A Request for Prayerful Attentiveness: Missile Launching, Tax Shifting, & the “Big Lookaway”

I’m making a request for you to join me in prayer. I realize, as well, that some of you reading this request do not live in the US, but, more often than not, you are much more keenly aware of American politics than most Americans.  So, in advance, thank you for your intercession, above and beyond what I’m about to write here.

As many of you already know, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka, North Korea, launched a ballistic missile as a test on Tuesday (11/28/2017). Observers from around the world concluded that this test launch confirmed that such a missile could strike the US.

Meanwhile, the Congress of the US continues preparations for a tax reform bill. As some Americans understand, this reform will shift the tax burden away from corporations and on to most of middle-class Americans. A few highlights, or lowlights…:

  • Corporations will receive a decrease in tax from 35% down to 25%.
  • Homeowners will only receive a tax deduction on their mortgage interest for notes up to $500,000.
  • Graduate students will be taxed not only for their income (usually minimum wage work for serving as TA’s), but also for their scholarships/fellowships, any other stipends, and health care benefits. This change in taxes will amount to a 400% increase.
  • Low income mothers with young children will have to pay more to receive less coverage for health care.

These elements are well known, and I’ll leave it up to you to Google those various elements. This tax reform (or “shift”, as one friend put it) has gathered much attention, as it will cripple many households in states like California and New York, where the cost of living is higher, and, thus, mortgages routinely go over $500k; it also poses a direct public health threat to women/mothers of color and their children, as they are typically the largest number of women who benefit from tax breaks for health care; and, finally, the number of graduate students leaving PhD programs because of the financial burden of tax shifting will skyrocket: thus, cutting off original, pure research, which often resources business, health care, education, military, and the government.

But, the above is not why I’m asking you to pray. Rather, it is that intersection of both the DPRK’s test launch and the tax reform/shift bill that I would ask you to pray about. Put another way, this intersection invites us to “lookaway”: if you attend to the response/reaction of 45 to the missile launch, no one keeps their attention to the progress of the tax bill. If you watch the progress of the tax bill, you might not observe how the US military (and those of other nations) organize themselves to engage North Korea. If we lookaway, we might miss how forces that aim to harm and destroy get to advance. It’s a weird intersection, and it’s one that I pray the Lord will peacefully resolve.

So, pray to the Lord of the harvest: yes, for more workers. The need to gather peacemakers, men and women who will interact and collaborate under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and with the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit remains unfulfilled. Pray that we we can remain awake and attentive to powers that aim to harm and not heal. Watch and pray: thanks.

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Grief On Display and For Manipulation

I can have some aims in a post like this that can go awry, and so, knowing that in advance, for you and for me, might help in both truth-telling and in acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice that some make that people like myself can live in relative security and comfort.

For the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, and the family of 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, the words of comfort cannot replace the wonderful, joyful, and courageous lives of your son and husband. Clearly, they committed themselves to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” in ways that few citizens of this nation will ever know, and even among their colleagues, that commitment extended to an honorable end. The sadness that you feel, I pray to the Lord, will be accompanied by the enormous sense of pride, the exchange of love, and the recall of fond memories of life together.

For the rest of us reading here, however, we need to pause. In a brief time— what?— 14+ days, 4 Army soldiers were ambushed in Niger (“nee-zh-air”, not “ny-ger”). While the specifics of who attacked them and why they would be ambushed remain clouded, what is transparent is the remarkable silence of the POTUS. Not until confronted by the media, did he immediately swivel and talk about Obama. This lead to an admittedly controversial phone call, one that was on speakerphone, and we learn that the POTUS did not use the name and rank of the deceased Sgt. La David Johnson, and apparently claimed that “he knew what he signed up for.” The widow, a mother of two and currently pregnant with a 3rd child, and Sgt. Johnson’s mother were aghast and further agonized. Suffice it to say, we continue to observe here that, in what might have been a private call (hardly secret), this episode of attempted condolence discloses that 45 still has all of the empathy of a sidewalk.

