Never Again: Protest is Our Prayer

Progressive Christian Social Action

Never Again!  Protest is Our Prayer

United Methodist Building, Washington, DC

On this Monday of Holy Week, reflections on the events that led to the death of Jesus merge with events that are taking place today.  As in Jesus’ day, today’s ruling Powers are entrenched in control by domination and violence.  People who seek to change the dominant system and make it more compassionate are maligned and persecuted, as Jesus was.  He was put to death after he drove out the money changers from the Temple, challenging the economic system upon which the Roman occupation of Jerusalem was maintained.

Today it is our youth.  Some are congratulating them for their activism, but they are also being insulted and called names for marching for their lives, standing up to the ruling Powers, and demanding reasonable gun laws and safe schools.  When these demonstrations of active democracy are maligned or called naïve, while our political process is dominated by corporate front groups like the NRA, we are in dark times indeed.  Meanwhile, gun manufacturers and their political advocates accept very minor gun-control policies that they know will increase gun sales. (See the March 2nd Time Magazine report:  Gun Maker Says Sales are Plunging.)

Nevertheless, young people are stepping into leadership, raising their voices, and calling for an end to gun violence, including shooting deaths (often of young black men) by police.  They demand that adults act and that lawmakers establish policies to protect them from being shot and killed in their own schools.

In my own community, many students joined in the nationwide school walkout, some with support of teachers and administrators and some on their own.  I’ve talked with several of them.  One student told me that their school let them make signs, but they couldn’t have words or images related to guns.  Another told me that the teacher said that since it was raining, they could march around the halls, but later relented and they did go outside.  One girl told me how she overcame her personal self-doubt when the marchers she was with turned around and she found herself in the lead.  She didn’t feel like she should be leading the march. She felt like fading back and letting someone else take the lead, but she stayed the course, letting her values guide her instead of her fear.

Many people, including me, believe that there would be less gun violence if there were stricter gun control laws, background checks, mental health services, and (not often mentioned) greater economic and social equity.  Some people are feeling more hope for the future because of this uprising of student activism. I, too, applaud the spirit of these young people and rejoice that they are awakening to what is at stake and coming into their own power.  Every so often there is an uprising that catches fire and kindles a spirit of hope and activism for the sake of a better world.  Every so often a time comes around when “the politically impossible suddenly becomes possible” (Naomi Klein).  This is such a time.

But adults, now it’s on us.  Youth can take the lead, and they may well be the ones who will change the world.  But we can’t just cheer them on.  We must act as their allies, acting in solidarity with them.  We, too, must show courage.  We, too, must speak out, in our homes, at work, in our places of worship, no matter how entrenched these institutions are in the status quo.  We, too must demand action in our communities, in public spaces, and to our legislators. The kids shouldn’t be the only ones to say “Never Again.” They shouldn’t be the only ones to say “We call B.S.” to the conventional wisdom that weapons of war should be easily acquired or to challenge the paralysis of lawmakers because they are in the pockets of the NRA.

Adults, too, need to extend their support, experience, expertise, and resources to this movement.  We need to join with our young in taking action that will make true the call, “Never again.”

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Cross Country by Train

 

 

As some of you know, last year I traveled cross county by train—not once, but twice.  The first time was to Washington DC, in September, to work with a team of United Methodists from around the world on updating the “Natural World” section of our denomination’s Social Principles.  The second time, I got a one-month rail pass and presented my book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, at several East Coast venues.  I spent Thanksgiving with my sister in Asheville, North Carolina, where I also presented my book.

One of the benefits of traveling by train is a sense of “freedom from the bondage of time.”  There are none of the usual demands of life while going long distance by train.  I eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired, visit with a fellow passenger now and then, meditate as I gaze out at the scenery, and get out for occasional “fresh air breaks” at various stations.  I settle in to the rhythm and am comforted by the sound of the train’s whistle up ahead.  I trust that I am being carried to my destination.  And in between, I write, write, write, listening for the inspiration of the Spirit.

Long-distance train trips function as writing retreats for me.  On both trips, as I was traveling with my newly-released book, I was also working on a Second Edition to Shaking the Gates of Hell, my first book.  I was working under deadline, and sure enough, I got the draft of updates and edits submitted to my publisher in mid-December, two weeks before the end-of-year deadline.

Now it’s in their hands, and eventually I’ll get their suggestions back, then typeset pages for me to proof, and finally, the book itself.  The Second Edition of Shaking the Gates of Hell is scheduled to be released later this year.

