Monday, October 15, 2012

Crack open a can of worms


I recall the first time that I sat through a presentation on the origins of the Pentateuch. As a first year university student from a conservative, evangelical upbringing, my attitude was very incredulous. After all, what do J, P, E, and D sources have to do with my Methodist faith? I did not begin considering the historical context of biblical literature until the next year with my first in-depth Bible study and an introduction to the historical critical method. I soon found that once the lid is off of the metaphorical can of theological worms, the squirmy annelids do not return to their enclosed home. In fact, the theological worms bore new holes in unexpected places, and, in a surprising twist for a former conservative evangelical, they make the theological soil even more fertile.

It is in this fertile, theological worm-infested soil that the myths that parallel the Hebrew Bible stories are scattered. The process is indeed as messy as it sounds, but the revelation that the writers of the Hebrew Bible may have borrowed from religious stories from neighboring peoples does not have the shaking effect that I experienced as a sophomore undergraduate. I already was familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, but I must admit that I was surprised by the sheer number of myths, histories, and documents from the ancient Near East that are awfully similar to my favorite Bible stories. In the face of this religious milieu, I have tried to imagine what a perpetually occupied or conquered people might do in order to keep their people’s identity alive for posterity. I hope that it would not include molding a golden calf, but I can see how a priest or elder would borrow a popular myth and spice it to their people’s taste.
Sargon of Agade, yet another dude who
needed to learn to swim at an early age
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargon_of_Akkad

A good example of this could be the story of Sargon of Agade. Sargon was a famous king of a great city-state who as an infant was plucked from a river by a royal attendant, raised in the royal courts, and then achieved great, miraculous exploits that cast a long shadow on the descendants of the ancient city-state. It roughly parallels the narrative of Moses, one of the most important figures in the Hebrew Bible. The story also precedes the biblical narrative by well over a thousand years, which is certainly enough time for an entirely different culture to acquire and add certain details to the life narrative of a great patriarch. The familiarity of the story adds authority to the Israelites’ traditions, and the J-source writers did not have to worry about intellectual property hounds on their tail. It makes perfect sense to me that the writers of the Hebrew Bible took details from other neighboring people’s myths to create their own traditions.

However, it is not easy to remove myself from 21st century, Western ears and inhabit the space of a priest in 6th century BCE Palestine. Christian and Jews alike regard the Pentateuch as the Mosaic Law, and the Torah lays the groundwork for the ancient ethics that multiple empires later used for their own societal laws. Needless to say, the stakes are quite high. Even so, whereas religion and state are separate in Western democracies, this is simply not the case for the civilizations of antiquity. Mythologies were a way of understanding the world, including the place of civil authorities, which students even find in the “right of kings” argument as late as 17th century European monarchs.

In that way the Mosaic Law is not so unique in grounding its ethics and mandates in a covenant between a deity and ruler of the people. The beginning of the Code of Hammurabi is replete with honors from Babylonian gods that protect the empire and guarantee its prosperity. Hammurabi clearly wanted to show that his laws were not simply whims of a tyrant, though it seems likely that he could have ruled that way if he wanted. The king grounded his rule in religious imagery that is found throughout Babylonian mythology of Marduk, who is present in the Enuma Elish stories as well. The Israelites did not have a monarch until well after the establishment of the Law, but Moses did act as de facto leader of the Israelites during the Exodus. Ascending the mountain of God to receive the laws of the chosen people is not so unlike invoking the national god in unveiling a new system of imperial laws.

The individual laws of the Torah were at times also surprisingly similar, but nations today also borrow laws from constitutions that existed beforehand. For example, Hammurabi ordered that slaves be freed after three years, and the Sabbath laws of the Torah make many references to the fair treatment of slaves. Of course the Torah’s laws are to a whole different degree of justice than Hammurabi’s laws were, and considering that the priestly writers were in Hammurabi’s descendants’ empire while writing their notes, perhaps that makes sense. An oppressed people would naturally be more concerned about freedom for the captives, and they would likely have a vested interest in showing how much further their laws of justice go than the laws of their captors. Rather than lessening the power of the Mosaic Law, the context strengthens the claim that the Hebrew Bible is special in a way that other codes contemporary with it were not.

This is all to say that I personally am quite comfortable with the documentary hypothesis and that the Hebrew Bible is likely a conglomeration of ancient influences, many of which came from non-Israelite cultures. The debate enters an entirely different phase if I am to facilitate the same discussion within a local congregational context. As my conservative evangelical upbringing attests, many congregations do not teach the historical critical method. Many people base their faith in texts that they confidently assure each other have divine origins, namely that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I would not be so quick to point out that the stories about the patriarchs are very similar to patriarchs of other ancient Near East civilizations, and that is not only because I want to keep a pastoral assignment.

I recognize that it took me years to come to grips with how my favorite Bible stories had a historical, cultural, and indeed even a political context. While the goal of a full-time student is to learn many new and exciting concepts that shake up prior conceptions, parishioners are often part of faith communities for very different reasons. It is like a community garden: most people participate in the community garden for fellowship and to get fresh produce. I am not sure that most community gardeners would want to know the fine art of bonsai, and the sort of pruning that is part of bonsai is not generally healthy for a bell pepper plant. There is a time and place for such teaching, but the pastor should be careful in introducing concepts like non-traditional origins of holy scriptures.

However, I do think that teaching the story of the creation of the Hebrew Bible (and the New Testament for that matter) can be quite communally edifying. In the same way that Americans celebrate the creation of the Constitution, people who claim the Pentateuch as holy scripture should also celebrate the creation of the Torah. That it survived at all is an incredible testament to favorable circumstances that could be viewed as the very hand of Providence. The writing process is also a testament of how different religions gave rise to an amazing prophetic tradition that has an afterlife that continues today. As a pastor, I would like to celebrate the diverse origins of the Hebrew Bible instead of hide them.

