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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With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies?

Last year a Harris Poll was conducted to determine just “how happy” average Americans are. The poll (http://time.com/4871720/how-happy-are-americans/), found that only 33% of Americans responded that they are “overall happy.” Why are we such an unhappy group of people? Some on the left would say it’s probably because Donald Trump is our President. The Right would retort that it’s “godless” liberal values that are making us increasingly unhappy.

I have no real opinion or thoughts as to why, as a people, Americans are unhappier than others. Sometimes I believe it stems from living under a capitalist economy those forces us to work and toil harder and harder to scratch out a meager living. At other times I believe we may be so unhappy because we are all longing for spiritual fulfillment. And some days I assume that the entire nation is comprised of New York Knicks fans that suffer with year after year of losing, dashed hopes, and relentless heart break (you can insert my fellow Jets fans in place of the Knicks if you prefer).

Happiness is a very hard thing to define, measure, or even understand. I know Social Work literature is filled with studies that show variables like “community, faith, family, purpose, and work”  are things which make us feel more “content”, which is also often translated into feeling happy. Any Social Worker worth their salt will look to these variables and often suggest that clients experiencing depression, loss of hope, and those who are unhappy, reach out and connect more with sources of contentment.

So often in American life we resort to our “tribal camps.” Associating with those that think, believe, and behave like we do, naturally makes us feel more comfortable, and dare we say “more content”? This is why so often I find myself going to left leaning websites to read articles that document a sense of justification for feeling the world needs to be a more progressive place. This always makes feel safe, accepted, and content.

However, on Tuesday  I decided to venture out of my zone of contentment and read a few articles from a Conservative website. I thought “hey why don’t you be more opened minded and see what the other side has to say.” I have to admit that I was a bit nervous at first but after ten minutes it wasn’t all that bad. I didn’t come across anything to grotesquely right wing that would upset my “snowflake” sensibilities.

I was intrigued by an article posted on the website ( I won’t share the article or the site. I don’t want to stir unnecessary debate/ hurt feelings of those who may frequent the site.), regarding an update on Democratic Senatorial Candidate Chelsea Manning. For those who may not be aware of Chelsea’s story I will give a really quick overview: Chelsea Manning was born Bradley Manning. Manning served in the military as a specialist in Technology and intelligence. Manning was essential to providing organizations like Wikileaks and the New York Times  with classified information that informed their reports on abuses carried out by the United States Government during the Iraq war. Manning was subsequently arrested and sent to prison for giving out classified information. While in Prison, Manning declared that she was now identifying as a female and will be changing her name from Bradley to Chelsea. She has since been released from prison and is currently running in the Democratic Primary for Senator in Maryland.

I was intrigued that an overtly Conservative website would post a story about Chelsea manning’s health. Apparently there were some reports released that claimed she tried to take her own life. The report explained that Chelsea is okay and is recuperating. The story was pretty dry and self-explanatory.

I ventured past the text of the article and saw some of the comments. This is what really struck my interest. A self-identifying “soccer mom” whose username for the website (which I will make up to protect her identity) literally was along the lines of “ChrstianGal4Jesus” had the first comment on the story. Her comment, which I’m directly quoting, was “I know this makes me a bad Christian but I don’t care that she is okay. She is a traitor. She is lucky she wasn’t shot and killed.”

“ChristianGal” was very sincere and honest with her comments. While I was in a bit of shock to see her so openly state that she didn’t care that Chelsea Manning was okay, I felt compelled to take a second and think about what she said. I was struck that she was honest in feeling that her remarks exclude her from “polite Christian company.” I appreciate honest people that are self-aware. I was disappointed, however, by the amount of people that responded positively and told “ChristianGal” not to be ashamed. There were, at my last check, which was noon on Wednesday, over 20 responses affirming “ChristianGals” feelings and explaining her lack of empathy did not make her a “bad Christian.”

In Evangelical circles it’s very popular for people to say “I hate the sin and love the sinner.” Essentially, this statement is trying to clarify that a Christian is not personally hostile to another individual, but that they are merely hostile to a belief, action, or behavior that can be considered sinful. Evangelicals are very quick to offer this statement as a response to LGBTQ issues. It’s a common troupe for explaining why Evangelicals generally do not support things like “gay marriage”, “gender neutral bathrooms”, or “same sex adoption.”

I think most Evangelicals  generally are sincere when they make this statement. Sure, some may be overtly homophobic, racist, or sexists, but I think there are some who generally cannot accept certain things they deem to be “ behavioral choices.” I’ve begun to wonder, however, if this statement is starting to serve as a mask for a deeper anger.

In Romans 12:2 Christians are told not to “conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Essentially, Christians should not allow the world, society, popular culture, etc. to take such a prominent role in our lives that it drowns out the saving grace of Christ. We should be believers in Christ, who spend day and night trying to reflect a love so deep that “it passes all understanding.” Can we love, when hating on social media feels so right?

I think its getting increasingly harder for Christians to decouple their thinking from that of the President, Congress, Conservative Pundits, and right-wing Facebook memes. I focus on “Conservatives” only because unlike Christians on the political left who have never had an Evangelical Liberal to admire (I exclude former President Jimmy Carter because I could write a book on how totally not progressive he was but I’ll save that for a later post), politically Conservative Christians have been well represented in the halls of political power. A Conservative response to Chelsea Manning is one of anger, betrayal, and maybe even hatred. A Christian response is one of love, empathy, and hope for a renewal of her spirit and mind. A Conservative response to “ChristianGal” is one of affirming her feelings of discuss; A Christ like response to “ChristianGal” is a word of life affirming love and correction.

A Muslim friend told me that he is disappointed in Christians. He believes that Christians are not holding President Trump to the same standards that they held for President Bush and President Obama. He stated that “Christians may be self-righteous at times but at least they came from a moral place. Now, its like anything goes. Its like they are okay with living in Sodom and Gomorrah.” I don’t think we are anywhere near Sodom and Gomorrah. I believe we are human, imperfect, and in need of love. We can make this right. We must go back to the basics. We must become friends with those in the world. We must not become like the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

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.