May 2011

As a teenager, my mother always sent me out into the world saying, “Remember who you are.” She intuitively knew that memories define us and play an important role in our behavior and future decisions.

We see this in young children, where developing a memory allows children to define selves in relation to others and the world around them. When encountering a new experience, categorizing based upon past experience relieves stress and allows for comprehension of new information. Likewise, the loss of memory in aging adults removes our ability to define ourselves in meaningful ways. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy revealed the pain and dislocation of non-memory when a character taped a post-it to her husband saying, “This is Robert. Robert is your husband.” Remembering who we are helps us act in accord with our values and self image.

This is equally true of nations and communities. What we choose to remember defines our identity and directs our future. U.S. history, our history, is the history of freedom, we’re told. In pursuit of that goal, we the people have continued to broaden freedom to more and more people groups, often through war. Picture the Mall on Washington and the story it tells through symbol. Flowing down from the Capital (symbol of democracy) is the monument to Washington, telling the story of courageous freedoms fought for and won against a non-democratic oppressor.  The Lincoln memorial stands as a testament to war’s ability to bring freedom and unity when we persevere. The WWII memorial is one of the most stunning examples of how symbols communicate power, a true testament to something many refer as the “Good War.”

These and several other stories are the key memory bricks we’ve used to erect our national image. The story is clear: we are a nation of heroes bent on freedom at any cost. And so today, in our next step as valiant warrior, we’re spreading ‘peace and freedom’ in the Arab world. In erecting this image, it becomes inconvenient to remember aspects of our story that don’t further this metanarrative: bad bricks, if you will. Absent from Washington’s Mall are two of the most definitive and core stories of our nation: the 300 years of chattel slavery, and the genocide of the First Nations people. Why? Is it because bad bricks disrupt our self image and derail our inevitable march towards ‘freedom’?

Selective memory may be beneficial in stroking our ego, but it’s not helpful in producing wise, relevant decisions regarding our future. Paul Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it (pg 88).” True words allow for growth and change. Selective memory severely limits our ability to learn from history, to grow as a nation, and to be defined in ways appropriate to this context in these times.

Today, we selectively forget the true cost of the wars we’re fighting. Civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (etc…) are counted in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Drone attacks in Pakistan, notorious for killing civilians, have increased since Osama bin Laden’s death rather than disappeared. Our economy (and national, state, and city budgets) continues to flounder without drawing connection to the trillions spent on war.

But remembering the fullness of who we are is both Biblical, and practical. The Hebrew Scripture (what Christians call “The Old Testament”) erects a national mall in stark contrast to our own: including bad bricks almost to the exclusion of anything good (Psalm 95 is a nice ode to bad bricks). Jesus (Luke 24:13-35) and Stephen (Acts 7) both preach early post-resurrection stories inviting listeners to build their house of faith using both good and bad memory bricks. Christians celebrate this “complete memory” each and every time we break the bread and pour the cup of communion. From the perspective of faith, it seems imperative to resist forces which limit or bury memory, else our whitewashed “pure” self-image will blind us to the consequences of our choices. Both the good and the bad memory bricks are, apparently, essential in erecting a just and peaceful world.

This weekend we’re invited to erect a holistic house using both our good and bad memory bricks. Discovery Green is hosting a memorial to all lives lost in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Event information says:

Memorial to Military and Civilian Losses in Iraq and Afghanistan Wars May 28th – 30th. The memorial consists of a labeled US and Texas flag for each of the almost 600 Texans killed in both conflicts and prayer flags and photos to denote the many tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilian losses. 

Is it possible that the greatness of our nation tomorrow depends on the fullness of our memory today? Perhaps.

Remember who you are!

Also posted at Marty’sHouston Chronicle  The Peace Pastor blog at Follow Marty on Twitter.

