deaths, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.  No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona working to end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands through civil initiative.  Their work focuses on direct aid (such as water drops in the desert), witnessing and responding, cons iousness raising, and promoting humane immigration policy.

Lois is an amazing person.  She has traveled extensively through Central America and has served as an election observer in Honduras and Guatemala.  She minced no words – the violence people are fleeing in these countries came about and continues because of American support of illegal regimes.  For the last century, groups like the United Fruit Farmers and a handful of wealthy landowners have terrorized the compesinos into fleeing for their lives.  And the U.S. has used these countries as staging points for immoral acoins in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

She taught us about our government’s goal to criminalize migration and to deter migration through death and imprisonment.  She explained how people caught by the border patrol agents (who perform police functions without proper police training) are remitted to the criminal justice system, not the immigration system.  Border patrol can hold migrants for 72 hours with no guarantee of even the basic services such as bedding. Claims of asylum are ignored and victims are processed through Operation Streamline, which results in a criminal record and immediate deportation.

Since the hearings take place in federal court, victims are not provided any translators but Spanish.  As a result, defendents (who may be members of many indigenous people’s with their own dialects) may have no understanding of what is happening to them.

We then spent the afternoon at the federal courthouse watching close to 100 people led into the courtroom in shackles.  Looking confused and frightened, shuffling because of the ankle chains, groups were led before the judge charged either with misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry after removal. Pleading guilty to the former means immediate deportation and a criminal record.  All of the latter cases made plea bargains resulting in dropping the felony charge, but serving 30 to 180 days in prison.

20190212_161651Only after the hearing are migrants remitted to immigration services, where claims of asylum may be heard.  But, often the only person who may hear the claim is the bus driver taking them to Nogales, or an officer who simply chooses to ignore it.

The futility and inhumanity of this charade of justice was brought home by one man.  The judge asked if he had been in her court before.  He affirmed her recollection.  She told him, “I don’t want to see you here again, because next time it will be a felony.”  He replied, “Not anymore…what’s the point?”

What is the point?  What can you do?  See.  Think.  Plan.  Act.  Reflect.  And repeat.

Out with Facts

America’s gradual decline into kakistocracy (government by the most incompetent) continues.  Our national security teeters atop the Washington Monument waiting for our man-child President to lose his temper.  Corporations are persons, and people are disposable commodities existing only to fill the coffers of the wealthy and influential.  Our children graduate from college deep in debt with evaporating career opportunities.  And our headlong rush to destroy the environment continues in spite of a Himalayan pile of evidence from experts.

The Age of Facts is dead.  We now live in the Age of Unenlightenment.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the clinical insanity of our gun culture.  There was a time when the events in Las Vegas might have been a tipping point for reason and common sense.  But the hundreds of victims of Stephen Paddock’s arsenal will soon be forgotten, along with the children of Sandy Hook and thousands of other victims of our slavish dependence on firearms.

So, I offer no facts.  Facts make no difference to Second Amendment fanatics.  I only offer moral observations based on my personal ethics.

  • Only one reason exists to own an automatic rifle – the desire to kill masses of people as quickly as possible.  Possession of such a weapon is sufficient evidence of mental illness and a criminal danger to society.
  • Any politician who denies the American people the right to open hearings on gun control legislation is a whore of the NRA and should be impeached.
  • Anyone profiting from stock sales of Sturm Ruger or Smith and Wesson in recent days represents the most vile and soulless human attributes.  I pray that you somehow acquire a heart to fill the current cavern in your chest.
  • Wayne LaPierre does more to damage this nation and its people than Edward Snowden ever will.  His religious mantra of entitlement and sacrificing the blood of innocents on the altar of violence violates any sane interpretation of the writings of our Founders.
  • The media is complicit in America’s institutionalized racism and xenophobia.  By refusing to call these murders terrorism, the media feeds the agenda of white supremacists, Christian extremists, and anti-immigrant radicals.  Mass murder is by definition an act of terrorism, whether it is committed by a young, brown-skinned Muslim or an elderly, well-off white man.

The time is long overdue to take to the streets and bring an end to this madness.  We must hold the gun lobbyists and their puppet politicians responsible.

The Elephant

Americans marched last week. Across the country, millions expressed fear of a neo-Fascist in the White House, and solidarity in seeking change in our political system.

ct-womens-march-national-pg-20170121People marched for many reasons. They marched for equal rights for women, People of Color, immigrants, LGBTQIA individuals, and others. They marched for our planet, recognizing that human action harms our global climate. They marched for a fair and just society that truly offers complete access to the American Dream for all.

And many marched for reproductive freedom – the issue that represents the key lynch pin to every political discussion in this nation. People will vote against their own self-interest when it comes to taxes, jobs, immigration, schools, the environment, even national security. But the one issue on which most voters will not compromise is abortion. Any candidate claiming to be “pro-life” running against another candidate labeled as “pro-choice” can count on thousands of committed votes regardless of any other political stand they take.

The majority of white American women just voted for a President who believes women are property to be mauled, who mocks the disabled, who opposes living wages, and who casually banters about nuclear war. But, he claimed to be pro-life, and he now sits in the White House.

“Pro-Choice” is a myth

In my experience, women who support reproductive freedom do not simply support abortion on demand. In fact, many would like to see the need for elective abortions reduced to zero. However, our laws and social systems remain heavily anti-woman. Abuse of women remains at shockingly high levels. The objectification of women in the media trains girls and boys from an early age that striving toward an unachievable norm of beauty defines a woman’s worth. The continued acceptance of our rape culture leaves women living in constant, daily fear of discrimination, molestation, assault, and worse.

American men take little responsibility for sexual relations. We routinely expect women to control the use of contraception and yet men often overrule women to suit their desire for sexual gratification. Birth control is expensive, hard to access, and has many side effects. We label men who bed many women as virile and desirable role models. We label sexually active women as promiscuous sluts and whores unworthy of marriage and motherhood.

planned-parenthood-about-us-who-we-are-mission-1920x1080Even when women take every possible precaution, this pernicious double standard too often produces pregnancies where the men bail out and leave the woman alone to bear a life-long responsibility with little if any support. The legal system does little to hold men accountable as equal partners in procreation, but hurdles mountains to control a woman’s body and medical choices.

Pro-choice does not equate to pro-abortion. Many women – and I believe most women – see abortion as a tragic last step necessary only because our country lacks proper education and affordable access to birth control. Most women accept the necessity of abortion only because our commitment as a nation to the rights of men over the dignity and worth of women leaves women without viable alternatives.

In a perfect world, elective abortions would disappear because the circumstances that lead to unwanted pregnancies would not exist. What would this world look like?

  • No man would ever dream of forcing himself on a woman.
  • Women and men would be true equals from birth through school to the workplace and into retirement.
  • Beauty would be defined by one’s character, goodness, authenticity, and conviction – not body shape.
  • Every child would know the facts of human reproduction, and learn the complexities of loving relationships.
  • Government would play no role in determining what any person chooses to do with their body.
  • Individuals’ personal religious beliefs regarding personhood would be respected, but no one would be permitted to discriminate against others on the basis of those personal beliefs.

So, “pro-choice” does not mean pro-elective abortion at will. Pro-choice means supporting a society with reproductive justice – the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.

“Pro-Life” is a myth

ireland17For years, Congressman John Moolenaar has staunchly defended what he calls the “sanctity of life.” This week, Harvard researchers revealed that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement program will result in 44,000 unnecessary deaths each year. It is irrefutable fact that more than 20 million Americans will lose their health insurance if Republicans repeal and do not replace the ACA, an action Moolenaar voted to approve.

Can a person legitimately call themselves pro-life if they only apply their moral standards of sanctity of life to fetuses? No. In fact, voting to repeal the ACA without a replacement represents an “anti-life” action. Other anti-life attitudes include:

  • Sending men and women into combat, but fail to provide them world-class mental and physical medical treatment once they return from the trauma of war;
  • Using drones that indiscriminately kill innocent men, women, and children in search of a possible enemy target;
  • Murdering prisoners convicted of crimes, given the inordinate number of mistakes that have been made in capital punishment sentencing, its inherent racism and classism, and the cruel processes used to take those lives;
  • Cutting funds for food stamps, school lunch programs, early childhood education initiatives, and public education of equally high quality for all, when more than enough is available in our bloated federal military budget to easily meet these needs;
  • Passing into law the most intrusive and medically unnecessary invasion of a woman’s body, while offering young people little realistic education about sex and obstructing their access to birth control;
  • Denying victims of incest, rape, and medical complications threatening the life of the mother with means to terminate those pregnancies;
  • Failing to speak out in opposition to “slap on the wrist” punishments for rapists and those committing domestic violence and sexual assaults on women, and excusing the behavior of beasts for violating a woman by blaming her for the crime; and
  • Failing to be repulsed that this nation has done absolutely nothing to create mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, or to limit access to weapons whose sole purpose is the mass murder of humans — and not pressuring you legislators to do so.

If these apply to you, then stop calling yourself pro-life. You are not pro-life – you are pro-birth and anti-woman.

Reclaiming American citizenship

The seeds of America spread wide through the soil of injustice and tyranny. Our ancestors fought for a host of freedoms and civil rights. They proclaimed those rights publicly in documents central to our national core. For the Founders, being American meant supporting the full American agenda, a social system unmatched in history.

How long would America last if citizens based their vote solely on a single issue? That kind of thinking led to a bloody civil war that decimated our nation. That kind of thinking condoned the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples whose descendants still suffer our oppression. That kind of thinking normalized the incarceration of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, along with the theft of their property and livelihoods. That kind of thinking supported segregation, lynching, Sundown Towns, and continues supporting a racist criminal justice system.

Make no mistake; Donald Trump is unfit to serve as President of the United States. If you voted for him because Hillary Clinton supports a woman’s right to choose, then you have contributed to the possible decline of our nation and our way of life. I understand your feelings about the unborn. Most people do. But electing a President already committed to destroying our environment, eliminating key safety net programs for the poor, taking health care away from millions, and dismantling industry regulations is an act of social suicide.

