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Yesterday a small group of people came together to participate in an act of holy foolishness. It was a symbolic act meant to continue a conversation about how we have normalized gun violence in our country. For those gathered this was not a political statement, it was a spiritual statement of our Christian faith. We took a weapon designed to kill human beings, an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, and turned it into a tool for cultivating and growing food. Our friends Mike and Fred Martin of RAW Tools
in Colorado traveled to Portland and brought their skills to create a tool that will be given to the Newtown Action Alliance on the 4th anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. We did not destroy this gun because we thought it would be an effective way to end gun deaths. Although this gun will never be used to kill anyone, it would take almost 1000 years to destroy just the guns in the United States right now using our method. We destroyed this gun to highlight the idolatry with which we worship guns in America.
As those gathered together to follow Jesus Christ we are called to stand for more peace and less war, more care for others and less selfishness, more generosity and less greed, more hope and less violence. We are called to be evangelists for the nonviolent Way of Jesus. Yes we live in a complicated world, yes certain weapons keep us safe as a country, yes there is evil that would harm other people, but we cannot allow the fear of violence keep us from looking for another way. Our actions are meant to wake people out of their complacency around gun violence in our country and open space for new, creative and imaginative ways to live together.
We are two weeks from the annual celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace. Christmas is the day we celebrate the coming of God into the world, and in turn a new way of life that compels us to see God in one another. May each of us understand who we are called to be and live fully into the message of God in Christ.
There are still many questions about winning the AR-15 and the money used to buy the raffle tickets. Those questions were answered in this blog post a few months ago.
Note: This reflection was written in 2006 when I was the rector at a small parish called St. Timothy’s in Athens, Alabama. At the time, many people were upset about the number of undocumented immigrants coming into North Alabama to work picking tomatoes. Within a year it was necessary for us to organize a counter protest of the KKK in Athens when they held a rally at City Hall. It is incredibly sad that we are still having the same conversation a decade later.
This essay is intended to be a theological reflection on scripture dealing not merely with how we are to treat and deal with immigrants but also, more generally, how we as Christians are called to live with all people whether they be from this country or another.
I begin with an important note on Scripture. As Christians, it is our responsibility to take scripture seriously when we come to ethical issues. Not to quote scripture out of the air and use it as another weapon in debate, but to allow it to enlighten us when we come to difficult problems. Christians are called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest scripture, both alone and with others, not as a way of finding evidence to backup our already decided notions, but to allow scripture to enter and live inside of us. To allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us and to enlighten what we have read. Too often we come to scripture looking for ammunition to support our own political ends, knowing that we have the right answer and wanting God, through the Bible, to merely confirm what we already believe. It seems as though everyone can quote chapter and verse to support their own politics. Scripture isn’t a tool to be used against one another, it is not a weapon to be used in our squabbles. Through Scripture we are called beyond Scripture to the faces of our brothers and sisters. It is a prism we look through and ask, how am I to see and live with others, how am I to view the world in light of what I have read? Taking a single verse here or there only it distorts our view. Scripture is meant to become part of who we are, being read over and over again so that it becomes who we are. Study and prayer are what make Christians different as we enter the world.
With this in mind I want to share a collection of verses which provide a consistent ethic on the issue of Immigration and many other issues throughout the Bible as to how we are to live with, and treat one another.
The Image of God
We being in the Beginning with the creation of all humankind. Humans were created as a reflection of the divine, “in the image”. Genesis 1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. But throughout our history as humans we have disregarded this belief whenever it has become convenient. Our history is full of stories in which one group decided that another group was less than them and therefore could be afforded fewer rights. This has led to the destruction of many of God’s children in body, mind and soul. It is therefore imperative that no matter what our personal political feelings we not fall into dehumanizing language that refers to people as trash or animals, people should be respected as human beings first and all our debate should reflect the humanity of our opponents. We must also resist falling prey to the sins of racism and xenophobia that allow us to dismiss another’s humanity due to the color of their skin or place of birth and treat them differently. We are all created equally in the eyes of God.