To eat, or not to eat? Many Fairy Tales include a hefty amount of danger if not downright violence. Wolves and witches, death and evil fit the reality many of these old stories were written for. But are these stories an appropriate intro to evil for the very young today? Often times modern re-tellings (along with most new children’s literature) omit evil. One commenter on Three Little Pigs said, “I wrestled with the pigs being eaten. In general I want to protect [my daughter] from violence, but at the same time this is a traditional tale that hasn’t caused psychological damage for generations.” In our house, we want our kids to see the world as safe, so we chocolate cover Easter to be about bunnies, and our Fairy wolves don’t eat grandmas or piggies.

But wolves do exist, and just because we shelter kids from their diet in kids lit, doesn’t change the reality of evil and bad people present today. As Jeannete Harder says regarding child abusers in Let the Children Come,

The church that refuses to acknowledge the reality of child abuse and neglect is the church that places children at risk and one that is likely harboring offenders. A church that turns a blind eye toward child abuse leaves itself wide open and its children vulnerable. A sexual offender seeks out just such a place – a place where he can have easy access to children and not be held to rules or regulations.

So how and when do we introduce children to the concept of evil? When and how is it appropriate to teach them about wolves in our society, be they strangers in the park with candy or trusted adults who might touch them inappropriately? I’m particularly interested in equipping young children to be safe from abuse by both strangers and friends, and I’d love to hear your comments.

In her book, Harder (an expert in child abuse and neglect prevention) suggests churches need to be proactive and “educate children and youth in your church on child abuse and neglect, and safety (pg 150).” She also says this needs to be “age appropriate.” In talking with her she clearly stated  age appropriate means not to talk to 4 and unders about child abuse. Rather, she echoed what John Bickel, social worker at Texas Children’s hospital, says is appropriate for this age:

  1. Explain to children that parts of their bodies covered up by their swimsuits are private parts. No one has the right to touch them there. Sometimes they need help with cleaning and wiping, but otherwise no one touches them there.
  2. Teach them the names of their private parts (i.e. vagina, penis and so forth). This will remove any ambiguity if a child makes an outcry of sexual abuse.

For older children (Kindergarten through 12th) she encourages age specific and repeated training. A 5 minute conversation will not do it. Nor should we cede these conversations to police and school officials. Rather, a sustained, church-wide discussion is needed to equip everyone of all ages. The most important thing to recognize is that it is we adults who are responsible for ensuring the safety of our kids, not our children. Churches and parents must ensure that all caretakers are trustworthy.  

But is there a prevention curriculum for both children and adults? A holistic program such as Circle of Grace is an excellent start. Few programs are available, and Circle of Grace is head and shoulders above. It is “a Christian safe environment training that helps to form and educate children and youth about the value of positive relationships with God and others.” Harder says that when Circle of Grace has been led in churches, children are hungry for this teaching like nothing else. Children, she says, don’t have places to talk about safety, or their body, or sex, or their feelings. This offers kids space to do so, and to share their own stories.

It is designed to open conversation about the wolves in our midst for everyone in the faith community. An annual curriculum with 1 to 4 lessons depending on the students age (teens get 4 lessons, K’s get 1). Written initially by the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, it is now available in both a Catholic and a Protestant version, English and Spanish.

What if we feel we’ve done all we can to protect our kids, and we suspect the wolves still got to our children?  John Bickel’s great blog recommends that we:

  1. Periodically have discussions regarding safety. At first, you may need to ask them if they remember their “private parts”. Ask them if anyone has touched their private parts. If they say “no”, you’re done.
  2. If they say “yes”, you need to become super parent/caregiver. Stay calm. If you can’t, it’s best not to continue right now. The child is probably scared of telling, and your strong reaction may reinforce their feelings of fear. If you proceed, calmly ask them who touched them? Where did it happen? When did it happen last? Explain to the child that she did the right thing, and that you love her. This is the most important thing you will do. If a child makes an outcry, always assume it to be true, until investigated by the proper authorities and a disposition is determined.
  3. Call for help as needed. You may call CPS at (800) 252-5400, the Harris County Children’s Assessment Center at (713) 986-3300, your local law enforcement agency, or your child’s health care provider for help. If you believe that a child was molested you must call CPS and/or law enforcement.