My challenge in these days is to continue living free from the bondage of time, amidst the many demands and opportunities that each day presents.  I know that especially as an activist, it’s easy to take on too much, trying to fill whatever need I see.  There have been times when I’ve taken on so much that I feel like I’m on a train that’s taking me further and further from where I want to be, so that I can hardly remember why I got on in the first place.  I end up running on automatic.  Then I crash… and I have to stop, re-evaluate, limit my commitments, and make more realistic (and humble) choices.

I understand that not everyone can cut back on activities, especially if they are supporting their families.  That’s why we all need to continue promoting justice (including a living wage), so that everyone will be able to be sustained.

I was at the demonstration today on the bridge in Nevada City, commemorating ongoing resistance to the policies of the Trump Administration.  Then I walked home, up the hill from town, enjoying the beauty of the day.   Each of us can only do so much, and I want to be a spiritually fit as possible so that I know what I need to do and will be equipped to do it.  I choose to be sustained by spiritual practice for the long haul, and I practice trusting in the same way that I trusted while I was on the train, that I am being guided and carried to my destination.

 

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Following Jesus Without Being a Sheep

IMG_0756

This post is based on a sermon I preached on Sunday, May 7, at Nevada City United Methodist Church.  You can watch the whole service here or move the curser 21 minutes into the service for just the sermon.

The Gospel of John includes many metaphors.  Just in this short passage (John 10:1-10), there are two:  1) Jesus as the good shepherd, who leads and cares for the sheep, and 2) Jesus as the gate, the point of access, so the sheep can come in and go out and find pasture.  Here Jesus describes his mission and goal:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  It also reminds me of the 23rd Psalm, which my grandmother taught me, and which I’ve taught my children and at times, my grandchildren.  Passages like this stick with us, and come back at just the times we need them.  For instance, when we feel like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, what does that mean?  A shepherd’s goals are to make sure the sheep have a place to roam, pasture, food, water, protection from predators, and if one strays off, according to Jesus, the good shepherd will leave the 99 there in the wilderness and go out to seek the one that was lost.  That’s an image of God.  And that’s a great image of abundant life.

But awhile back, one of my granddaughters said to me, “I don’t want to be sheep.”  So when I started preparing this sermon, I decided to look up the definition of “sheep.”  1)  Any of the various hollow-horned typically gregarious ruminant mammals (genus Ovis) related to the goats but stockier and lacking a beard in the male–specifically one long domesticated especially for its flesh and wool.  2) a timid defenseless creature; 3) a timid docile person, especially one easily influenced or led.  Of course, none of us want to be that kind of a person, and that’s certainly not what Jesus meant.

Jesus didn’t mean for people to follow him without thinking for themselves.  He engaged people.  He used figures of speech, he asked them questions, he challenged them, he sent them out in ministry.  He said, “Follow me, do what I do, teach what I teach, love how I love, serve as I serve.”  He engaged with people in the fullness of their humanity, even though sometimes (like us) they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about).

Nevertheless, with these very limited and flawed human beings, Jesus was able create a community that welcomed the poor, the outcast, the stranger, even women and children.  A community that embodied God’s love and what it means to live an abundant life.  A community that embodied the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.  Today some call it the reign of God or the kin-dom of God.  A kin-dom of abundant life.

This community that Jesus drew together became very popular, so much so that the religious leaders began plotting against him.  They collaborated with Rome to keep the military occupation in place, and they benefited from this collaboration.  Jesus challenged their authority.  He broke their laws, including laws against healing on the Sabbath.  He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple.  He and his followers occupied the Temple.  Slept outside, but each day the people all came back to occupy the Temple.  The authorities couldn’t arrest him there.  Why?  Because “all the people hung on his words.”

Finally, the authorities succeeded.  They waited until he was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane with just a few followers.   Then they came out with swords and clubs and Roman guards to arrest him.  They tried him in a mock trial, beat him, and crucified him.  His followers fled, except for a few—mostly women.  They killed the shepherd, and the sheep scattered

Then something amazing happened.  People started saying, “I have seen the Lord.”  According to the gospels, this started with the women—the first preachers, the first witnesses to the resurrection.  The community that had formed around Jesus reconstituted itself, based on the lived experience of the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We read about that early community today in Acts, about how the people pooled their possessions and shared with whoever was in need.

These early Christians continued in the faith of Jesus.  They lived according to his teaching and example, identifying with the poor and outcast.  For the first three centuries, Christians refused to bow to the Emperor and refused to serve in the Roman Army.  Many were martyred for their faith.   They stood on conscience.  Not at all like sheep.