Various faith traditions claim that God is still speaking in the world today, including several Christian denominations. In my own Methodist tradition, I understand that scripture is only one-quarter of the revelation of God. Just as the writers of the Hebrew Bible used their creative and rational faculties to draw from millennia of ancient Near East mythology, increasingly Christians today draw from a variety of religious traditions to understand the world around them. This is the exciting, relatively new realm of postmodern interpretation, whether post-colonial, womanist, or some other tradition. In deconstructing metanarratives about the origins of holy scriptures, I become free to engage in the same creative processes that my spiritual ancestors did thousands of years ago. It is a can of theological worms worth opening.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Messiah of the misfits, marginalized, & minjung


Jesus of the People, by Janet McKenzie,
1999,  http://www.janetmckenzie.com/
When I was in college I did what I thought were some pretty intense Bible studies with my campus fellowship. After two weeks in seminary, maaaybe those Bible studies don’t seem quite as intense as they seemed when I was a sophomore at dear Bucknell, tucked away in the central Pennsylvania hills. But hey, times change. The Bible study that InterVarsity pushed hardest was a semester-long class on the first half of the Gospel of Mark. I did that with some of my closest friends, somehow interpreting Jesus’ cross-country trips as a pirate in a Winnebago. Studying the Bible does weird things to you, I guess. But while I can’t say that any of my classes for credit struck me and challenged me the way Mark study did. In fact, I enjoyed that study so much that I spent the week after classes ended that year studying the second half of Mark. That, too, was an amazing experience where I saw God’s Spirit whip around the room and inspire us to raise $5,000 to make sure one of my best friends could go back to school the next semester. It was awesome.

But looking back, there was something that could have been better about those Bible studies. See, we finished Mark 1, as we called the first-half Bible study, with the first half of today’s Gospel reading. I’m sure that ending the semester that way was intentional. Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, so after a semester of studying an account about Jesus, who do we say Jesus is? (Hint: we do have a preferred answer.)

The problem is that I don’t think the story should be cut up that way because Peter only gives an incomplete answer. Peter answers Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah,” so let’s dig into what exactly that means. Messiah, or the Greek title Christ, means “anointed one”, and there actually several people in the Old Testament were “anointed ones”, usually with monarchic and militarist implications. During the 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation, a lot of folks were looking for such a messiah. You know, someone who would take names and kick arse.

So maybe when someone answers with Peter’s words to Jesus’ question, we should then ask, whose Messiah?

 Moving forward in the story, Jesus does start to define what kind of messiah he’ll be—one who will suffer, be rejected by the political bosses, die along the way, but then rise again after three days, so don’t worry. So hold up, where’s the glory to that? Peter says something along those lines, with maybe some fisherman’s preferred speech, and probably reminds Jesus what a messiah actually does. Except Jesus doesn’t need that. Jesus immediately tells Peter whose messiah that is—namely Satan’s.

Btw (pronounced bee-tee-dubs for short), that’s the second time Satan shows up in Mark’s Gospel. The first time was Jesus temptation in the wilderness. Connection, anyone?

So if Jesus’ way of doing Messiah isn’t about kicking Gentile oppressors’ arse and plates heaped with steaming glory, it must be something less appealing. Or at least at first. But take a look at who Jesus talks to. It’s not the apostles; it’s the crowd. In Greek the word is “ochlos”.  Korean liberation theologian Ahn Byung-Mu noted that this word is found throughout Mark’s Gospel referring to crowds, but especially when Jesus is curing sick and unclean people and generally caring for the folks that the Pharisees marginalized with their interpretation of Jewish law. For Korean liberation theologians, these folks are represented by the minjung, a marginalized group in that country, and their theology is named after them.

So whose Messiah is Jesus? Well, it kinda sounds like the misfits, marginalized, and left-behind folks’ Messiah, the ochlos’ Messiah. And when Jesus talks about suffering and how his followers must also suffer, maybe it’s because those folks are already suffering. I’m Methodist, and I love me some John Wesley, but I’ve really connected with Martin Luther’s concept of the theology of the cross. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, chose the path of the poor, the desperate, even the criminal, and he suffered like they suffer. Like they continue to suffer. And when Jesus warns against being ashamed of the Messiah, I must believe that Jesus is also warning against being ashamed the ochlos, the poor, desperate masses that so want to free of their situation.

However, there is a second reason why Jesus tells the crowd that his followers must expect suffering, specifically from persecution. See, Jesus had this practice of not only hanging out with the ochlos, but he also brought them into the center of the stage with him. Unclean women take precedence over the child of a local political boss. Lame folks distract from the sabbath laws. And Jesus parties with the loan shark whom he just called into his inner circle. Being with the ochlos is fine and good with the ruling class as long as the invisible curtains of caste remains, but when Jesus tear through that curtain…well, he ends up suffering, rejected by the ruling class, and eventually executed.

And Jesus calls us, his followers, to do the same.

I am truly proud and humbled that I am in a place that takes solidarity with the ochlos seriously. I like to call First Trinity the Church of the Misfits and Dissidents, and it is really unique. Last week at Hildegard Rastutin’s beautiful funeral we talked about how and why she loved this place. It’s so open and welcoming. Open enough that even why I had a conversation with Hildegard about religion, her response was lending me her copy of the Book of Mormon, because, you know, it’s important to learn about other people’s traditions. Yes, this is the Church of the Misfits and Dissidents, and it’s great.

However, let’s take our solidarity with the ochlos of Bridgeport and Chicago even further. Let’s follow in Jesus example and tear down that invisible sheet between our ruling class and our ochlos. It’s a wall made of numbers, and it separates revenue and expenses on the ledger. It’s a wall that separates the sick from needed health care, unemployed workers from jobs, students from a good education, neighbors from a 31st Street bus. Dear friends, tearing down that wall is as much the work of the Messiah as clothing the naked for a day. And it is what will bring us up close and personal with the persecution of the Messiah.

So I ask you the same question my campus minister asked my class at the end of my grand study of Mark: who do you think Jesus is? But if you answer like Peter, “the Messiah,” be ready for me to ask a follow-up question: whose Messiah is this Jesus? I pray that you, as part of the ochlos, the minjung, this group of despised, misfit, and marginalized folks, answer “This Jesus is my Messiah.”

Monday, August 13, 2012

Upstream or downstream: a reflection from a kayak


The central Pennsylvania sky had cleared, and the sun was shining over the green ridges into the river. I paddled my kayak towards the western shore of the Susquehanna with my sister a few yards behind me. Herons and egrets took off as we approached them, and the nearby train tracks rumbled with coal-laden cars dieseling their way south. I had forgotten how beautiful this country is and how much it is a part of me.

I think it’s easy to forget our connection with the land when one lives in a large metropolitan area. I know that’s been true for me after living two years on the South Side of Chicago. The experience of going to sleep with the sound of crickets and frogs around hardly compares with the voices, car horns, and sirens that are the normal city night’s soundtrack.

