Archive for the ‘justice’ Category

What’s Fair

July 18, 2018

I liked very much Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. One of the characters is Sister Jeanne, a small, cheery nun in the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Spending every day nursing poor people in 1930s New York, she’s very familiar with suffering. Here’s what she believes about its unfairness:

Sister Jeanne believed with the conviction of an eye witness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident, and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believed this because, because (and she only possessed the wherewithal to explain this to children—trying to say it to angry or grieving or bitter adults only left her tongue-tied), because fairness demanded it.

It was, to her mind, a simple proposition. The madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic. There was nothing else like it for unevenness. Bad luck, bad health, bad timing. Innocent children were afflicted as often as bad men. Young mothers were struck down even as old ones fretfully lingered. Good lives ended in confusion or despair or howling devastation. The fortunate went blissfully about their business until that moment when fortune vanished—a knock on the door, a cough, a knife flash, a brief bit of inattention. A much-longed-for baby slid into the world only to grow blue and limp in its mother’s arms. Another arrived lame, or ill-formed, or simply too hungry for a frail woman already overwhelmed. There was a child in the next parish with a skull so twisted his mouth couldn’t close, and every breath he took, every word he spoke, even his childish laughter, rattled through dry and swollen lips. Another with a birthmark like a purple caul. Blindness. Beatings. Broken or bring bones. Accident, decay. Cruelty of nature. Cruelty of bad men. Idiocy, madness.

There was no accounting for it.

No accounting for how general it was, how arbitrary.

Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded this chaos be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly, be forever unmade.

”You know what’s fair and what isn’t, don’t you?” Sister Jeanne would ask the sick child, the grieving orphan, Sally herself when she was old enough to understand the question. And us.

“And how do you know?”

Sister Jeanne would put a fingertip to the child’s forehead, to the child’s beating heart. “Because God put the knowledge in you before you were born. So you’d know fairness when you see it. So you’d know He intends to be fair.”

**

“Who’s the dumbest boy in your class?” she once asked us. This was in the Hempstead house where we were young. “And if the teacher’s dividing up sweets and gives him only one while everyone else gets two, what will he say? He’ll say it’s not fair, won’t he? If you call him out playing ball when everyone can see he’s safe by a mile, what will he say—dumb as he is in school? He’ll say it’s not fair, see? And how does he know? Did he learn what’s fair from a book? Did he take a test? No, he did not.”

 

 

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Darkness

June 26, 2018

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

–Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I’ve been thinking about periods of darkness. Our day seems to be one such—a time of casual lying, proud callousness, deliberate unkindness. A very large plurality, and maybe a majority of Americans has embraced fear and cruelty against “outsiders.” I had hoped that this was just a tantrum, and that Americans would get over it. Maybe so, but I’m beginning to fear we’re in this for the long haul.

It’s horrifying to me, but I’m reminded that America has been through previous periods of darkness.

One was in the 1830s, when the Cherokee and other Indian nations were evicted from their property in the Southeast, mainly Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and force-marched by government soldiers to Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way. During the same period, slaveholders throughout the South grew so aggressive and vociferous that anyone who opposed slavery feared for their life.

Then came the Civil War, when Americans grew so polarized that they organized themselves to kill each other, in vast, mechanized swarms of men. The heroes of the time were those who slaughtered other Americans.

Following the war, after a brief period of Reconstruction, the right to vote was violently taken away from African Americans in the South. Thousands were killed if they resisted. From about 1870 to 1960—ninety years—violence kept blacks in subservient status throughout the South, and much of the North as well. Those who resisted were likely to be murdered.

Meanwhile, in the West, Native Americans and Chinese received more or less the same treatment—with the tacit approval of almost all white citizens.

We have dark periods in our national past. In almost every case, the worst offenses were broadly accepted—hardly noted. Such offenses are only possible if the general population is anesthetized to them, becoming instinctually tribal and comfortably cruel.

Note, however, that in the darkness great lights were kindled. The abolitionist movement grew up in the 1830s, perhaps the most admirable group of (mainly) white activists we have known.

In the horror of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln found his voice.

And out of the repression of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow regime, we got Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement.

Our most wonderful citizens and movements came out of the darkness. They demonstrated amazing courage and remarkable faith. The darkness did not overcome the light. Out of the dark, the light shone at its brightest.

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nuts and Pomegranates

February 14, 2018

This is a remarkable article about big ag in central California. I’ll warn you, it’s long. But you won’t soon forget it.