The Exodus and Prophets
The history of the Jewish people, and therefore Christianity, has been influenced by many stories, but none more important than their exodus from Egypt. The release from slavery and exodus is a defining story in the life of Israel. As this story was told and re-told through history, an understanding of justice emerged and was written into the Torah, the first Five Books of Hebrew scripture, and part of our Old Testament. This understanding comes through in Exodus (22:21, 23:9) Leviticus (19:10, 19:33, 25:23) and Deuteronomy (10:18-19, 24:14-19, 27:19). It is a common theme that is summed up In Leviticus 19:33 “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
The Hebrew people understood their responsibility toward those who were aliens to be the same as those who were native-born, because they recalled their treatment by the Egyptians and were determined that others not be treated in the same way. They did not want to become Pharaoh and create slaves of others, they did not want to see widows, orphans and aliens mistreated. On the contrary they felt called by God to show compassion, mercy and hospitality.
This way of seeing the alien was later taken up by many of the Prophets namely Jeremiah (7:6, 22:3) Ezekiel (22:7, 22:29) Zechariah (7:10) and Malachi (3:5) The Hebrew word translated as “alien” in English is ger, which can also mean stranger or sojourner. These scriptures, and this understanding of the stranger, have important implications for how I feel I am called as a Christian by Jesus to see those around me.
Who is Our Neighbor
To say that Jesus issues a radical call to living with one another would be a great understatement. Over and over in the Gospels Jesus challenges those who would be his disciples to shed their old understanding and see the new things that Jesus was teaching. The view of who was to be considered a neighbor and how disciples were to treat strangers was high on the list of how to walk on the Way.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is asked a question by a lawyer about the greatest commandment, Matthew 22:35-39 reads “…and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus with this answer is telling not only the lawyer but all those who would follow him his expectations of how they would treat one another.
This story is also in the Gospel of Luke but rather than leave the story where it ends in Matthew, the story continues with the lawyer continuing to ask Jesus about his answer, the lawyer asks “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answers him with one of the best known stories in the bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. Luke 10
Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Here is what we are left with, the greatest commandment is to love God, the next is to love your neighbor, who is the neighbor, the one who shows mercy. When we show mercy to one another we are being a neighbor. The commandments of Jesus are shown in the scriptures again and again and specifically 1 John 4:20, it reads, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
But Jesus’ teaching on the neighbor and story of the Good Samaritan are not all he has to say about how we live with one another. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells his disciples the story of the sheep and the goats. This may have more to say than his teachings on loving our neighbor, because he specifically speaks of those we consider outcasts and strangers.
[Jesus said ]“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 a stranger and you welcomed me, 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.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus tells his disciples that they will not know when they have seen him, but tells them specifically that when they welcomed the stranger, the alien, they were in fact welcoming him, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Jesus considers those who are the outcasts, the poor, those who are sick or in prison and those who are the stranger to be his family and tells his followers through this story, that how those family members are treated will be remembered.
Our Baptismal Covenant
As a Christian I believe that through baptism we enter into a covenant with God, that we are forgiven of our sins and that we are sent out to be servants to those in need. In the Episcopal Church we have put this covenant in writing and are asked to enter into a new relationship with God, and with one another, through the sacrament of baptism. At our baptism we are asked a series of questions and the final two are specifically important for us as we reflect on our relationships in God’s family. The first question is “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”? Our answer is, “I will, with God’s help”, the second question is “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”? Again we answer, “I will, with God’s help.” We realize that we cannot do this alone and that we need the Holy Spirit working through us. We do not answer with qualifying statements such as “I will, with God’s help… but only if they are American, or if they are white, or if they are from my neighborhood.” What we are committing to is justice and compassion for all people.
Up to this point I have been trying to show the importance of treating people with dignity and respect, treating people in a way we would like to be treated. It may fairly be assumed that I have been focused on how we treat immigrants, but this ethic of care is not limited to immigrants. This ethic of care is as important when we look at how we treat those from our own country in terms of economic justice and fairness. Our country does not, at this time demand that employers provide a living wage for workers. Companies can provide whatever wage they determine, limited only by a non-livable minimum, and this is meant to be part of how the market works. A problem arises when companies ignore even the most basic regulations that attempt to assure workers a certain level of pay. The relationship between employers and low wage workers is one of injustice, exploitation, and wage theft. In many cases people will tolerate exploitation because being exploited in the United States is better than not working at all in their own country. The Christian response to economic injustice for workers who are citizens becomes an equally important issue that must be dealt with. Immigration issues do not occur in a vacuum, there are human lives at stake.