My three days in central Pennsylvania were part of a longer vacation that was otherwise urban. I had started with a conference in Arlington, Virginia where we celebrated over 60 years of young adults in mission in the United Methodist Church. Next I moved to Philadelphia where several friends and family members have settled, and where soft pretzels lie down with the steak sandwiches (come, Lord Jesus). Then central PA, and now Pittsburgh, where I sip yerba mate with my cousin in the shadow of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning (don’t judge).

However, the question that seems to keep surfacing is one about the future. I begin seminary at Chicago Theological Seminary in September, and I can’t even imagine what kind of adventures wait for me there. But the question is less about seminary and more about where God is calling me in ministry. I’m talking about geographical location. John Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish” in response to mounting pressure for him to take his father’s place at the rectory in Epworth, England, but every vocation occurs in a geographical and cultural context.

I have recently seen the stark contract between two contexts that I have called home. One is urban Chicago, a wildly diverse and dynamic setting, a setting which has been my home for the last two years and will be my home for the next three years as well. People come and go like a Lake Michigan breeze. The other area is central Pennsylvania, where rolling mountain ridges seem to stand guard against sudden, unexpected changes, and generation after generation maintain traditions that run deeper than any social media thread.

I’ve met people who have left central Pennsylvania and never plan to come back, and I’ve met others who did indeed return after a time of personal growth. I can see how my experience in community organizing and interfaith work could easily fit in one conference, but I also see room for growth in the other. I’ve gone to two United Methodist annual conferences in two years, I’ve seen two very different styles for ecclesiastic culture, but now both of those conferences are welcoming new leadership in the episcopacy. Where does that leave me?

I make some connections with my short foray into kayaking in the shallow Susquehanna waters. I had tried so hard to make my way upstream, but I found that I couldn’t pass a set of rapids no matter how hard I tried. However, by going downstream just a bit, I managed to continue upstream by starting up the Juniata River, which joins the Susquehanna at my hometown. God has called me to address root problems that plague our varied communities, and my experiences in Chicago have given me tools to fight those problems. However, I don’t need to always fight my way upstream through rapids that push me backwards and might even overturn me if I’m not careful. God is making a path for me that may require to me go downstream before I start to address root problems further upstream. How far downstream will I need to go, and where might that other river take me? I don’t know, but I have faith that God will provide a way to the source of life that will quench the thirst of a dry land. I just need to keep the nose of my kayak straight and paddle hard.
The confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers at Duncannon, Pennsylvania.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Wrestling with Doubt at Penuel

Lutte de Jacob avec l'Ange by 
Eugène Delacroix 
When I was growing up, I liked to be the one with all the right answers. I remember some of my classmates in elementary school asked me if I was genius, and now I have to wonder what exactly I was saying or how I was saying it that they lumped me in with such an abnormal group of folks. At the time, I depended on my book knowledge and ability to BS to make up for a poor self-perception. It's not easy to be the fat, four-eyed kid in grade school, but at least I had my answers.

I am no longer so overweight, and I usually wear contact lenses instead of glasses these days. I'm also still pretty skilled in BS. After all, what else should a B.A. give you? However, I'm not so sure about the answers thing any more. I still take pride in having a lot of knowledge in a variety of areas, but I'm a lot more comfortable with responding, "I don't know" to questions.

That includes questions about my faith.

I am undeniably Christian. I honestly do believe in almost all the points of the Nicene Creed, though at some points I might want to qualify my beliefs a bit. I even believe in the physically impossible things, like the immaculate conception and the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As I believe in an omnipotent deity, it's not difficult for me to believe that God could or would suspend the laws of physics to make a really good point.

However, the really tough questions, the ones about suffering, the existence of evil, the tightrope walk of Arminian free will, sometimes require an "I don't know". And the confession of uncertainty easily leads to doubt. If I don't know exactly what the origin of evil is, then how can I be sure of the benevolence of the God I worship? Or even her existence?

In the church we have few safe places where we can safely ask those questions. An awful lot of our ecclesial programming involves a confident leader proclaiming "truth! truth!" and the assumed response from the pewed followers is "truth received". And then we sing another song and go our separate ways, our lingering questions trailing after us like shadows before the twilight hour.

I think this tendency to leave hard questions and lingering doubt at the church doors also plays out in the kind  of discussion we do have during Sunday school, Bible study, and other programmed time. Many church-goers avoid controversial social issues because we will likely find disagreement, and disagreement violates the "truth proclaimed-truth received" equation.

I was reminded of this when I was in New York City with the newest cohort of young adult missionaries of the United Methodist Church. I was co-facilitating discussion about community organizing and worker justice, and I posed the question, "what has been your experience of justice in your faith context?" Several of the missionaries admitted that their churches never talked about justice. I had to admit back to them that my church had rarely talked about justice when I was growing up.

Of course there are theological reasons why a church may not discuss social justice issues like labor, women's rights, peace, and the environment. That church may follow a theology of glory, recognizing that this world is awful and broken but Jesus Christ will deliver us from evil in the next life. I personally disagree with such an emphasis on glory, siding much more Martin Luther in a theology of the cross, where Jesus Christ is present with us in all the tears and blood and shit that we encounter in our temporal lives.

However, the problem is that we have little space to discuss these important theological differences. Our consumerist culture begs us to continue shopping and watching the Olympics, which is, by the way, brought to you by Ralph Lauren. I think we often try to consume our faith in a similar way, but authentic faith is not to be swallowed whole. Authentic faith comes in the form of an unexpected opponent with whom we wrestle until daybreak, and even then we leave with a hip out of socket, a form that Jacob called "Penuel" because he saw the face of God and survived (Gen. 32:22-32).

I pray that we will create places we may call "Penuel", even if we must leave that place limping. However, if we leave limping in doubt, I have faith that God will carry us even when we are unable to walk.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Missional Life Beyond Formal Commissioning

"What are you thinking about?", my friend Rachel asked me. "You just look so pensive."
Rachel Keller and me (Joe Hopkins) in New York Harbor,
with the Statue of Liberty to the right.

I was deep in thought, lost in my imagination of what the tens of millions of immigrants must have thought as they moved across New York Harbor to Ellis Island. What did the Statue of Liberty mean to them when they first saw it?

I was on one of the New York Harbor ferries that transport tourists from Manhattan to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. With me were my United Methodist young adult missionary peers, a collection of 10 people from all over the United States who had been sent out for 2-3 years to serve in children's homes, youth centers, homeless service centers, and advocacy organizations (among others). We had converged on New York City to celebrate the completion of our terms and to continue our commitment to justice in the world.

But what would that look like? What does the future ever look like?

