Light in Dark Times

As a student working towards my PhD, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many amazing students, professors, and administrators. The majority of these individuals, which I guess is not all that surprising considering my education has occurred at a public university in the Northeast, can correctly be labeled as “liberal and secular.” They tend to be liberal in the sense that their politics and outlook on society fall neatly in line with the Democratic Party, and secular in that most express no religious affiliation and no real understanding of religious teachings or traditions.

I make no secret of my deeply held political views. I consider myself a Pacifist, Democratic-Socialist (this might disqualify me from ever being President of the United States, but I’m a dues paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)), and an Evangelical Christian. The first two rarely get much attention on a liberal college campus, however, the third self-identification does. I’m always asked, “How are you a Evangelical and not a republican? How are you practicing Evangelical and still so progressive minded?” I love these conversations because it gives me an opportunity to what all narcissists love most and that is talk about myself.

I usually bring up the standard social justice bible verses that a majority of the public has heard (Jesus call for Christians to be peace makers, the Jewish practice of jubilee where debts are erased and the poor given access to food, the first apostles communal living arrangements, etc.). What I often find myself answering most from people who are interested in why I hold progressive political views while holding fairly conservative religious beliefs is a question that I must say really upsets me. So often, especially since 2016, I’m asked “why do your fellow Christians support Donald Trump? His life is so immoral.” My reply, which I admit is not a very well thought out piece of political analysis, is usually something like “I think Christians recognized that President Trump is a flawed man, however, they tend appreciate his policies which they view as being in line with God’s will.”

My current doctoral work is focused on the role Intellectuals have played in the Conservative drive to roll back the benefits of the welfare state. In simple terms: I’m trying to understand why Conservative thinkers, usually professors who write big policy papers and teach in top universities, believe that things like social security, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. are benefits that should be highly restrictive and not all that generous. I think I chose this topic because of my religious and political beliefs. I’ve been wrestling with the notion that conservatives, who so often are Evangelical Christians, can be opposed to things that “outsiders” and people that do not share our faith assume Christians would be happy to support. I guess I wanted an answer to the question I’m frequently asked “if Jesus wants you guys to love your neighbors than why are you all so often against allowing the government to help people?”

I haven’t found the answers to these questions. What I have found, and continue to find, are more examples of what I’ve come to label “Christianity at its worst.” I reflect and meditate on these issues not because I want to add to the growing list of complaints that are often thrown on Evangelical Christians. Rather, I think and pray about them constantly because I believe that Christians are much better than the picture we give to the outside world. I also, and this may be a bit naïve, believe that most Christians simply need to be better informed. I tend to tell myself “its not that Evangelical Christians are mean by default. I think that in a busy world with so much going on it’s hard to have a clear spirit filled belief on every topic.” At times I feel a burden to try where I can to educate my brothers and sisters in Christ on certain topics.

One topic that I have written about and have discussed with Christians at length is immigration. Most Evangelicals are just like the rest of America. They are afraid that lax immigration leaves the United States prone to potential invasion and think if someone enters the country illegal they must face punishment. Usually, but not all the time, Christians simply see illegal immigration as a crime that must be punished like all other crimes. These are all fine arguments that I understand and disagree with. However, what so often I don’t hear is a scriptural argument for these stances.

As Christians we are exhorted to live not by “Bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Christ wants us to not “conform to this world but be transformed through Christ love and salvation.” In essence, we are not supposed to conduct ourselves in the same manner as everyone else. We are to be beacons of light, hope, and compassion. We are to be the moral salt in a world that has become bland to seeking justice.

In the Washington Post today I read a quick “update” on where the Department of Health and Human Services is in implementing a policy to deal with increased traffic on the border. The story stated that the Trump Administration is looking at options for placing children in “foster homes, unused summer camps, or in military installations.” The article explained that children who are separated from their parents as a result of their detainment for trying to “cross the border illegally” will soon be relocated to one of the three options mentioned before.

This brings to mind Deuteronomy. In the book of Deuteronomy God informs the Jewish people that children “shall not be punished for the sins of their parents.” God deliberately prohibits children from receiving any retribution for the acts of their Fathers and Mothers. God, who is the ultimate arbiter of justice in the Old Testament, is making a clear judicial distinction for what can be considered “reasonable punishment.”

Jesus, in the New Testament, often brings many of these Old-Testament laws into a better light. Jesus explains to his followers that children are what we all should aspire to. Jesus lets us know that children, both literally and figuratively, have a special place in the kingdom of god and should have a special place in our daily lives.

