Graduation: Expense or Investment?

Today I attended the graduation of eight men (plus one who was already released) who took a course offered by Berkshire Community College at the Berkshire County House of Corrections.  They learned about landscaping.  I was one of the instructors; I taught workforce ethics.

This was the sixth year for this program.  It’s run from late winter into the spring.  I met with the men for 90 minutes weekly.  I’ve taught in this program since its inception.

The course is funded by a grant.  It’s about $15000.  It costs over $40000 a year to house an inmate.  It’s my understanding that typically 70-75% of inmates return to jail.  However, this program reduced recidivism among its participants to about 20%.  Do the math.  The savings is enormous.  Savings are even more dramatic when we consider that the inmates who don’t return will not be an ongoing cost to the state and will begin working and paying taxes.  (I can’t tell you how good I feel when I see former students working in the community.)

I think of this program a lot because it illustrates the value it has for the state.  It leverages ten times its cost in savings.  It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.

Today as we look at the proposed budget the Trump administration sent to Congress with its drastic cuts, it’s clear to me that this budget views social programs as expenses.  Thus, as an expense, cutting is easy.

But if we understand social programs as investments, doesn’t that change our perception?  When we adequately fund education from pre-school through post-secondary, what will be the return a generation from now?  When we fund SNAP (aka food stamps) so children can have access to nutritious food, that helps to ensure they will have good physical and mental development.

Social programs are investments, which will not show returns next year or the year after.  We will see them a generation from now.  We’ll see those returns when we spend less money to house inmates or reduced long term health care costs as physical and mental health improve.  As an investment, imagining a more vigorous and robust economy with lots of creative and educated workers is not a stretch.

One of the men spoke at today’s graduation ceremony.  He was truly thankful for the opportunity to take this course.  He spoke about the mistakes he made in his life which got him incarcerated.  He went on to say that this course truly makes the Berkshire County House of Corrections a place where people can actually correct their mistakes.

 

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Stop this Madness

Trump exposed the GOP.

Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, asked for “memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings” pertaining to discussions between Trump and Comey.  It’s a start.

The GOP’s indignation over the president’s conduct has been imperceptible.  The party leadership was noticeably silent after Michael Flynn had to resign due to his Russian ties.  The party hardly made a peep when the president fired Comey.  They started to grumble when the Washington Post published its article that the president revealed intelligence to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister that had limited dissemination within our own intelligence establishment.  I guess we should be relieved that GOP party members have become “troubled.”

The New York Times reported last week that former national intelligence advisor James Clapper warned that the United States government is under assault from Russia and President Trump.

This is a serious charge.  This came before the president gave the Russian officials intelligence on ISIS.  But, no investigation.  No outrage.

The GOP was outraged in 1998 when it brought charges of impeachment against President Clinton.  Yes, oral sex with an intern was wrong.  Was it a threat to this nation’s institutions?  Did it threaten our intelligence relationships with other countries?  Did it demoralize our nation’s intelligence community?  Was it even close to what Trump has done, divulge intelligence secrets and obstruct a federal investigation over Russian interference with our election process?

The GOP could draw up articles of impeachment, but that’s my fantasy which many liberals share.  However, the GOP could censure the president.  Or even send a delegation of senior GOP leaders, none of whom currently hold office in the Senate or House, to tell the president that his conduct diminishes the presidency and this nation’s international standing.

Trump has exposed the GOP to be party that loves itself more than the nation.  The GOP is a party that loves power more than it loves governing.  (And I can’t not put this in)  Whereas God shows a preference for the poor, the GOP turns that on its head and shows a preference for the rich.

Seven years ago Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published a book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:  How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of ExtremismThey observed then that the GOP is more loyal to party than to the nation.  They have declared a war on government.

Their hands-off attitude towards Trump makes that abundantly clear.

The longer the GOP stalls and refuses to take its head out of the sand, the easier it will be for the Democrats along with the media to attach the party and the president together.

Although I truly find the GOP positions on the economy, race, climate change, and just about any other major topic really appalling, my concern is more about the institutional damage that has already been incurred.

The other day I read something about the percentage of Americans who trusted the government.  Prior to Vietnam and Watergate about 77% of the public trusted the government.  Since then the trend has been steadily downward.  Today it is about 20%.

We really can’t afford for this trust to fall further.  It will, however, if the GOP refuses to accept its responsibility to put this nation’s welfare over party dominance.  They must stop delegitimizing Democrats and start seeing them as partners in governance.  Certainly, though, the party leadership cannot not do anything.