Memories of Max Dunn           

August 23, 2017

My friend and role model Max Dunn died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. I had seen him a short time before, when he was in excruciating pain. He needed a hip replacement, but his doctors were unenthusiastic about operating on a man of his age. Max, characteristically, had no doubt. He had things to do and he needed a good hip to do them. He talked the doctors into doing the surgery, which went extremely well. He was jubilant, his family says, and two days later was ready to go home when he suddenly stopped breathing.

A very capable man, Max had worked as an executive for a big department store chain. He also served on the organizing committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. After his retirement he did a master’s degree in world mission at Fuller Seminary, then traveled all over the world in a wide variety of missions. (He worked with a good friend of mine in Kenya.)

In the small town of Healdsburg Max joined the board of a struggling medical clinic serving farm workers. Pretty soon Max was the CEO. He built that clinic into one of the largest medical providers in our area.

Max was good-looking, athletic, and friendly. He loved tennis, bridge, and ringing the Salvation Army bell (and getting others from his Rotary Club to do it). But when I met him, what Max most loved to do—passionately—was to visit men at the local Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab program. He went nearly every day, meeting individually with men and teaching an anger management class. It was Max’s enthusiasm that moved me to begin volunteering at Santa Rosa’s Redwood Gospel Mission, in a program similar to the Salvation Army’s.

As much as I admired Max’s capability, I admired his friendliness more. He really loved those men, which is saying something. By the time somebody gets to a free, residential, long-term rehab program, they have usually burned every last bridge to family and friends. Many if not most have been in and out of jail and prison. They have little education and many tattoos.

In short, they tend to be quite different from the people Max met at Rotary. I don’t know whether Max really noticed. Even when he was in terrible pain, he wanted to be at the Salvation Army more than anywhere.

I did wonder how Max became so indiscriminate in his friendliness. It really was unusual. His peers in business, the men he met at Rotary, were willing to help out in good causes, but they didn’t choose to hang out with addicts. Max did. I’m sure that some of that generosity came through his family upbringing, and some came through the genes that he inherited. The primary influence, I’m thinking, came in his middle years when he and his wife Carolyn were drawn into the Episcopal charismatic renewal.

It was hard to get Max to tell stories about the past, because he was far more interested in the present. But when I got him to talk about those years when he was introduced to the renewal, he glowed. Thirty or forty years later, it still excited him. He said it was when his life changed. He would have liked to live in that excitement forever.

That renewal emphasized, more than anything, that Jesus is alive and active through the Holy Spirit. For people like Max, that turned faith from a list of beliefs to an experience—an experience of Jesus.

That explains, I think, why Max liked everybody. If you want to see somebody who talked to everybody, helped everybody, believed in everybody, but especially the poor and the desperate, that would be Jesus. I think Max learned it from him.

 

 

 

 

Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.

After the Nightmare

November 10, 2016

 

The election results were a nightmare to me. I mean a real nightmare, the kind where you flee shape-shifting monsters and can’t escape. It took me a long time to get to sleep after the result sank in. The sun did come up this morning, and I feel better. Numb, incredulous, but pretty sure I am going to live.

I have no wish to rehearse all the reasons for fear. Better commentators than I have done that ad nauseum. Almost half of America chose to ignore those reasons. We live in a democracy. We honor our constitution. Time to move on.

But how do we do that? How do we behave, going forward?

I don’t want to duplicate what Republicans did to Obama. The quest for power through tearing down and obstruction is an approach I can’t respect. I want our country to prosper, whoever is in power.

I plan to pray for President Trump, persistently. It is not impossible or unknown for someone to become a better person.

Also, I think it’s imperative that we stay politically engaged, because there may be places where constructive engagement can result in positive action, and there may also be places where vigilant, forceful opposition is necessary. For example, maybe we can fix our roads and bridges. For example, I will do anything in my power to ensure that our authorities do not return to the practice of torture.

Finally, the practice of our personal lives will be, I believe, the most potent of all our responses. We all have the opportunity to care for poor people in our communities. We can strengthen our neighborhoods through cooperation in everything from Little League to hiking clubs. We can treat each other with kindness and respect despite our differences. I’m a believer that the political regime ultimately reflects the people’s character, lived out locally. We build from the bottom up. If our communities are rotten, degraded, violent, addicted, angry, that will be reflected in our leadership.