When Constantine made Christianity the State Religion, the church became identified with the power of the state.  Some have called this the downfall of the church, because the Church became aligned with the dominant culture, wherever it was situated.  But throughout history, there have been people and communities who have kept alive the vision that motivated the early church.

One of these people was John Wesley.  John Wesley was a key figure in the 18th Century Great Awakening, and the founder of Methodism.  Wesley worked hard to make sure that the early Methodists were not sheep, that they didn’t just believe what they were told.  He insisted that people move toward a mature faith, and take responsibility and make decisions for themselves.

We still follow that understanding today.  I have been helping with the youth confirmation classes during this school year.  I’ve been teaching some of these kids ever since they were little, when we’d sing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” But faith is not always so simple.  And we don’t want our youth to just swallow something whole, even if they’ve read it in the Bible, even if someone in authority tells them so.  We don’t want them to be “easily influenced or led.”

And so, in our classes, we’ve often turned to John Wesley.  Wesley said that of course we need to read scripture.  But we also need to look to tradition, reason, and experience.  We need to look to Christian tradition, especially to traditions of the early church, which he said demonstrated “no other than love.”  We also need to use our own God-given faculty of reason.  And we need to be true to our own experience, our experience of the world, our experience of the divine.  It we turn our back on our own common sense or our own experience, we turn our back on ourselves.

We’ve put a lot into challenging the youth.  And when the time comes for them to decide whether to be confirmed, some may say “yes,” some may so “no” or “not yet.” But they will know what they are deciding.   I’m grateful to Pastor Kris, to Peggy, Eleanor, and Jenny, and to this congregation, who have all supported the youth in this process.

Pastor Kris suggested that I preach on the themes in my upcoming book, but I decided instead to go with the lectionary.  Still, I am putting in a plug about the book, which is called Love in a Time of Climate Change:  Honoring Creation, Establishing Justice.  It will be released in July, and there are cards on a table in the Fellowship Hall if you want to know more.  It’s based on the teachings of John Wesley.  It uses scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to explore the themes of creation and justice.  The point is not to convince people what they should think.  Instead, it’s a challenge for readers come to their own understanding about climate change, and to decide for themselves how to respond.

We face many challenges, not just climate change.  There are so many challenges today that change may seem almost impossible.  We may be tempted to give up hope, but now is not the time for that, not if we are truly committed to following Jesus.  Christ is risen.  God who is Love can bring light out of darkness and life out of death.

Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God… the reign of God, the kin-dom of God.  However we name it, following Jesus means following him into the heart of the struggle for a better world:  a world where all have access to food and water, where all are cared for and offered shelter, where even the stranger and outcast are sought out and brought into community.  A world where the abundance of creation is a shared gift, offered to all people and all species and preserved to all generations.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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Holy Saturday: Following Jesus

On this Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, we continue to reflect on the death of Jesus and on what it means to follow him, as we wait for the dawn of resurrection. What does it mean to follow Jesus in this time of ascending evil, destruction, scapegoating, and death?  First, what it does not mean:  Following Jesus does not mean submitting to oppression or choosing to suffer.  Jesus raised up women, children, outcasts, and others who were despised and oppressed, and showed that they were worthy children of God.  Surely we are called to do the same.

Nor did Jesus seek suffering for himself—nothing in the gospel accounts point to that.  Rather, he was true to his mission as he had declared it: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  By his preaching, teaching, healing, community building, and actions that challenged the ruling Powers, he incurred their wrath.  As a result, they plotted against him and had him executed.  Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived his life.

The story of Jesus and his “passion” was not something he had wanted for himself, nor was it the plan of an angry God.  Rather, in full integrity and freedom of choice, he refused to back down and betray himself, his mission, the people he loved, or his God.  Further, in the agony of Jesus, the suffering God endured the full impact of human sin and evil, and continues to suffer at our hands as God’s beloved children and creation itself are crucified today.

The question arises:  Why would we want to follow Jesus, who experienced such a horrendous death, or a God who undergoes suffering?  Why not instead focus on something positive, or find a faith that enables us to transcend the world’s suffering, or point to a God who looks on from a distance and sees only harmony?  Or, why not interpret the message of Christianity as being based on the God-ordained sacrifice of a beloved son who came to die to set things right?  Then all we have to do is say “yes” to this story, accept this (ahistorical) Jesus into our hearts, and worship him.  This at least allows us to accept the supposedly predetermined status quo.