The wolves do indeed exist, and they can do damage. It is the responsibility of parents and of churches, not children, to protect kids from harm. The Church is called to follow Jesus in caring for children and protecting them with wisdom and grace. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children (Luke 18″16, NT).” May we welcome the children of Houston, having done everything we can to ensure their safety!

This blog was simultaneously published at Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor. Check it out at: or follow Marty on Twitter.

Few things are worse than the sexual abuse of children. One clinical social worker at Texas Children’s says, “sexual abuse usually does not injure the body, but it devastates the soul.” While many of us would like to believe this kind of thing only happens “out there” and not in our churches, it does.  The recent story  of sexual abuse at the hands of a Houston church worker reminds us of the vigilance needed in protecting our children in all settings.

A new book by Jeanette Harder called Let the Children Come: Preparing Faith Communities to End Child Abuse and Neglect is written with such vigilance in mind. Harder asks,

•Are children safe at your church?
•What precautions have you taken to ensure they won’t be abused?
•Do you know how to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect?
•What should you do if you suspect a child in your church or neighborhood is being abused or neglected?

As the pastor of a church, these questions are basic to our care for all our children. Training for volunteers, sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures, background checks for all workers: all necessary for each and every congregation in Houston. But even more is needed. Harder busts certain myths that are still prevalent in our culture, including:

Myth #3: “Children are more often abused by strangers than they are by people they know (pg 21).”
Myth #8: “Abused children will usually discuss the abuse in an effort to stop it (pg 23).”
Myth #10: “It is the government’s responsibility to respond to child abuse and neglect (pg 25).”

Education and transparency are central components for faith communities to battle this problem. She says that we need to:

once and for all shake the notion that sexual abuse occurs at the hands of strangers who jump out from behind bushes and attack our children with brutal force. Sadly, that does happen, but not nearly as often as it does at the hands of parents, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and youth ministers – family and friends whom the child knows and loves. Physical force is rarely necessary as the offender entices and deceives the child.

As the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know firsthand how abuse can devastate the soul. It twists your self image and can produce dysfunctional behavior. A secondary crisis for many of us is how our faith community responds, or doesn’t respond, to our story. I hid my story for years, letting it fester, only to be rebuffed by trusted church members upon my own “confession.”

This story is sadly repeated in many churches in our city. No one is immune. But neither is it inevitable. Faith communities who are pro-active as a social system go a long way in ending childhood abuse in our communities. For instance, Mennonite Church USA has addressed this issue systemically, providing copies of Let the Children Come to every congregation, mandating clergy training and annual accountability, and encouraging participation in the Safe Sanctuaries program. One simple rule for any church to implement immediately is the “two adult” rule, ensuring a child is never alone with an adult. A quick look at this Self Evaluation Form for Local Church’s may also go a long way in a short time. Along with Let the Children Come, nearly every Christian denomination has excellent resources for education and prevention of sexual abuse. Has your faith community been vigilant?  Check out The Dove’s Nest non-exhaustive list of denominational resources to guide you to your church’s own resources. If your church doesn’t already have a policy, volunteer to help create one.

But no matter how prepared any church is, the risk of abuse is always present; churches are, after all, made of people. So its equally important for faith communities to respond with wisdom and grace to victims of child abuse. Harder says,

Too often the church tries to handle sexual abuse by itself. Perhaps the church does not truly believe the abuse occurred. Perhaps the church wants to avoid negative publicity. Well-intentioned, many churches think they can take care of it themselves, and, sadly, this often denies the child the help she needs and gives the offender further opportunity to sexually abuse the same child or others… The church is not equipped to handle the complex nature of sexual abuse but rather must join in partnership with local professionals who can assist in keeping the child safe, gathering evidence, and bringing hope and restoration to the child and non-offending family members. (pg 89-90)

I would add that faith and faith communities often play a valuable roll in rebuilding trust, dignity, self-love and the ability to love others. Most victims are overcome with shame, fear, and the overwelming sense that there is something inherently wrong about who they are. For people of faith, nothing can simultaneously address all these deep needs but faith in God and the power of healing and hope.

