March 2011


To the guy driving the little blue Honda on Monday, last 2 digits ’23 on your Texas plates, I am sorry. It was totally my fault, I cut you off and I know it. Please forgive me. You got mad, I got mad. Indeed, the only thing we could agree on is that we’d be mad together. At least we weren’t alone.

Turns out we’re not. Houston’s an easy place to be mad, what with all the congestion. Ranked 4th nationally, Houston drivers like my Honda friend and I spend an extra 58 hours a year stuck in traffic above and beyond the time of our commutes. 35 of Texas’ top 100 congested roads are our stomping grounds. In Houston, GPS directions to anywhere are simple: take Anxious Avenue and turn left at Bicker Boulevard, we’re the third street down past Rage Road.
blog post photo

But when we’re stuck in the heat of traffic, listening to the same stale song for the third time today, we don’t feel stats or compare ourselves to Chicago. No, we feel shame at looking bad for being late. We feel anger at having family time taken from us. We feel scared we’ll loose the job, deliver in the back seat, be in an accident, or miss the slow death of a loved one. We compete to ensure the system is fair and we’re not left to be last. In short, we feel anxious and vulnerable.

Not exactly how we’d like to be experienced by others.  

This Lent I’m being confronted with the story of a man whose soul was so deep he could absorb the anxiety, anger, and hatred around him without continuing the cycle of violence and pain. Jesus took violence of the physical, verbal, social, and spiritual kind upon himself and let it die with him on the cross. “When he was insulted, he did not insult in return. When he was threatened, he did not threaten (1 Peter 2:23).” For Jesus, this interior sense of peace and complacency overruled any external anxiety or vulnerability he felt. He didn’t react but responded with grace, gave people the benefit of the doubt, and treated everyone with dignity.

If I had been more centered the other day perhaps I could have taken Peter’s advice and “followed in Jesus’ footsteps,” but I didn’t. I escalated instead of absorbed the tension. So here’s what we’re going to do the next time the Katy is crawling past Blalock, or that enormous pickup blocks traffic with his ill-timed U-turn: we’re going to do what we do in church and pass the peace. No, don’t pass plate – pass the peace; by saying “Peace be with you.”

Put the finger away and keep your hand off the horn, don’t accelerate, drive agressively, or scream at your rolling neighbor. Soak it up: your identity isn’t wrapped up in being right, or on time, or letting the other person know how wrong they are.

Be an ambassador for peace and soak up the rage around you. If you do, you won’t be alone.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Houston was a great kick-off to a week of revelry surrounding all things Irish. The event began as a religious holiday for Christians to celebrate the life of one of our saints, Patrick. But now everyone’s going green: leprechauns,  pinching, luck, Guinness, kissing, wearing green. But it certainly hasn’t always been this way.  

In the 1800’s Irish immigrants weren’t celebrated, though their hard working hands did the manual labor “we” were unwilling to do. Rather, they were derided, threatened, opposed and run out of town in every state in the union. Unwelcome in America because of their religion and slowness in assimilation (the previously mentioned St. Patrick’s Day celebrations empowered Irish immigrants to survive in a hostile culture), the Irish were the target of a nativist, xenophobic movement known as the Know Nothings, or, ironically “The Native American Party.” The picture above is the party’s nativist “ideal.”

Perhaps we haven’t come so far after all. A copycat law to Arizona’s SB 1070 has been introduced by Debbie Riddle of the Texas legislature (one of 16 nationwide). Congress is now having hearings on terrorism by American Muslims thanks to Peter King from New York. The message is clear: you are unwelcome in America because of your religion and slowness to assimilate. They follow Prime Ministers Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of the UK, who said in recent months the multicultural experiment has utterly failed. This anti-immigrant fervor advocates for a “melting pot” approach where racial/ethnic/religious minorities must assimilate into the dominate culture mythically referred to as “we.” But who is this “we” anyway? And why are “we” so sure “they” aren’t part of “us”? And since when does Representative King or Riddle get to decide who “we” are?

Jesus ran into this same exclusivist attitude many times. In fact, Luke says his first public sermon nearly got him killed just for mentioning God’s acceptance of the “outsider.” The “they” in Jesus culture, more than anyone, were an ethnic-religious minority group known as the Samaritans. And when Jesus was once asked who our neighbors are that we’re supposed to love, he answered with a story. The story unmasks two insiders who have no regard for human suffering or rights even for another insider; but it highlights an outsider Samaritan who embodies what it means to be a good neighbor. Where once animosity and hatred separated the “we” from the “they,” the essence of Jesus’ mission and ours is to break barriers and form friendships. 

The Bible we Christians read is clear on this point, we are to love the stranger among us because we were once strangers. And who among us, except of course the true Native Americans, wasn’t once a stranger in this new world?