Enter the POTUS Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. Yesterday (10/19/2017), Kelly came to the podium of a media briefing, using both his office, and his agonizing experience as a parent of a deceased military officer, to defend the POTUS, and to excoriate the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla): who was also present when the POTUS called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Listening to Kelly’s briefing was just horrible: no parent should have to disclose this kind of detail to the media. Thankfully, those in the audience had the decorum and smarts to both carefully address the CoS with questions that left behind the loss of his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, and focus on the most important question of all, and one that General Kelly completely dodged:

Why is the US Army in Niger?

It is worth acknowledging that at least we still live in a nation in which freedom of speech extends to the media. For those who have never travelled to other nations in which media reporting gets filtered and crafted to only allow for specific messages and thought to be publicly circulated, the banality and tedium of such “journalism” cannot be overstated. Having moved throughout China in the early 1980’s, reading the English paper, China Daily, I finally had to stop reading it after a few days: the template used for each article simply reproduced how great the government is/was, and how worthy any sacrifice made for “the people” can be. You can only read about agricultural-output goals fulfilled province-by-province so many times before you just close the paper.

So, when we see General Kelly defend the POTUS for his clumsy, unprepared efforts at comforting the widow of and the mother of Sgt. La David Johnson, we should all pause at this moment. I won’t try to imagine the emotional energy required by General Kelly to expose his grief before the media: my son is alive. But, not unlike the China Daily, we receive from the White House a careful, defensive, media message: “Don’t ask about Niger.” Kelly completely dodged the question. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of communication, in parallel with the comments of POTUS regarding Obama’s lack of offering condolences to grieving families of military personnel (completely false), represents political diversion of the most insidious kind. This grief on display represents the worst kind of political manipulation.

So, please, especially if you think of yourself as Christian, pray. Pray for peace. Pray for truth-telling. Pray for sane journalism: to continue, and to be wise about the questions raised and the topics considered. Pray for renewal from the Holy Spirit. None of the Christian community can possibly sustain awareness of this kind of destructive governing without the promised, indwelling Spirit: Nor can we merely stay on the sidelines, claiming “soul care”, while political decisions continue to be made in the shadows that result in people losing their lives. Indeed, any soul care we participate in deserves to include prayers and the reading of Scripture so that we can both fruitfully participate in the Kingdom of God locally and globally, and resist those powers—in love— that attempt to rival the salvation offered us in Jesus Christ.

When Respectability is more important than the Gospel

I’ll just leave this right here. Stuff like this doesn’t get as much airtime, but it should.  #notnormal

“You know Richard,” the fellow attendee said, “I have been coming here for three decades, and I no longer feel like the redheaded stepchild at the family reunion or the company picnic. I feel like a respected colleague and guest.”

Where Trump’s Hands-Off Approach to Governing Does Not Apply

#DACA, Truth-Telling, & Ethnic Cleansing: A unique season for spiritual formation

An acquaintance of mine made the following observation: The OT (for that matter, some of the NT) persisted in reminding the Israelites of the Exodus. The whole point was to get their attention upon YHWH, his great call to covenant, and his graciousness in bringing liberation from Egypt. The status of the people of God included a description of them as immigrants, sojourners, and a people in transit from a political environment of oppression to a development of a community that thrives in “a land of milk and honey.” (Ex. 3:8) This community is further enjoined to welcome other immigrants who will likely be ethnically different and host a variety of religious commitments. (Lev. 19:33-34).

Notice: the attention here is upon YHWH, and his aim for liberation of all peoples. This, of course, is a subset of his larger mission to heal, renew, and glory in his creation. This reminder goes throughout the OT. In contrast, the OT doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on creation, or whether that text describing a remarkable, beautiful, one-off event occurred over a 7-day period or intended to narrate the majesty and power of YHWH. There is not a lot of time spent determining whether one should get saved, and then work out the implications of the lordship of YWHW. No: the attention is not on me. Or you. The reminder indicates that the people of God should pay attention, remember, and trust in their God, the one who initiated, empowered, and fulfilled the Exodus. That’s the truth of the matter. Few people would disagree, and I want to make room for those who demur: but the burden is upon them to demonstrate otherwise. The bulk of the OT continually calls Israel to remember YHWH in the Exodus event.