This circles back to the issue of President Trump. It also brings us back to the question “If Christians believe in Jesus than why do they support President Trump?” It begs Christians to ask,  “Are we living out our faith with fear and trembling?” Are we ensuring that “in welcoming aliens we unknowingly entertained angels?” Does our political stance square with our public witness to those who are not saved?

I’m hopeful that Christ is at work in the lives of us all. I’m also hopeful that Christians stop, pray, and think how best we can serve as a wake up call to a world begging for peace, love, and salvation. Can we anymore justify the President’s actions with statements like “it’s the liberal media attacking him? I know he isn’t a saint but still he supports the Christian agenda.” Can we allow a President, who as many political scientists have found won the election only as a result of the Evangelical vote, to “punish children for the sins of their mothers and fathers.” Or can we be the force that propels our world to stop, think, and move towards justice, hope, and light?

 

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The Gospel: as Performed by Katy Perry

I’ve been reading a lot of “Critical Theory” in preparation for my Doctoral Dissertation. Critical Theory, to give a really quick and crude explanation, essentially tries to understand society by looking at the ways our economy and psychological processing interact to produce culture, art, and personal beliefs. It can be very interesting and at times very boring.

One of the interesting concepts in Critical Theory that philosophers who adhere to this school of thought examine, are the importance of “low-culture” (think pop culture, the Kardashians, Love and Hip Hop, etc.) .To the Critical Theorists “low-culture” rarely serves to teach people anything. Most Critical Theorists believe that “low-culture” keeps society selfish, mean, and overall narcissistic.

I tend to agree with the Critical Theorists. Although I do watch and consume a lot of what can be considered “low-culture” I will consume things arguably considered “high-culture” to balance out my diet and atone for the sin of enjoying sleazy reality TV. I believe, in accordance with Cultural Theory, that there is no shortage of popular culture that adds to our societies propensity for greed, violence, nationalism, and exploitation.

As a Christian I tend to think that most of us agree in some form with the analysis made by Critical Theorists. I know there is no shortage of Christians that as a rule assume every Super-Bowl halftime show will end in debauchery. However, I think if we look at things with a more open mind we might be shocked by what occurs in our popular culture.

My wife and kids have become very big fans of American Idol (for the record I have started to enjoy it and watch it with them. I think Justin Guaraní has the possibility to make a big comeback. Who’s with me???).  They particularly enjoy the role Katy Perry plays as the very “happy and inspiring judge”. This has lead them, in particular my wife, to look deeper into her music and some of the interviews she has given over the years.

In one interview Katy Perry explains that she had grown up as a “born again Christian” but has since ceased practicing the faith. The “Born-Again experience” as she proclaims in one interview has not gone completely away. In one song she writes openly about the power God has over her life and how she turned to God in times of personal despair. I have to admit her depth of Christian spirituality shocked me.

Yesterday, while getting ready for work I heard the news say that Katy Perry had apologized to Country star Taylor Swift for their recent feud. As my 9-year-old daughter explained when I asked what the news was talking about “Katy Perry made a song in response to a song Taylor Swift made about Katy Perry. They both don’t like each other so they made songs saying that they were better singers than the other.” While I don’t know the finer details of the argument I was interested to see what details the news story had to offer.

The news shared that Katy Perry had reached out to Taylor Swift personally. They stated that she sent a note and an olive branch (I enjoyed her use of the olive branch. Seems fitting considering her background in the church). It appears that Katy Perry was asking for forgiveness from Taylor Swift and is interested in restarting their relationship.

My daughter, who is a really shrewd judge of social conflict, asked me “why Katy Perry would apologize if all she did was defend herself? Katy didn’t start this fight; all she was doing is just defending herself. It’s Taylor who should be apologizing.” As any good dad who wears cardigan sweaters would do, I thought this would make a good “teaching moment.”

I talked with my daughter and reminded her of Christ’s words that “blessed are the peacemakers.” I explained that regardless of who started the fight and who is truly right or wrong, Jesus only cares about our actions and our hearts. I explained that what Katy Perry did, in apologizing for her role and seeking to make things better with her adversary, is the exact behavior that God wants us all to emulate. My daughter’s response is one I wish to emulate “wow, so Katy Perry is like a really good Jesus person.”

While I don’t know Katy Perry personally, or feel comfortable commenting on anybody’s personal beliefs or spiritual walk, I must say that her actions do make her a “really good Jesus person.” I hope that in the end I exhibit behavior that will make my daughter say of me “wow, my dad is a really good Jesus person.” In the end that is all that really matters.

 

Fear of Practicing What We Preach: Fearing the Bad Apples Misses the Potential Angels in The Current Immigration Debate.