So I’ve got a couple invitations for you this week. Let’s see St Patrick’s Day as a reminder of our collective ability to turn from exclusion to embrace. Let’s celebrate that the “they” who were once “they” are now part of our “we” (Tex-Mex anyone?). And this week, I invite you to tune out the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-neighbor rhetoric and listen instead to a familiar voice of reconciliation and welcome: Saint Patrick’s.
 
When he was fourteen Patrick was victim of the unthinkable tragedy of being kidnapped from his home and stolen away to Ireland. He later escaped his captors and returned home. Within several years he responded to Christ’s call on his life and returned to Ireland not to seek revenge but for reconciliation with his captors. He lived the rest of his days sharing Christ’s love for all people in Ireland.

To all my Christian readers in this amazing city of beautiful multicultural diversity: “Go and do likewise.” Perhaps our political leaders don’t believe in diversity of cultures, but our God does. Wouldn’t it be great if we Christians were known not for our exclusivity, but for our ability to “love the stranger as you love yourself”?

To all my Muslim and Latino/a (and Irish!) readers I say welcome home! This land is your land, this land is my land. Forgive us for our sins, we don’t know what we’re doing. I so deeply regret that you have been shaken by being “vilified, questioned and even legislated against” by people who claim to worship the prince of peace. But stay strong in your faith, and together we’ll get it right. This Christian pastor is glad you’re here.


Note: I’m actually not Irish, I’m Swiss/German through and through. As a Mennonite with Germanic roots, this story could just as easily be told through the lens of our own stories of immigration.

Few religious stories are as accessible to western culture as David and Goliath. This ancient story resonates with our appetite for the underdog and our penchant for seeing the mighty fall. As one blogger has said, “The term David & Goliath is mentioned so much that like “Catch-22″ many don’t even know the original reference.” Hoosiers, Erin Brokovitch, Valley of Elah,  A Few Good Men, and a Simpson’s episode called “Bart’s Dream,” are a couple examples of this religious-turned-cultural story.

But as my 3 ½ year old son pointed out last week, it’s more than a story about upsets. David and Goliath are featured prominently on the cover of his The Beginner’s Bible, and so of course it’s a favorite. According to the picture, when David uses rocks to kill Goliath we’re supposed to raise our hands, laugh, and thank God. But my son made a deeper connection, asking, “Is David being mean to Goliath?”

How do you answer that one? If this were the playground, or school, church or a friend’s house the answer is obvious. But this is the Bible! Is it ok to be mean in the Bible if you are one of the good guys? Jesus wasn’t mean; why can David be? What do you do when your heroes don’t live up to your own rules? And what do you do as a parent when your children’s stories (from Bible, gaming, movies, etc…) don’t share your values?

A new film based on this story is in the works, fashioned after the ultraviolent 300 and The Bourne Identity, the film backers seem to suggest it’s not just ok to be mean, it’s downright cool. But my son doesn’t need another religiously supported message telling him violence is cool; especially if this movie (titled Goliath) in any way portrays the bad guys as Muslim or Arab-esque. Almost guaranteed to be missing from Goliath is the Bible’s own critique of David’s use of force: too violent to build God’s house!  

Nor can the “violence is cool” message be squared with Jesus own message: Love your enemies, pray for those who hurt you, return evil with good, forgive those who harm you, pick up your cross. All actions he likely didn’t think you could pull off while grabbing your five stones from the creek. One of Jesus’ best friends said that “when he was insulted, he didn’t insult in return, when he was threatened he didn’t threaten.” That to me sounds like the kind of healthy, courageous, and emotionally successful kids I hope to raise! But how do you parent to pull that off?

How do you pull that off when church and culture offer a steady stream of violence as means to an end? How do you raise a peacemaker with our current mis-definitions of courage (willingness to kill and be killed) and masculinity?

Police brutality, cyber bullying, assassinations, wars and rumors of wars, returning soldiers suffering from PTSD and death by suicide, all convince me our children need to know Jesus promise “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Seriously, I’d love to hear from you on this one. How would you (or did you!) answer your child when asked if David was being mean? Will you take your children to see the “religious” movie Goliath? Can children learn Jesus is “the prince of peace” while simultaneously learning David is cool? How do you raise a peacemaker at age 3? 13? 23?

Let me know your thoughts. I’m all ears!  

 

Originally posted on Marty’s Houston Chronicle Belief blog, where I blog as “The Peace Pastor.” houstonbelief.com

 

Execution of innocent people is a familiar topic for Christians. Every week hundreds of Houston Christian pastors, priests, and lay leaders stand before tens of thousands of faithful believers and break bread, reminding us of Jesus body broken on a Roman cross. In broken body and bread state sponsored executions are unmasked for what they are: morally bankrupt. The church’s Eucharist – our central act of worship – points us again and again to this moral depravity, while at the same time offering a counter option: love, forgiveness and peace. Jesus refusal to use violence while being arrested is preceded by this challenge, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Execution of the innocent? As Christians, this is our story.