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100 Days – Sad

The first 100 days of the new administration was a demonstration of breathtaking incompetence.  President Trump’s lies, racism, personal attacks, ethical failings and just plain meanness made clear that this president is truly unfit for office.  The travel ban targeting Muslims from countries in the Middle East, except where Trump has business interests, was, thankfully, a failure (twice). He, then, personally attacked the judges who ruled against him.  Trump’s accusation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower was a blatant falsehood.  Whisking foreign dignitaries to his Florida club gave him free advertising.  This is only the beginning of a long list.

The administration got the GOP-controlled Congress to roll back many of Obama’s achievements, thus setting back this nation’s progress, especially in addressing environmental concerns.  The president insulted the Australian Prime Minister Turnbull and appeared as a petulant child when he met German Chancellor Merkel.  He showed his ignorance when he lamented that reforming health care was harder than he thought and when the Chinese President Xi Jinping had to teach him about currency manipulation.

Other than the Gorsuch nomination, which due to Sen. McConnell’s bald-faced political ploy made his confirmation easy, the administration has not put through any legislation to move its campaign initiatives forward.  The administration has made no progress on infrastructure spending, tax reform, and the wall.  Its repeal of ACA was failure because the bill was terrible beyond comprehension.

I should be pleased that this administration is staggeringly incompetent.  In some way I am.  However, as I reflect upon the first 100 days, I’m sad and dismayed.

Imagine for a moment that Clinton won.  The first 100 days of a Clinton administration with this GOP-controlled Congress would have been a series of hearings by several committees in both the House and the Senate.  The Washington Post reported Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz’s pledge in October, “‘It’s a target-rich environment,’ the Republican said in an interview in Salt Lake City’s suburbs. ‘Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.’”

Though Clinton would not have worked to roll back Obama’s achievements and would not have tried to repeal ACA, its initiatives would be stymied by Congress’ desire to investigate Clinton from day one.  Nothing would be done.  Nothing would address the deep problems we have a nation.  Nothing would respond to the frustration millions of people have over their lack of economic security and their shattered hopes and dreams due to global economic forces and automation.

Sad, isn’t it?

Our government is dysfunctional and I don’t see that change anytime soon.

 

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Good Friday Homily

I know I’ve been a slacker.  I’ve had all sorts of pieces I’ve wanted to post.  Alas, free time has been elusive.

This is my homily for today’s Good Friday service.  The service’s centerpiece is a dramatic reading of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion rendered in John’s gospel.  The passion narrative is broken into scenes followed by short reflections.  I wrote the following for John 18:1-12:

The soldiers and the police came with weapons to arrest Jesus.  Didn’t they know Jesus was not a person who would carry weapons?  Why didn’t Judas tell them that Jesus was unarmed and that their weapons were not necessary?  Or did he?

By showing up with weapons, the state, the Empire, displayed its power and might.  What did they think Jesus would do?  What could one man, especially a man who taught people to eschew the traditional trappings of power for servanthood, do in the face of overwhelming odds?

But that was the Empire wasn’t it?  The Empire readily flexed its muscles to prove its might regardless of its opposition.  Rome was good at that.  Rome enforced peace through weapons, through crucifixes, through instruments of destruction and didn’t hesitate to use them.   They protected the Empire’s values.  They instilled an underlying fear among the populace.  It was that fear that kept the peace.

Jesus’ message subverted and undermined that peace. The peace Jesus preached and taught was based upon profound, radical, inclusive love.  The authorities had to stop that message because it would de-legitimize the Empire’s organizing principle where value was measured by wealth and power.  They could not let themselves be exposed because organizing society around wealth and power was a fiction.  It could not be sustained because it required a staggering and ever increasing supply of material resources to maintain it.   Let weapons of destruction preserve and protect wealth and power.  Distract the people through shows of force, such as the parade that accompanied Pilate into Jerusalem earlier in the week.  Keep people from asking questions and when the challenges get too close to the truth, quash it however possible with those instruments of destruction.

Jesus’ message of a world based not upon material resources but based upon love promised to create a world that would be sustainable.  Love is inexhaustible because love comes from God.  Love not fear will transform the world.  Fear comes from scarcity.  Love comes from abundance.