If you marched last Saturday, I implore you to reach out to those who oppose abortion. Engage in dialogue with them on the realities of conception, fertilization, fetal anomalies, and religious belief. Help those seeking to defend the rights of the unborn understand that you agree with their cause as part of a larger package of social programs that defend the right of all persons to life.

2013-02-08-perezIf you opposed the march last Saturday, I implore you to look at the broad picture of what it means to be an American citizen. Standing up for the rights of those who cannot defend themselves is courageous, noble work. But the defenseless include not only fetuses, but refugees, children of undocumented parents, innocent people dead due to excessive police violence, and victims of institutionalized racism, gender bias, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.

Whether you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life, you are an American. Our American principles demand of us a high standard of citizen participation. We are called to resist authoritarian rule and defend the civil rights of all. We are called to expose acts of foreign agents seeking to undermine our most precious liberties. We are called to hold our elected officials accountable when they lie, obstruct the search for truth, hide pertinent information, and behave in foolish and reckless ways.

Resist those who would divide and conquer us. Refute the false dichotomy of pro-life/pro-choice. Replace stereotypes and unfounded generalizations with facts and grounded beliefs acceptable to all. Let us unite as Americans, agreeing to disagree when needed, but in solidarity regarding the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dear Mr. Trump

Congratulations on your upcoming inauguration. Many of us voted for you despite your lack of experience holding public office. So, on behalf of the hundreds of millions of us you now serve, I want to take this opportunity and offer you some advice as you enter the Oval Office. Please forgive us if some of these suggestions sound simplistic, even obvious. Given your public discourse to date, however, we have confidence that you will find value in them.

trump-meryl1. Think. Our mothers taught us, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” We Americans can be obnoxious, even rude. But, we look up to the Office of the President largely because it stands for the highest level of decorum and class in our society. Our President should be better than us, and should model for us the best human behavior. We all understand the satisfaction derived from beating someone in a war of words. But, we need our President to rise above personal pettiness and insulting retorts in response to criticism.

2. Listen. Like many of us, you have decades of life experience. But, you can now access thousands of people with unbelievable knowledge about every topic imaginable at a moment’s notice. You are smarter than most of us – otherwise you would never have succeeded in the election. You are still a human being, however, and we do not expect you to know everything. Please listen to people the way you expect us to listen to you.

3. Review. We admire your spontaneity. In a complex world, however, every word spoken by our President matters. When you tweet without subjecting your words to careful review…you frighten us. We don’t see grammatical mistakes, factual errors, and statements revealing a lack of knowledge of basic governmental functions as amusing signs of a delightfully quirky leadership style. They scare us. They scare us because they are mistakes that we would make – but we are not President. We fear the consequences of your unedited statements, and need to see that you understand our feelings and the power your words wield.

4. Respect. We respect the Office of the President like no other position in the world. Likewise, we need the person filling that office to respect us. We elected you. So, we logically expect you to respect our intelligence and wisdom. When we feel disregarded by our President, we can delude ourselves with false hopes; we begin forming unrealistic expectations of a nation already responsible for unprecedented historical achievements; and we allow our fears to override our reason. The American people will follow your example. We need you to display the respect for us that you expect from us in return.

5. Awaken. Citizen Trump owned every privilege available. Unlike most of us, you were born a white, straight, male, Christian, healthy and wealthy American citizen. But we need President Trump to represent people of color and women; gay and transgender people; Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Atheists; and people suffering from physical and mental illnesses. We need our President to serve all the people, whether they live in mansions, houses, apartments, or packing crates. Whether we work as executives or lawyers, nurses or plumbers, cashiers or migrant farmers, we must feel that you empathize with our lives and acknowledge our inherent worth and dignity.

6. Mature. To be honest, many of us voted for you because you acted like us. You said things we might say and acted in ways we might act. But we know that we don’t always say the right things, or act in the right ways. Candidate Trump was an adolescent – a malignant narcissist and expert self-promoter. And many of us loved that persona. We now need President Trump to heed the lesson we learned on TV from that great philosopher Spock of Vulcan, who said, “Having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting.”

You wanted our ultimate position of celebrity and we gave it to you. But with ownership comes tremendous responsibility. Billions of lives across the world now depend on you owning every attribute of a great leader, qualities such as wisdom, integrity, and humility. Perhaps most important, we need you to show the courage to make decisions that might make you unpopular, but that are morally correct choices. Sadly, there isn’t a kinder, more gentle way to say this. Now that we have entrusted you with the most important office in our nation, we need you to grow up.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Every one of your constituents – regardless of skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, theological persuasion, ability, or legal, social and economic status – can agree with these sentiments.

