Justice, Kindness, and Executive Orders

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


 The readings for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany could not have come at a more pertinent and bizarre moment in our history. Last Friday, the president signed an executive order halting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and suspending refugee admission for 120 days. On that day, Trump spoke to the Christian Broadcast Network and stated that resettling Christian refugees would be a priority for his administration¹. This all followed a year-long campaign that called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, and the possibility of a Muslim registry. This executive order is consistent with his despicable comments on the campaign trail, and has already caused harm to citizens, immigrants, and refugees.

God bless the liturgy.

If there is one verse (besides John 3:16) that most Christians have burned into their collective memory, my guess is Micah 6:8. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This verse’s simplicity and its beauty combine to make it one of the most profound and challenging lines in the Bible. Though many Christians have this verse memorized, I wonder how many of us actively engage with what the prophet is asking. What does it mean to do justice? To love kindness? How is it that we can walk humbly with God? These are questions that we continue to wrestle with over a lifetime, often stumbling and finding that what we thought it meant maybe wasn’t so. I’ve found in my own experience that I often stumble while trying to perform ethical and linguistic jujitsu in order to avoid the clear implications of a text like this. I’ve argued my way out of doing justice by concluding that my context is so radically different from that of the authors. Surely, there are not the same kinds of expectations for us modern readers?

This attempt to avoid the implications are quickly dashed when we read the rest of Micah. Micah speaks directly to a context that is awash in corrupt and hateful government. He chides the chiefs and officials of Jerusalem saying, “Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong.” These words resonate for me as we witness an administration, supported by far too many, fulfilling promises soaked in racism, bigotry, and hatred. It is within our own context, our moment in history, that we are called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Now, I understand that many of us will have radically different ways of doing justice and loving kindness, but what seems clear to me is that silence and acceptance of legislated hatred is neither just nor kind. This means that we must find a way that is authentic to ourselves to support and defend those who are targeted by hatred, state-sponsored or otherwise. I know that this is not always easy. Many of us who hold significant amounts of privilege, and who have been awakened to the injustice and suffering of our neighbors (of which we have been ignorant for far too long), truly want to be allies and to stand with those who are bearing the brunt of this unbearable burden. Unfortunately, we just don’t know how. We’re unsure of our place in the struggle, we’re afraid to say or do the wrong thing, and we don’t understand the practical steps required of us. This discomfort prevents far too many of us from taking a stand, and our continuing absence furthers the suffering and discrimination of our neighbors. Rather than retreating from our discomfort, we need to lean in, understanding that these feelings of fear, inadequacy, and uncertainty are opportunities for us to deconstruct some of the ways we continue to contribute to a hurting world.

For me, the last week and a half is evidence that millions of people are doing just that. The Women’s March on the 21st was the largest demonstration in US history, with more than 3 million people marching. And when two Iraqi nationals were detained at JFK International Airport on Saturday, thousands spontaneously appeared to denounce the hateful executive order, and to demand the release of the detainees. Over the weekend protests popped up at airports around the country, including here in Minneapolis, and are scheduled to continue while the courts challenge the constitutionality of the order. I haven’t felt this hopeful in months. Like many, I have been swimming in negativity and despair, and have been tempted to just kick back and watch it all burn. But this week reassured me that there are millions of people out there doing justice and loving kindness.

While protesters gathered at JFK, I was with 2,000 other people of faith at an event hosted by ISAIAH called “Building our Prophetic Resistance”. An ecumenical and intercultural group of leaders challenged us to engage in 100 days of resistance, to embody the call of our faith, and to resist demagoguery and hatred. As I listened to preachers, teachers, senators, and mayors, I was struck by how close I felt to everyone in the room, like we had all come together in the same car or something. I only knew a handful of folks in the crowd, but it was clear to me that this group of people had assembled to support one another in the important and challenging work ahead. We prayed for each other, and we talked about the Spirit’s pull that brought us there. That room felt mobilized and ready to work together, and it was profoundly hopeful.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. This is the rallying cry I needed to hear, and it is the call I hope to follow. I vow to show up as fully and authentically as I can, and to pursue justice by calling out evil, opposing that which targets anyone’s dignity and humanity, and using the privilege I have to engage in political action. I will do so with the hopeful vision of the beloved community as my inspiration. I will love kindness by remembering that in the end the beloved community is made up of all people, not only those that agree with me. I will walk humbly with my God, knowing that I will not always be right, and will often make mistakes in word and deed. I will extend grace to myself and to others, with the hope that our ability to hold each other’s messiness will further our vision of the beloved community and the flourishing of all people. I’m going to lean into those places where I feel discomfort, grateful that these moments often lead to hope. We are in such need of hope. The words of the prophet Micah, and the response of people all over this country has reignited that hope for me, and though the darkness of this present moment still lingers and promises to advance, I am grateful for the light that sneaks in through the cracks and swallows it whole. Amen.