Jesus spoke truth to power.  His entry into Jerusalem earlier that week showed the power of that truth.  He gave people without wealth and power hope.  He promised them their freedom from oppression.  He promised that the way of Caesar would fall and then give rise to the way of God.  He promised that the world in which they lived in that moment would be no more.  It would be a world where all would have their daily bread.  It would be a world where the last would be first and the rich would be sent away empty.  It would be a world where justice rooted in love, not the whims of the emperor, would prevail and that all will have peace, shalom, the wholeness of life.

Rome had plenty of evidence on Jesus.  He was arrested because he threatened Caesar’s way.  The authorities had to protect the empire because their livelihoods, their existences depended upon it.  They could not let him continue.

When we look at our nation today with its vast chasm between those at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom… when we see a nation that spends more on weapons of destruction than the economic dignity of its people… when we see a nation organized around the values of wealth and power … when we see a nation that extends its military presence around the globe … aren’t we the empire today?

Is there enough evidence for the authorities to arrest you?

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Ash Wednesday Communion Liturgy

I will be presiding over the communion table for an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service.  We did this service several years ago when I was at the Baptist church.  We included clergy from the United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church.  This year clergy from the Episcopal Church will join us.

The original text for the communion liturgy was from Words for Worship 2017 by Augsburg Fortress.  I took the basic outline of the liturgy, which had a nice touch by including the beginning of the third verse from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the Words of Institution and then reworked it to emphasize the Holy Spirit, which is in the opening prayer of this service.

I also wanted to make the Words of Institution more interactive with the congregation, so at the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the wine, I’m asking the congregation to supply the words (after some gentle prompting).  Finally, as this service seeks to be inclusive, I chose a version of the Lord’s Prayer found in A New Zealand Prayer Book (Harper Collins 1999.  Originally published by The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia 1989)

The Sanctus is sung.  If you use this liturgy, choose a Sanctus as there are many settings.

Here’s the liturgy:

Invitation

Come to this table if you are alone.  Come to this table if you grieve.  Come to this table if you seek to be healed.  Come to this table if you seek peace.  Come to this table if you yearn to be free.

Friends, this is not an Episcopal table. It is not a Lutheran or a Methodist table.  It is not a table for Reformed Protestants and it is not a table for Catholics.  This is God’s table.  This is the celestial banquet rooted in God’s love.  Everyone has a place at this table.  Everyone is welcome.

Communion Prayer

God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to God.
Let us give thanks to God Most High.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Indeed it is right in all times and places to give God thanks and praise. We give thanks for the gift and bounty of creation which began when God’s breath blew over the waters.  We give thanks for the breath of life, which animates us and instills in us the power to pursue justice in this world for all people and all creation.  Though our forebears were enslaved and oppressed, God drove a strong wind to make the waters stand like walls and then led them to freedom.  We remember that after Judah’s exile in Babylon, God set in our ancestors a new spirit and changed their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.  We give thanks that God came in Jesus to live among us and to share our common lot.  Jesus’ teachings and ministry threatened the powerful authorities, which led them to execute him on a Roman cross. After three days in the tomb, Jesus slipped death’s shackles and that evening breathed upon his disciples saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  He went on to minister and teach until his final ascension to rule with God and the Holy Spirit.  Gifted by the Holy Spirit, we join the choir of angels and the great cloud of witnesses to sing the ancient hymn:

Sanctus

Words of Institution

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
You have brought us this far along the way.
As we begin our journey to the cross we know You will not abandon us.
You will guide us on the path of love and light
You will instill in us the power and courage to proclaim you peace and justice through our ministries of healing and grace.
We come to this table remembering his final meal, which he shared with his disciples.  As they shared memories of their ministry throughout Galilee with him and the days in Jerusalem leading up to that night ….

By eating this bread and drinking this fruit of the vine, we boldly proclaim:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Consecration

Send your Holy Spirit, O God, upon this bread and this fruit of the vine.  By this meal, make us one as the body of Christ, your church.  Give us strength for the journey before us.  Instill in us courage to proclaim through our ministries your peace and your justice rooted in steadfast love for all people and all Creation.  We ask this with this prayer:
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:  The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!  Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.  In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.  In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.  From trials too great to endure, spare us.  From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever.  Amen.

Sharing the Feast

Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving

Most gracious and generous God, we give you thanks for gathering this community from many faith traditions to share this sacred meal.  Thank you for nourishing us as we prepare to begin our journey to the cross.  We pray that your Spirit will strengthen us and embolden us to proclaim through our ministries that love trumps fear and that shadowed beneath your hand we will stand true to you and true to our native land.  Amen.