His letter continued. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

7. Love. Mr. Trump, on the morning of January 20, you will gaze into that golden mirror you caress so often. Our nation, all of us living and yet to be born, and the planet Earth that sustains us need you to see the full reflection of a President. We need that mirror to reflect a thoughtful, considerate, careful, respectful, aware adult. We desperately need that mirror to project an image of love. We know you love yourself and your family. We know you love your fans and supporters. As President Trump, we need you to share that love with every person equally.

trump-reporterWe need you to love every Black man looking in the rear view mirror at the flashing lights of a police car; the woman entering the Planned Parenthood office for a cancer screening because her insurance won’t pay for her to go to the local hospital anymore; the young gay man cast out of his parent’s home because of who he loves; the woman wearing the hijab being berated for her religious beliefs; the man publicly mocked for his congenital disability; the mother living in her car because her employers pay poverty wages; and the hard-working, courageous man seeking the same American dream for his children that our own ancestors sought.

We Americans can love deeply. But we will emulate our President. If our President displays impatience, arrogance, rudeness, and resentment, we will do the same. So, Mr. Trump, please model that love for us, for our nation, and for our planet as you become President Trump.

Christmas Message for Modern Times

Billions across the earth celebrate the birth of a child. Some doubt the accuracy of factual details of the event. Others question on the nature of the child and the circumstances of his conception. Centuries of scholarship and spiritual contemplation failed to resolve different interpretations of the child’s purpose and of his eventual actions as an adult.

Nearly everyone can agree, however, on one thing. Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, whether you follow Buddhist, Hindu, or no religious teachings at all, we can all agree on this specific aspect of the life of the man known as Jesus.

Early in his ministry, this wandering rabbi preached a message to the people. He preached from the hilltops and from the valleys. His message resonated with every person largely because other prophets had preached the same wisdom throughout the centuries. And in 21st century America, this message rings especially true.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Jesus lived in a world where the privileged held reign over the oppressed. He foresaw a time when all their wealth, power, and military might could not prevent their eventual downfall.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Jesus called out the hypocrites, the policy makers who dined in fine style while the poor made do with the scraps. He preached fairness and equity for all the people.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

The arrogant leaders, distant from the faith and dedication of the people, thought they controlled the truth. Jesus did not mock or threaten others to serve as an inspirational leader.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Truth is not whatever reality most benefits you. Truth is truth. Jesus showed that true leadership consists of honesty, openness, and candor regardless of the consequences.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Jesus spoke truth to power, never backing away from the challenges of scribes and Pharisees. He never sold his principles for comfort, advantage, or influence.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

The Golden Rule is the single most universal ethical belief of humanity. Jesus lived this ethic and taught others to do the same.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.

Hold people accountable, but always do so with love and understanding. Jesus held malice in his heart for no one and yet stood on the side of love opposed to all oppressive authority.

castingoutmoneychangersNear the end of his ministry, Jesus demonstrated that we cannot achieve justice passively, and that we must sometimes meet oppression with active resistance.  Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying…he said, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

After his active resistance to the corrupt bankers and priests, Jesus taught in the temple and healed those who came to him seeking cures. He told the crowds that the scribes and Pharisees tie up heavy, hard to bear burdens and lay them on the shoulders of others to carry. They exalt themselves, claiming great deeds and the best seats in the synagogue. Jesus called them blind guides and fools, for they valued the gold and not the sanctuary that made the gold sacred. Instead of tithing, Jesus called on the self-indulgent and greedy to practice justice, mercy, and faith.

Prophecy. Christmas celebrates a world-changing event in the past. But Christmas also commemorates the spirit of the man born under that star. Christmas proclaims the message of brotherhood and sisterhood among all people, and compassion for every person, whether poor or sick, hungry or hated.

So, honor the wonder of birth this Christmas season. May you see in every child the promise of a great life of service, a great love of others. Honor the child – wherever and whenever born – as the symbol of hope for billions born into poverty and oppression. Then, honor the person that child then grew and now grows to be; the one who then taught and will now teach the beatitudes of unconditional love; and who will always sacrifice everything to show us the meaning of justice, of mercy, and of faith. May we honor those teachings every day of the year and find the courage to stand up publicly for those principles.

I Am…

As a Unitarian Universalist, I draw ethical and spiritual inspiration from the wisdom of all religions. One gains an insight when studying comparative religions; the world’s major faith traditions share most of the same fundamental principles. Love your neighbor. Care for the sick, the poor, the oppressed. Do not kill. Love your enemy. Speak the truth. Do not steal. Love unconditionally.

“Do not wrongfully consume each other’s wealth, but trade by mutual consent. Do not kill each other, for God is merciful to you.” Sura 4:29

Sacred texts of the world’s major religions vary widely. Some combine history and theology. Others resound like lyric poetry. Most include mythic tales, riddles and parables. All provide instruction on mindfulness and spiritual practice.

Most important, religious writings challenge readers to think, to feel and to act. Possessing only right belief does not make one truly religious. Empathy and kindness alone cannot produce complete salvation. And correct action without knowledge and belief is like a foundation of brick without water and cement. Spiritual growth requires exercise of the mind, the heart and the hands as one.

“Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to the needy, to neighbors near and far, to travelers in need…God does not like arrogant boastful people, who are miserly and order other people to be the same, hiding the bounty God has given them.” Sura 4:36-37

Studying religious texts presents a special challenge to the student. Each work resides in a past time, reflects ancient contexts and suffers human frailty in translation and interpretation. Subsequent to the writing of every major religious work, questions arose causing scholars to amplify, clarify and even correct previous understandings. Out of this expansion of spiritual insights emerged countless denominations and sects within all the major faiths.

The metaphor of stone tablets ignores the reality that every religion represents a living tradition, ever changing, ever growing. For religions to remain vital, spiritual practice must recognize changing times and adapt to each new generation’s capacities and needs.

Underlying these swirls of change, however, lie immutable principles — rules of decency, goodness and basic common sense — to which we all can agree. Despite our human history of violence and war, we possess the ability to dialogue, to compromise and to reach mutually acceptable rules for living.

“Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend…only those who are steadfast in patience, only those who are blessed with great righteousness, will attain to such goodness.” Sura 41:34-35

The shadow of fear now cloaks America. Some use fear to divide us, to set us against each other, and to maintain historic systems of oppression. America must strive for better. Our greatness does not lie in our wealth; the world does not respect us because of our power. America endures because its arms embrace the refugee, its blood pumps the beat of freedom and its eyes see a future of equal opportunity and equal reward for all dedicated to its principles. We must never look backwards for our greatness. America’s greatness lies in its future — a time during which all people will be treated with inherent worth and dignity.

Achieving this future will take a revolution of the mind, the heart and the body. In other words, America’s future depends on a spiritual awakening that respects all religious voices and rejects any notion of dogmatic truth. Joining together in unity and cooperation, our faith traditions can tear down the walls of separation and break the chains of conquest, manipulation and cultural invasion.

“There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice…” Sura 42:41-42

I am not a Muslim or a Christian. I am not a Jew, a Buddhist or a Hindu. But I find much of worth in each of these religions and in their writings. As such, I am to some degree a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Hindu. I am a Sikh, a Jain, a Taoist and a Confucian. I walk the path of Shinto, the Goddess, the Creator gods of all cultures and the Oversoul by all its names.

If our president-elect pursues the registry of Muslim Americans — an idea he repeatedly suggested during his campaign, and which his transition team continues to discuss — then I will be the first in line when the government officials come to Midland. I will stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters not simply because it is the just action. I will stand with my Muslim neighbors because I believe in what they believe and I love them as kindred souls.

By whatever name we use, each of us experiences transcending mystery and wonder during our lives. Regardless of our culture, each of us faces opportunities to renew our spirits and guide us on our path toward enlightenment. Our current national climate will test our resolve to love unconditionally, and it is up to each of us to rise to that challenge.

What Do I Do?

On the Saturday morning after the election, members of my congregation and others joined together to draw chalk love notes on the Jefferson Avenue sidewalk. A small gesture – one unlikely to impact Trump America much – but a meaningful effort for some.

As hundreds of cars and trucks drove by, I knew that people saw us. We made a public statement against the hate this election released. People feeling scared and vulnerable in the wake of hundreds of examples of bigotry and violent intimidation could see that some of us oppose this rhetoric of division.

Amidst the smiles and waves, however, one passing driver shattered the mood of solidarity. One cowardly shout of “F*** Black Lives!,” reminded me that our effort was not an art project; not an insignificant public service message supporting love and acceptance. With three words, a bully thoughtlessly yelling at children drawing with chalk reminded me that our actions were a doorway, an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes.

As a white person, I never feared the police. As a man, I never shook with terror as slavering eyes pawed my body with rage-filled lust. As a cisgender male, I never trembled while walking to my car followed by a gang of overgrown boys looking to prove their manliness. As a U.S. citizen, I never imagined the terror of uniformed men ripping me from the loving arms of my family and casting me into a windowless prison. Even as a non-Christian, I cannot suffer the venomous revulsion others feel toward Muslims and Jews.

I can only imagine, and will never really ‘know’ how these things feel. I can only know the sorrow, the helpless witness of a growing power structure that supports violence and discrimination against People of Color, women, LGTBQ, immigrants, and non-Christians in America. I brim with frustration that I cannot ‘fix’ my country. I bemoan my inability to cure this plague of white, male, straight, U.S. born, Christian privilege in my homeland.

In the wake of the election, incidents of unthinkable cruelty occurred in our schools, our workplaces, and our public spaces. Assaults, beatings, and people made to feel unspeakable terror at the hands of their neighbors. Even Midland did not escape unscathed from these expressions of intolerance. In response, some allies began wearing safety pins as a sign that they were a ‘safe’ person, someone who would stand with the victims unleashed by simple-minded demagoguery. We hoped that this small symbol would send a subtle, but powerful signal to our community that we will not tolerate verbal and physical abuse of marginalized peoples.

No sooner had this movement begun, however, when critics expressed doubts about its sincerity, about the true commitment of the pin wearers to commit when needed. After all, white people largely elected Donald Trump as President. Why should non-white people trust them to put themselves at risk?