In the last two years I had served in the national office of Interfaith Worker Justice, working diligently to help coordinate campaigns, facilitate communication, and make sure the logistical i's and t's were dotted and crossed. IWJ had sent me to Madison, Wisconsin at the high point of union protests in February 2011 and then to Indianapolis in January of this year just before right-to-work legislation passed in the Indiana state house. Outside of the IWJ context, I had developed roots in the near-South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, getting involved in a little Lutheran church, helping to form a new grassroots power organization, and living the daily chaos that is my housing co-op.

I brought those memories, and many, many others, with me to the US-2 missionary end-terms. And my peers brought their own triumphs, setbacks, pains, and joys with them to share with the rest of us and with the staff of the General Board of Global Ministries.

However, we didn't just come together to share our individual pasts. As young adult missionaries, we learned about the uglier sides of church and society--how people are excluded and oppressed for a large array of reasons. While we mourned the pain of those experiences, we also got righteously pissed off. How can we as a church deny the full humanity of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer sisters and brothers? How can we collectively wash our hands clean of the blood that runs in the production and distribution lines of goods we use every day? How can we claim vitality by consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands, leaving all but the already privileged and powerful out in the dark?

We couldn't, wouldn't, and didn't claim such preposterously anti-Christ-like ideas. In response to our collective sharing, we made the compact to continue our mission, though under different auspices. We were leaving our placement sites for grad school, seminary, and the larger workforce, but we would continue to carry our commission with us. We do not need the hands of a bishop to urge us to justice, though we sure do hope that bishops will join us in our missional lives.

A few years ago, I learned from a Dominican priest at the Universidad Católica de Argentina that we can look at our lives as perpetual pilgrimages. David Wildman at Global Ministries would argue that we are all migrants, "undocumented Christians", living in an increasingly hostile world. So we wander, guided by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, in the missional life where we cannot return to the ignorance of a materialist, middle-class life.

In the missional life, I live in solidarity with the tens of millions of people who left all they knew to find a new home, beginning at Ellis Island. In the missional life, missio dei connects me to my young adult missionary peers and the global, apostolic and catholic church.

In the missional life, what I call the Red Poppy Fields, I hope to find you there, too.

Monday, June 18, 2012

10 Lessons I Learned from Dad

It may come a day late, but I was hoping that a Father's Day card I wrote four years would somehow reappear in my parents' house in Pennsylvania. My plan was to copy down the text and upload it to this blog.  My ever-suffering mother couldn't find it, which means that  it can't be found. Period.

In any case, when I was wishing my dad a happy Father's Day from 700 miles away, we did come up with a majority of the points from that card. I had written it early on the morning of a Sunday in June 2008, just before I left for my summer internship at a church 30 miles away. I recall that it remained on my folks' refrigerator for a year or two.

10 LESSONS I LEARNED FROM DAD 
10. Anything can be fixed with enough duct tape. 
9. Keep that left arm straight, your head down, and enjoy the walk. 
8. CHECK YOUR DAMN OIL. 
7. It's not so weird to have Enya, the Who, and Jay-Z on the same playlist. 
6. Don't point that muzzle at nobody. 
5. 99% of lawyers give the other 1% a bad name. 
4. Once you've spread few yards of tanbark, you're allowed a few cuss words now and again. 
3. Knowing why the guy need $10 for gas isn't as important as actually giving him $10 for gas. 
2. If your crazy idea didn't work out, then it probably came your own head and not from God. 
1. Remember to treat the janitor the exact same way you treat the bishop.

Thanks, Dad, for all the lessons over the years. I bet you've got some more for me yet to come.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dinner with Jesus and the CEO


The communion table is the ultimate Christian dinner table.
Wait, is that a can of Red Bull? (Photo by Tom Gaulke)
A few weeks ago I participated in a workshop at the Chicago Temple called “Resetting the Table”. It opened with a theological reflection from a professor at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in which our 21st century American society was compared to sitting down around a table for dinner. The professor posed 5 questions:
·         Who gets to sit at the table?
·         How are the seats arranged?
·         Do the elements served nourish the body?
·         What bonds are formed around the table?
·         And in whose name is the meal blessed?

Considering that I live in a co-op with seven roommates, these questions have quite direct implications on how I eat my kale and pasta at night.

The other important consideration is that this symposium took place only two weeks before NATO came to Chicago and in the middle of a national effort to get into shareholder meetings of the country’s largest companies. And about a week after the United Methodist Church General Conference.

Generally, I like to like to imagine that people get an equal shot to come to the dinner table; that no one has a more important seat than another; that the meal will help keep me healthy; that I become closer to the folks slurping soup around me; and we bless the meal in the name of God, our Creator and Redeemer. I like to think that generally our democratic systems in government, corporations, and churches run this way, too, though maybe in more secular terms for government and in corporations.

But that’s not the way it often works. Here’s an example.

On May 23 the CME Group, also known as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, held its shareholders’ meeting at the iconic Chicago Board of Trade building. To give you an idea of how important that is, Forbes Magazine called CME one of "the four companies that control the 140 companies that own everything.”  Corporations are ultimately accountable to the shareholders that own the corporation’s stock, so this was a big deal.

Last year CME Group threatened to leave the state of Illinois unless it received a billion dollars in tax breaks over the next 15 years. Illinois was and is facing record budget deficits, and now the state legislature is looking to cut $1.6 billion dollars of funding for health care for the poorest people in Illinois. Despite this fact, the legislature gave in to the CME’s demands and Illinois residents will pay the ransom for years to come.

That meal is poison for a state with the third-highest home foreclosure rate in the United States. How were the seats around that decision-making table set? In whose name was that meal blessed?

We live in a world where many, many people only have access to the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table. People of color, people without proper immigration documents, people with felony convictions, people who are attracted to the folks of the same sex, perpetually can’t eat at this dinner table. In fact, very few of us can eat at that dinner table.

Stamp on the hand of a friend who entered
the CME Group shareholder meeting. 
(Photo by Joe Hopkins)
Several people I know tried to go to the dinner table at the CME’s shareholder meeting. They had to show that they had shares of stock, and then their hands were stamped to show that they had only one share. When they asked the CEO about how nourishing the elements are for the people of Illinois, they were rebuffed. It was clear in whose name the meal was blessed.

I know that many people are debating the role of public protests this spring. Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement have people talking about it. When is it okay to set up tents in a public park? Is it out of order to keep singing in the middle of General Conference?