I do not intend to suggest that issues surrounding immigration reform are easy or that we must ignore legal and economic implications of people from other nations coming to this country, but I do believe that as Christians we have a responsibility to view all people first as human beings, created in the image of, and loved by God. This in turn leads to a desire for the common good of all people not just those who happen to live within certain geographical and political boundaries. As the grandson of two union steel workers, from Birmingham, Alabama, I understand on a very personal level the difficulties faced by working men and women. But these challenges will not be solved by scapegoating another ethnic or racial group or by treating others as our new servant class to do the work we would rather not do. Issues of economic justice and fair wages for all workers should be dealt with in a way that provides people with a living wage, not just in this country but all over the world.
We must be very careful where politics collide with economic, racial, and ethnic tension. These kinds of tensions have lead to some of the greatest atrocities the world has seen and can quickly go from political disagreement to vigilantism and violence. As Christians we commit ourselves to the betterment of all people through relationships and community. We must not let our discussions or decisions be based on anxiety or fear as we open our hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us.
I was up at 4am this morning. When I am worried or stressed out, this is as long as my eyes will stay closed. It’s better for me to just get out of bed and write or pray or read, but usually I just sit and worry. Some days it’s money, other days it’s the people I serve as a priest. Today it is the ever present worry that I don’t know where I am living or what is happening to the world I thought I knew. It has taken a couple of days to process what I had hoped was a bad reality TV show, but now true reality is setting in.
Just over 15 years ago on September 12th, 2001, I woke up in New York City with a very similar feeling. The day before, men had flown planes into buildings just down the street from where I lived. This had never happened before in the country I knew. The images on TV did not make sense and when the wind blew the acrid smell of burning buildings uptown, through my window, I felt like I was living in a bad dream. That was my second day of seminary.
This week so far feels like the beginning of a dystopian novel, but as I listen to the voices of my black, brown, latino and LGBTQ friends, as I listen again to the voices of the women around me, I realize that this is the life they have always been living. Because I am a white man I had the luxury to believe in a world that was nicer and more honest than it ever actually was. Because it was nicer and more honest to me. This is why I cannot say, with an confidence to anyone that everything is going to be ok. I honestly do not know what that means anymore.
History’s arc is hard to see when you are in the middle of it. Every day I see people trying to make sense and explain what is happening. Some say let’s wait and see. Maybe we are all just overreacting, our system of checks and balances will make sure things don’t get too out of hand. Each of these statements is a way for mostly white people to get through the day and sleep through the night. It is the voice of privilege. It is the voice of those with the luxury to wait and see. By the time the damage is done for us to see it will be too late. I was once told by my wife that when people show you who they are, you should believe them. There is no need to wait and see what is going to happen, we have already been shown.
As a priest, my first instinct is to return to my faith and holy texts, but today that is hard. Millions of people in the country believe that a Christian God has ordained Donald Trump as our president. They believe that his actions will be those of a divinely appointed leader and that is terrifying. For many people of faith God only works through the winners. Make no mistake that God has found a true believer in our new president.
So rather than wallow in despair I have decided to listen to my friends who say, “I’m sorry but we don’t have time for your self-pity, your despair does your allies no good” “You are a white man in a culture that loves white men, you have work to do!” “Our lives are at stake while you sit at home believe that you can’t change anything” Lastly they say this, “Your life is a stake as well, your soul cannot be free until we are all free.”
So today I put my hope in the God of the brown, refugee savior who lived and died under imperial military occupation. I put my hope in the God of the prophets who preached to those in power and demanded their repentance when they strayed from the path of justice, mercy and peace. I put my trust in the God of the saints and martyrs who throughout history have stood up and spoken out to protect the vulnerable and those without power. I choose to see God in the immigrant and refugee, in the homeless and poor, in the widow, the orphan, the abused, the despised and the outcast, in the prisoner and in all those we hide from our eyes and try not to see. I choose to see God in the face of my enemy, but whom God loves too much to let them stay an enemy. I choose to believe in the God of reconciliation but to never be reconciled to injustice, oppression or exploitation.