But Jesus did not call on his friends to worship him, but to follow him:  to reject the cultural values of wealth and worldly power and to practice and promote the values of tolerance, justice, peace, and love.  This requires an “ethic of risk,” because it places us at odds with the dominant institutions of our day, just as it placed Jesus at odds with those of his day.  And we see clearly not only what human-constructed systems did to Jesus, but what they do to those “surplus populations” that threaten the order of global corporate-dominated capitalism today.

Still, even on Holy Saturday, as we remember the death of Jesus and so many unjust deaths throughout history until today, we anticipate and live into the reality of Easter.  The light of the Risen Christ is with us, making it possible to face the evil, pain, and darkness of our time and to celebrate compassion, beauty, and love.  His Living Spirit is with us, making it possible to set out on the path of following Jesus into the heart of the struggle for a better world.

Previous blog post:  Good Friday:  Contemplation and Resistance

This is the final post in Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth

One of the last Golden toads of Costa Rica, now extinct.

During Lent, Christians remember and grieve Jesus’ death at the hands of a murderous system that included official representatives, religious collaborators, a public that could be manipulated, and friends who betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.  We remember and grieve the countless others who have been executed over the years by similar systems of worldly power.  Meanwhile, creation is being crucified as surely as Jesus was crucified on the cross.

This understanding has profound implications when we consider the harm being done to creation.  Even though many of us as individuals try to treat the earth with the respect it deserves, the institutions and systems in which we participate are plundering the earth and leaving it despoiled and desecrated.  This does not bode well for humans or the other life forms with whom we are interrelated and interconnected on this earth.  The institutions and operating systems that support industrial civilization are destroying the ecosystems upon which all life depends!  The insatiable appetite of the global system of wealth-driven corporate capitalism continues to devour the gifts of the earth, destroying the goodness of creation, destroying our non-human companions, destroying prospects for future generations, destroying our humanity.

Now the Trump Administration’s federal budget proposal includes cuts of 31% to the Environmental Protection Agency, which was formed in 1970 as the result of grassroots activism and widespread public concern.   The very agency charged with protecting the environment is being cut more deeply than any other program.

The destruction continues and accelerates.  Several climate change feedback loops have kicked in, making runaway climate change more likely each day.  The Sixth Great Extinction is well underway, as the atmosphere and oceans heat up, as toxins become ubiquitous, and as diverse ecosystems are paved over, “developed,” or converted into monoculture crops.  Humans suffer as air, land, and water are overused or contaminated, and as food prices rise.  Fukishima continues spewing radioactive waste into the oceans as more nuclear power plants are built.  Powerful nations wage resource wars and attempt to dominate the earth in an endless cycle of violence, employing drones and other high-tech weapons that kill civilians, obliterate communities, and create toxic wastelands.

No one on earth will be left untouched by the current system of death, for it is destroying life itself.  The web of life is being unraveled.  The air, water, land, and stable climate necessary for sustaining life are being destroyed by the institutional imperatives of today’s global corporate empire.  The earth is dying—signs of death are all around.  Creation itself is being crucified.

In this dying of Earth’s life systems, her children, both human and non-human, suffer.  Songs of praise become cries of pain and lament, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”  “God help us!  Has God forsaken us?  Where is God?”

But it is not God who has forsaken us, it is we who have forsaken God.  God is right here in the midst of the persecuted and tortured earth, suffering in and with Earth’s creatures, including but not limited to humanity, experiencing forsakenness.  God weeps for the harm done, because God experiences it all from the inside—the terror of the Polar Bear who discovers she cannot swim the distance to the next ice floe, the confusion of the Monarch butterfly whose migratory home has been destroyed, the loneliness of the last Golden Toad who croaks unceasingly for a mate.  God experiences the alarm of people in island nations that are being subsumed by rising seas and the panic and grief of families whose crops fail and children die because of increasing drought.  God experiences the “great loneliness of spirit” of the child who realizes that species are dying, and who wants a future of abundant life.

Where is there hope for new life?  I see signs of resurrection in the rising up of people who are no longer willing to consent to the current global system of death and are rising up in nonviolent resistance and creative action.  Surely God is on the side of those who love life and are willing to give themselves fully to the struggle out of love, as Jesus did. The compassion and passion that motivated Jesus may save us yet, as his risen Spirit lives and loves through us.  If we are willing, God will breathe new life into us, inspire us, empower us, and work through us to bring about healing and new life for all creation.

Previous blog post:  The Suffering God:  Where Humanity is Crucified
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