Hebrews 13:2 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

A year ago the New York Times released a detailed investigative report on the lives lost attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. One unidentified victim “Case 0519 carried Psalms and Revelations, torn from a Spanish Bible.” Another victim had “a cross and a few grains of rice” on them when their bodies were discovered and turned over to authorities. These stories, and many more like them, are incredibly heartbreaking and sadly relevant in the wake of the hundreds of Central American migrants currently begging for asylum on the U.S.-Mexican border.

As a Christian who likes to fancy himself “someone who takes the Bible seriously” I have struggled with how best to relate what occurs in the scriptures with what occurs on CNN or Fox News. Yesterday, while waiting to get my oil changed I was treated to an hour of President Trump’s favorite television show ‘Fox and Friends.’ On the show were some family members of victims hurt, killed, and raped by non-documented immigrants. One family member asked the question “if we just kept these people out, my family would not be grieving the loss of a loved one. Our family would still be intact. Why are we even considering letting more of these people in?”

It’s hard to think ideologically when you are face to face with someone that is experiencing such unbelievable grief. I could hear the pain in the voice of the family member and felt, as someone who considers themselves to be way to the Left of liberal, that my political ideology has consequences. I thought, “Maybe people like me who have a dedication to social justice are to blame?” It was a moment of deep self-reflection.

As I went about my day this short segment from ‘Fox and Friends’ kept playing in my mind. I wondered how I would react if the same thing were to happen to someone from my family. I have often been asked the “Michael Dukakis” question. People who know that I consider all taking of human life by the state to be illegitimate and morally evil, often ask if I would hold the same belief if my “wife were raped and murdered.” My response is always unhesitatingly Dukakis like: “Yes I would still be against the death penalty.”

I say this not to boast in my strong adherence to a deep moral confidence. I say this more as a meditation on what it means to be a Christian in a world of increasing hatred, division, and violence. I say this also in reflection of what the Scriptures, which as an Evangelical I believe to be the word of God on all things spiritual and moral, tell me about conducting my life in a fallen world.

In Hebrews we learn directly how God views proper relationship building amongst those that are “strangers in our land.” I often reflect on how hard it must be coming to a new country where you don’t necessarily know the culture, language, or social norms. I wonder how scared you must be to meet someone that doesn’t approve of your coming in to his or her country. I imagine that the immigrant hopes she stumbles upon a Christian who believes in living out Hebrews 13:2 and not one that thinks in agreement with Brother Franklin Graham who stated, “Immigration is not a Bible issue.”

It’s hard to live out the teachings we find in scripture. Loving you neighbor, being a peacemaker, even keeping your heart and lips free from lies and jealousy are incredibly hard to overcome. As Christians we have the Holy Spirit to help us in this endeavor. I have come to believe it was the Holy Spirit that moved the Freedom Riders to face brutal violence in Alabama as they fought for desegregation. I think it was the Holy Spirit that gave spiritual bravery to the young African American college student who chose to sit quietly and read C.S. Lewis while being attacked and verbally abused at a Woolworths lunch counter during the historic “Sit-Ins.” I think it’s the Holy Spirit that allowed “Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths” to posses the bravery to subject himself knowingly to arrest for giving undocumented individuals water in the Desert of Mexico. Scott Warren knowingly followed the Holy Spirit instead of “man’s law” which calls it a crime to give water to a person seeking refuge in the United States.

We may not all be called to display such acts of bravery. However, we are all provided the help of the Holy Spirit to stand brave when times are scary. I pray the Holy Spirit would help me remain strong in times of fear and suffering. I pray the Holy Spirit be with us all as we continue to figure out how we can best make it through our lives in this world of hurt and suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morality in Chains: Where are Christians in The Midst of Suffering?

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus tells the famous and what some refer to as the “least of the these” parable. Jesus tells his followers that the actions you take towards those society condemns as the “least” desirable are remembered deeply by God. Jesus is letting all those who seek to be Christians and live like Jesus must always remember that how we interact with the poor, orphans, widows, disabled, prisoners, etc. will serve as a testament for how we view our relationship with God. In essence, if we love God we will love those that society rejects as “outcasts” and “undesirables.”

In a nation filled with people that profess to be Christians it’s worth taking a second to reflect on a study commissioned by the Industrial Workers of the World. The Study (https://incarceratedworkers.org/news/new-report-documents-poor-quality-food-and-health-care-prisoners) is filled with first hand accounts of the horrors prisoners suffer on a daily basis. From food devoid of any nutrition, to Prison Nurses and Doctors purposely withholding medically necessary treatment, the report is shocking.