Jesus talked a lot about the dinner table, in fact a lot more than he did about homosexuality. And when Jesus talked about the dinner table, he included the despised people who normally would never eat with a CEO or a defense minister. And Jesus even deliberately disobeyed the rules during dinner.

Dear friends, let’s look at our dinner tables. Who gets to eat there? How are the seats arranged? Is the food good to eat? Are we becoming closer together as children of God? Do we take God’s name seriously when we say grace? I think we will find heartbreaking answers to these questions if we answer them honestly.

However, I know that the Spirit of God moves around the dinner table. The doors will burst open, and it won’t even matter what language you speak or what your immigration status is or what crime you were convicted for or who you have sex with. God is so much bigger than all of that.

And when you feel that Spirit whip around in tongues of fire, how will you respond?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Overcoming the American Undercaste


I caught up with the rather ragged band of walkers in front of a McDonalds in the Chicago suburb of Homewood. I learned that the stop was unplanned—the planned rest stop was at a Walmart a mile further south—but kids stopped to use the public bathroom anyway. It was starting to get chilly, so I was glad that I had brought my fleece jacket. Sunset was less than 2 hours away, and it was going to get colder before I left.

One of the marchers receives treatment for
 foot blisters.
The procession had started the previous day, March 30, in the Little Village neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. They had garnered some media attention at a press conference where they decried current immigration enforcement practices and demanded that the construction of a new detention center in Crete, Illinois halt. Their procession wouldn’t stop until April 1 at the gates of the construction site, about 30 miles away. I walked with them for only a few hours on Saturday, so I didn’t have the bleeding blisters that I saw on some of the walkers.

It is a difficult but perhaps also a hopeful time for immigrants and their allies. The Obama administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other American executive, but opponents still claim that current federal law is soft on illegal immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments for and against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, called SB1070, and we should know their decision in June. A little ironically, we have also learned that a majority of babies born in the United States today are non-white, with Latinos coming in second after the white plurality.

I feel that we as a country are coming to a tipping point. With Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, more and more people are becoming aware of enforcement policies that are harming people of color. Public outcry is growing against the privatization of prisons and detention centers, like the one that may still be built in Crete, IL. Awareness of economic disparities is at a generational high due to the continued effects of the Great Recession and the Occupy movement.

Picture drawn by child of a deported immigrant, exhibited at
"Locked Out" conference at University of Illinois-Chicago
on April 5.
In my work with the Interfaith Worker Justice Worker CenterNetwork, worker advocates constantly find that one of workers’ greatest fears is that if they report abuses on the job, they will be fired, deported, and separated from their families. Many employers intentionally hire undocumented workers for the reason that they will not complain when they are paid well below minimum wage, not receive overtime pay, or report injuries that would require workers’ compensation. It is often a business decision that helps the company’s bottom line but keeps workers in a distinct undercaste.

This undercaste is growing in the United States. Not only does it include undocumented immigrants, but African Americans who are targeted by unnecessary drug laws and enforcement are perpetually funneled there as well. Like undocumented immigrants, convicted felons also must endure all sorts of abuses at work because of legal discriminatory employment practices. That is to say, convicted felons will take and keep jobs where they are regularly underpaid and abused because they still have to pay their bills.

How can people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, who weekly and sometimes daily confess their dependence on divine grace, support this 21st century caste system? Is there such a profound disconnect between our pews and the prisons where societal debtors are kept out of view? Are we so deluded in our visions of the American Dream that we fall into the trap of the goats of Matthew 25?

Sisters and brother, we must open our eyes. Look around and you’ll see groups like the walkers who held mass at the gates of the Crete detention center. That group included students, Teamsters, an Episcopal priest, a few anarchists, and members of local congregations. What keeps us from walking with them?

In the words of the prophet Isaiah and as Jesus of Nazareth repeated, this is the year of the Lord’s favor. Let us proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18). In the Spirit of the Easter resurrection and the upcoming Pentecost, let us move our deadened feet and open our dumb mouths.

Walkers going south on Halsted Street.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holy conferencing, Batman!

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.” 
 
John Wesley, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer

I often feel that I am out of the loop when it comes to matters United Methodist. Yes, I have been (and continue to be) a member of a United Methodist church since I was confirmed at age 11. Yes, I am a certified candidate for United Methodist ministry. And yes, I am a commissioned young adult missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

And yet I have had so much trouble understanding the conflicts that have been brewing in the run-up to the 2012 General Conference. I’d like to blame this confusion on how I currently attend a Lutheran church and work for an interfaith organization. I’d like to think that because of the vast amount of time I spend outside of the auspices of United Methodist influence, I am an outsider and so am confused about General Conference.

I don't know how to say this, but it's kind of a big deal.
However, if my logic is that if I am confused about General Conference, I must therefore be an outsider, frankly, I estimate 95% of United Methodists are outsiders. Ouch.

Many other people can talk better about the specific issues that General Conference will consider. I suggest the official United Methodist website for one perspective and the Methodist Federation for Social Action for another. But I want to talk about a concept I’ve been hearing a lot as I educate myself about General Conference.

That is vital congregations.

Many of the dramatic restructuring proposals claim to encourage the growth of vital congregations. The logic is to let local congregations and annual conferences make their own decisions without so much bureaucratic oversight, and congregations will be able to do what they do best. Which is…well, I guess that differs parish to parish. Parishes that are shrinking and disappearing.

Well, shoot.

What makes a vital congregation? How can we possibly measure vitality? It’s the conundrum that large, quasi-federalist churches have struggled with for generations. Speaking as young person from what I’ll call the Millennial generation (I was 11 when we entered the 21st century), it’s really, really hard to see vitality from the outside. And unlike past generations, when we see ethical and moral rot by people within the church, we have other places to go. My generation is awfully jaded and impatient, and we’re not afraid to leave if we smell a hint of hypocrisy.

However, because of that, when we find authentic community, where people are comfortable enough with themselves and each other that they willingly share their hurt and brokenness, we stay. When we can share our own doubts and suffering at the hands of supposedly Christian people and we get empathy in return, we stay. When we can share our ideas that seem so crazy and out-of-sync with tradition and get the opportunity to try it out, we will definitely stay. I might like it so much that I’ll even take off my cap during service because you asked me nicely.

This is vitality. The congregation not only praises God for how wonderfully she made the earth but also shares in the sharp pains of how we’ve messed that earth up. Vitality isn’t all smiles and confidence; it’s also tears and doubts. Vital congregations make space for that.

