Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Incarnation and Social Change

"Thus it is rightly and truly said: God is born, was nursed or suckled, lay in the crib, felt cold, walked, stood, fell, wandered, ate, drank, suffered, died, etc.
- Martin Luther, Tischreden, VI:68, 18-40)

It is very nearly Christmas, a holiday that is quite dear to me. Not only is it a time that brings back warm memories of childhood traditions with my family in the hills of Pennsylvania, but Christmas is also a time in which I reflect on the incredible, even ineffable, nature of God's incarnation as Jesus Christ.

Which makes me think about organizing for social change. Doesn't it do the same for you?

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is an organizer at a workers' center, and after a while the subject of the Communist Party USA and the Industrial Workers of the World came up. I don't remember exactly how this subject came, but such topics are not unusual in my conversations. We both agreed that in general that we supported similar stances as the radical organizations do, but they are not viable vehicles for social change any more. Specifically talking about the IWW, or better known as the Wobblies, my friend sighed and said that the focus on the general strike as an all-encompassing strategy to bring the capitalist class to its knees just doesn't organize workers. Workers will only strike as a last resort because working is what puts food on the table, not striking.

It's a basic failure to identify with their sisters and brothers, which brings me back to the concept of incarnation.

One of the reasons that people are so moved by the gospel of Jesus Christ is that he was so human. He got angry, got sad, got hungry, and was just generally human. It is one thing to fear one is so unlike yourself--the "numinous" of Rudolf Otto--but it is something else to follow in the footsteps of that one. We may sing praises to the one we do not and cannot identify with, but we strive to emulate the nature of the one who like us in nature. Christ himself is what makes possible the fulfillment of his command to "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). That is why Christ is Emmanuel, God With Us.

I am convinced that if we want to change the world, to make the world more like the kingdom of God, then this is the philosophy that we should live and organize by: we must understand intimately the concerns of those people around us whom we wish to draw into the kingdom of God. We must become like them. We cannot stand on pedestals and proclaim the gospel of Marxist ideology and expect the masses to sacrifice themselves for the grand utopia. People only become martyrs because the kingdom of God has already been born in them; the incarnation is already within them.

Maybe this is why Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions if he truly wanted to enter the  kingdom of God. And certainly this is why Jesus said that entering the kingdom of heaven is impossible for people, but with God, all things are possible. 

So in this season so close to Christmas, let us lay us aside our ideologies and principles. It is the season of incarnation. If we want to imitate the nativity, instead of extravagant pageants, let us live as the poor, the undocumented, and the marginalized live. Let us not only marvel at the little baby in the feeding trough, but let us live as if our own newborn slept that way. Perhaps then we would not be so quick to pay our debts by selling our little ones into slavery. And perhaps then the masses would indeed cast off their chains.

I can think of no better Christmas story.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Migrant Truth

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
-          Lev. 19:33-24

My pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity often repeats what makes a story true, especially one in scripture, is not that it happened once a long a time ago but that it happens over and over and over again, even today.

I wish that weren’t so true about the migrant narrative of the Christmas story.

On Tuesday night I attended a vigil at the Chicago Temple, which is home to First United Methodist Church and is situated just across from City Hall, the courthouse, and a few blocks away from the federal building. I settled into my seat in the small chapel on the second floor, and then a man shared his story.

A true story.

Charles Bayo was born in the Belgian Congo, now officially called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He moved out of the country of his birth when the nation gained its independence, and hasn’t really stopped moving since. Charles lived in Belgium until the authorities told him to move out because he was a colonial and not a Belgian citizen. Eventually he settled in Chicago where he had his own landscaping business. Then ICE knocked on the door.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in charge of carrying out the United States’ very flawed immigration laws, and they certainly catch hell from all sides. However, the way that various enforcement agencies treated Charles is inexcusable. He was held in a county prison for a month, and then he was held in a detention center for people caught in the immigration system. He repeated how he wasn’t allowed to go outside for six months. He was treated as a common prisoner, although no one could ever truly land on what it was that he did wrong.

That is a true story, and not just because it happened this past year.