Some may be quick to do the cliché “they are criminals. They chose their lot in life why should I care?” However, as a country where the overwhelming majority claims to be Christians are failing to live out his vision.

Lets belabor the point so we can truly think about what this report says regarding our countries moral health. Jesus, from the beginning of his ministry garnered a reputation for befriending people labeled as “undesirable.” From Prostitutes, thieving tax collectors, to even the prisoner who was hung on a Cross next to him, Jesus was never far from those who have been rejected from society as a result of the poor choices they have made. While society runs away from people who are different, rejected, or “odd”, Christ made it a point and commanded all who love him to run towards people whom others would call “deplorable.”

I remember reading a passage from renowned Theologian C.S. Lewis that has stuck with me for years. He was asked about society and the impact strong moral values can have on those countries Social Policies. I don’t remember exactly what he said but it essentially was that “you will know if a country is moral by looking at how it treats its most vulnerable people.” I agree that prisoners have chosen poorly. Left-wing assumptions aside I will even agree that maybe they could have chose better decisions. However, when one becomes a prisoner they instantly become vulnerable. They instantly become what radical Theologian Cornel West might refer to as “blues people.” They become vulnerable to violence, sickness, and depression. They become people that Jesus would most certainly label “the least of these.” I pray we do better as a country to correct this evil. I pray that Christians stake their lot with “the least of these” and end this nightmare.

Finding Truth in Cliché

More and more I ‘ve come to believe that we can find some of the sharpest social criticism in the sometimes vulgar, lowbrow, comedy of Family Guy. In one scene there is a “cut away” to an anti-war activist shouting, “We need to ban nuclear arms. You can’t hug your children with nuclear arms.” The intent is to highlight the sometimes-overwrought cliché that are attached to social and political protest. As a self-proclaimed “Christian pacifist” I admit that even I found it funny to laugh as such a “corny” statement regardless of the political sentiment.

While reading the news and following updates on President Trump’s attacks on Syria I expected to read and hear a lot of familiar cliché. I expected my daily diet of left-wing commentators to shout things like “food not bombs” and “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I agree with these statements but they are used so much their meaning seems stale and a bit useless.

While reading one of my favorite commentators I saw the often-used left-wing cliché “budgets are moral documents.” This commentator was speaking of the government’s budget that included sharp increases on military spending with sharp decreases in social welfare spending. The cliché here is that we can understand the morality of our elected officials by seeing which programs they choose to fund and which programs they cut. While I’ve read, and probably have used, this cliché a thousand times it stuck with me as I thought about the missile attacks on Syria.

Journalist Will Bunch made a point in his column on the “differences in priorities” that the U.S. government was taking with its policy on Syria. Bunch noticed that

“Two numbers really stand out regarding the Syrian missile strike. The first is 105- the number of cruise missiles fired at Syrian targets Friday night, an arsenal that has a cost of roughly $200 million dollars. The other number is 11- the grand total of Syrian refugees that America has accepted so far in 2018. In other words, the number of missiles we fired into Syria because of our concerns for their suffering people is nearly 10 times the number of people we’re willing to offer safe harbor in the United States.”

I believe that Bunch has found the truth that is buried in the often-used cliché. We see the morality of our leaders in the policy decisions they have made.

The context of all this and how we think of policy prescriptions should be centered in scripture. I thought of the verse in First Chronicles 29:14, where King David is thanking God for choosing to save his people from their misery and injustice. King David is so thankful that God has extended his mercy on his people that he observes, ““For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you. For we are aliens and pilgrims before you, as were all our fathers; our days on earth are as a shadow, and without hope.” I know that things are dark for the people of Syria right now. But as a Christians we are nothing if we don’t become like little children and surrender ourselves to “hope.” My hope is that as Christians we will push our decision makers to take a holistic approach to this problem and embrace solutions that promote life. I pray that Christians across the world bear witness to hope and help our Syrian brothers and sisters.

 

 

 

 

The Social Gospel in The Sunshine State

Last week I had the chance to embark on the quintessential American “family vacation.” We did what so many New Yorkers do this time of year and set out for the warmth of Orlando Florida. Aside from taking the kids to various Disney parks we set aside some time for relaxation. While taking my kids to the hotel swimming pool I met a very nice father of two from England. We made some polite remarks, I had a book with me so I have to admit I was hoping he didn’t want to have a lengthy discussion, but I could tell he did.

