Owning Up to Our Mistakes: Peace and Honesty Can help Solve Our Immigration Problem

Asking fore forgiveness can be one of the hardest things to do. I grew up in a household where my parents and siblings were all believing and practicing Christians. Asking for forgiveness was a very natural thing to do. So as I became a Social Worker and ventured out into the troubled waters of peoples emotional and personal problems I noticed quickly that some people were dying, both emotionally and spiritualty, because they could not own up to their mistakes and seek out forgiveness from others.

One young client that I worked with for a few months had been arrested at 15, sent to a Juvenile facility for a year and a half, and when I met him at 17 was trying to “get his life back together.” This young man had substance abuse issues, anger management trouble, and was showing signs of deep depression.

As I got to know this client more we began to talk a lot about the guilt he felt in putting his mom through traumatic episodes. He would often tell me that he knew “I will never get over all the bad things I’ve done in my life if I don’t just tell my Mom I messed up. I need to tell her I’m sorry for causing her pain. But I’m from a place where we don’t say sorry for nothing. Saying sorry isn’t something I do.”

It was hard to see this young man struggle with his inability to forgive himself. This inability to accept his mistakes and take action to move forward was impeding him from making some of the personal choices he needed to get his life “back on track.” I could tell that if he didn’t forgive he may lose his life to the forces of violence and personal destruction that defined so much of his early life.

Forgiveness, which is hard for a person, can be even harder for a country and its political representatives. With the issues occurring at the border, however, I think asking forgiveness and owning up to the mistakes of our past, will save us from becoming a spiritually and emotionally dead country. Asking for forgiveness isn’t easy and requires bravery but I believe that as a people we can take the steps necessary.

When we see families and children being separated at the border I think we all, regardless of your political ideology, feel some sense of sorrow for those people. Even if you believe that these people committed a crime and should be forced to face the consequences of their actions, I believe that in your heart of hearts you feel empathy for the children. I think as American’s, and Christians in particular, we must focus on this empathy and think critically about the role our country has played in fomenting this crisis.

On Long Island I witnessed first hand the evil barbarity that the MS-13 gang can wage against innocent victims. Much has been written about the two young high school girls brutally murdered at the hands of MS-13 gang members in Brentwood during the fall of 2016. At the time I was working for a politician in that area, even driving my car down the street where the murders took place to pick up canvassers who were working for our campaign, the night of the murders. Those murders shook our office and the community.

I never hide the fact that I’m a “progressive” who is way far to the left of many members in the Democratic Party today. However, after witnessing the brutality of MS-13 I agreed with President Trump’s call to do more to crack down on this vicious gang.

My general curiosity (And overall nerdiness) lead me to look into the historical origins of the gang to get a better sense of their past. I read a very insightful article by Harvard Writer in Residence Daniel Denvir who explained “MS-13 was born in Los Angeles amidst the refugees fleeing President Reagan’s dirty wars in El Salvador, and became a transnational gang that ultimately did so much to destabilize El Salvador.” I learned that many young people were fleeing El Salvador in the 1980’s because the United States government was backing a repressive Right-Wing government that oppressed its people. In the 1980’s we saw thousands of people coming to America to escape these well documented “death squads” that would kill and pillage poor towns that they deemed “communist coconspirators.” And these young kids who fled the violence in El Salvador were prone to the protection and sense of family being offered by the newly created MS-13 gang.

As the Administration of George W. Bush and Barack Obama began to focus on deporting illegal immigrants that committed crimes back to their country of origin, I learned that El Salvador was having increasing troubles dealing with members of MS-13. Locals were referring to these transplants to their country as the “American Menace.” In a nutshell, the people of El Salvador were forced to deal with a problem that America helped start and then exported.

America in the 1980’s was in a “Cold War” with Soviet Russia. Any country that appeared to be embracing “communist practices” would immediately receive attention from the CIA. El Salvador was of particular interest to the American government because the U.S did not want a left-wing government taking over and aligning with our Soviet enemies. So in the name of “national security” we helped lay the foundation for the chaos that occurred on the streets of Brentwood, Long Island.