The Hebrew scriptures speak repeatedly of the chosen people of God as strangers and wanderers. Memory of this migrant experience was codified in the Mosaic Law. And later, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, once again the Hebrews, now called Jews, dispersed throughout the known world, from Babylon to various nations of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Christmas story, too, is a migrant’s story. According to the Gospel of Luke, the authorities in far away Rome decided that everyone needed to go their ancestral home for an imperial census. Thus the Prince of Peace was born in a stable, far away from the family and community that would normally care for a birth. The story from Matthew’s perspective is even more troubling: Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus had to flee their home to escape certain death at the hands of Herod the Great, a regional powerbroker known for his construction projects and his Machiavellian power lust.

These are true stories.

Around the country and around the world events similar to the one that I attended on Tuesday occurred in order to express our grief at how our governments and our societies treat the marginalized and displaced folks in our communities. In our contemporary, secular American culture, Christmas at its purest form is a time for family and friends to appreciate and love one another. The manner in which immigrants are treated in our country violates even this watered-down version of Christmas.

However, Christmas, in its deepest sense, is a celebration of incarnation, of Emmanuel, in our very, very messed up world. God in her most transcendent, ineffable form became human and then suffered as we suffered. Jesus was born smelling of manure, and then he couldn’t even stay there. But that is what is means to be human for a staggering number of people in our world.

Due to war. Due to disease. Due to famine. Due to greed. Due to the worship of mammon.
It’s a true story, not only because it happened once a long time ago, but because it happens over and over and over again, even today. Even to your neighbors. Even to you and me.

Join with me and celebrate Truth this Christmas.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Just Jobs

I have a friend named Bob. I know him primarily from the worship band at First Trinity Lutheran where I go to church, and all of us that play with Bob on Sundays will quickly admit that he's the glue that keeps the band together. Bob also plays sousaphone at various protests in Chicagoland with his anarchist marching band, and he organizes concerts at the church's community for the nicest punks you could ever hope to meet. On a personal level, I know Bob as a guy who just plain cares for people. That point was driven home when he stayed all night at Grant Park and then the police station on 18th and State until I came out with fellow Chicago Occupiers early in the morning.

 And Bob is officially unemployed.

At this point there shouldn't be any shame at that fact when so many millions of Americans are in the same boat. While Department of Labor statistics showed that the unemployment rate went under 9 percent for the first time in few years, the announcement was accompanied with the clarification that unemployment was down because so many people have officially stopped looking for jobs. Whether young people just entering the job market or overqualified veterans who fetch salaries that companies are looking to shed, the workers of the United States are in the middle of the toughest times since at least when my parents were getting their undergraduate degrees, and perhaps not since my grandparents were growing up.

With the incredible advances of technology in the second half of the 20th century and the deregulation of global trade, the United States has lost the manufacturing jobs that gave us the mid-century economic boom. We now have a service-based economy, and only 8% of private-sector jobs come with the protection of labor unions. Global capital moves as quickly as a high-speed internet connection, and a missed keystroke can mean a drop of nearly a thousand points in markets.

All that is to say that we live in very unstable times.

That was why a year ago Interfaith Worker Justice, the organization I work for as a 2-year missionary and organizer, started the Faith Advocates for Jobs campaign. The campaign has three basic goals: create a national network of faith communities that directly serve unemployed workers, use that network to advocate for public policies that assist the unemployed, and develop a speakers' bureau that can educate the public about the jobs crisis in the United States. I have personally been helping to organize Chicago faith communities to serve, advocate for, and minister with unemployed workers in and around the City of Big Shoulders. As I've worked, I've found just how daunting the task is.

On the South Side of Chicago where I live, the unemployment crisis is especially crushing. So many former factories and warehouses stand empty, eerily reminding us of a not-quite-forgotten past. In my neighborhood, the most stable jobs used to be city jobs, but as companies kept moving their business further and further away from Chicago, the tax revenue dried up. And let's face it--Chicago, the Windy City, isn't exactly known for dealing with money in a fair way to begin with.

Which brings me back to my friend, Bob. He was a music teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system, but he was laid off along with hundreds of other teachers. I saw what Bob can do with kids and instruments and the most minimal of resources. They had an amazing concert back in August. All I could think as I watched and listened to these kids from the West Side was, "how the hell does CPS  not have a place for this man?"