Today, we learned by way of the spokesman, AG Jeff (“I did not meet with the Russians”) Sessions, and the spokeswoman, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that the President—who was elected by the Electoral College vote— would no longer uphold and sustain DACA. Often, even frequently, when we hear words coming out of the mouths of those who serve the President, we doubt the veracity of those statements. Today, however, we have good reason to believe that these words have action. But, we have the following to trust this egregious use of executive power, and not necessarily because of campaign promises. Please consider the following.

On 8/12, following a horrific display of vitriol and violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, the President affirmed these people and their racist hatred with a simple inclusion of “many sides, many sides.”

On 8/25, while the mother of all storms hammered the Texas Gulf Coast, the President pardoned a known violent criminal with a publicly explicit commitment to racism, cruelty toward immigrants, indifference to sexual assault, and the torture of incarcerated persons in jail: the former Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

And, today, 9/5, the President (only through a victory by the Electoral College) rescinded DACA: which affects 800,000 persons who were under the age of 31 in 2012, along with a list of other qualifying items. These are men and women who have lived peacefully, harmoniously, and socially-productive all of their lives in the US. A remarkably minuscule fraction of these people have ethnic/racial status as “white” persons.

In a span of 24 days, the President (by virtue of the process of the Electoral College) has revealed his contempt, antipathy, and revulsion for people who are not white. His words, even by way of his messengers, have action: and that action aims to eradicate non-white people from the US: it’s called ethnic cleansing. There can be no equivocation here.

So, there is truth-telling. As Charles M. Blow observed yesterday,

“There a strong impulse, I believe, in each of us struggling against fatigue, to register the pattern and manage expectations. We begin to build into our processing of politics the caveat: Yes, the “president” lies. That’s not new. That’s just what he does.

But we must resist that impulse. It makes normal, or at least rational, something that is neither normal nor rational.”

How does one resist? Blow makes a great observation: In our fatigue, we normalize lying by the executive. But, over the last 24 days, we cannot look away or presume that his utterances do not communicate truth: Resistance to this racist program must be done, and it will take remarkable personal energy to see it through. So: How does one resist? I propose the following question needs inclusion to get at that previous question.

Make no mistake, Christian people, we are continually being spiritually formed. The question, if I may ask, is: “What spirit is forming us?” If there are any people who need to routinely, avidly, and energetically traffic in truth and truth-telling, it must be us. To do so summons us to consider: by what Spirit will we engage in this truth-telling task that resists: ethnic cleansing, lying, and the disregard for the humanity of people no matter what their ethnicity or religious commitments?

I am among you: I get blessedly tired at the end of each day from the sheer volume of lies, cravenness, and cruelty issuing from the White House. I know you do, too. Join me in paying attention to, remembering, and trusting the God of the Exodus who has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, who loves us and has promised and sent his Holy Spirit upon the ascension of the Son of God. That truth, that YHWH has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, will endure, energize, and prepare us for sustained truth-telling and resistance to the powers of ethnic cleansing.

Finally, this process of attentiveness in spiritual formation is not and cannot be one in which we get up to the mountaintop and then come down and do the business of resistance. (Although I certainly observe the merits of such.) Rather, so much of this spiritual formation will happen, on the ground, in collaboration, and in the groundswell of people practicing truth-telling to the President. Our spiritual formation will be and must be gathered up with the very people that the President intends to exclude from the US.

Post-Women’s March Questions: And I’m troubled

So, I’ve kept myself involved with aging parents since early last week, and tried to observe from social media all of the events of the presidential transition. Then, the following day was a remarkable movement across the world: the Women’s March. Both events, from what I can discern, had unique elements.