So great. How do get there? I argue that while any social change must occur at a grassroots level (i.e. local parishes), that space is shaped and limited by the grass-tops decisions (i.e. General Conference). In order to be truly vital, while congregations do the very, very hard work of self-reflection, they must also look outward for opportunities live out the revelations God gives them through tradition, scripture, reason, and personal experience. This is where agencies like the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and other general boards and commissions have a very, very important place.

As United Methodists, while we seek authenticity in our communities, we need challenges. In community organizing, we call this agitation. Vital congregations will embrace these challenges, and outsiders will take notice. General Conference will shape how congregations embrace the challenges inside the parish and outside of it.

I pray that my sisters and brother who will be engagin “holy conferencing” next week also embrace these challenges.

Friday, April 6, 2012

At the Foot of the Cross: Our Fleshly Connection

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
- John 19:25-27

"The Crucifixion" by El Greco
At the foot of the cross, Jesus wasn’t alone.

Yes, his dudes and bros, his lieutenants and committeemen, even the rock on whom Jesus would build his church, they all left Jesus. I guess they all figured that the movement couldn’t continue if they’re all dead or in prison. That could be good sense for movement building.

Except we know that not all of Jesus’ followers abandoned him. The people that the text identifies were some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, the ones who accompanied Jesus even to the foot of the cross.

And Jesus recognized them.

As an organizer, I think what Jesus says to the last folks still with him is amazing. These words make my eyes widen, my mouth hang open, and keeps me in awed silence. For all the militancy and revolution that I like to find in the teachings of Jesus, these last instructions are anything but an action plan.

This isn’t a hyper-masculine climax where the epic hero shouts “FREEEEDOM!” in a voice that thunders through the hills and awakes the clans to bloody glory.

This is a much more nurturing, compassionate interaction. Like a mother to a child. Like a lover to a beloved. It is an intimate whisper, a whisper that draws one’s partner close.

Jesus, in his last teaching to his disciples who accompanied him to the very end, creates a space for life-giving relationship. I hear him invoking the cry of the ancient adam, the “groundling” which God created from the earth, “This at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” the isha, my companion, my accompanier.

At the foot of the cross Jesus reminds us, even in the midst of torture, how we should see one another. A son. A mother. A sister. A brother. Born of the flesh wrought by God the Creator, whom we are to love above all else.

At the foot of the cross Jesus reminds us, even in the midst of great injustice, how we should care for one another, sustain one another, love one another.

At the foot of the cross we remember, even in the midst of the blood of Christ which is the blood of our Mother-Father God, we are connected by the labor pains of the second birth.

Let us respond to this final, intimate whisper as did the disciple whom Jesus loved. Let us take one another into our homes and into our lives and into our hearts.

Amen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lift Up Your Voice Like Trumpet

"Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!"
- Isaiah 58:1

I remember when I was in college as an undergrad at Bucknell University, my response to learning about mass, systemic injustice and oppression was revulsion. I had grown up believing that the United States is a nation founded and maintained by Christian values. Then I learned about so many programs that continue to oppress ethnic and religious minorities, women, and poor folks who were an awful lot like my neighbors in central Pennsylvania.

So I tried to remove myself from the system, and I called myself a Christian anarchist. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I still admire intentional communities that practice radically counter-cultural lifestyles.

However, I soon also learned how transforming bad policies, especially government policies, can have an enormous, positive impact on people. For example, imagine how the country would benefit if all immigrants could confidently join our political systems without fear of detention and deportation. Friends, that’s a beautiful vision.

The hard part is how we get there. Over the past 30 years, across the nation it has become unpopular to stand on our Christian, and yes, our Methodist values to advocate justice for the oppressed. I was a product of that movement, but now I stand firm on Christian scripture, church tradition, human reason, and my personal experiences to confidently advocate for justice.

US-2 peer Marjorie Hurder and I in front of
the Supreme Court during the Ecumenical
Advocacy Days.
I attended the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. as a United Methodist young adult missionary and future seminarian. We were unafraid in speaking the name of Jesus in the same breath as “health care” and “budget.” We were unafraid in praying for our elected and appointed government leaders.

And we were unafraid to talk about our faith in Jesus Christ even in the offices of our elected leaders. I shared my personal story of how my neighbors on the South Side of Chicago joined with a campaign to shut down one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States. I shared how my sisters and brother in my local parish could not stand to sacrifice our neighbors’ health to the god Mammon, which in the United States is denoted with a dollar sign. I shared how we won that fight—that power plant will stop polluting the South Side by the end of 2012.

Sisters and brothers, God gives us a voice to sing praises for God has done, is doing, and will do. But God also gives us a voice to speak up when others are silenced. This is what advocacy is. We use our voices in worship services, bible study, and in one-on-relationships with one another.

We also use our voices in public. I think it’s so appropriate that the Ecumenical Advocacy Days came one week before Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem. Jesus was making a Daily Show-style mockery of the political system of the day, and a lot people tuned in. When the powerful people from Capitol Hill demanded that his followers stop shouting and show some respect, Jesus answered, “If these keep silent, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40).

Sisters and brothers, why should we let the stones have all the fun?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fer da neighborhood: why I'm staying in Chicago for seminary

"It's not what you're doing, and it's not how you're doing it. It's that you're doing it to us."
- retired cop in Bridgeport, Chicago


"Would you like to hear the good news or the better news first?", asked Howard, the admissions officer. I like it when people begin a conversation like that.

I had that conversation three weeks ago when I found out that not only was I accepted to Chicago Theological Seminary, but they were also offering me a merit scholarship of 80% of tuition. CTS was my top choice seminary. Case closed.

View of downtown Chicago skyline from U.S. Cellular Field
But maybe that begs the question, "why Chicago Theological Seminary?" CTS has a great reputation in Chicago for academic rigor and social involvement, but it's not one of the dozen or so United Methodist-affiliated seminaries that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) pushes so hard. And I had heard from several people that it was unlikely that CTS would be able to offer a very good financial aid package. I even have to admit that prior to November of last year, CTS wasn't even in the top 5 of my seminary choices. So really...why Chicago Theological Seminary?

Confession--it has less to do with CTS and more to do with my adopted home neighborhood. The only way to stay in Bridgeport was to go to CTS.

Bridgeport is located about four miles southwest of Chicago's downtown, the Loop, and about two miles west of the lakefront. The Chicago River/canal makes the northern border of the neighborhood, separating it from the predominately Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. It has working class roots with a mix of Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Polish, and Germans making up the white population in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Irish were there first, building the canal for 10 cents a day--and whiskey. The Germans came in as bricklayers who built the Lutheran church that I attend now. On certain days I can smell the wafting fumes of a meatpacking plant, somehow leftover from the now razed Union Stockyards that were just south of Bridgeport.