Friends, we, as citizens of this country, must ask that same question of our entire nation. How is it that we don't have jobs for so many of our neighbors? We must re-evaluate our current government policies. What are our tax-dollars doing? Are we funding infrastructure projects, or funding both sides of the war in Afghanistan? Are we promoting nutrition and health through local education programs and grocery stores, or are we helping agribusiness to flood foreign markets with unimaginably cheap grains? And can it be a just a strange coincidence that as we have deregulated  trade, income inequality has sky-rocketed?

As we come to grips with the answers to these questions, consider these actions. First, check out and join Faith Advocates for Jobs. Next, call or visit your congressperson, and tell them to extend unemployment benefits. You can find out who your congressperson is by following this link. Lastly, pray, preferably with other people, for guidance and strength, especially during the Advent season, which is both liturgically and realistically a season of stress and anxiety.

My friend, Bob, has said that he doesn't really like talking about unemployment because he doesn't enjoy receiving people's sympathy. And he doesn't consider himself a music teacher; he's a music enabler. Bob still looks to help other people, even when times are tough.

We can all learn a lot from Bob, and it's just not just about music.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent, Anticipation and Eschatology

Advent is an anticipatory season. I remember when I grew up in central Pennsylvania us little tykes would ceremoniously hang greens on the pews shortly after Thanksgiving, sing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", and hear the pastor read from the book of Isaiah. My family would gather around a homemade advent wreath of freshly clipped pine boughs and sing Christmas carols, each of our favorites. We opened the little doors on our advent calendars, one every day.

But as my theological knowledge has deepened, especially since attending a Lutheran church, I've learned that advent is also an eschatological season. That means we are anticipating the end of days--the apocalypse. Following the Common Lectionary, we read passages from Matthew 25 and 26 and similar passages from other gospels where Jesus exhorts his disciples to stay awake and watchful. After all, the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Well, that's weird to talk about during Christmas season.

However, I've realized that in anticipating the Christ Child, we also anticipate Incarnation in general. We are anticipating the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Thus, when we celebrate the birth of Christ, we celebrate the birth of Christ within each of us. We remember our baptism, our confirmation, and other important events in our spiritual lives. We also remember the coming of Christ in in the communal sense, remembering Pentecost and other such holy days.

It is the eternal already-but-not-yet of Christ. And this got me thinking.

Recently I was talking with another young community organizer, and as often happens, we strayed away from the campaign and started talking about spirituality and life in general. Eventually she asked, "what would you do if the world actually was without injustice?" I laughed because I thought she was being ironic, but she was quite serious. My friend added that she thought it was very important for people involved in activism to imagine what the world would be like without the causes that we devote our lives to eliminate--and how we would fit into that world.


And that is really what we do during advent. Not only do we anticipate the Christ Child but we also anticipate the end of injustice and heartache. Walter Brueggemann would call this anticipation the prophetic consciousness. We dance and sing and play every kind of musical instrument. We paint pictures and make sculptures. We tell stories on stages and around campfires and at the dinner table. We run up and down hills and climb tall trees and swim in rivers, lakes, and oceans. We do all of these things because we are free to live and love in the beautiful creation that we are still creating with our God who is both transcendent in heaven and immanent on earth.

I have to admit that I struggled with my friend's question, but eventually I answered that I would still become a pastor because I still find my greatest joy in helping others to experience God. That is one of the beauties of the Church; while it stands opposed to the worship of mammon and other despicable gods, it actively creates the world that it anticipates. Or at least it can do that, but it is up to us to make sure of it.

So dear friends, as we hang the greens, string the lights, and sing carols, let us also anticipate the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Happy Advent.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Liberation of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday. Established by a war-time president, then propped up with historically inaccurate legends, and now largely overlooked by retailers, how should we view Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving can be especially problematic for folks who are not part of the privileged Anglo heritage. Not only is turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce very foreign, but the legends of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting together seem to mock their day-to-day experience. Their schools and neighborhoods get routinely and often systematically neglected. Their employers keep them guessing if they will have a job tomorrow. Many live in fear that they or their loved ones will be captured by police and deported.

And even giving thanks can seem more like a distraction than a joyful holiday practice. I recall a quote from Eugen V. Debs, the great labor organizer of the late 19th century, “Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.” After all, in using the language of the Occupy movement, the 1% wants the 99% to thank them for their jobs and the way that they keep money flowing in our economy, and thus it is a regressive ploy to blind the suffering masses of their plight.