A week ago today I was gathered with over 500 clergy from around the country on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. We marched and sang and listened to speakers, in solidarity with their struggle to protect their water and their land. Of all the things that were said, one particular quote stood out; “You can fake care, but you cannot fake showing up”
It’s time to show up.
First let me say thank you to everyone who has sent us wonderful messages of support over the past 10 days. It has been pretty crazy and it does not seem like this story is losing steam. That’s really fine. Our country needs to talk about guns and violence and we need to find places that reasonable people can share their pain and sadness and explore ideas to decrease the death toll. I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two experiences. One is an angry phone message with several expletives directed at me. I have gotten many more positive messages than this, but still. The image is of an email I received from the sister of one of the teachers who died in Sandy Hook. It is hard to face hate with love but we must.
A couple of weeks ago I was reading one of our Portland weekly newspapers, and I came across the story of a girls softball team from the Portland area trying to raffle an AR-15 rifle. Since then, I won the raffle and the story has been written and broadcast across the country. Local news stations approached me to talk about the raffle and the gun, and both local and national newspapers picked up the story.
The feedback has been overwhelming. I never expected this action to get so much attention and by and large the feedback has been positive. I have gotten emails and voice mails from across the country thanking me for this action. Families that have lost loved ones to gun violence have let me know that they support me and that means a lot.
On the other hand there are the critics and trolls on Facebook pages and news website comment sections, lobbing their hate and vitriol. First let me say that I have seen almost none of it. My discipline of never reading the comments has been almost complete in this instance. But I have seen a few and I know that other people might be reading the comments and feel the need to defend me. Rather than spending your time behind a computer fighting with people you will never change, go outside and enjoy your life. Play with your kids, drink a beer with your friends, in the words of Wendell Berry “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts”. Do not let your heart be troubled by anger directed towards me. If you want to respond, post a link to this blog and leave it at that.
It has been a surprise to witness how upset people have been about what I have done. I used money given to my discretionary fund at Christ Church Episcopal Parish to support a girls softball team and to take an AR-15 out of society. No one from Christ Church has asked for their money back. In fact more money has been donated from both members and non-members than was actually spent on buying raffle tickets. That money will be used to support work that reduces violence in our world and builds community. How supporting kids sports or reducing America’s gun arsenal are in contradiction of what church funds should be used for is beyond me.
Many of the critics of this action believe I could have used this $3000 more effectively and have suggested many different ways including, feeding the hungry and helping those in need. Christ Church is a founding member in Portland of an organization called Potluck in the Park. Every Sunday morning during services, teams of parishioners are in our kitchen cooking meals that help feed 300-500 hungry people in Downtown Portland. Christ Church raised $70,000 in one night last year at our annual auction. All that money is used to support another 15 outreach projects in our community and in the world. We support schools in Uganda, health clinics in Peru and clergy in Namibia. We build homes through Habitat for Humanity and provide transitional housing through Lake Oswego Transitional Housing. We are also on the board and support William Temple Thrift Store in Portland. Christ Church lives its beliefs, and we work every day to build up the kingdom of God. We are a group of committed Christian disciples following the call of Jesus Christ.
It seems like a lot of the energy around this action is about the gun being destroyed. Some people believe it is just a silly stunt. “A gun is an inanimate object” they say. “My guns have never walked out of my house and hurt anyone”, say others. Fair enough. So why is there so much anger and hatred about me destroying an inanimate object? What about this action could possibly make someone so angry that they would tell me I should kill myself?
Here is what I know, inanimate objects hold emotional power.
Your grandfather’s watch and a love letter from your spouse are inanimate objects too, but they also mean more than that. In our gun worshiping culture, destroying a gun seems to be the equivalent of burning the flag. I am seen by some as un-American for even suggesting that there should be one less gun in the world. It seems to me that the people who are screaming the loudest about guns having no power are proving just the opposite. Evidently guns can get people to spend hours on their computers writing hateful messages and cause otherwise decent people to act in ways their mothers would probably not be proud of.
Why I’m Speaking Out
It’s hard to believe that people on the internet know me so well. In the past 2 weeks I have been called every name you can think of. Most of these names suggest that my intelligence is lacking and that I don’t know what I am talking about. Looking at the comment section is like walking into an insane asylum and starting to believe you are the one who is crazy.