My new British friend inquired if I knew what time “shuttle service” at the hotel ended. I informed him that I wasn’t sure. He went on to explain that he comes to Orlando every other year with his family; however, this is the first time he has stayed outside of the very pricey “Disney Resorts.” Out of curiosity I asked him what he does for a living and he explained he is a public school teacher and that his wife is a “stay at home Mom.”

As he returned to his hotel room with his children and we exchanged friendly formalities to end the conversation I was struck that this simple civil servant can afford this luxury that so few Americans can (for the record we saved up our money for awhile to be able to afford our trip). I wondered how he can afford to regularly take his family to, what I heard one Mother of three staying in our hotel refer to as “the most expensive vacation destination on earth”?

I started to notice while conducting a very unscientific personal survey, the amount of people from Europe who were on their family vacations in Orlando. It made me think of a scene in the Michael Moore film “Where to invade next?” in which he talks with an Italian couple. The husband is employed as a police office and his wife works in a department store. However, the couple comes to America on vacation at least once a year. In the film they were planning on spending a week in Boston. While as a diehard Yankee fan I have no explicit desire to visit Boston I did think that its astonishing how an American like myself has probably seen less of his country than an average European citizen.

Does any of this matter? Well, while reading an article online I came across something that speaks to my social observations. According to Gallup “out of 25 European Union countries only nine have a fifth of their adult population who report attending religious services weekly.” Compare this to the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, which has found that as many as “40% of American Adults attend weekly religious services.” Contrast this with Labor Lawyer Thomas Geoghegan who observed on a recent trip to Germany “Unlike the United States, Germany has strict labor laws that prohibit a lot of retail stores and other business from being open on Sundays.” I started to think what happened to the supposedly “Secular state of European Society”?

Titus 1:16 provides an interesting line that speaks too much of what occurs today in American Civil Religion. The scripture reads, “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny them.” Simple scripture but it speaks a lot to how Americans approach our social reality. In much of the world our high levels of Church attendance, high ranking politicians who are publicly known for their faith, and overwhelming poll numbers that show American’s are “more religious than others” I wonder if Titus is speaking of our country?

After my British friend left I was thinking of the Social Gospel and Martin Luther King jr (it just so happened that the day of our conversation occurred on April 4th the anniversary of America’s leading Christian Pacifists assassination). I started to wonder if we are a nation of people that have “conformed to our world” rather than a nation of Christians who have taken Jesus’s words to heart in becoming “transformed in this world.” I pray that we all become transformed and work to build a heavenly community built on the basis of Social justice and Christian peace.  A nation that works to enhance health family and community life regardless of how this impacts our countries “bottom line.”

 

 

 

 

 

A Bob Marley Easter

As a social worker you essentially get paid to give advice. As an extremely anxious human being who happens to be a social worker I’m often afraid to give advice. So instead of advice I usually tell my clients stories and hope somewhere in those stories they find some nugget of enlightenment that helps them along the way.

One client (lets call him Ken), who as a result of his struggles with opioid addiction was living in the homeless shelter I oversaw, once asked me if I thought it was possible to change so late in life? As the uber optimist I told him “absolutely. It’s never too late to make a change.” However, since that conversation I’ve sometimes wondered if I was telling him the truth. I must say that when considering his years of imprisonment, rehab stints, and length of stay in local homeless shelters I did think maybe he was one that would never get his “act together.”

While packing for our family vacation I was listening to music and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” came on. I have always loved this song for the truth it speaks. They lyrics speak of struggle, self-realization, and most importantly “redemption.” I began to wonder if someone like Ken would ever have his redemption song. Would Ken always be confined to a life of addiction and struggle?

I replayed the song three or four times and sat down to just listen and reflect. I thought about Easter and Christ’s resurrection and what this meant for humanity. We no longer would have to fear the future. Oppression, injustice, violence, hurt, and loss would no longer have the same power they once had. Christ had completed the ultimate redemption for humanity.

I’m not sure if Ken will ever have his redemption. Sure, Ken has all the opportunities available to “turn his life around” but in all honesty I’m not sure that will happen. Yet, I can’t forget about Ken and his struggle. Easter signifies the start of hope, the beginning of a revolutionary change that interrupts how we relate to the world and each other. Ken may not have heard his redemption song but that does not mean that the tune is not on his playlist.

As Christ ushered in a new paradigm for social and spiritual reality not everyone instantly experienced a complete change in consciousness. If I could go back and speak with Ken (I have since moved on from my job in the shelter and thus have not had contact with Ken in almost a year) I would tell him the truth. I would tell Ken that maybe he is too old to change. I would tell him that maybe he has to keep waiting. However, I would tell him that just as Easter can show us, your redemption song could be played. We just can’t always be sure of when.