Yeah, so happy freakin’ Thanksgiving. Now let’s get out the Festivus stick and get to the feats of strength.

That kind of attitude just doesn’t sit well with me. Of course, coming from an Anglo-American background, I can identify with the happy-go-lucky sentiment of the Thanksgiving legend, however blatantly false and pernicious it may be. But the point is that we move beyond the bitterness of oppression. Paolo Freire pointed out that we cannot allow oppression to continue its cycle; we must break free from it.

I believe that giving thanks can help us break free from oppression.

Really, thankfulness can be liberatory. I think back to the things that I was thankful for in my elementary school classes where we acted out the Thanksgiving legend. My classmates and I rarely said material things. We talked about family, friends, and security—maybe not in those terms, but it was what we meant.
I recall my favorite Thanksgiving tradition. My grandmother always brings mincemeat pie to remind her and the entire family about how people provide for each other in times of need. It’s about what we could call agape, or unconditional love. It’s about grace.

In recognizing grace in our lives, we break free from the material hells that so many people inhabit. We are no longer cogs in a machine that simply increases the bottom line of a corporation, but we are also agents overflowing with the energy that comes from grace. That energy flows into all sorts of things that affirm our vitality—art, music, athletics, academics, family—and these things are naturally liberatory.

So whether you carve the Tom turkey on Thursday or protest its imperialist implications, remember to give thanks.

The gates of liberation are opened by the keys of thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Carwashero Takes the People's Mic

The power of the Occupy movements all over the country and across the world is that the microphone is taken away from the 1% plutocrats and then given to the folks who have such little means to tell their story. The beauty of the “people’s microphone”, the method of sound amplification via dozens of people repeating what the speakers is saying, is that the crowd recognizes everyone’s right to their voice. That power and that beauty is humbling yet empowering.

Now let’s give the people’s mic to a carwashero.

On Tuesday afternoon car wash workers in the Chicago Southwest Side neighborhood of Little Village took that people’s mic and told their story. They worked for 12-hour days in all sorts of Chicago weather with little or no safety equipment, receiving abuse after indignity from their boss.

And then they didn’t even receive actual wages for their work. Their employer distributed only the tips that the workers received for their labor, resulting in some days of only $40 for a 12-hour day. That, dear friends, is the story of wage theft.

This story isn’t only true because it happened to these car wash workers. It’s true because it happens every day all over the United States, in urban landscapes and rural communities alike. In a landmark study of wage theft in America’s three largest cities, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, researchers showed that workers lost more than $56.4 million per week.[i] This money is taken from the most vulnerable workers in our country, where the difference between making rent, putting food on the table, and providing medicine for one’s children is a matter of hours of pay.
Worker advocates call wage theft the crime epidemic that no one talks about, and that falls right into the Occupy narrative. The rich, powerful, and connected in our society try very hard to make sure that the vast majority of people not only accept these abuses but are thankful that folks have degrading, subsistence-level jobs. However, low-wage workers are finding a way to tell their side of the story.

Workers’ centers and their union allies act as a sort of people’s mic for low-wage and immigrant workers to make sure people hear about they experience every day. While the 1% tries to divide and demonize the lower strata of workers, workers’ centers unite and affirm the humanity carwarsheros and other low-wage workers.

I personally had the privilege of acting as a person’s mic at the protest on Tuesday, translating for a worker named Martín. Just like other workers I’ve met while serving as a missionary with the national group Interfaith Worker Justice, Martín understood how powerful his voice can be when other workers and advocates stand with him and amplify his voice for the world to hear.

So, on a day when Occupy movements affirm their power to speak with a prophet’s voice, let’s give that people’s mic to a carwashero and occupy together.