It has a reputation for being one of the most racist neighborhoods in Chicago, which in its own right is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. I've heard stories about how Chicago police would pick up some unfortunate African American for some minor infraction or other, but instead of booking him, they would just drop him off by one of the Irish bars. Back in the 1990's an African-American man was beaten to death by a group of Catholic schoolboys in Bridgeport.

It's also home to the quintessential Chicago political machine. Bridgeport has produced mayors that have ruled the Windy City for a combined 68 years since 1933. The Mayors Daley (Richard J. and Richard M.) were mayor for 21 and 22 years respectively. Whereas most ward offices occupy a small storefront, the 11th Ward of Bridgeport has its own 2-story building on corner of 37th and Halsted.

21st century Bridgeport is a little different than the one Mike Royko described in his columns, however. Whites make up less than half of the population, while Chinese from Chinatown and Latinos from Pilsen and Little Village move into the houses that the whites abandoned. All but one of Daleys--a Cook County Democratic committeeman, of course--has left, and now more chic restaurants, bars, and art galleries open every day. It's one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.

I landed in Bridgeport by accident back in late summer of 2010. Two North Side co-ops had rejected me with less than a month before my cross-country move from central Pennsylvania. Luckily, the office manager of my organization, Interfaith Worker Justice, found a Lutheran church that rents rooms in an apartment and the old parsonage. I didn't expect to stay there, but something happened. I fell in love with the community.

It really happened while I was organizing to shut down the nearby coal-fired power plant. As I had conversations with folks in the neighborhood, I saw that Bridgeport was really a lot like the small town I had grown up in back in Pennsylvania--just on the South Side of Chicago. However, it's a changing neighborhood, and judging by the TIF districts, it's going to change faster soon.

Bridgeport is a place that I can call home as I deconstruct, reconstruct, and synthesize my theology at seminary. There's no bubble to hide in, and I love that. I can apply the principles of liberation and incarnation as I do community organizing with Bridgeport Alliance, my neighbors' answer to the largely ineffective 11th Ward machinery. I have no choice but to look at my neighbors in the eyes, because they won't accept anything else.

2011 Oktoberfest worship service at First Trinity Luthehan Church
I recently had a great one-on-one conversation with a retired cop who is very active in First Trinity Lutheran Church. He gave me great insight into the cultural and political underpinnings of the neighborhood. A week later he mentioned to me that a "great philosopher" had once told him something that had a great impact on him: "It's not what you do, and it's not how you're doing it. It's that you're doing it to us." After a long pause he muttered, "whatever the hell that means."

But that just the thing. Theology, politics, and other contact sports happen in places like Bridgeport a lot more often than in the laboratory of the academy. Bridgeport folks can be some of the most forgiving and gracious folks you could ever want to meet, but they are who they are. If they don't like you...well, you won't stick around long in that case.

What better place to prepare me for the itinerant nature of Methodist parish ministry?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Running to win: victory in the clean power campaign

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.
-          1 Corinthians 9:24

I love long-distance running. Ever since I started doing cross country during my junior year of high school in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, running has been one of the ways that I reconnect with the earth and my body. However, I occasionally run competitively as well, and that’s a different kind of running. I watch my pace more, put my head down as I ascend hills, and always save just a bit of extra energy for the “kick” in the last 400 meters.

I often compare long-distance running to organizing for social change. They’re both endurance sports, so don’t get involved unless you’re willing to commit a substantial amount of personal time, emotional energy, and physical activity to the point of exhaustion. Once you’ve gone on for a while, the fastest way home is just keep running. Victories usually come in the form of personal records, not headline-making races.

However, I recently saw a huge victory that made headlines in all the news outlets in Chicago. The Chicago Clean Power Coalition has been working to shut down or clean up Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants for 10 years. The group includes the environmental groups, student organizations, labor unions, and community based organizations. Bridgeport Alliance, the neighborhood group that my neighbors and I started with the help of the South Side network SOUL, officially joined the coalition as soon as we settled on a name last December.

I learned about Fisk power plant last July when a couple of Sierra Club organizers came to my near South Side church.  I learned about how Fisk and Crawford put deadly levels of particulate matter into the one of the most densely populated areas in the country—and Fisk was only about a mile away from my doorstep. I checked out the peer-reviewed articles from Harvard, and, having been sufficiently convinced of its evil, I started gathering petitions and going to actions.

Bridgeport organizing really kicked into gear when a Green Corps organizer was assigned to the neighborhood. Soon we had a visible base out in the streets, bars, and coffee shops and we were collecting signatures and photo-petitions challenging Chicago and corporate leaders to put people over their profits. Clean power came to mean more than only green energy but also a more transparent, inclusive decision-making process. Through these efforts, Bridgeport Alliance was born and was turning dozens of people to events.

It was an incredibly exciting autumn for me. Soon it became clear that we were part of marathon relay team, and we were running the last leg of the race. Today the Chicago Sun-Times broke the story about how Mayor Emmanuel and Midwest Generation had reached an agreement to shut down Fisk by December 31st of this year. Victory.

Of course, like long-distance running, after a victory, we can’t simply stop. That invites cramps, so runners need to run a cool-down. And then we still have miles to run to stay on track for our training regimen.  Too often our elected officials claim victory prematurely, and their constituents settle back only see the problem continue. Many community organizations accepted donations from Midwest Generation essentially as hush money, but that funding will disappear without a good community benefits agreement. And of course we still have hundreds of acres of contaminated industrial property in our backyard.

Though we still have a lot of work to do, a victory gives me some time to reflect on the race. The campaign has had a profound effect on me. Because of the neighborhood outreach we did, I fell in love with Bridgeport and committed to living there for another three years as I study theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. This victory wets my appetite to continue organizing my neighbors so that we can keep our unresponsive local government accountable.

I’ll be thinking about these things when I run the Shamrock Shuffle on March 25. I’ll be running for a prize.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On power and repentance: community organizing during Lent

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”
-          Joel 2:12-13

“We want to see our values in the world today. And how do we do that?” asked the trainer.

“By building power!” we responded.

“And what is power?” asked the trainer.

“The ability to act!” we responded.

“And what are the two sources of power?”

“Organized people and organized money!”

“How do we organize people?”

“Through their self-interest!”