I’ve toyed with the thought that our troubles as a nation—our divisiveness and rancor, particularly—stem from the fact that we have abandoned God. I realize that’s old-fashioned. In the past I’ve tended to scoff at sermons that treated every problem as a symptom of religious failure. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no doubt that much of America—the left, in particular—has discarded faith and looks on religion with condescension and suspicion. It became obvious in this election that conservatives also—evangelicals in particular—have abandoned God, else they could not possibly go against everything they say they believe to support a serial liar and bragging adulterer for President. The truth is, I think, a lot of us have abandoned God. Some of us want him to disappear, others to co-opt him as a useful prop in our quest for power.

If things are going to change, it’s useful to review what God says that he wants from us: “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) That applies under all political regimes, and it is primarily local.

Jesus and Justice

May 6, 2016

This is the fourth in a series of short reflections on justice.

Going from the prophets to Jesus—from Jeremiah, Daniel, and Zephaniah to the Sermon on the Mount—one travels some distance. The prophets speak to particular political and moral realities. Jesus seems focused on something beyond. Even when he stands before Pilate, he seems barely concerned for the cruelty, the oppression and the corruption of Pilate’s government. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight.” (John 18:36)

Jesus did launch a protest at the Temple, turning things upside down. Yet he didn’t try to change things, by, say, organizing weekly protests, or trying to influence the Sanhedrin, as typical activists would.

He had other things in mind—things wrapped up in his little band of disciples, things concerned with his crucifixion. Only after his death and resurrection did he fully explain himself, when he spoke to his disciples. (Luke 24:27) It would remain for the disciples—joined, influentially, by Paul—to work out and explain how these things went together to set the world right.

Jesus’ life challenges us to think deeply about what kind of justice we really want to achieve. His justice is not just about politics and reform. Jesus’ kingdom is not merely to set the Roman Empire right—that is too small—but to set right all the powers of heaven and hell, all the nations, all the rulers and potentates and spiritual powers. It is to bring the whole world into the joyful worship of God. That is why Jesus’ disciples do not take up the sword for his kingdom. The game is bigger than revolution, and much bigger than reform.

Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples are to make more disciples, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Those commands can be summarized in two words: “Follow me.” To follow Jesus is to live for justice. All of Jesus’ ministry fits into a justice narrative: he heals, setting right the body; he casts out evil, setting right the spirit; he teaches about loving your neighbor, setting right the social realm. Jesus lives out all that God wants his people to become. He is the epitome of justice as the Old Testament describes it. In his life, we see what justice should be. In his life, we find a pattern of justice to follow.

However, his justice for all the creation is more than what we can achieve ourselves by imitating Jesus. We need a greater power. Following Jesus, obeying his commands, puts us in his company. We go where the Lamb goes, to see the whole world converted through the power of God.

A Talk on the European Refugee Crisis

April 29, 2016

I gave this talk at my church a week ago, and some of you may find it interesting. It will seem a little odd, though, because much of the talk I was working my way through some photos taken by my colleague Gary Gnidovic during our trip. A lot of those photos are in the magazine article or on Gary’s blog, but putting them together with my words may require more imagination than you are willing to lend to the project. All the same, some people have indicated an interest so I am posting the audio here.

Prophecy and the Story of Justice

April 27, 2016

This is the third in a series of short reflections on justice.

We know the prophets as outspoken advocates of justice. That tradition begins with Nathan confronting David for his injustice toward Uriah the Hittite (stealing his wife, then arranging his death). It carries on with Elijah confronting Ahab for murdering Naboth in order to steal his property. Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Daniel: they speak truth to power. They condemn corrupt judges and greedy landowners; they accuse society of failing to care for the vulnerable.

An underappreciated contribution toward the story of justice, however, is the prophets’ visionary description of the future. Activists often overlook this, I think. In the short term the prophets’ predictions may be bleak, but in the long run they see a world in which all nations are at peace, the evil and violent are punished, weapons of war are repurposed as agricultural implements, the lion lies with the lamb, and so on. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations,” as Jesus put it, quoting from Isaiah.

This exposition of the future, with its luminous vision of the world made right, transforms justice into a story. The prophetic “speaking truth to power” is not a hopeful enterprise. What can it accomplish, except to go on and on forever confronting the unjust? It represents a static body of law—God’s law—speaking into a more or less perennially corrupt social situation. The vision of the future, however, makes for a dynamic present.  The workings of transformation may be mysterious, and the present may seem discouraging, but that is much of what makes a story: facing obstacles and confronting power with the faith that there will be a happy ending—always without certainty as to how and when that will come about.