[i] Berhardt, A., Milkman, R., Theodor, N., et al. 2010. Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations in Employment and Labor Law in America’s Cities. Chicago: Center for Urban Economic Development, Uinveristy of Illinois at Chicago, New York: National Employment Law Project, Los Angeles: UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Radical Reconciliation

The building was dwarfed by the skyscrapers that surrounded it. Down in the Financial District of New York City, the John Street Church seemed like a real-life anachronism tucked into the canyons created by the towers looming dozens of floors into the mid-Atlantic sky. It had a humble, wooden sign that protruded in a way that seemed better suited for a British pub than a house of worship amongst the temples of capital. But there it was, housing the oldest Methodist congregation in the United States
I visited John Street Church with my US-2 peers on Thursday night of our mid-term training. The seven of us young adults came from a variety of locations—Detroit, Fargo, Honolulu—and we had spent the day deconstructing the factors that drive contemporary mass migration, speaking on a panel across from the United Nations, and visiting a community organization based in East Harlem. It was already a full day, crisscrossing the island of Manhattan, but we had yet to go to visit Occupy Wall Street that night. So we stopped at John Street Church.

We ate dinner in the basement of the church, which also served as a small museum with artifacts from early American Methodism, including the earliest known portrait of John Wesley. As we munched on Cuban cuisine from just around the corner, Pastor Jason described the relationship that had developed between the 256-year-old congregation and the protestors at Zuccotti Park only a few blocks away. The congregation was a mix of young adults working downtown and homeless folks who tried to scrape by on the streets, of left-wingers who went to every General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street and protectors of the 1%’s wealth. In this mix, what were the Methodists on John Street to do?

As a self-proclaimed radical who was arrested a week prior for refusing to vacate Grant Park as part of Occupy Chicago, I wanted to hear Pastor Jason talk about how bold the church was. Certainly the body of Christ proclaimed a new day of liberation of poor and opened the doors to the Occupiers! Actually…no, not exactly. The John Street congregation decided to use their unique location to proclaim another Christian principle: reconciliation.

Pastor Jason explained that it is clear in the scriptures that Jesus came to proclaim liberation to not only the 99% but the 100%. The one time that Jesus himself used the 99 vs. 1 dichotomy (Matt. 18: 10-14), the special preference goes to the 1. While Jesus taught crowds in ways similar to teach-ins held around the United States at various Occupy movements, Jesus was not really a populist. After all, the crowds wanted to seize him and dispose of his revolution as often as they wanted to make him king.

That’s the funny thing about this grace thing—it’s free to everyone. Yes, the prophets and Jesus showed that God has a special preference for the despised and marginalized of the world, however Jesus also showed that grace is for everyone. At the point when Jesus could have utilized the crowd best—the triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday—Jesus immediately left the city after clearing the temple of the corrupt money-changers.

There was no populist Occupy Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. After all, Jerusalem was already occupied by the Roman legions.

The experience of grace that leads to true metanoia, or what we might call repentance, can occur in all people. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, but Jesus didn’t say that the poor would just walk through either. There is no cheap grace—not for Wall Street, not for Liberty Park (as the Occupiers call Zuccotti Park), not for the neglected ghettos of South Side Chicago, not for the expanses of farms of the Midwest. Grace is terribly and awfully expensive.
And so we proclaim Christ crucified. We do not pay for grace ourselves, but God gives grace by shedding the life-blood of Christ, the begotten Son of God. The payment is wretchedly ugly and ignoble and undignified. It probably looked something like the slow death of Muammar Qaddafi, except Jesus wasn’t hiding when his persecutors captured him.

So what does this have to say about Occupy Wall Street and the Church? I think it says that we still have a lot to learn about this grace thing. It is not summed up in chant-able verses glorifying the 99%. It is not found in leftist ideologies that claim to redistribute the ill-gotten wealth of the bourgeoisie to the wretched of the earth. Grace is found solely in the cross.

So while I will continue to support the Occupy movement, especially in Chicago, I go knowing that my ultimate concern (in the words of Paul Tillich) is with my Lord and God. And that may just lead back to a South Side holding cell (but hopefully not until after my hearing on Nov. 21st). Or it may lead to sharing the Elements with a hedge-fund manager because he needs that grace just as much as I do.

That is radical reconciliation.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Everywhere. Occupy Together.

(Part 2 of Maintain and Reform)

“The success or failure of this project depended not on increase in numbers and influence, but on an increase in faithfulness … By Wesley’s own standard, the Methodist movement must be reckoned a failure.”
-          Theodore Jennings, Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics

Bold. Inclusive. Relevant.

I am personally convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed bold, inclusive, and relevant.