This was an exchange that I participated in several times throughout last week at Cedar Lake, Indiana. It was probably the most intense training I’d ever done, a sort of community organizing boot camp. We came from all over the upper Midwest, and while we worked on a variety of campaigns—shutting down dirty coal power plants, fighting foreclosure of homes, divestment from the big banks—we did share a common goal that week.

We wanted to learn to build power.

The ironic part is that as I do my one-on-one meetings to identify my neighbors’ self-interest (more on that methodology here), I have ashes on my forehead. While I cut issues and do power-analyses, I contemplate my own mortality. As I plan effective meetings with my partners in the newly formed Bridgeport Alliance, I practice self-denial and penitence.

Like the season of advent, Lent is a Christian liturgical season of preparation, fasting, and penitence. It seems like an unlikely counterpoint to the community organizing that my neighbors and I are currently doing on the near South Side of Chicago. Often in organizing we tap into our anger about how the world around us is so different than the one we want desperately to see, but Lent is about seeking humility as we approach the immanent suffering of the cross of Christ.

However, Lent is also a season of repentance, or better said, metanoia, the Greek term that appears in the New Testament and for which English has no perfect, exact translation. I’ve heard that the concept goes beyond the guilt and self-correction that often goes along with repentance. Metanoia is more like a reorientation of one’s heart and mind, but it also requires action. It requires the changing of old habits so that we can begin the long sanctification process which, at least as far as I can tell, has no end.

If we look at Lent as a season of metanoia and sanctification, then really organizing for power in my South Side neighborhood is an appropriate response to the imposition of ashes. Towards what end are my neighbors and I oriented? Is this same end that the residents of the metaphorical Clout Street?
Methodists’ ancestor is faith, John Wesley, stressed how while Christians must be disciplined in our quest for personal holiness, we must also always be just as disciplined in our quest for social holiness.

I learned some things about that discipline at that powerful training in Indiana last week. After all, if I will return to the dust anyway, what will I lose by running the race to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24)?

On the contrary, we have a pretty good shot at winning.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Crossroads of America: faith, labor, and "right-to-work" in Indiana

Most of the folks that I worked with in Indianapolis went through the day at an absolutely break-neck pace, but that was inside the political vortex that had engulfed the Indiana statehouse for nearly a year. Outside the vortex, I found a different pace and different perspective that perhaps was best encapsulated by a two-minute conversation with a custodian.

When my coworker and I explained our role in organizing faith-based opposition to Indiana’s “right-to-work” bill, the custodian grinned at us and said, “You know, right-to-work sounds really good, but if the politicians want it so badly, it can’t be that good.”

After several weeks of speaking with clergy, labor officials, juridical leaders, and lay members, no quote better voices the popular ambivalence to the so-called “right-to-work” law that the Indiana General Assembly recently passed.

To give just a bit of background, “right-to-work” refers to a kind of state law that bars labor unions from including provisions in their collective bargaining agreements that require their members to pay dues. It originates from section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act, a union-reform bill which was passed in 1947 (and needed Congress to override President Truman’s veto). Since then, 22 states have enacted such laws, most of them in the virulently anti-union South. Indiana is the first state in more than 10 years to pass a right-to-work law, and it is the first Midwestern Rust Belt state to do so.

I think we can confidently say that America is at a crossroads in Indiana, just like the state motto proclaims.
I came to Indiana to help engage faith communities in the opposition effort against “right-to-work”. It can be a hard issue to explain quickly, and given the crisis-level activity in the legislature, including a 5-week walk-out by Democratic representatives in 2011, faith leaders often regard the right-to-work issue as “too partisan” to bring up in their community. The interesting part is that when I talked with “just-folks” Hoosiers, they were always very interested in the subject, even if they disagreed with my politics. However, in our sound-bite news cycle, people couldn’t find a place to talk about right-to-work without shouts or threats from either side.
For this reason, the local interfaith coalition set up several public forums where folks could learn about the right-to-work issue. We always made sure to invite representatives from both sides to participate. I, for one, am confident that in an open, honest debate people will realize how harmful and, as one South Side Indy resident put it, anti-social right-to-work is.

One of the best faith-based analogies goes like this: One day after a worship service, a man greets the pastor and tells her how much he likes the church—the worship service, scripture study, fellowship times, outreach—all of it. In fact, he likes it so much that he wants to be a deacon of the church. The pastor says, “Well, that sounds like a great idea. Let’s sit down later and see how we can make that happen.” But the man interrupts her. “Just one more thing that I think you should know, reverend. I don’t feel that members of church need to tithe, so don’t expect me to give any money.”

It’s an imperfect analogy because faith communities and labor unions obviously operate differently, but it shows the basic conflict that the right-to-work laws introduce. Right-to-work justifies the concept of a free lunch. Labor unions spend a great deal of money in organizing workers and in collective bargaining, money that comes from members’ dues. According to federal law, labor unions still must represent members even if they do not pay dues, and that slowly but surely eats away at the effectiveness of the union.

Proponents claim that right-to-work frees workers from having to financially support a union that they don’t politically support, which is superficially true. Then again, going back to the “tithing-optional” analogy, that is also like refusing to financially support their faith community for that same reason. It’s all well and good—until the building’s roof caves in.

We live in a cynical time, and unions and faith communities alike are suffering materially from that cynicism. The caretaker for one of the venues where we held a public forum was seriously afraid that the participants would “tear the place up” because there were union activists in the audience. In the public forums we held, more than once I heard someone snarkily quip about Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

The folks I worked with in Indianapolis were not all like the former Teamster president. In fact, they were very much like the church folks I worked with—honest, hard-working, compassionate, concerned for the future. Inside and outside the vortex of activity that is the Indiana statehouse, that concern for the future resonates in a most non-partisan way.

Faith communities responded almost always in positive ways when I asked them to act in opposition to the right-to-work bill. People of faith, while not always having a deep understanding of labor law, have an intimate understanding of mutual care, what Christian traditions term loving your neighbor as yourself, and of unity through faith. Right-to-work effectively drives a wedge between workers, weakening all of them. When people of faith understand that, they respond as their faith compels them—to action.

I remember a man at one of the public forums we held—the same guy who was afraid that the union folks would “tear the place up”. When my colleagues and I went to leave for the night, Thomas held us up, sharing with us how his view of unions and the right-to-work bill had changed. He linked his new understanding  to his own testimony as a Christian and to his conviction that God empowers the weak to do awesome things.

Amen, brother Thomas. Nobody inside the Indiana political vortex could say it better.