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Institutional Integrity

I’ve been reading the news with dismay since mid-January.  The Trump administration is one assault after another.  Lies.  Attacks on the judiciary and the mainstream media (these days we need to make a distinction to separate journalism with ethical values from the partisan hacks posing as journalists). Wild exaggerations and fake news (as in a terrorist attack in Sweden).

I have a difficult time with almost all of Trump’s cabinet appointments.  I’m glad Puzder withdrew his name for Secretary of Labor as he was hardly a friend to labor.  Though I’m not surprised, DeVos should never have been confirmed for Education Secretary.  Sessions’ appointment as Attorney General is problematic.  Pruitt as head of EPA can best be described as chutzpah.  Collectively, this is a billionaires’ club.  Will they really understand the lives of the people they serve?

Meanwhile, the GOP has become spineless with all the ferocity of a mouse.  Potential conflicts of interest given the president’s financial holdings are overlooked, especially as he has no intent to release his taxes. (and if anyone actually believed he would release his taxes ever … how do you spell gullible?)  We already know that with his new hotel in Washington he is violation of the lease with General Services.  China just awarded Trump a trademark, which raises questions about violating the Constitution’s emolument’s clause.  The GOP has dragged its feet about investigating administration’s ties to Russia and its role in the election.  (Of course, if he was a Democrat, the Republicans would be clamoring for impeachment.)

From my perspective all of this is bad news.  Public policy will move to the hard and far right.  The potential for corruption is very high, if it is not already happening.  But that’s not what really bothers me.

We can reset public policy.  It takes time and the damage that Trump and the GOP will inflict will last a long while.  I’m concerned about our institutional integrity, specifically the judiciary, the mainstream media, and the presidency.

In the wake of the court’s ruling on his travel ban, Trump maligned the judiciary.  He didn’t limit his disagreement to the travel ban, but smeared the entire judiciary by implying they are political.  He singled out Judge Robart, calling him a “so-called judge..”  Let’s not forget that after Judge Curiel ruled against him in the Trump University case, Trump accused him of bias because of his Mexican ancestry even though he was born in the United States.

His ongoing accusations of the mainstream media as promulgators of “fake news” and his staff treating it as the enemy, undermines the mainstream media’s authority to hold the government accountable.

The judiciary and the mainstream media are two institutions to hold the executive accountable to the people.  The public has to have confidence in them in order to hold the executive’s actions in check.

However, both of these institutions have suffered damage over many years.  The most visible affirmation of the court being political was the Senate’s refusal to hold a hearing last year for Judge Merrick Garland in order to preserve the empty seat for a conservative despite that no Republican had anything bad to say about him.  We’ve also heard comments such as “justices should not legislate from the bench.”  Meanwhile the mainstream media has been accused for years of a liberal bias and that Fox News has become blatantly conservative.

When the president uses his office to attack these institutions, he implicitly gives permission for the public to treat these institutions in similar fashion.  Simply put, “If the president can’t trust these institutions, why should I?”

Finally, the presidency itself is under assault.  His blatant falsehoods, his wild accusations, his personal attacks, all demean the office.  We can disagree on every policy a president proposes, but we have to trust that the president makes decisions with integrity.  As Trump, however, continues to harp on his election win by overstating his margin of victory and citing falsely millions of illegal votes for Clinton, he damages his credibility.  When he tries to say the travel ban did not target Muslims when his campaign rhetoric and Guiliani’s words said otherwise, how can he be trusted?  Citing Islamic terrorist attacks in Sweden, raises questions about his grasp of the world events.

We can say that he is only damaging himself, but over time he will damage the presidency because his actions will prompt people across this nation and around the world to wonder how someone so unfit for the office can occupy it. Doesn’t that diminish the office?

As a member of the clergy, we understand the awesome responsibility that comes with our ministry.  Though we can say forcefully how we feel about particular issues from the pulpit, we are also mindful that our words spoken from that position of authority carry exceptional weight.  If we lie, personally attack someone, spew “alternate facts,” or do much of what Trump has displayed already, especially at Thursday’s press conference, those would be grounds for dismissal.  It should be no less for the President of the United States.

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Vetting: It’s About Corruption

The nominees for Trump’s cabinet are scheduled for Senate hearings.  However, some have not been fully vetted.  Nevertheless, Sen. McConnell set the schedule to confirm Trump’s cabinet before vetting is completed.