So, what do I do? Do I wear a safety pin or not? I do not support the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia acting out on our national stage today. But I am one person. I am afraid, too. I do want to help; I just don’t know how.

You ask yourself questions. If I see a man berating a Muslim woman for wearing her hajib, will I stand by her and share the verbal attack? If I see children chanting “Build the Wall!” will I silence them and scold them for their insensitive attack? If I see a man grab a woman forcibly by her most private area, will I speak up and put my body between the two to protect her? I see a gang of homophobes beating a trans-person. Will I shout at them and come to the victim’s defense?

Until it happens, you cannot know the answers. Until faced with actual physical danger, you cannot know how you will react. There is nothing wrong with that. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct.

Self-preservation is a luxury of privilege
If you are white, you have the luxury of always trusting the police. If you are a man, you have the luxury of never fearing attacks by rapists. If you are heterosexual, you have the luxury of entering any business and knowing you will receive service. If you are a natural-born citizen, you have the luxury of sleeping each night knowing that you are safe from a government-sponsored home invasion. If you are Christian, you have the luxury of living in a country where your morals go unchallenged and your beliefs earn you protection.

The day following the election, November 9, commemorated the anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass. On this day in 1938, Nazi military and paramilitary forces, joined by citizens, destroyed or damaged 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, wrecked 1,000 synagogues, and killed hundreds of Jews. With rare exceptions, the German people uttered no protests. Few stood by the Jews and other targets of Nazi rage. The churches and universities stood mute. Judges acquiesced. Doctors and nurses complied. A nation watched as thugs kicked friends and neighbors to the street, rounded them up, and shipped them to concentration camps.

Protected status is a luxury of privilege
One by one, the government singled out groups: Jews; political opponents; gays and lesbians; emigrants; Romani; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and other “defilers.” The people responsible for electing their leader turned their backs, and others hid behind their privileges of religious belief, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and racial identification. Facing little opposition, the nation’s leaders began to change the rules of society. They normalized the abrogation of human rights and welcomed intimidation and violence as tools to enforce the new order.

I pray that history cannot repeat itself in America. But the rhetoric is there; hate groups roam emboldened; and our leadership possesses the raw arrogance to use the enormous power of this nation without concern for the very human consequences.

So what do we do? We refuse to accept these ideas as ‘normal.’ When someone threatens to hurt a minority group, believe them. Don’t rationalize, don’t intellectualize. Take them at their word…and resist. The enemy we face is not radical Muslim extremism. The enemy threatening our American way of life is radical American extremism. The precepts of radical American extremism teach that putting more wealth in the hands of the rich will improve the economy for all; that making white people feel more secure will improve everyone’s safety; that limiting the rights of women and gays reflects the will of God; and that building a wall will preserve the privileged status we earned merely by being born.

The American Dream is a luxury of privilege
Of course, you worked hard to get to where you are. But have others worked just as hard, even harder, and received fewer rewards? Why? Was your skin color a factor? Your gender identity or sexual orientation? Your citizenship status? Your religious beliefs? There is a reason the lead characters in Horatio Alger’s stories of the American Dream were all young white boys.

This election unleashed radical American extremism, freeing it from restrictions imposed by civilized behavior. Not surprisingly, white supremacists, Klansmen, and other hate mongers now rise and walk without shame, seeking to redefine our national strength as white strength, straight male strength, Christian strength, and ‘pure-blooded’ strength. This election affirmed one modern version of concentration camps – for-profit prisons selectively incarcerating generations of men of color and immigrants who simply followed the footsteps of our own ancestors who built this nation. Groundless fears of voter fraud fueled the passage of laws denying millions of citizens their right to take part in this election. How soon before our government requires that Muslims register and sew the Crescent on their clothes?

Wearing a safety pin sends the message that you considered all of this and still want to help. It means taking the stand we will not recognize discrimination and intolerance as American values. That means confronting bigots – some of whom may be friends or relatives – and making them feel marginalized for behaving in ways that do harm.

Wearing a safety pin shows your willingness to lean into your own discomfort. Read the works of marginalized peoples and explore your own feelings of fragility. Resist the urge to take offense and fight the decades of programming telling us that our way is the only right way.

Wearing a safety pin means putting your privilege of self-preservation, of protected status, and the American Dream on the table and accepting the outcomes. A safety pin is not a passive, colored ribbon of support. A safety pin is a promise – your promise to actively resist racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious hatred.

I make that promise gladly and proudly. I invite you to join me.

A Crisis of Leadership…and Faith

People of faith across Michigan find themselves wrestling with the ongoing revelations that state officials knowingly allowed the poisoning of the people of Flint without warning for more than a year. Every day, more information shows us that Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointees sacrificed the health and well-being of thousands of citizens recklessly, perhaps immorally. As we learn more, we must cope with our immediate response to the crisis while at the same time discerning its cause.

In his State of the State address last Tuesday, Gov. Snyder apologized and vowed to fix the problem. Rep. Gary Glenn told us to accept his apology and move on, a sentiment I share. We should forgive Gov. Snyder and those who reported directly to him responsible for this heinous act. We should not let our feelings of betrayal and outrage lead us to lash out against politicians who may have — somehow — believed they were serving the public interest.