In my next post, Kids and Evil, we’ll look broadly at how and when to talk to young children about evil, bad people, strangers, sexual abuse, etc…. But for now, seek the peace of the city where you live, and that includes caring for the most vulnerable among us, especially our children.

How does your faith community minister to the abused? What do you do to prevent abuse?

Is it time to end the war?

On May 1, 2011, 8 years to the day after President George W. Bush mistakenly announced to the world “Mission Accomplished,” it has finally happened.

The war in Afghanistan was a direct response to the atrocities of 9/11: we were looking for a terrorist. Iraq too, was mistakenly sold to the US public as being necessary to defeat Al Qaeda. But does it make sense to continue wars begun in an effort to hunt Osama bin Laden, now that he is dead?

But of course terrorism is not the only reason we fight. Though begun primarily to pursue Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, these wars have been defended time and again on grounds that we are expanding the fundamental rights of democracy and freedom to the poor folks in Afghanistan and Iraq. For instance, Time magazine famously ran pictures in July 2010 of women in Afghanistan who were victimized by the Taliban, asking “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?”

So why are we still fighting: response to 9/11, or freedom for citizens of another country? Our telling of engagement in WW2 has unfolded in a similar vein: entry clearly as response to Pearl Harbor, with later justification wrapped almost exclusively around the Holocaust.

These are important questions, because the costs are unspeakable! We’re scheduled to spend $113 Billion in Afghanistan in 2011 alone, good money we don’t have that could easily be used for good causes here at home. We’ve also lost over 1500 service men and women, with 10,000 wounded. If we continue to fight, we better have a good reason!

So what do you think, is it time to end the war/s, or are there good reasons for continuing the fight?

Jim Wallis of Sojourners says clearly,

There is no more room or time for excuses. The war in Afghanistan — now the longest war in American history — no longer has any justification, and I am calling upon Christians, along with other people of good, moral sense, to lead the effort to finally end this war and bring our troops home. On moral, financial, and strategic grounds, the continuation of the war in Afghanistan cannot be justified.

This is directly in line with classic Just War theory, in both its Christian and secular varieties. When the intention of war has been met, the war must be called to an end. Bin Laden is dead; Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is, according to Leon Panetta, “relatively small. At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.” Sounds like Mission Accomplished to me.

But what about the complex issue of secondary justification I mentioned earlier? How does a pacifist Christian like myself (I prefer the label “peacemaker” to pacifist) respond to the charge that we still have unfinished business in the Arab world?

Deep into the Easter season, my mind is fresh with Jesus’ choice in Gethsemene: will he use violence or nonviolence to bring peace to our world? Erica Chenoweth, in a brilliant article called People Power, provides incredible evidence that Jesus decision wasn’t just right for him, but was the most remarkable option in all settings. Comparing the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance and armed conflict to bring social change, Chenoweth says the results are “stunning.”

Among 323 major violent insurgencies and nonviolent mass movements that occurred from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent insurgencies, succeeding more than 55 percent of the time. In fact, successful nonviolent mass action has occurred in countries as diverse as Serbia, Poland, Madagascar, South Africa, Chile, Venezuela, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Nepal… And, in fact, the overall trend suggests that even in situations where regimes used violence to crack down on resistance campaigns, 46 percent of nonviolent campaigns have prevailed, whereas only 20 percent of violent campaigns succeeded against these violently repressive states.

Set now in the context of the amazing Arab Spring, our continuing presence in the Middle East seems antiquated, proud, and, terribly misinformed. Nonviolence isn’t a quaint method from a bygone era, it has and is working in places as diverse as Wisconsin and Egypt. To continue to pursue social transformation through military might when nonviolent resistance is redefining the modern world is a morally misguided choice we can no longer afford to make.

Jesus choice can be ours: we can and must turn our back on violence without also turning our back on responsibility. The time to end the wars is now. The time to pursue peace through peace-making rather than war is here.

If our government refuses to abide by Just War standards of war-making, than its time for the church to call not just for an end to this war, but to all wars, and an end of our children joining the military.