I listened to Sen. McConnell on the radio today.  He basically said, “Eight years ago the Senate confirmed seven cabinet appointments on Inauguration Day, even though we didn’t like them.”  Meanwhile, Sen. Schumer insists that the vetting be completed and went so far as to cite a statement McConnell made about Democratic appointments years ago in which he said that vetting must be complete before confirmation.

To Sen. McConnell… though the cabinet picks for this administration are horrendous from my perspective, I agree the preferences of the president-elect should be given considerable weight.  To Sen. Schumer … yes, full vetting is the process, but make clear the real reason.

We need full vetting because we need to know that our elected officials will make decisions ethically and for the good of all the people and not for their own personal enrichment.  We may disagree with their decisions, but we must have confidence that their decisions were made in good faith on our behalf.

Vetting is necessary in order to minimize the possibility of corruption.

Given the wealth and the financial interests of many of the cabinet nominees as well as the president-elect himself, there is a huge potential to question conflicts of interests with some decisions.  Did a decision increase the value of an official’s assets?  Did an official sell an asset in advance of a decision that would diminish the asset’s value?  Basically, are officials making money at our expense?

The potential for corruption in a Trump administration is already high beginning with the president-elect himself.  His business interests and ties are global with significant stakes in various investments.  The same applies to many of his cabinet nominees.  Corruption will destroy a government’s credibility.  It will make people distrust its government.  A government without little credibility has a harder time governing.  A populace having some cynicism about its government could doubt its motives.  Furthermore, no official is spared corruption’s stain.

I cannot help to believe that the Watergate break-in sowed seeds of distrust in our government.  It still plagues us today

When we look around the world and see nations where stability is precarious, chances are its government is corrupt.  We stand to lose much more than having bad public policy.  We risk corruption.  We stand to lose credibility.  It will rend the national fabric.  It will weaken us internally.

For the GOP to ignore the real possibility for corruption, it shows itself as an irresponsible party interested in its own self-interest at the expense of this nation’s ideals and its people.  For the Democrats to address this on procedural grounds and not raise the issue of corruption, they make themselves out to be nitpickers and not concerned with the well-being of our government and this nation.

Vetting presidential appointments and maintaining ethical standards is not a party issue.  It goes to the heart of our government and its credibility.  That credibility, already under question, cannot be damaged much more without widespread disaffection among the people, us.  Corruption’s impact lasts long after a corrupt official leaves office.

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We Must not Resume Torture

The New York Times (January 5, 2017) reported that Donald Trump believes that torture works.

Each day I read news which saddens me.  The direction that the Trump administration seems to lay out through his appointments and his statements will bring about a terrible turn for our future.  It’s not just my own disagreements from a policy perspective, but something far deeper.  It is completely antithetical to the gospel.  This latest statement exposes Trump’s lack of moral clarity.

His designee for Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, stated that torture does not work.  His perspective squares with many other international observers.  Furthermore, torture is immoral.  We can be thankful that President Obama banned torture.  However, our moral authority will end with the first reported torture under the Trump administration.

This article made me recall a sermon I wrote in 2008 against torture.  It was published by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  (You can read other sermons on their site.)  Given that Obama pledged not to use torture, I hadn’t thought about this sermon for awhile.  Now, however, that Trump may bring it back, I’ll print it here:

I preached this while I was in Plainfield, MA.  It was for Reformation Sunday.  I realize it was an odd topic to preach on that day, but let’s just say I was prodded to take on the topic of torture.  The texts were:  Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36.  The title was “Breaking with the Past.”

Regardless who wins next month, both candidates for President have promised to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  This facility has gained notoriety with its legal limbo and as a site where the government practiced torture upon some of its prisoners.  Government documents indicate that some of these practices were later applied at other U. S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Torture has been one weapon used in the current war on terrorism.  We cannot deny the reports prepared by our own government that documented its use.  As a nation we cannot turn our heads away and make believe it did not happen.

Many people who committed these acts of torture have been prosecuted, but many believe, however, that more should have been done to pursue the charges up the chain of command to include both military and civilian officials.  The difficulty to prosecute them lies in the lack of definitive orders to implement a strategy using torture and a clear definition of what constitutes torture.  I would even add that the fog of war also contributed to the complexity of the issue.

Nevertheless, at some level in some official capacity, this nation has tortured people.  Doing so has diminished our international standing, particularly in the Middle East, especially in Muslim communities.  It has increased the difficulty of achieving peace and reconciliation in this part of the world.  Domestically, torture has opened divisions in this nation to heighten an already partisan atmosphere.