We should release the anger we feel toward Gov. Snyder and his appointees so that the work of reconciliation can begin. As people of faith, however, forgiving Gov. Snyder does not mean that we will not seek justice for the people of Flint. Every child who drank the lead-contaminated water will live the rest of their lives suffering the effects of their poisoning. People made intentional decisions that exposed those children to vile pollution. And they must be held accountable.

The acts resulting in the destruction of the water supply of Flint and the ongoing exposure of its people to toxic, perhaps fatal chemicals, were a sin against every human moral belief system. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew, Atheist or Pagan, the decisions that allowed Flint’s children to be poisoned were unthinkable and evil. And justice demands that those responsible be held accountable for their actions according to the laws of our land.

Consider this comparison. You hire a trusted contractor to build a playground for your children. The contractor completes the task, but knowingly uses rotted wood and rusty nails without telling you. Eventually, the playground collapses, injuring your children permanently. The contractor apologizes and holds you in his prayers. Then he asks for your trust and assures you that he will fix the playground.

We cannot know the nature of eternal mysteries of creation and goodness in the universe. We cannot presume to understand what consequences Gov. Snyder’s actions will inflict on his soul. Therefore, we should leave moral punishments to the Spirit of Life and Love that we call by many names.

We can, however, determine to what extent he and others violated the law and deal with them as we would anyone accused of crimes. If the deaths due to Legionnaire’s Disease were attributable to decisions made by Gov. Snyder and his appointees, then they should be charged with those negligent homicides. Anyone complicit in the poisoning of children should be indicted for the appropriate crimes. And those involved in hiding or covering up knowledge of these actions should be held as co-conspirators. This is not “finger-pointing.” This is a call for justice and for the fair application of our laws to all, whatever their position in our society.

This investigation will also bring to light the many instances of corruption resulting from this governor’s application of the emergency manager law. We must examine its overtly racist application to cities with large minority populations, wherein citizens have been deprived of their democratically-elected representation. We must consider whether our state’s experiment with temporary totalitarianism has been a colossal failure and determine how our cities can survive sustainably in a 21st century environment.

Perhaps most important, as Rep. Glenn reminds us, we must “invest ourselves in finding solutions.” I could not agree more. So I call on you, Rep. Glenn, to take the lead on local relief efforts for our neighbors to the south. Perhaps you could negotiate with local businesses and corporations to provide regular truckloads of water at discounted rates to which we all could contribute. You could sponsor emergency legislation to bolster Flint’s public schools, medical services and civic infrastructure to begin their long path back to health. And, most important Mr. Glenn, show us your leadership by demanding a repeal of the emergency manager legislation and a comprehensive investigation into the actions of this governor and his appointees.

The opportunity for us to live the shared principles of our various faiths lies before us. We need leadership willing to let go of partisan loyalties and commit to the citizens of Michigan. And we need leaders with the courage to show us the way toward justice for the people of Flint.

(originally published January 24, 2016)

The Heartbroken and the Heartless

People of faith across mid-Michigan feel heartbroken over the plight facing refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes in Syria. Fortunately, many nations have responded with open arms to these victims of war. Germany, once the producer of refugees decades ago, has accepted tens of thousands of Syrians, displaying a vigorous national relief effort.

In the United States, however, fear too often overcomes compassion. Prospective candidates for the presidency spew the same kind of vicious venom that helped turn away Jews, condemning millions to Nazi concentration camps. The rhetoric has even progressed to the horrific level that led us to erect our own concentration camps to inter American citizens without just cause. Such flagrant ignorance runs counter to every religion teaching us to love our neighbor, to care for the homeless and hungry, and to free the oppressed.

And our own state representative contributed his personal xenophobia to a Japanese television news team. Shamelessly purporting to report the concerns of his constituents, Rep. Gary Glenn failed to acknowledge that many mid-Michiganders would welcome war refugees who are fleeing exactly the violence he presumes them capable of. Rep. Glenn has brought international shame to our region by revealing the same heartless bigotry toward desperate Syrians that he usually reserves for the members of the gay and transgender community.

In fact, Rep. Glenn’s fears are groundless. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely avenue of infiltration by foreign enemies bent on causing us harm.

Rep. Glenn also fails to realize that the true danger facing our citizens comes not from outside our nation, but from our own politicians. Imagine this scenario. An ISIS terrorist infiltrates our nation and poisons the water supply of a major city. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of residents is affected. Rather than killing, however, the poison instead causes an entire generation of children to suffer irreparable brain damage. The outcry would blow the roof off every government building. Our media outlets would talk of nothing else for weeks. People across the nation would call for the immediate execution of this terrorist.