¹https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/christians-refugees-trump/514820/

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary

As January 20th approaches and confirmation hearings begin for the Trump administration’s cabinet appointments, people all over the country are organizing and preparing to resist any dangerous and hateful action by the President-Elect and his team, churches and other religious communities among them. One of the ways that places of worship are committing to help those affected by possibly harmful legislation is offering sanctuary. This can mean a number of things to communities of faith, but primarily this means housing an individual facing deportation or arrest while lawyers and advocates work out solutions on behalf of them. There was a significant sanctuary movement in the 80’s that sought to protect Central American refugees who were fleeing violence in Guatemala and El Salvador, and it seems that the looming specter of a Trump Administration has ignited the movement once again.

The danger that many feel a Trump presidency poses to the US’s immigrant population centers around his inflammatory and hard right stance on immigration and refugees. Trump routinely promised on the campaign trail to deport nearly 2-3 million undocumented immigrants, saying in an interview on 60 minutes, “What we’re going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records…we are getting them out of our country”[1]. On top of this, he has promised to repeal the executive order known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which prevents those undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children from being deported for a period of two years and allows them to apply for work authorization. Since its establishment, nearly 800,000 eligible individuals have applied for DACA, publicly outing themselves as undocumented with the promise of protection. Senator Jeff Sessions (Trump’s nominee for Attorney General), at his confirmation hearing this morning affirmed that a Department of Justice under President Trump would have the constitutional grounds for repealing the order, confirming the very real threat that these individuals face.

In light of this, churches and religious communities all over the country have come forward to declare that they will provide sanctuary for those individuals facing deportation, in defiance of the incoming administration. Under the Obama Presidency particular spaces have been respected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including churches, hospitals, and schools, and have not been raided to make arrests. However, no one is certain whether or not a Trump administration would maintain this practice. This makes for some very uncertain and frightening possibilities for immigrants and for the churches who are stepping forward to provide sanctuary. No one is really sure what is going to happen.

The church I work for, and many of our neighboring congregations, have been in a process of discernment about sanctuary for the better part of a month. Many of our leadership has been attending training and informational meetings through ISAIAH, and last Sunday a young woman, who is herself one of the “Dreamers” who have received protection under DACA, spoke to our congregation about what is at stake for her if DACA is repealed. She would be separated from her family and deported to a country that hasn’t been her home for most of her life; a country that holds a significant amount of pain and trauma in her memory. When this young woman stood up and told her story through tears I suddenly grasped the importance of this movement. I have always been a supporter of the sanctuary movement, but it wasn’t until I heard her speak that I realized how vitally important the Church’s stand could be.

It seems to me that as Christians it is our responsibility to provide sanctuary to those who seek it. It is not merely an opportunity for service, it is the very thing that the Gospel calls us to do. And, as the Church, called to follow Christ and bring forth the Kingdom of God, it is the very thing we must do. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels routinely stands in opposition of wayward and violent power, be it state or religious, and implores his followers to care for the least among us. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:34-36). This theme is encountered throughout Christian and Hebrew scripture; “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34), “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). We are called to provide for those in need and to protect those in danger.

I would argue that the Benedictine tradition also affirms this fundamental principle of Christian hospitality. Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me”[2]. This idea of welcoming all as Christ has been on my mind daily since first reading the Rule, and I have tried to drill it deep into my being and to act in accordance with its wisdom. It stands now as a challenge to the Church in the US, as we enter into the next four years under an administration who has promised to target immigrants, refugees, and minorities. How do we welcome all as Christ, while simultaneously refusing to provide aid when we are able? How is it that we can claim to care for the least among us, while allowing dangerous state power to rip apart families and deport millions of our neighbors? It seems to me that we must pick a side, and take a stand.

I am grateful that so many churches have either declared themselves Sanctuary Congregations, or have begun the discernment process to do so. I know that many churches and religious communities simply do not have the space or resources to house undocumented immigrants, but I hope that they will find ways to support the movement with their time and money as they are able. The Trump administration poses a very real threat to so many people in our country, and I truly believe that Christians have a responsibility to stand between the powerful and the victims of power. If our brothers and sisters call for help, we must be prepared to respond in love and in welcome. We must say no to the abuse of power, and to unjust laws that destroy lives. We must reject the fear and hatred that so often divide us. When called on to provide sanctuary, we must provide it.

 

 

If you would like more information about the sanctuary movement here are some places to begin:

ISAIAH – in MN

Sanctuary Not Deportation

Sanctuary 101

Catholic Immigration Legal Network INC


[1] Washington Post

[2] Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English

*Photo Courtesy of kristintangen.com

The Practice of Joy

“One day a hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. What kind of spiritual guide was this?

But the old monk said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So the hunter did. Then the old man said, “Now shoot another.” And the hunter did. Then the elder said, ‘Shoot your bow again. Keep shooting; keep shooting; keep shooting.’ And the hunter finally said, ‘But if I bend my bow so much I will break it.’