While torture has been a fixture in the current war, it is not new in our history.  The historian, Alfred McCoy, traced torture’s use in American foreign policy back to CIA research from 1950 to 1962 on mind-control.  He described the research as producing “a new approach to torture that was psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as ‘no-touch torture.’”[1]  He also noted that during the Vietnam War we had forty interrogation centers in Vietnam where more than 20,000 were killed and thousands more were tortured.

We’ve had, however, an ambivalent relationship with torture.  Immediately after World War II, this nation’s diplomats had a major role in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners.  Both documents ban torture.  Yet, during the Cold War we backed away from our commitment, only to return to it after the Cold War’s end.  We found torture acceptable once again after the attacks on September 11.

The capability to use torture taps into our worst instincts.  It is not only punitive.  It exploits the power dynamic between the captor and the captive.  Its control of the powerful over the powerless seduces both the interrogators and their superiors in different ways.  Interrogators succumb to its inherent domination over the victims.  Their superiors seek to use it as an all-powerful weapon.  As a result, it easily moves from its use on targeted individuals to any suspected enemy.

Paul would attribute these instincts to our own nature and proclivity to sin.  Bearing in mind Paul’s words, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) theologically, we all are slaves to sin and only through the dying Christ are we freed.  Our sinful nature has fed our ambivalence with torture, but the inclination of our better selves to reject it gets undermined in a time of fear.  When we succumb to fear and grasp sinful behaviors for our comfort and salvation, we’ve let our faith lapse.  We’ve forgotten the psalmist’s words: “Because he is devoted to Me I will deliver him; I will keep him safe, for he knows My name. When he calls on Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in distress; I will rescue him and make him honored; I will let him live to a ripe old age, and show him My salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16, Tanakh)

Torture’s corrosive effects touch us all directly or indirectly.  Those who torture can suffer emotional and psychological disorders through the expansion of their egos and escalating cruelty.  Indirectly, our international standing has suffered.  We may not realize, however, that the state must weave a complex web of lies to maintain its integrity and that over time this web will weaken the bonds of trust and the rule of law that are paramount in a healthy democracy.  Furthermore, making torture an acceptable strategy of war implicitly condones it in other circumstances, such as its use upon domestic suspects held by local police departments.  The other day a retired Chicago police officer was arrested in connection to 100 cases of police brutality dating back to 1982.

We must not condone torture as our response to fear.  We have to free ourselves from its sinister attractiveness by confronting its truth, torture contravenes God’s law – it is sinful.  The moral philosopher, David Gushee, cited five theological reasons to ban torture entirely[2]:

  • It violates the dignity of human beings, especially as God endowed every person with dignity, value, and worth (Genesis 1:26-28)
  • It mistreats the vulnerable and violates the demands for justice (Exodus 21:22-23)
  • Authorizing torture trusts governments too much (Romans 3:10-18)
  • Torture dehumanizes the torturer
  • Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures

We can be relieved that Gitmo will close and that both candidates have come out on record to oppose torture.  Regardless of the administration, however, the next president should strive to end this nation’s use of torture once and for all.  As a nation we must confront the truth around the way torture has been used in prosecuting this current war as well as its use in previous times of fear.  Perhaps, confronting the truth can take shape along the lines of a truth commission to achieve accountability and to balance justice with political feasibility so that by acknowledging our flirtatious relationship with torture the silence and deceit around it will end.  Such a commission must go beyond those interrogators who used torture in our current war.  It must not so much as go up a chain of command, but trace back through a chain of decisions and circumstances to understand why torture became acceptable after we repudiated it through international bodies and conventions.  It should name those who should be held accountable for ordering torture as well as broaden accountability to identify how our institutions that should check these abuses failed, thus becoming silently complicit.  We must ask ourselves what we fear so much that we would place our trust in such a dehumanizing strategy.

Torture’s gains are elusive and ineffective.  As Christians we don’t have to look too far – Pilate had Jesus flogged.  Pilate may have had the upper hand in Jerusalem for a few days after that, but ultimately, Jesus prevailed.

We will always struggle in the tension between enduring Christian values and those expedient ones of our own devising.  Christian discipleship is not always easy, especially loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.  We’ll never be free, however, of our collective and silent complicity with torture, unless we realize that torture’s power dynamic appeals to our own sinful nature and confront it squarely as a dehumanizing practice that contradicts all that we know as people of faith.