As Texans, it’s all too likely to be our story as well. Northwestern University School of Law suggests Texas has again, and again, and again executed the innocent. Some twenty three names from Texas are a part of the 39 names on their list of likely suspects of having been executed “in face of compelling evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.” We nearly added another name recently, Anthony Graves. Thankfully, after awaiting execution for 18 long years Graves was exonerated (yes, that means he was innocent) and set free! But it’s quite possible we did execute at least one other person in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham.

While the possibility of executing an innocent is enough to ask we halt all executions, it’s not why I do it. In fact, whether or not Graves, Willingham, or anyone else is innocent or 100% guilty does little to sway my opinion of the death penalty. Nor do I call for abolition because state sponsored execution is applied capriciously and unjustly targets minorities and the poor, though it does. Nor is my reason rooted in the church’s own terrible history of being both victim and perpetrator of unjust execution.

I believe the death penalty is wrong because I follow Jesus Christ, formally executed and now risen, the prince of peace. Jesus life, teachings, death, resurrection and the early church’s witness about Jesus (what Christians call “The New Testament”) clearly call us to be people of peace, not vengeance.

So join me (and ask your faith community to do so as well!) in praying for Cleve Foster and Cary Kerr, whose lives and families Texas will destroy in coming days, whether they’re innocent or not; and Rick Perry, who holds the power of death or peace in his hands.

Learn more about the Cameron Todd Willingham case and how to work for system change Sunday night, March  6 at a viewing party of Death by Fire, a documentary film about his death and the ongoing issues surrounding it. Click here for info about the event. 

Learn more about Jesus, who, “when he was insulted, did not insult in return; when he was threatened, he did not threaten” at a church near you.

Grace to you and peace!

 

Originally posted on Marty’s Houston Chronicle Belief blog, where I blog as “The Peace Pastor.” houstonbelief.com

No news story has captured my attention like the widespread push for democracy and reform in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan and elsewhere. With tears of joy and prayers of pain we have watched the world change before our eyes. The revolutions – one after another – have been a remarkable demonstration of courage and hope. But lost in the coverage has been the equally remarkable method of revolt, namely nonviolent protest. Breaking curfew, massive demonstrations, artistic slogan-ing, occupation of symbolically rich spaces, blocking tank advances with human bodies: these are the method of revolution we are watching! Yes, we have seen violence returned when provoked with violent crack-down, but at their core we have witnessed nonviolence on a dramatic scale.

While the Arab world campaigns for democracy, we in the land of liberty find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of democratic decline. Closer to home Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida are all working to remove public workers ability to bargain collectively. But the method of protest is the same: nonviolent resistance. Indiana, Idaho, Greece and Puerto Rico have joined the nonviolent movement for change. Indeed, is there a more powerful force in human history for change than the committed collective voice of thousands marching for freedom, democracy, and justice? From ancient Hebrew prophets and Jesus to the Twentieth Centuries stunning nonviolent victories in India, the United States, and Eastern Europe we have seen time and again the ability for society to redeem itself without the use of force. One keen resistance act I’ll always remember is the great Sausage Revolt of the 1500’s, where Anabaptist Mennonites feasted on sausage during Lent though the dominant church outlawed consuming meat during this religious season.

Let’s be clear, the choice for nonviolent demonstrations is just that: a choice. The modern mind is conversant in the concept of jihad, and our own national history presents armed revolt, secession, and urban riots as violent options. Yet none of these options has been allowed to gain traction by the people, who are embracing nonviolence as the most effective and faithful method of resistance.

Nonviolence works! We’re seeing it again in North Africa and I pray we see it in Wisconsin soon. Here in Texas a day of nonviolent resistance is planned for March 15 to call attention to Austin’s austerity measures that further disenfranchise the least of these such as our children. The Day of Outrage, as its being called, is scheduled for 4:30PM in front of Houston City Hall. We’re asked to participate and “Join the movement to protect our state, our people and our future.” Worthy causes all.

Houston has seen the effectiveness of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience before. One thinks especially of the 2006 Justice for Janitors campaign, which brought attention to the plight of low wage workers. Increased wages, health care and  job protection were all increased in that particular nonviolent victory. While no one hopes that nonviolent action need to turn into civil disobedience, at times it is required and necessary. As a nonviolent Christian in a peace church, I’m inspired to see the courage of peacemakers (and tweeters!) around the world.

Be inspired by these instances of democracy in action; be creative, and by all means, be together!