Then Abba Anthony said to him, ‘It is just the same with the work of God. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break. Sometimes it is necessary to meet other needs.’ When the hunter heard these words he was struck with remorse and, greatly edified by Anthony, he went away. As for the monastics there, they went home strengthened.”[1]

 

We’re a few days into 2017, and already the world feels heavy. The politics, the war and violence, the hatred and the fear of 2016 have followed us into the new year. Any hope that we might wake up from our nightmare is all but gone, and we are left now with the important and difficult work of justice, love, and peace. There is no question that the work ahead for those who would stand against hatred and wayward power will be challenging and often demoralizing. There is no question that there will be failures and setbacks, but there will be victories and celebrations as well. The key will be our ability to withstand the onslaught of hopelessness and apathy. For those of us who seek to follow Christ, and who hope to bring a vision of the Kingdom into the midst of our broken yet beautiful world, we will need to develop resiliency. To accomplish this, I believe, we must engage in the practice of joy.

Joy is an experience that does not come easily to me. My range of emotional experience lies somewhere between everything-is-awful-always and things-are-ok-for-now. The middle ground between those two poles is my sweet spot, which doesn’t make me the most optimistic or the most cheerful. For many who know me this may seem like a misrepresentation, and they may point out that I am often bright, and talkative, and friendly. However, like any good introvert, my foray into positive extroversion requires an immense payment of energy. This means that my experience of joy often requires very focused and dedicated work. It is not something that I casually slip into. I need to limber up and prepare myself for those moments of energizing and exciting joy, and I need to practice gratitude when I encounter joy in those quiet moments. I believe that this is true to some extent for each of us. Joy is foundational to our ability to live in this world fully, and as such it requires our attention and our discipline. This is why we must not simply experience joy, but we must practice it.

This is something that monastic tradition has known forever, and is reflected in the story of Saint Anthony above. The desert fathers and mothers understood that seriousness about the work of God and holy struggle were vitally important, but like the hunter’s bow there is the danger of destruction looming within the person who does not practice joy. Our call as Christians is a serious one, and requires that we continually stay awake to the injustice and oppression faced by our neighbor, but without joy we risk losing the capacity for hope and love. If we fail to practice joy long enough, we often find ourselves simply mirroring the anger and the hatred of the oppressor, and engaging in reactionary action rather than the visionary action of the Kingdom. Without joy, it all falls apart.

On Christmas Day many churches, mine included, sang “Joy to the World” as we celebrated the birth of the Christ child. I stood in the pew, and I mouthed the words, but inside I could feel myself rejecting the very premise of the song. I felt a dark cloud hovering over me, and I thought only of the hatred and violence experienced by so many, for so long. I thought of Syria, Philando Castille, Pulse Nightclub, and the kidnapped Nigerian girls. I thought of Donald Trump rallies, ISIS, David Duke, the ugliness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. The song droned in my ears and I refused to participate. I felt like I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, feel joy until things improved. Maybe next year; maybe the next election, or when there is peace in Syria. Maybe I’ll feel joy when the news cycle doesn’t look so abysmally dark. Maybe…But, as I began to consider the New Year, and how I will live into the next 365 days I began to see the failure of that thinking. I know that as the year unfolds, and I seek to live out the call of Christ in my small corner of the universe I will experience anger, and I will experience despair. I will feel impatience and fear. Those are experiences that don’t seem to need our permission to enter our lives, they show up in reaction to events quite naturally. And, if we stand front and center and allow the torrent of anger and frustration to consume us, then they will do just that. Joy, it seems, needs our permission or our attention, to enter our lives. It often requires more effort on our part, and for it to have any lasting effect on our being it demands discipline.

As Epiphany approaches, we may take some direction from the Magi, and seek joy out. The story of the “Wise Men” and their pilgrimage to the Christ child is one that many of us remember from Sunday School. Many a nativity set comes with three, often gaudily dressed Magi, bearing gifts and riding camels. From Matthew’s Gospel, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (Matt. 2:1-2) These are not passive fellows, waiting at home with their feet up for their joy to simply happen upon them. They have taken it upon themselves to seek their joy out. The Magi follow the star over many, many miles “…until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (v. 9-10). This is a powerful example of the practice of joy.

How might we seek out joy in our own lives? How might we engage in a practice of joy, understanding it as an important element of our call as Christ followers, as those who seek justice and mercy in this world? When the bigness of suffering seems to cloud our vision, I believe it will be in the small things where we will most consistently find our joy. For me, I have committed to spending more time with my wife, and with those people I love. I have limited my time spent rabbit-holing the endless negativity of certain sectors of the internet. I have borrowed a little more fiction from the library, and have set aside time to read just for fun. I have sought out ways to serve those in need in my immediate community, and I have committed to practicing gratitude in the midst of these efforts. These things are not meant to replace or distract from the work of justice, advocacy, and contemplation. They are supplements that I hope will help me to build resiliency in this coming year. This world is hurting, and it needs the work and dedication of those who are devoted to following Christ. But we must not neglect the practice of joy, or we risk turning into that which we fight against, and losing the vision for what it is we are fighting for. No matter how dark the world may seem, we are allowed the experience of joy, if we will only follow the wisdom of the Magi and seek it out. May our practice of joy reignite our desire to do justice, to seek peace, and to love with our whole selves. Amen.

 

[1] Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

*Photo Credit: Kristin Tangen