Monday, December 31, 2012

Forgiveness Us Our Debts

Fresh starts. That's what New Years is about, right? Last year was a mess, so I'm going to clean up myself starting this year. But what if it's not solely about ourselves? What if I constantly fail at my resolution because they depend upon me and me alone to get my ish together, but under the same weight I labored under and got nowhere with to this point?

And this brings us to the fresh starts and to forgiveness. And what that means... As a Christian, I look back to the example of Jesus.

 Matthew 6:14-15 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins."

That "But" is key.

image courtesy: Iran Press Watch

When Jesus talks about forgiveness - and he does a lot - much like in the rest of the gospels, he's talking about what it means to live in the Kingdom, or kingdom-ly (or what we called a couple months ago, the un-Kingdom). Take that for what it's worth. It may or not be advice, but it points to an subversive understanding, a more better way, and an alternative to the corrupt powers of the other kingdoms (the world) - a completely different path than lay in the realm of the "powerful" of Rome, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, the United States. What Jesus says should not be applied as law, but as the preferred method of those who follow him and his Way.

But notice this in your readings of forgiveness: in nearly every instance, Jesus speaks about both financial forgiveness and personal forgiveness simultaneously - as if he cannot separate the two. They are necessarily side by side.

In Luke 7, Jesus is at the home of some religious leaders and in barges the town prostitute.  And the hosts are offended that Jesus would let her near without condemning her, let alone touch him. She's sobbing with regret. Most likely hurt. I doubt she wants to be sexually exploited and turned into a commodity day and night again. Its likely that it is due to the social structures and rules these very hosts employ and implement and justify that she finds herself in this predicament selling her body in the first place.

So Jesus finds it necessary to share a riddle:

Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?
- Luke 7 (the Message)

Such stories in the Gospels are common - and disruptive. Disruptive to the norm, to the regulatory forces*, to the status quo and its comfort with itself and its self-righteous. There's the Lord's Prayer hinted at above, of course. There's the parable of the rich debtor, but there's also Jesus' very own inaugural sermon, when he declared the following to be about his ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
     and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
- Luke 4 (NLT)

These lines themselves were adapted from latter Isaiah (Chapter 61 with some modification from chapter 58), which themselves were an expansion on the concept of Jubilee. Jubilee is a concept that the Mosaic Law introduced into Hebraic customs several hundred years prior. The idea is that every fifty years, families can reclaim their ancestral homes, debts are forgiven, prisoners are released. For a peasant class always under financial duress, the Year of Jubilee would be the Year of the Lord's Favor.

So forgiveness is necessary for financial justice.

But it's also necessary for spiritual justice.

Some Christian-led groups have been calling for Jubilee-like debt forgiveness for the poorest and most debt-ridden nations for years, most famously with the Jubilee 2000 campaign (and its offshoots) led to coincide with the Catholic Church's celebration of the Great Jubilee. This campaign had the intent of wiping out several billions of dollars of debt incurred to** Third World nations in Africa and Latin America. More recently and closer to home, an offshoot project of the Occupy movement (which has some tenuous connections with Christian and interfaith theology and practices) named the Rolling Jubilee is looking to subvert the bankers and collection agencies and those who profit from debt incursions by buying back debts and forgiving debtors (at pennies on the dollar). As of press, they have raised over $500,000 to absolve nearly 10.5 million dollars.

Say what you may about the situation - about how and why people and nations get into debt at astronomical rates - but to be released from that obligation and being able to focus on the day-to-day, on the familial and financial and community-based obligations that are also pressing and immediate, is an immense blessing, for lack of a better word.

But even still, taking care of the material, monetary debt is necessary, but we must not forget the spiritual, mental and emotional debt that needs forgiveness. After all, none can live on bread alone.