Now more than the last 30 years the brokenness of our world is apparent. Not only are millions on the Horn of Africa dying of hunger and malnutrition, our neighbors here in the United States are struggling to put food on the table. Not only are sweatshop exploiting workers in Southeast Asia, day laborers on our street risk their lives every day for wages that aren’t even guaranteed to them. Not only are despotic tyrants in the Middle East silencing critics by any means available, our own elected officials increasingly ignore the cries of the most desperate people in our neighborhoods.

We desperately long for a gospel that changes this, and the gospel of Jesus Christ does exactly that.

The gospel of Jesus Christ makes the first last and the last first. It provides an abundance of resources for everyone to share. It forgives us our debts then convicts us to forgive our debtors.

The gospel of Jesus Christ reconciles all people and even all the earth back to our Creator. It is not limited to folks with a certain skin tone, a bank account, or even a Social Security number. This gospel does care about how and with whom you have sex, but it has nothing to do with excluding non-heteronormative folks. This gospel does care about what you do with your body during a pregnancy, but it has just as much to say about the rest of your life as well.

Bold. Inclusive. Relevant.

It was for this gospel that I was arrested in the early-morning hours of October 16 in Grant Park, Chicago. Many of the 175 brothers and sisters who (briefly) went to prison with me do not share my faith in the church of Jesus Christ, but they do have a passionate faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Occupiers from Wall Street to Tucson, Seattle to Orlando, and even to London, Rome, and Tokyo believe in this gospel. They don’t need to say the name of Jesus for me to know this; I saw that faith in their interactions with one another, with passers-by, with the police who were handcuffing them.

Dear friends, what would it look like for our churches to also live out this radical faith? The poor and the sick and the needy and the stranger and the imprisoned would have their wants and needs met. All voices would be honored, and worship on the Sabbath would be the most integrated hour of the week. We would abandon our church buildings because they’re not big enough to hold everyone, so we would hold worship and prayer outdoors or in each others’ homes.

And isn’t that also the great fear? Foul-smelling homeless and scary-looking wild-hairs would sit or stand next to us. Rich folks would have less because poor folks would be getting what they need. Worship would be loud and raucous and uncontrolled.

But I am convinced that to live out this bold, inclusive, and relevant gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed the only way to revitalize our churches. We cannot do it with a capital campaign, unless it goes to help the needy in our neighborhood. We cannot do it with hip youth programs, unless the youth learn about sex and poverty and addiction along with love and peace and joy. We cannot do it with mission trips to majority-world nations, unless that relationship between wealthy and poor grows to the point of true solidarity.

By the end of his life, John Wesley complained bitterly of how the people called Methodists were very good at “earning all they can and saving all they can” but quite failing at “giving all they can”. I do not agree with everything Wesley said (for example, I am glad that we have forsaken the English crown), but his dedication to the radical gospel of Jesus Christ is something with which I agree completely.

I fear that Wesley would not support the Occupy movement of today; it challenges authority far too much for his convictions. However, I am quite certain Jesus of Nazareth would be quite comfortable among the tattooed and pierced masses trying desperately to get the immensely wealthy and well-connected to finally listen to them.

On Saturday night (and Sunday morning) we chanted “we are unstoppable; another world is possible”. That possible world is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and indeed the Hebrew prophets, the saints, and Jesus of Nazareth prophesied that this possible world will ultimately be victorious.

And while the Occupations have the headlines for now, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not limited to them. The gospel is evident in homeless shelters, food pantries, clothing closets, workers’ centers, union halls, public schools, and churches. Yes, even churches!

So if we want to maintain our ecclesiastical structure I am convinced that we must reform it so that the gospel of Jesus Christ is apparent in it. Let us as a church embrace the Occupy movement and learn from it.

Occupy everywhere. Occupy together. And occupy with love.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reform and Maintenance: Part 1

Bold. Inclusive. Relevant.

There is a United Methodist congregation in Chicago that opens almost every worship service that I've attended there with an explanation of how those words guide its mission. Bold because the folks actually believe in Jesus Christ and seek to share that belief and lifestyle with others. Inclusive most notably because it accepts and affirms the LGBTQ community. Relevant because...well, it just has to be somehow relevant in 21st century Chicago, right?

I have a tendency to recoil at the use of these words. They are indeed very catchy, and the congregation is very hip, possibly hip-ster. But I see these words as the catchiest of the catch-phrases, and thus I get a bad taste in my mouth.