Today, I read different versions of both events, and I started thinking about how weird some of the descriptions were. And, while driving around fetching this and that for my parents, I started reflecting on myself and the people who made the remarks: and I was troubled.

So, I’m going to post some questions that will come from “both sides,” because I realized that I’ve got some commitments and opinions that might deserve some walk-back, as well as walk-forward. (If that is a thing.)

First, I spotted a comment made by a former I-Student from the ministry: “This week they march for their own ‘rights’ over the unborn . Next week, braver women will march for the rights of the unborn over our own ‘rights’.” I thought, “Wow.” That’s it?  This alumnus of our ministry concluded that that was all the Women’s March was about? How was that possible? And: How did he learn about the status of the courage of one group of women contrasted with another? Is it that a smaller, numerical group will be afforded a comparative of “braver” when held up against a protest that literally spanned the globe? These questions are real ones, and I’m not asking these as some kind of rhetorical exercise to beat down an alumnus that I love and whose friendship I enjoy.

In a related note, Fr. Dwight Longenecker came to a similar conclusion. Here again, my thinking moved the dial a little more, in that it occurred to me: that Longenecker, as a former evangelical now Catholic priest (with a foray as an Anglican priest), demonstrated what you and I now know to be true: 99% of all pastors understand nothing about social theory, and even less about social change. I felt embarrassed by his blathering. He won’t be embarrassed, but, grace abounds Fr. Longenecker. Why did these two men make the Women’s March out to be all about and only about pro-choice and resistance to those who are pro-life? What I discovered is that they were not alone in coming to this conclusion.

Here’s another question that popped into my head as I was running errands for my parents: So, if this Women’s March was all about protesting threats to women’s rights, abortion rights, the right to have some self-determination regarding one’s physical status in a social environment, they did not need to protest, right? Right now, the law is totally on their side: the side of women. But, here’s the weird thing.

Some of the people (not the alumnus and not Fr. Longenecker) think the PEOTUS (He’s just the elected president by way of the Electoral College, right?) is just awesome stuff. Yet, the juxtaposition of a totally vulnerable child to an abortion with a reality TV actor telling someone that you can grab a woman’s genitals—exactly where a totally vulnerable child finds egress from the mother’s womb—strikes me as peculiar to the extreme: Here is a man who thinks violence to the very topography of a woman’s genitalia where a baby will enter the world can be a source of pleasure and gratification for himself also believes that US citizens should trust his judgment regarding the laws over the same woman’s body, including that baby.

This is a weird thing, no?

But, let me swing over to another question, for my friends who champion women’s rights, and likely participated in the Women’s March: somewhere on our planet…

There were reports of the pro-life movement receiving acceptance, then rejection, from the Washington D.C. organizers. One feminist wrote on her perspective. It made me really struggle at this very point. At first, I thought: “Come on! Can you really believe that you would’ve been welcomed?”

But, the next thought troubled me: deeply. For as we all know, this nation, this polis, is deeply divided. Duh. Yet, without any essentializing here at all, I found myself just baffled at how the Women’s March could reject any woman who shared all of the organizers’ indignation and outrage, as well as the calls for justice: save one matter.

I’m hardly suggesting this is easy or that the divide should simply be swept under the rug. Obviously, I have a far-too-limited understanding of the pro-choice movement. However, at the very moment of coming together, in outrage, the politics of exclusion held sway. The organizers of the Women’s March could have said: “We don’t have to agree about everything, but if you’re a woman, you have some long and deep say-so about your body, and your self-determination.” There are claims that with Planned Parenthood as one of the financial sponsors of the D.C. event, there was no way that any pro-life movement would be included in the march. Even so: It was a missed opportunity, sure, but it was also indicative of how polarized the divide is among those organizing the divide.

I’m going to leave you with a link to a speech by Robert Reich, made during Occupy Cal.

“Some of you may feel a little bit — what are we doing here? What exactly is our goal? I urge you, I urge you to be patient with yourselves, because with regard to every social movement of the last half-century or more, it started with a sense of moral outrage.”