Now, when people in the Christian church talk about forgiveness, there seems to be a fundamental power imbalance. As my friend Sarah Moon so graciously points out, oftentimes victims of abuse in a church setting are commanded to forgive their abusers. Often, we are told that Jesus forgave the child molester. Ergo, everything is all good and that person should be allowed to work in the nursery (true story. Too often). Or spouses are commanded by the pastors to go back to their abusive partners (waaaay too often). Or the pastor, well, he's been pardoned by God for his "inappropriate" behavior. And so you are to pardon him too. Now!

But that's not forgiveness. That's forced, compelled, coerced, controlling, lying, false, insincere, dangerous, unhealthy, and ugly manipulation. Whatever it is, it is not forgiveness.

Forgiveness cannot work without boundaries. It cannot be forced. It needs to be nurtured and nourished. It needs to operate in safety. It cannot allow for injustice. Forgiveness does not allow for the pedophile to work with children - it recognizes that some behaviors will not change over night (if ever) and so makes a zone of safety for all those affected: children, spouses, parishioners, family, neighbors, constituents, you, me. That zone may require papers to be signed, people to be notified, offenders to be jailed. It will probably require time and distance.

But within that safe zone, miracles can happen. Miracles that both release the debtor and the indebted. Miracles that free the soul from the oppressive dictatorship of guilt and bitterness.

I find the act of forgiveness - of the spiritual and financial varieties - (though not necessarily forgetting or allowing back) to be fundamentally freeing. But if I'm honest, anything that is completely liberating is also as scary as hell.

When I recite the Lord's Prayer with my daughter and I get to the line about forgiving transgressions, I always pause. And I often bite hard.

And then I continue. A little bit lighter.

And in this practice, I tug away at the roots and branches and leaves of bitterness or frustration or angst laying deep beneath, or flourishing just above the surface, or suckling out the sunlight like anti-plants. They steal our joy. They steal our peace of mind. They take root and they rob us of sunshine and air and water and all the good elements - they lurk in the back of our minds and convince us that life is for the dead, these anti-plants.

The anti-plants need to eventually be uprooted. Only then can our gardens grow. Only then can we be set free from the prisons of our minds and hearts and from the prisons of indebtedness to others that we could never repay. This opens up boundless opportunities - not just for the self, but for those that we are near. And herein, a new cycle appears. For we are not just free as scattered individuals, but as members and parts of networks, families, communities. The effects of liberation on our communities are innumerable.

Nelson Mendela, after 27 years of imprisonment

*Jesus takes note that the Pharisees did not really welcome him, did not wash his feet - but this lowly prostitute just walking off the street cleans them with her tears and hairs
**Let us refuse to say "by" as if the countries asked for or deserved to be in debt for the crime of being plundered of economic, labor and natural resources

Friday, December 21, 2012

Moving Abe

An occasional one-off with a semi-celeb on Twitter is what passes for a brush with celebrity for me. So, Chicago-based rapper and political activist (as well as would-be alderman) Rhymefest has tended to have a contentious interaction with the Occupy Movement. Unlike another Chicago-based rapper who's worked with Kanye, Lupe Fiasco, he sees the Occupiers as wasting time and space better used for direct political action.

Image will appear as a link

Rhymefest disregards the overriding lessons of the Emancipators and the Civil Rights Era as being out of time. Fine. But then tell me that Occupy hasn't helped to shape the discourse of American politics - tell me that the Tea Party movement also hasn't done so. Tell me that right now this whole Fiscal Cliff nonsense isn't largely directed by the rhetoric of one sort of radical, non-pragmatic paradigm or another.

He's a hostage!
Well, actually...
Tell me that the post-Sandy Hook imagination of the American populace isn't directed by one form of radicalism (the No-Restrictions-Ever-on-Guns NRA and their stand-ins) and the rest of us aren't trying to feebly talk about sensible gun control measures.

Imagine if a large, national peace movement were actually put in place some twelve years ago - rather than a late-to-the-game anti-GOP posturing. How would the conversation about war and violence be engaged now?