However, the United Methodist Church does have issues with these things. Perhaps the UMC is best at being a least theologically inclusive, which is why we will see some very interesting fireworks at General Conference next spring. Yet the American conferences are 90% white. So--maybe we try to be inclusive, but boy we are not diverse.

That speaks to the other two catchphrases. Where is the United Methodist Church bold? Where is the United Methodist Church relevant?
When I had my interview to be a US-2 missionary, I was asked what I thought we should do to reverse the trend of declining membership. I remember that I mentioned something about being active in social justice, which was very vague, and I couldn't help but think about how my "home" church back in Pennsylvania would deal with such a thing.

My thought is that if the church were truly bold to "to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (paraphrase of Luke 4:18), then we would truly be relevant. We would also look very, very different. Rather than idolizing middle class prosperity, we would live for and with and among the poor. It is likely that we would become poor ourselves.

See, folks have wised up to the obvious hypocrisy of claiming a gospel that actually changes things when the people claiming that gospel have a stake in keeping things exactly the way they are. While much of the popular evangelical narrative hinges on a metanoia that only touches a personal holiness--from drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll to "Ozzie & Harriet" stability—we are much more implicated in sin than that. Our various social systems—from food to transportation to marriage to labor—help to ensure that those of us at the top stay above everyone else. Our gospel obviously is not good news, and it’s not news at all. Surprise! Nothing has changed!
It is no wonder that we in the United Methodist Church are not particularly relevant to 21st century folks, whatever class, race, gender, sexuality they may identify with. 

So what must we do to become relevant again? To help answer this question, I will draw heavily from Theodore W. Jennings’ Good News to the Poor: Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, and I will answer it in my next post. However, just to whet your appetite, consider this passage: 

“The success or failure of this project depended not on increase in numbers and influence, but on an increase in faithfulness … By Wesley’s own standard, the Methodist movement must be reckoned a failure.”

Luckily, God enjoys using those the world considers failures.

Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11: What I Saw Then and What I See Now

I was in Mr. Rose's history class. Looking back, I suppose that the teachers in that wing had collectively decided to let the social studies teacher break the news to us. It seems a little surreal now that I gone through science and English class while planes hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and I remember that algebra class did feel surreal after we knew. I mean, a 13-year-old definitely knows where multiplying matrices ranks against what we know as 9/11.

The next day in English class we wrote short essays about what we were thinking. I had tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be trapped in one of the towers with smoke pouring out of it. I imagined chaos. My teacher disagreed with me. We can't really know how things were in those top floors, so I guess you can imagine it however you like.

I kept a copy of the Harrisburg daily newspaper from September 11, 2001, with a big picture of a fireball countering the clear, blue mid-Atlantic sky. Almost immediately the political cartoons I enjoyed so much depicted comparisons of the terrorist attacks to the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941. One showed an eagle sharpening its talons.

Fast forward ten years. I am no longer a teenager imagining a world outside of Central Pennsylvania's hills. I'm in an office on the fourth floor of a North Side Chicago building, working with people of different ethnicities and faiths. I go home to a South Side former Lutheran parsonage where I live with people of different ethnicities and faiths. And when I get the chance, my radio is turned to a station that plays the "Thom Hartman Show", not the "Rush Limbaugh Show".

Guess what? I think of 9/11 a bit differently now then I did 10 years ago.

Whereas the world was impossibly large back then, with people Over There so different than people Right Here, I suppose the world has shrunk a bit. I've had the incredible opportunity to see how similar people really are. And how different they can be.

I learned in my social psychology class in college that what happened in the United States after the attacks--the much-celebrated, post-9/11 unity--was a classic example of rally-'round-the-flag behavior. In-groups and out-groups crystallized as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers went first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq to punish those who were responsible for the carnage--or who could, some day, be responsible for other carnage (see Wikipedia article for Bush Doctrine here).

I now see the damage that some of that behavior caused. I now see how the imperialist West, led by the United States especially in the second half of the 20th century, sowed the seeds of tragic, violent backlash. I now see how oppressive dominant culture can be, especially in stressful times. I see these things because of other things I saw with my own two eyes.

In a loving, seeker-friendly Christian fellowship at college.

In a small, Methodist church in downtown Buenos Aires.

In an old Lutheran church on the South Side that loves well beyond its strict, German heritage.

In the gospel of John, the men who became Jesus' first two disciples followed Jesus because he invited them to "come and see" (1:39). Shane Claiborne worked alongside Mother Teresa because she told him to "come and see" what Calcutta was like (read the story in The Irresistible Revolution).

Seeing isn't believing, but it sure helps.

So what will you see on Sunday when we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

I challenge you seek people who are different than you when you remember the attacks. Spend time with people with different shades of melanin, whose first language is different, who calls their god a different name. What you see you may not understand, and that's okay. Just be there, "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love" (Eph. 4:2). After all, what is unity worth when we are all the same?

Do this, and I can guarantee you that you won't be the same. And that, dear friends, is the beginning of what the gospel-writers called metanoia.

Repentance. For the kingdom of heaven is, indeed, at hand.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Finding love in limbo and labor

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
                -Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet

I read an article in the NewYork Times this past week that talked about how young people since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession have struggled to find jobs that would start them out on the upwardly-mobile career of their dream. Business majors from various Ivy League schools found themselves working as bartenders, servers, cashiers and paralegals. While some relished the flexibility that their underemployment gave them, most complained bitterly with a refrain along the lines of “but we did everything we were supposed to do”.

This, of course comes as no surprise to most people, excluding those at the Hamptons and Capitol Hill. The Times article categorized my peers and I into “Generation Limbo” because the overachieving graduates of 2009 and later are more or less waiting for the jobs climate to improve before we try and start a career. I know that a large of number of my friends from Bucknell, a “sub”-Ivy League university, have gone to graduate school, done programs like Teach for America, Americorps and other similar relatively low-paying, temporary gigs to wait out the great, Siberian winter of employment. I can relate to this.

But gosh, does it reek of privilege and entitlement.

This coming Monday is Labor Day, a holiday which was established in 1894 after the bloody Pullman strike in what is now the South Side of Chicago. The federal government was careful to observe a holiday celebrating labor in early September, far away from May Day, the more radical International Workers Day. The United States has come a long way since the days when federal troops were regularly brought in to break strikes. Certainly all American workers owe an awful lot to folks like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and A. Philip Randolph.

I have to admit that I’m tempted to go down a path of labor history—to talk about the Wobblies, Walter Reuther, Caesar Chavez—but the times don’t quite allow us to get too sentimental. The old factories have shut, leaving eerie industrial shells of former economic might. The new factories that are being built are either across the ocean or are rabidly anti-union. Wages are stagnant, and that college degree sure doesn’t get you as far as it used to. Ah, and yes, unemployment is holding at 9%.

In the face of all that, Kahlil Gibran’s words sound kinda hollow. We would love to work a job that is fulfilling, but we’ll settle a job that pays the rent. And our student loans.

But we are still celebrating something this weekend. Maybe it’s not necessarily the strength of the union movement, though there is still a lot power in it. I think we’ll be celebrating something more basic. It’s about sharing food and drink and sports and music and fun. It’s about community.

See, while things are tough, and we should be angry at how the government is acting, we ultimately depend on each other. While my college-educated brethren and I have a certain right to be disillusioned about careers right now, we still carry on with life just as past generations have. 

The real beauty in Gibran’s text is not really the self-help portion, but that it touches on the most basic of human needs: love. People will suffer all sorts of indignities and wrongs if it means that they can continue to act on the love they have for others. Of course, it is also my job to show how loving one’s children also means joining the picket line. 

So what does this mean for Generation Limbo? It can mean a few things. I’ve already mentioned that the six-figure salary will have to wait. However, this is also a wonderful opportunity for folks who are accustomed to the highest amount of privilege to truly understand solidarity with people who have been categorically denied it for generations. So the fine arts major waits tables with the undocumented immigrant who washes dishes. The dude with the 5-year-plan sweats with the H2-B visa worker. Nothing builds solidarity and—dare I say it?—love like suffering.

This Labor Day you can have the barbecue like you usually do. Eat a Polish sausage and watch the Cubs-Pirates baseball game. After all, one of them has to win, right? But keep the gate open and invite your neighbors over. Times are tough, but we get through it because we care about each other.

I promise you, community based on love is that one thing that does not sour.