I realize that in this peaceful place we’re far removed from torture’s practice.  I also feel pretty confident to believe that no one here has had a direct hand in practicing torture.  Even without direct involvement, though, when torture is a strategic policy its stain touches us all.  We can end its practice, but we cannot end it by remaining silent.  We should study it, speak about it, and bear witness to its perversion of all that we know as faithful Christians.  We can organize with other brothers and sisters of faith, regardless of denomination or religion, to press our government to face torture squarely because the Holy Spirit will enable all of us to speak truth to power.  Shouldn’t we do that?  Wouldn’t ending our government’s use of torture bring our world another step closer to the kingdom that God desires for all people?

[1] Alfred W. McCoy.  A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror.  Metropolitan Books: New York.  2006 Page 7

[2] David Gushee.  5 Reasons Torture is Always WrongChristianity Today.  February 2006.  Pages 35-37

 

 

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Christmas Eve Homily

This is my homily for Christmas Eve.

The New York Times published the year in pictures the other day. Scanning through them I saw several photos of the presidential election. There were pictures of cities destroyed by violence and war and the refugees who had to flee. One picture reminded me of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Another showed a picture of Bolivia’s second largest lake, which is now a dustbowl, and a picture of the Seine in Paris overflowing its banks. Both were due to climate change.

On Wednesday mornings I have breakfast with four colleagues. The other day we talked a bit about what we will preach tonight. We all agreed that this was not what we would call a stellar year. I doubt we’re the only ones who felt this way.

Meanwhile, we’ve been bombarded for weeks with commercials for the Christmas gift your spouse or your child or your parent or your grandparent or your special person in your life would love. We’ve watched Christmas specials about Scroogelike characters and their miraculous transformations, where dreams come true and the true meaning of Christmas is discovered.

Frankly, it all seems bizarre. They’re disconnected and have no bearing on each other. We come into this place tonight to celebrate the birth of Jesus and reaffirm the Christmas message of peace on earth and goodwill to all people. For awhile, we’ll forget that the state of the world is distressing (well, at least from the perspective of five pastors). We’ll say “Here we’ll find the real message of Christmas and not the commercials for the perfect gift and not these miraculous transformations which are hokey beyond belief.”

But they are related in a weird sort of mash up because they collide on Christmas. However, we have to understand Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is far more significant and profound than that. Seeing Christmas as just the birth of Jesus saps it of its transforming power for each of us and for the world.

Christmas is the moment when God came into this world to share our common lot, to struggle with us, to suffer and to die in order to free us from sin and death. In Jesus, as one of my systematic theology professors frequently said, we are loved into freedom. God came to us this night over 2000 years ago squeezed into a tiny infant. Think about that for a moment. An infant without any protection other than Mary and Joseph. An infant born not among the wealthy, but the common people. An infant who commanded no army, but came into this world to transform it through love. An infant who grew to become an itinerant rabbi who proclaimed that transforming this world did not take weapons of destruction, but the bread and the cup.

Transformation comes through love lived out in our relationships with each other and with all of creation. Love is not a just an emotion, but is actions rooted in gratitude, generosity, patience, compassion, and joy. The Grinch’s heart grew two sizes larger because he recognized that Christmas was not about presents and decorations, but having gratitude and joy. Ebenezer Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning transformed because he saw kindness and compassion in his nephew, Fred, and Bob Cratchitt’s gratitude and forgiveness.

We show our generosity by giving gifts at Christmas. Finding that perfect gift makes it special, which nurtures our relationships and is a sign of caring. Commercialism in its own way tries to convey that in its advertising, but the gift we really need and want can’t be bought in stores or on-line. While we can be generous on Christmas, true generosity is an attitude and way of life. The commercials encourage us to give material gifts as tokens and signs of our affections. The commercials are, however, imperfect messengers because they are constrained by the fact that what they promote are products of human endeavors. Christmas is one time during the year when we are commanded and reminded to live out love. The gifts we need and can give away are rooted and found in the spiritual values which were set in each of us while we were in the womb.

Transformation and gifts. They are around us despite what seemed like an awful year. It’s not as though we haven’t had other “bad” years. It‘s not as though the state of the world has declined, either. Though we see devastating destruction in Syria and lament the resulting flood of refugees, here in the Berkshires there is a generally favorable environment to receive 50 Syrian refugees for resettlement in 2017. Though we have many people in our community who will struggle without adequate food or shelter, the Eagle Santa Fund and the Watson Fund in Great Barrington are raising tens of thousands of dollars from the community’s outpoured generosity. The students at the Richmond Consolidated School had a collection of personal hygiene products and household items plus twelve food baskets to support women at the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Many of our churches, including this one, and synagogues at this time give money to the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations’ emergency fuel fund, which provides a one-time 100-gallon grant of fuel oil to families who have no heat.