This has come to a head as the President; Republicans in Congress, and the American people demand action to be taken on the Mexican border. What we miss when we say blankly that these “immigrants are illegal and committed a crime” can be found in the research of Stephanie Leutert of the Brookings Institution. She writes, after years of field research in Central American countries, “For Central American residents, control of these gangs over their neighborhood likely means a weekly or monthly extortion payment simply for the right to operate a business or live in their territory. The price for failing to provide this money is death. All it takes is a neighbor or nearby shopkeeper to be gunned down for failing to pay the adequate fees, and it becomes clear that the only options are pay or flee.”

This reality should force all Americans of good conscious to grapple with the reality of the immigrant experience and the need to address these issues with empathy, love, and justice. Martin Luther King Jr in a sermon once said that people who are “hard hearted” can hear facts and figures, moral arguments, and persuasive reasoning but still remain cold to human suffering. I believe that the start of turning our country away from a “hard hearted” response to the peril immigrants face is by asking for forgiveness and being honest.

In Ephesians 5:11 Paul tells Christians to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” In facing the reality of our countries past in helping create and export violent gangs like MS-13 we can begin a process that helps us renew our collective spirit.

We must also face the reality that when it comes to foreign policy our country has not had a very “Christ-centered” approach to dealing with our brothers and sisters across the globe. As author Madeline Rose in the recent issue of the Nation Magazine explains, “Ten years ago, 80 percent of international humanitarian assistance went to the survivors of natural disasters-floods, droughts, and hurricanes. Today, violent conflict is the primary driver of humanitarian need, with more than 90 percent of all global assistance going to crises fueled by this cause.”

As the country, which spends and exports more lethal weapons than 7 of the world’s largest industrial nations combined, we have not been sowers of peace. We have sown chaos, violence, and pain. We must admit to this and ask forgiveness from God, our neighbors, and from each other. This is not easy but it can be done. We must ask Christ to lead us as we seek to make things right and help the world heal from the pain we have caused.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For the Bible tells me So (Well, at least those parts that support my politics)

In the midst of the horrible tragedy occurring at our borders, and in light of the Trump Administration’s decision to separate Immigrant children from their families, a Biblical debate has emerged in popular media. From the New York Times down to the New York Post, editorial pages and blogs have been filled with arguments over the theological, moral, and Scriptural ethics of the Administrations policies. Usually, when the bible is used as a lens to critique public policy I get scared that the media will find the most uninformed, close minded, and hostile representative from the Evangelical community to speak on “God’s behalf.” I was pleasantly surprised to see a mix of views presented.

This all started when Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed a news conference regarding the Administrations “zero tolerance policy” on illegal immigration. When questioned about the Trump Administrations “Child Separation” policy, the Attorney General brought up Romans 13. For those unfamiliar with Romans 13 it’s a Chapter in the Bible where the Apostle Paul encourages the Christian community to ““Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” In essence the scripture is calling on Christians to recognize that God has a hand in establishing the rulers, leaders, and regimes of this world. This Chapter has often been referred to as a  “bludgeon” by scholars because it can be used selectively to grant moral support to awful political, social, and economic abuse.

Anyone that has ever read one of my blogs will know that I’m not a big fan of those called by the mainstream media to speak on behalf of Evangelical Christianity, however, I was pleasantly surprised that most mainstream evangelical leaders were quick to deplore the Attorney Generals misuse of scripture. The Reverend Franklin Graham, who I previously criticized for zealously supporting the Trump Administration in the past, publicly denounced Mr. Sessions invocation of scripture and referred to the Trump Administrations policy of separating children from their families as “disgraceful.” I believe it’s extremely important to recognize, even when it’s coming from someone I vehemently have disagreed with in the past, when someneone speaks truth and advocates for justice.

Conservative Evangelical leader Bob Vandeer Plaats is another “mainstream representative” of Evangelical Christianity that went against an administration he enthusiastically supported in the past. New York Magazine even reported that Mr. Vandeer Plaats has a creepy photo of Trump, the Bible, and a Cross adorning his office wall. These “enhanced support techniques” (this my attempt at political humor considering Vandeer Plaats support of Sen. Ted Cruz and his ‘torture loving’ rhetoric in the Republican primary) have not blinded him to the moral realities of the Trump Administrations policies. Writing in the New York Times Vandeer Plaats says “As a Christian, I find that the Bible’s Book of Micah offers a guiding principle of doing right: “He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (emphasis added). This is biblical. That means we should execute justice, yes. But not with the kind of cruelty we’re reading about from the border with Mexico.”

It’s refreshing to see people put the Scriptures ahead of their political ideology. My Friend has a saying that he often invokes when we applaud people for doing what they are supposed to do. My friend will say “you don’t get points for breathing.” While I know I shouldn’t be singing the praises of someone like Mr. Vandeer Plaats who has supported some of the most immoral anti LGBT laws in the past and who openly uses derogatory terms to describe Gay men, however, I think as a Christian who believes in redemption and will forever believe that we all fall short of God’s desires and need grace, I would like to pray for him to continue progressing and opening his heart to the troubles facing God’s children.

So often mainstream Evangelical Christians, when it comes to Conservative political leaders, are more like the Jewish masses written about in John 7:49 “The foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law. God’s curse is on them.” I pray that more people awake to the call for peace and social justice that scream to us from scripture. I believe that the evangelical community has a real opportunity to make “justice roll down like waters” and drench our country in a spirit of love and peace. Lets continue praying that this is only the beginning of a new movement to link Evangelical belief with the cause of people suffering both at home and abroad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Radical Wisdom of a Child

I have to admit that when it comes to being what some would consider a “progressive parent” I probably don’t win any awards. Sure, I try to teach my kids the importance of Christian love, charity, social justice, etc.. However, I sleep pretty soundly at night, even after hearing my son tell me he killed 45 people with direct “head shots” on the XBOX.

I also am guilty, along with a great many other parents throughout the history of Western Civilization, of assuming that my children are not really all that interested or attuned to what is going on in the world. So when my son asked me the other day if we can attend the “March for Our Lives” gathering in Washington D.C. to protest gun violence, I was a little surprised.

As a Father I try to be very small (d) democratic. For all my parents neo-conservatism I always appreciated their Laissez Faire approach to their kid’s social and political beliefs. I always promised that I would do the same when I had kids. So when my son expressed his desire to attend I was unsure how to think about this. Is he really concerned about gun violence? Does he want to go because a famous you tuber or reality star will be there? Am I a bad Dad because I never talked about my personal beliefs on gun control? Should I create a PowerPoint and go through the pros and cons of gun control policy? Should I share with him Jesus statements on non-violence? Should I just calm down and be “normal”?

Like so many things in my life I couldn’t shake a desire to explore this with my son in greater depth. I immediately summoned him an asked him his views on things like poverty, war, racism, and the chances of Loyal Chicago winning the NCAA Championship. His response, all kidding aside, was very simple. He explained that “anything happening to me that will make me sad, scared, or upset is something we should make the President work on. The President needs to make bad things stop so that people can have good lives.”

My son is not part of the 44% of millennial youth who told researchers they would prefer living in a “Socialist Society.” He isn’t old enough to have had a wiled eyed lefty professor like me influence his worldview (in a bit of interesting information, in the study where 44% of students expressed a desire for Socialism over Capitalism, the majority stated that their views were not influenced at all by their college professors or teachers.). My son is an expression of what Christ tried to teach us so long ago when in Matthew 21:16 he told the Disciples “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise”

We should listen to our children more. We should learn from their wisdom. We should imitate Christ teachings when he said we “should be like little children” when we seek to enter the peace which passes all understanding. Their wisdom could change the world.