And yet, that is exactly what has already happened right under our noses, and few of Michigan’s citizens even know about the attack. In a series of reckless, monstrous choices, Gov. Rick Snyder, his emergency manager and other appointees made decisions that destroyed the water infrastructure of Flint, resulting in catastrophic levels of lead poisoning of its citizens. In spite of governmental attempts to discredit them, only the diligent research of individuals uncovered this act of domestic terrorism for the world to see. Cover-ups are slowly coming to light, making it clear that high level government officials knew exactly what was happening, and that they did absolutely nothing to prevent it, or to warn the innocent citizens of Flint.

Just one hour away, thousands of families face the prospect of raising children whose lives have been shattered by the government they trusted to look out for their interests. People you might know, or work with, or go to school with have been affected. And now that they know their water is poisoned, there is little they can do until the damaged infrastructure is replaced. People lacking the resources to move away must bathe, wash clothes, and do other household chores in poisoned water. But Gary Glenn tells us to worry about women and children from Syria coming here to harm us.

Where is your concern for the people of Flint, Rep. Glenn, who did not need religious extremists to launch a heartless attack on their city? The violent assault on our families is happening right now on your doorstep, and the culprit is our own elected officials. If you care about these citizens at all, then you will demand a complete and thorough investigation of Gov. Snyder and his appointees responsible for this crisis.

In the meantime, keep your xenophobia to yourself and stop shaming us before the world audience. America is a nation of immigrants, most of whom came to this land in search of the same safety and freedom that Syrians want. Who are we to deny them the same opportunities our ancestors had? Instead of fear mongering, we should be welcoming these people to their new land and showing the world that compassion and understanding will always triumph over hate and violence.

(originally published January 17, 2016)

The Real War on Christmas

Every year, at about this time, pundits begin the mantra of The War on Christmas. Usually, these dire warnings cite non-Christians as the source of efforts to remove the meaning of the holiday from the public arena. And while I agree that the important and wonderful meanings of Christmas are in jeopardy of being forgotten, I would posit a different source for the conflict.

Early in November, I made an online payment to a department store of $25.00. Unknown to me, my new virus protection software had a tiny bug — when in protected mode, the decimal key on the numeric pad simply didn’t work. So my $25.00 payment went through as a $2,500.00 payment.

Of course, I immediately called my bank and was informed that the payment was already in transit and that I would have to contact the store for the refund. The first two layers of customer service people told me that it would take them 7-10 business days to review the overpayment and issue a refund. Finally, the third person connected me with a different office. This person told me that if the bank faxed information about my account on letterhead, that they could process the refund in less time.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. After several different customer service people with my bank, I found myself talking to a special resolution department in Kalamazoo. He told me that the bank could not send the information because their policies prohibit dissemination of routing and account numbers. Wonderful Catch 22.

More calls and I provided the bank representative with the direct phone number and the email of the store representative. For the following week, calls to both people went to voice mails and were unanswered. Trying again, I got to the fourth level of store management. Now more than two weeks into this nightmare, she told me that the funds were earmarked for release, but that it would now take 3-5 more business days to process the check through a third party vendor. Finally, seven business days later, the money arrived in my account.

So my payment happened at the speed of fiber optic cables in less than a day. The refund took 27 days for processing. Of course, in the meantime, our family finances were a wreck only made tolerable by an incredibly patient landlord. And my money was earning interest for some parent corporation while I faced overdraft fees.

So when you ask me who is behind The War on Christmas, I will tell you. We are. We are all responsible for this war because we tolerate the delusion of capitalism portrayed by the American economic system. We turn away desperate refugees fleeing conflicts from which our military-industrial complex has richly benefited. We demonize people with different notions of God, while coveting people who worship no god but an idol of gold.

Christmas in America was long ago perverted into a commercial travesty of greed and consumer gluttony. A holiday that should bring togetherness instead forces minimum wage employees to work on Thanksgiving while we watch football and overdose on turkey. A holiday that should be about joy instead induces anxiety and the relentless bombardment from businesses telling us what we need to be happy. A holiday that should celebrate the life of a babe and his teachings as a man is instead marked by more mass shootings, more poverty, more bigotry, and more overt discrimination in our supposedly great nation.

Those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation need to wake up. Atheists are not your enemy. Muslims are not your enemy. LGBT people are not your enemy. Your enemy is your own hypocrisy, your own embracing of the privilege afforded you by the accident of your birth to benefit from inherited wealth, skin color and other advantages. Your enemy is your own corporate institutions that put profits before people, and the welfare of the few over the good of society.

Do you want to defeat the forces waging War on Christmas? Then practice the teachings of the man believed born on this day. Help the homeless, feed the starving and clothe the naked. Do this without expectation of benefit in return, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Fight oppression of minorities, women, gays and lesbians, veterans and others suffering from intolerance and mistreatment by an economic system with no incentives for activities that do not produce increased stock prices. And teach your children that this day is about giving, not about receiving.

But most of all, tear up your credit cards. Instead of greeting cards, write letters. Instead of gifts, give your time and attention. Don’t be led like sheep by chain department stores, consumer manufacturers and banks. Remember the true meanings of Christmas — love your neighbors, bring peace to the Earth, and join together in common purpose to make the world a better place.

(originally published December 6, 2015)