Politicians, as historian Howard Zinn points out in his must-read work - including the Zinn Reader - do not lead - they follow. As much as Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery, he had to garner popular opinion in order to get to the office of president in the first place. And before that happened, the popular perception of slavery as being a largely harmless and beneficial financial institution had to be challenged.

So, the slave narratives. So, Douglass, and Garrison, and Sojourner Truth, and Beecher Stowe. These figures and their heroic, bristling words waged a war for the hearts and souls and minds of men and women.

The reformer is careless of numbers, disregards popularity, and deals only with ideas, conscience, and common sense... He neither expects nor is overanxious for immediate success. The politician dwells in an everlasting now... His office is not to instruct public opinion but to represent it.
- Wendell Phillips
The institution of slavery was peculiar to the South. It was an issue that, as a force of evil, was only understood to a small minority of the white population. Yet all were responsible for its continuation even as it was cloaked through being race-based and therefore imperceptible to the White mind as - as a deliberate matter of dividing and conquering - it was out of the sight and experience of the Whites of the North, and out of the personal physical and psychic reality of the majority of White Southerner. The South and the North needed the issue of slavery to be pushed in the open and come to a volatile head - otherwise it would have stayed hidden. Not that slavery itself wasn't a constant threat to the very Southern "way of life" that Southern elites were trying to maintain at all, unbelievable costs. But slavery may never have ended if its death knolls weren't forced through abolitionism (which, again, isn't the same as saying that abolitionists "caused" the secession. But, regardless, they had a hand in forcing the Southern elites to take a form of action, and they opened the way for Lincoln to sign both the Emancipation Proclamation and then the 13th Amendment)

That possibility would not have been the case were it not for the rebellious acts of the slaves themselves opening up the remote possibility of a way out - opening up the imagination of White Americans in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries to the radical reality that Black slaves were not property but people. I contend that slavery would have been much more profitable and therefore more desirable to the entire US if the slaves hadn't acted out in various ways against the bitter institution of slavery

All true Reformers are incendiaries. But it is the hearts, brains and souls of their fellow-men which they set on fire, and in so doing they perform the function appropriated to them in the wise order of Providence.
- James Russel Lowell
It wasn't Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was the actions of the slaves which energized the abolitionists who powered the imagination and moral compass of the United States which brought the conflict to a crucible. This crucible was important, for it meant that the slave-holding elite of the South believed that reparations with an abolitionist-leaning North were now impossible, ergo, they had to go on and make their own country and go so far as to start a war with their free neighbors to the North (Southern Apology Myths withstanding).

In all ages, it has been first the radical, and only later the moderate, who has held out a hand to [those] knocked to the ground by the social order.
The moderate, whose sensitive ears are offended by the wild language of the radical, needs to consider the necessary division of labor in a world full of evil, a division in which agitators for reform play an indispensable role.
- Howard Zinn

To use biblical imagery, when the reformer is the voice of the prophet, we have Moses confronting Pharaoh  "Let my people go." Or we have a newly liberated people, who are slightly more liberated, but then codified back into serfdom through Solomon. In the meantime, we have  Moses, Joshua, Saul, and David - each of whom represents the law, each tightening the screws on their people. Each inching just a bit closer, in their kingly duties, to the role of Pharaoh over Hebrew slaves - though this time, the Hebrew ruler was enslaving his own as well as neighbors - despite the warnings against doing such in the Mosaic law.

Then there's the Samuels and the Nathans. The prophets who spoke to and against, who checked, who lacked fear in the face of the terrifying, who dared speak against the thieving, murderous ways of the kings against common sense.

We need more Samuels and fewer would-be Solomons. We don't need our Garrisons to turn into Lincolns. We need Occupiers to continue to Occupy the American imagination, not pragmatically bow to the whims of a fickle populace.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Holy Days of Grief

When tragedies strike, we are alternately and simultaneously awe-struck, grief-stricken, stupid.