The time will come, said an ancient leader, when God’s people will transform weapons into tools of productivity, and upgrade curriculums from war-making to peace.
Is this that time? If not now, when?

Can good come of bin Laden’s death?

Much is possible.

Responsible for the death of thousands both here and abroad, bin Laden was committed to further death and terror with unflinching tenacity. His hatred spread like cancer in hearts and homes around the globe, energizing new communities to equal violence. We are, of course better off without such hate and the leader who propagates it. Clearly our government is quite aware of the possibility his death may insight more hatred, and as one Texas ethicist said, “if we think the killing of Osama bin Laden will end the hate we are dead wrong.” If, however, there is less hate today than before his death, than yes, good is possible.

For many of us, the death of our loved ones didn’t just bring an end to something special. It also created in its place hatred, bitterness, vengeance and grief, the depths of which we didn’t know we were capable of. Perfectly natural, we didn’t choose these feelings any more than the color of our skin. But over the years we may have befriended them, and nurtured them, allowing these internal enemies to steal more and more freedom from us. We channeled our hate-filled grief into an insatiable quest for something we called justice.

26 days after 9/11 this quest caused us to invade Afghanistan to kill this man. One additional war, hundreds of billions of dollars, one economic collapse, and hundreds of thousands of lives later we finally accomplished that goal. Justice, of a sort, has been served. But what of the untold pain and confusion of our returning soldiers, struggling to reconnect with a life they no longer know how to live? What about the families who lost husbands and daddies, moms and wives fighting for the cause? What about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other countries? What about the political chaos caused by our presence in the region? Can good come from bin Laden’s death? Yes, if with his death comes the death of the war on terror.

But let’s keep in mind we humans aren’t wired to find much solace in the form of justice experienced Sunday night. While his killings often created hatred, it is not a given that his own killing will release us from it. Indeed, perhaps the opposite is true. It was painful to watch scenes of rampant celebration outside the White House when news broke of his death. The Christian theory of Just War would never allow for the celebration of another human being’s death as if it were a trophy kill on par with a great hunting expedition. No, just war in the Christian tradition sees violence in war as a necessary evil, demanding a period of cleansing and repentance. The ancient church withheld communion for a period of three years from those returning from war.

Will good come of his death? Only if there is less hate today than there was before his death. And hate, bitterness, and grief are hard ghosts to slay. As Toni Morrison’s stunning work Beloved reminds us, we may try to turn our back on our past, but we can never leave it behind. Our ghosts will devour us, unless we wrestle them head on. I think this is what one Christian author of Scripture meant when he talked about being controlled by unseen forces inside him. These ghosts, he says, “make you obey their passions (Romans 6:12).” He goes on to confess “I do not understand my own actions; for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).” Wrapped up in grief and anger, both personally and as a nation, we’re burning resources to address our pain, sometimes in dysfunctional ways, and finding ourselves even more locked up.

But Paul’s response to the ghosts was different. Consistent throughout, he says we need to deal head on with our anger and malice and “put them to death (Romans 6 & Colossians 3:5).” This bears itself out for many who await the execution of the murderer of family members, who end up finding little or no peace for themselves after it is finished. We must do the hard work of replacing our bitterness, and not think it will magically vanish along with bin Laden. It will not. As the website and testimonies for Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation says, “Reconciliation means accepting you cannot undo the murder, but you can decide how you want to live afterwards.”

How we choose to live afterwards, collectively and as individuals, is where the good will come. This choice to overcome evil happens not in the valleys of Pakistan a world away or in the Oval Office. It happens on the battlefield of our hearts, in our homes and the pews of our churches. I invite you to join me in praying that good will come of this; that the hatred of our enemies will be drained and not refueled; that our insatiable war on terror be brought to a close; that our hearts be filled with healing and hope that comes only through resting in God.

Good can come when we decide to be free of our anger.
Good can come when we find freedom from our self-made prisons of hatred.
Good can come when we put to death our malice and decide to live, truly live.
Good can come when we open ourselves to the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

Can good come of bin Laden’s death?
Only you can decide.

Originally posted on Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor.