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.