Here I'm thinking of not just national, CNN-feeder tragedies like Hurricane Sandy or massacres in crowded elementary schools or theaters or malls, but also the everyday tragedies of poverty, of war, of death, of prison, of murder (all predominant among people of color who are disproportionately targeted for institutional poverty and its residual effects). But also, what of divorce, lost friendships, depression, mental disease, domestic violence and abuse, deteriorating physical conditions, ends of eras? How do we react when such sorrow is uncomfortably placed on our laps like sobbing children?

We can hardly be blamed for being stupid in the face of the incomprehensible. After all, we are taught to not cry over spilled milk - so what happens when we find our friend literally crying over milk that's gone to waste when she is already unsure of how she'll feed herself and her kids through the end of the month?

My own religious tradition is recklessly infamous for such insipidity. I'm convinced that has to do with Western Christianity's creeping (and now substantial) gnosticism - this fascination with this idea that we must know the answer to everything under the sea. And if we don't - well it doesn't matter because Jesus does and when we die we can ask him. This trend is made much worse when we consider such high profile would-be Jesus mouth-speakers as Bryan Fischer, John Piper, or Pat Robertson - who, for instance, blame lack of prayer in schools, God teaching us a theological lesson, and the gay agenda for such tragedies.

These responses aren't just untimely or wrong or inappropriate or even just plain inhumane and gross. They are assholy: An attempt to act sacred, profound, spiritual, and godly while being a tremendous asshole.

But this isn't about them*. I spend too much time and mental energy worrying about others - and during moments of grief, they should not be allowed the space or the privilege of our collective heads. This is about what a holy response perhaps could look like.

What would be an appropriate Christian response?

And I think of the holy days and how they can each speak to us in our sorrow. Specifically, the three biggest days on the Christmas calendar (at least those recognized by the majority of the Western Church - those of liturgical and non-liturgical backgrounds) and the two most recognized seasons:

  • The deep anguish and violence of Good Friday
  • The realized hope of Easter
  • The mournful repentance of Lent
  • The longing and expectation of Advent (our current season)
  • The incarnation of Christmas

Often, I find that I respond in one way or another to bad news. I think many of us do. Some of the worst advice is found in, for example, acting as if Easter were right around the corner - particularly among ministers. For myself, leaning heavily towards a social justice view of Christianity, I tend to focus on calls to societal repentance. But today I'm meditating on the idea of conscientiously practicing all five. I'm considering particularly what it means to place a central crux on the incarnation. The incarnation in Christian tradition is the idea of God coming to weak, fragile humanity as a weak, fragile human. It is the ultimate of humbling; the idea that God the Creator just does not understand human suffering and life and so must enter into the atmosphere, into our sphere, into our fragility and brokenness, must be broken and spilled.

Good Friday is the ultimate of violence - taking the good and murdering it out of spite, out of greed, out of a need to control and dominate. But that is not all - it is also a consideration and a mourning as John and the women witnessed this death. And it's a running away from the realities of such violence as Peter and the disciples did - a selfish but understandable fear. It is murder, it is death, it is theft, it is rape - it is the barrel of evil.

The promise of rebirth and renewal associated with Easter is often the first and predominant response of the American Christian to such violence. It's therapeutic for the teller to tell the grieving that everything is going to be all right. That Tim lives forever in a better place now. And whether or not we can say that with any sense of truth into the life of the hearer, it's a horrible first step; it delegitimizes the sorrow, the hurt, the grieving process of the ones who have lost. What if there really is no money at the end of the month? How about we never see Tim or Nana again on this side of earth? Do we need to wait sixty years to see them again? Isn't it appropriate to say goodbye here and now? Is there closure? Is there finality? Is there really hope - because if there is, then there is dignity and room to grieve the good emotions God gave us, no?

Hope is necessary, of course, but it cannot be unmoored from the desperate realities of humanity and suffering. Hope gets us through, but false hope is a dream deferred. It stinks and leaves us more desperate than when we began. I speak from years of ministerial experience.