I recall watching this on a live video feed, and thinking, “It’s on.” Because, some people are making claims that the Women’s March was just a one-off event. Hardly. Read Reich’s speech, and let it simmer for awhile, and let me know if you come to the same conclusion: It’s on.

Your questions? Please post them to Facebook. Thanks.

Link to Robert Reich’s speech at Occupy Cal.

Happy 124th Birthday, Martin Niemöller!

OK: One day early! Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor during the time of the Nazis, and initially, he was a supporter of Hitler. Later, he awoke to the horrors of the Nazis, and he began to align himself with the Confessing Church. Apart from his well-known quote, he was going along as faithful German pastor, and remained largely indifferent to politics. The war and the extreme violence toward Jews and other non-Aryan peoples confronted the quietism of many Lutherans like Niemöller.

As he awoke, he observed the various groups of people being selected by the Nazi for “removal,” and finally, having moved theologically and politically to resisting the state control of German churches, the Nazis came for him, and he was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1937 to 1945. His personal move also included becoming a pacifist. He went to be with the Lord in 1992.

Below is his famous quote.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

2017 is starting out just… epic… #not normal

So, in the last 48 hours, I’ve had remarkably encouraging and remarkably disappointing experiences.

First, I attended a challenging and brilliant lecture given by Kirsteen Kim of Leeds Trinity University. Some background regarding the challenge and brilliance of the lecture.

For those unfamiliar, a significant amount of my ministry with InterVarsity involved international student ministry at Fresno State and Rice University. Of the many facets in this cross-cultural ministry, one involved the training and mentoring of American Christians. Often, these devout followers of Jesus were completely unaware of how much of their theological commitments represented the American dream. Yet, one could hardly fault them for their readiness to host and welcome low-English speakers into their homes week after week, befriending I-students, and including them in their lives in ways that demonstrate a generosity and sincerity that cannot be explained as other than a genuine commitment to Jesus.

Kim recognized that often we in the West perceive hospitality as mission. How easy it is to welcome the stranger into our home for a meal and care for them: such behavior and attitudes represent a significant practice throughout the Christian tradition. We care for and seek the welfare, best interests, and offer our love to the guest.

Similarly, migration receives a strong perception as mission. As Jehu Hanciles asserts the consensus perspective, “Every migrant a potential missionary.” And, there is much to support this viewpoint. The sheer volume of migrants from the southern hemisphere who hold the Christian faith deserves better attention from the western church. Moreover, such followers of Jesus merely assume that the proclamation of one’s faith still has validity wherever they may find themselves in the world. Kim did a great job of explaining this phenomenon.

But, she took this a step further. The tricky part involves a pair of pairs that give evidence of cultural commitments that inadvertently displace the gospel. Take the last perspective: The prevailing assumption of myself and my colleagues involves that our students know their culture best. Kim confronts this: How can we demonstrate this? Only by asking questions? Not a bad start, but we cannot confirm that any migrant intends to reproduce or “bring with them” all of their culture with themselves to their new home and relationships. Some may have a variation in how and what they disclose of their faith commitment. My critical realist heart swooned.

But, she took all of this into another pair: Often we perceive hospitality as a binary: the host and the guest. As you might guess, Kim exposed how peoples from the west can preserve unequal power differentials. I observed this all the time in my interactions with Americans with the best of intentions. They deftly kept the I-students from making their own theological conclusions in reading the Bible, settling for “teaching the truth of the Bible.”

Kim proposed a different way of identifying ourselves: what if the Christian also perceived themselves, theologically, as a sojourner? One could look to Abraham, or the early life of Israel, and the early church found in Acts. This proposal for identity allows for a mutuality of learning and serving together, each person, instead of host and guest, contributing to the flourishing of the other and the created order. Furthermore, such a response to grace positions one toward the Holy Spirit in ways that allow for empowerment, healing, and local movements of mission that occur through life in proximity to one’s neighbor.

Suffice it to say, I was deeply moved by this robust description of Christian identity and mission. Kim’s presentation deserves publication, and I hope that happens soon. One of the adjacent ideas that sprouted during her presentation regarded the development of self-awareness of one’s powers. More often than not, most of my white friends have no clue as to their privilege. Merely telling them that they can enter a room, an office, a grocery store: and no one will question their location or their intent, simply bounces off of them. It’s not as though they’ve ever had to consider the question—literally— in their lives.

This matter of self-awareness of one’s powers really benefits from the long game, as it’s rarely the case that anyone can flip the switch and know how much power they possess as a function of their ethnic identity, especially if they are white. Put another way: one of my colleagues in smaller group settings of students will ask aloud, “What’s it like to be white?” Without fail—I’ve observed this several times—the white students will begin a nervous laugh, and then fall into embarrassment. Why? Often, as I later hear, such white students discover the answer to the question involves a scandalous reply: It’s normal. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s my way. They may not utter the answer right away, but they instantly realize the power and privilege that inhere their social location as a function of their dominant ethnicity. Remarkably, when the silence to my colleague’s question has lingered long enough to become awkward, he turns to a Black or Latin/x or Asian student, and asks if they can answer the question. Boom. They already know the answer, and articulate the sense of privilege that white students possess with easily accessible narratives that happened: even the same day, right before the event.

Friends: That just begins to account for ethnicity, this need to develop our self-awareness of power. I haven’t touched gender, or socio-economic status. Or even political identity, i.e., citizenship.

Returning to my historical observation above, through Bible reading and an explicit attentiveness to how one moves through the West as a function of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, I began to imagine the Holy Spirit might generate painful but fruitful ways to prune back our western privilege from life as “hosts.” Such identities have a unique way of sustaining privilege, but a relocated identity in Christ as a sojourning follower of Jesus allows for one to receive the power from the Holy Spirit to set aside that culturally and socially conferred advantage. Again, Kim’s lecture was excellent, and if I catch that it gets published, I’ll link to here.

However, following the lecture, I learned of power employed to suppress and to threaten: all coming from, unfortunately, from Christians. Following the Kim lecture, I observed some paternalistic comments made about women in the academy that made me pause. The comments occurred in the flow of a public meeting, and I wondered, “How do people get away with these statements?” Then, I received an earful from some of my female colleagues who also heard the comments, and I realized that those comments landed with so much more offensive power than I had realized. I imagine I have an upcoming conversation with at least one of the offenders in the near future about such egregious statements; it won’t be easy (see preceding conversation about power differentials and “hosts”) but I’m sure it needs to happen: because too much of Christian leadership these days really relies upon social location instead of pneumatology.

Also, even within InterVarsity, I observed some remarkable uses of power in the last 48 hours that made me wonder about the ongoing decay of western evangelicalism. One colleague has received…how shall I say this?…ominous prospects of termination. Others find that the absence of many of our colleagues at our triennial national staff conference is, of course, due to their disagreement with either the new theological statement on human sexuality and the roll-out of the employment policy related to the statement: and we miss their presence and ministry.

Adjacent to the statement and the new policy stand Black colleagues and friends on InterVarsity staff, for whom the presence of Michelle Higgins and her dynamic message at Urbana signaled a new day for InterVarsity: and this remains an unfulfilled symbol for them and their students. The palpable sense of anger and disappointment emerges from a displacement of the movement of the Holy Spirit at Urbana to attend to the roll-out of the new policy. The levels of trust continue to lower, and morale proceeds to descend among staff of color who wonder if the movement to preach Christ crucified for our sins and to call for justice will ever received the same kind of energies and funding that the statement and the new policy received.

The serendipitous lecture of Kim still rings in my ears and in my heart: the sojourner as Christian identity, and for mission.

So, 2017 has started, and much of it is the same as 2016: epic, in its peculiar inattentiveness to personal power and privilege. But it is not normal.