I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up shooting rifles on my grandparents farm in Vernon in Lamar County. I learned how to handle a gun and was taught how to safely treat firearms. I went to school in West Birmingham and Homewood, graduated from UAB with degrees in History and Political Science, went to law school at Birmingham School of Law and practiced law in Birmingham for four years. While in law school I owned a nickle-plated, Smith and Wesson .357.
Then I moved to New York City for seminary and started school on September 11th, 2001. Yes, 9/11.
I was at Ground Zero, and worked there supporting the first responders. I moved back to Athens, Alabama after seminary where I had the pleasure, as the rector of St Timothy’s Episcopal Church to counter protest the KKK. Then I moved to Namibia in Southern Africa for three years to help train clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Namibia. I moved to the Portland area five years ago and have been the rector of Christ Church for 2 ½ years. If you want to know who I am, ask. If you think you know who I am, think again.
I am a lifelong follower of Jesus Christ. I was baptized as a Southern Baptist in Alabama and never remember a time that my mother and grandmother did not have me in church. I later became an Episcopalian, and then a priest. I am committed to the gospels and my favorite verse is Matthew 25:31-46. I am committed to the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, especially our commitment to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. I have always been called to live my faith and not merely talk about it as a disciple of Jesus. You don’t have to agree with me, but please don’t question my commitment to my faith.
I have a confession to make; When I was in college in Alabama, I worked in politics and helped Spencer Bachus, a Republican, get elected to his first term in the 6th Congressional District in Alabama. He served 22 years in Congress and was at one time the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
I have another confession to make; In 2000 I volunteered and worked tirelessly for the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader and voted for him in Alabama. At other times I have consulted with campaigns and help write and pass legislation. I have had back room conversations with lobbyist and attended my fair share of political fundraisers and campaign night celebrations. So I can say with some experience that politics is one of the ugliest dramas to unfold in a civilized society.
As I write this preparations are being made to bury Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the presidential campaign, which was already over the top, has reached new levels of ugliness and rancor. Hatred, anger, fear, xenophobia, racism, self-righteousness and judgment have become the normal discourse. This really should come as no surprise. As much as all of us say we want it to be different and bemoan the state of politics, red meat is what gets most people excited and moving to vote in one direction or the other.
In addition to the vitriol, there is the financial cost. Some experts believe that this presidential campaign will cost between $3-$5 billion dollars. Others put the estimate as high as $10 billion. This means that to elect the president our country we’ll spend more than the GDP of 100 countries and at least half of the people will not be happy with the winner.
So how are we as Christians meant to live and participate in politics? It is part of our world, affects our daily life and the lives of those we love. Non-participation is the equivalent of approval of our current state of affairs. I am as frustrated as the next person, but I am ever hopeful. But how do you choose?
Let me say that I do not trust what politicians say, I am concerned with how they act and how they have acted in their lives. When I look at someone running for office, trying to sway me to vote for them, I ask, have they lived their life in a way that is consistent with the values of my faith. Could I see them having a conversation with Jesus and Jesus saying, “Well done good and faithful servant…” Many politicians talk a good game but in the words of John Wooden “Character is what a person does when no one is looking”. How many politicians running for office would show up at the homeless shelter if there were no cameras around? How many would help their neighbor if there was no possibility of getting their vote? In our Ash Wednesday readings Jesus reminds us to beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them.
Jesus Christ died to change the world and to undo the political systems of oppression and injustice. He was crucified by politicians and resurrected by a God who is above politics. God judges our politics based on the cross and the values of the cross. God has brought down the powers and principalities and politicians work everyday to rebuild them. As we pass through this season of lent, to the foot of the cross and stand at the empty tomb let us be aware that as Christians we are called to ask ourselves, are we rebuilding the powers that would create more injustice, or are we recommitting to our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace among all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
I have one last confession to make; I believe that Jesus came to save the world through love, peace, justice and mercy. I believe that we, as Christians, are called to this same work as disciples, and I believe that any politician who does not work for the reconciliation of the world through love, peace, justice and mercy is not worthy of a vote.