Sometimes, after such a tragedy, my first instinct is to cry foul. To call for a soul-search as we do during Lent. To say that we need to look deep within and repent of our selfishness, our greed, our racism, our institutional monstrosity. That is a primary way of how I grieve. And often I - and other like-minded friends - are silenced. Told to wait for a more appropriate moment. That our anger at the system that has caused such tragedies as the needless deaths in Sandy Hook or Haiti is out of place. I remain that it is not only beneficial but necessary as a people, as a nation, to have such prophets of Lenten lamentations. But again, such calls should never stand alone. I want what I say, however, to always arise out of hope and anguish and shared experiences. The prophetic lamentations should never be divorced from the other holy respects.

Which includes the expectation associated with Advent - the expectation as I see it is a star set in the west. This star is a witness, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, "Look. The arch of history is long but it bends toward justice." It stands at a precipice - this land between the reality that is and the place that we may have and balances the two, ever moving toward the land of milk and honey while steadfastly aware of the time and location in the desert of discontent. It is an energizing vision for justice among violations and a vista for beauty among the unsightly. It is our long-expectant hope that continues to hold out when we are weary from doing good.

The incarnation seen in Christmas continues - and that is key. Not that the Christian God looks down upon humanity and approves or disapproves of our behavior or allows or does not allow horrible, monstrous, devastating events to occur. But that that God walks with us, suffers and loses with us, struggles and starves with us.

That, to me, is key. God with us.

*I believe very much that the Christian God speaks primarily with and through and alongside the Body of believers - the Ecclesia, the Church. And so what we say and do during these moments of crises is reflective of and on Jesus - for better and worse. When we neglect to enter into these moments of grief and loss as Jesus and his thoughtful followers have demonstrated, we neglect to answer as Jesus. If the American Church (and specifically here I'm thinking of the Evangelical wing of it) desires to be called followers of Jesus, it needs to discard these "leaders" forthwith.

Monday, December 10, 2012

White Rapists, Native Women, and Diplomatic Immunity

I'm encouraged - and I want to talk more in depth about this - that rape culture in the US among males and females is in sharp decline the last few decades. It's truly magnificent. It's like racial oppression's decline in government and society since the 60's. Which, as I'm sure long-time readers of the Left Cheek will know, doesn't mean that we can claim victory. Anybody who's been paying attention to politics and national events will know that the US still remains a very racist and misogynist county. Not just among the Republicans, either.

But, damn, they sure know how to illustrate and blow up trends. Take these two coming in at a perfect storm under nationalist Eric Cantor:

[The Violence Against Woman Act], which has been reauthorized consistently for 18 years with little fanfare, was, for the first time, left to expire in Sept. 2011. The sticking point has been new protections for three particularly vulnerable groups: undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBT community and Native Americans. The additions are supported by Democrats and opposed by House Republicans, who are calling them politically driven.

(All boldings, italicizing and underlinings are mine. I'd add arrows if I could.)

Only in retrograde ConservativeLand can you decry protections for vulnerable groups as being "politically driven."

Finally, after stalling on these amendments and letting the bill expire in September of this year, House Majority Leader Cantor is meeting with Joe Biden to push through a bill (House Republicans pushed through a version of the bill without the amendments earlier). And yet, Cantor is stalling on one of the issues.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy... explained the provision, probably the least understood of the three additions in the Senate bill: It gives tribal courts limited jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against Native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands. Currently, federal and state law enforcement have jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands, but in many cases, they are hours away and lack the resources to respond to those cases. Tribal courts, meanwhile, are on site and familiar with tribal laws, but lack the jurisdiction to address domestic violence on tribal lands when it is carried out by a non-Native American individual.

Sounds reasonable, right? I mean, if a crime is committed by a tourist in another land and to a native of that land, you expect the place where the crime is committed to have jurisdiction, right? Especially since the place is, y'know, local and therefore, can access the scene of the crime and the victim and any available witnesses and parties at a reasonable time and with adequate knowledge of the local lay of the land. It's very reasonable, considering that other jurisdictions are usually busy enough trying to take care of their own areas. I mean, you would assume it was reasonable.

Well, unless the perp happens to be male and American and the alleged victim happens to be female and indigenous (We've already talked about how indigenous people are immensely mistreated by colonial and dominant [read: White] cultures). I mean, how dare anyone suggest that another country would or could possibly try a good ol' boy USA si-ti-zin.

That means non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on tribal lands are essentially "immune from the law, and they know it," Leahy said.

They can get away with rape - because they have...

Diplomatic Immunity!
image courtesy of
As a result of this immunity, 86% (yes. Eighty-six PERCENT) of rapes of tribal women on tribal lands are done by non-tribal men, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Now, this report is important to read. Because in it, you don't just get a story of an angry white male leftist angry with the angry white male Republicans and so forth. This isn't just a story of injustice in Washington, DC or the injustice of voting for the wrong guy. No, that's an obvious component of injustice. But the real injustice is how Native women are treated for the fact that they are Natives and they are women - and then that they are sexual abuse survivors.

Because we can talk all day about who is obstructing whose what in the less-than-sacred halls of Wallhalla, District of Columbia. But what of a support worker near Fairbanks who had been shamed into anonymity by the sheer factor that she is Indigenous, female, and had been sexually assaulted?

In July 2006 an Alaska Native woman in Fairbanks reported to the police that she had been raped by a non-Native man. She gave a description of the alleged perpetrator and city police officers told her that they were going to look for him. She waited for the police to return and when they failed to do so, she went to the emergency room for treatment. A support worker told Amnesty International that the woman had bruises all over her body and was so traumatized that she was talking very quickly. She said that, although the woman was not drunk, the Sexual Assault Response Team nevertheless “treated her like a drunk Native woman first and a rape victim second”. The support worker described how the woman was given some painkillers and some money to go to a non-Native shelter, which turned her away because they also assumed that she was drunk: “This is why Native women don’t report. It’s creating a breeding ground for sexual predators.

This view of Disposable Lives is prevalent in most cultures. But why, Oh why, in such a "Christian"-predominant one as the US. As Alaska? Why treat others as less-thans when we are all human and, according to Christian theology, all made in the image of God and all bearing the love of the Christ? Why are these lives treated as if they are invisible? Why are there stories trivialized that - even in the protection of - they are treated as political fodder?

Over the past decade, federal government studies have consistently shown that American Indian and Alaska Native women experience much higher levels of sexual violence than other women in the USA. Data gathered by the US Department of Justice indicates that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general.
A US Department of Justice study on violence against women concluded that 34.1 per cent of American Indian and Alaska Native women – or more than one in three – will be raped during their lifetime; the comparable figure for the USA as a whole is less than one in five.
Shocking though these statistics are, it is widely believed that they do not accurately portray the extent of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women.
“Most women who are beaten or raped don’t report to the police. They just shower and go to the clinic [for treatment].”
Native American survivor of sexual violence (identity withheld), February 2006
Amnesty International’s interviews with survivors, activists and support workers across the USA suggest that available statistics greatly underestimate the severity of the problem. In the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, for example, many of the women who agreed to be interviewed could not think of any Native women within their community who had not been subjected to sexual violence.
These stories are ignored, these women abused disproportionately, these survivors out of reach of justice and appropriate medical attention. This continues to happen not just because Eric Cantor is a big meanie. But because in the big scheme of things, what does it matter if Native women and their communities are adequately prepared and taken care of?

The tremendous - as in Visible-From-Space - racism and sexism  in the GOP isn't helping. After all, just because you don't care about certain groups or they're invisible from your point of sight doesn't mean they don't need protections. But not only that, there is the hubris that only those who come up through and are within a White Man's system of "justice" are capable of administering justice to White Men.

The two sources say, to Cantor's credit, his staff has said they're willing to try to come up with other solutions to responding to violence against women on tribal lands, as long as the solution doesn't give tribes jurisdiction over the matter.

That, as you may have noticed, is NOT to Cantor's credit.