Christmas’ message prompts us to continue the mission and ministry begun by Jesus. That message filled with hope inspires us every year to lead better lives by strengthening our hearts with love so that we can increase God’s peace, shalom, in our lives and in our community, locally, nationally, and globally. Christmas renews it. We need Christmas. The world needs Christmas.

Despite this year, we should not forget that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. Though we’ve had other bad years, 1968 comes immediately to my mind, God’s radical inclusive, steadfast love ultimately prevails. True peace and justice are not always on a steadily constant upward trajectory. Though they suffer setbacks, the powerful message that comes with Christmas ultimately prevails and over time the world gets another step closer to God’s realm of peace and justice.

Christmas softens hardened hearts. Christmas overrules crass commercialism. Christmas instills in us hope and reaffirms the reality that love overcomes fear and that Creation’s bounty means there should be no such thing as scarcity or deprivation. Christmas reminds us that shalom is possible when we live as God intended and as Jesus taught. Christmas reconciles heaven and earth in love.

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We Must Denounce This

This was my sermon this morning based upon Isaiah 2:1-5.  The original title was “Hold Fast to Hope,” but I don’t think so now.

The National Policy Institute sounds like a Washington public policy think tank.  Of course there are a lot of these think tanks: American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institute, Economic Policy Institute, Heritage Foundation to name a few.  I wasn’t aware of the National Policy Institute until I read the articles about its Washington, DC conference on November 19.

NPI’s website describes itself as follows: “NPI is an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.”  What do you think?  Sounds reasonable?  Let’s unpack it.  You know, I have no place in this organization as I am not of European descent.  Indeed, I’m not white.  NPI is a leader in the alt-Right movement.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization which monitors hate crimes, hate groups, and hate speech, published an essay describing NPI on the SPLC website: “They eschew ethnic slurs and violence, dress in preppy ‘business casual’ outfits, and declare that the aim of their ‘think tank’ is ‘to elevate the consciousness of whites’ and protect America’s ‘national identity.’ ‘We have to look good,’ NPI chief Richard Spencer once explained to Salon, because normal white people would not join a movement that appears to be ‘crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid.’”[1]  NPI is just the latest in a long line of white Supremacist agents stretching back to Reconstruction just after the Civil War.  Its fundamental position on race is no different than the Ku Klux Klan or the Citizen’s Councils of the 1950s.  It upholds the white race; people of European heritage.  They are white supremacists.  White supremacy is racist.

The conference was planned months before the election.  They planned to grieve the election of Hilary Clinton, but with the election of Donald Trump, it became a celebration.

The New York Times reported that the event initially did not appear too menacing as speeches throughout the day concentrated on the marginalization of whites.  However, as the day wore on the tenor of the conference took on the feeling of a Nazi rally.  NPI’s leader, Richard B. Spencer “railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the ‘children of the sun,’ a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were ‘awakening to their own identity.”’[2]

Let’s note that Donald Trump during his interview the other day with staff from The New York Times distanced himself from the conference.  He said, “I don’t want to energize the group. I’m not looking to energize them. I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”[3]  My own assessment is that for someone whose campaign unleashed pent up racist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, homophobic, and misogynist anger across the country, this was a very tepid rebuke.  He also continued to support unequivocally his chief advisor Steve Bannon, who published the alt-right mouthpiece, Breitbart.

As a person of color, I worry.  I worry about the next few years as many people have seemingly been emboldened in the wake of the election to express their hostility and anger openly to people who are not native-born whites.  The SPLC tracked 701 incidents of hateful harassment since the election. (Let’s also make clear that they track hate across all races and religions and ethnicities, not just whites.  These instances, however, were overwhelmingly white.)  I worry that should the alt-Right gain a solid foothold, it will damage America’s fabric for at least a generation.

Nationally, we have worked hard over decades to ensure that this nation lives up to the ideals expressed in our Constitution’s preamble:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”  Progress has not been easy and has come sometimes with significant costs.

The Church, especially the mainline, has been instrumental in helping this progress along.  The Church worked to end Jim Crow.  Our denomination raised the nation’s consciousness about environmental racism and has shown leadership to close the economic divide that separates whites from communities of color.  We passed a resolution in General Synod XX (1995) to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all people and deplore any attempt to blame immigrants, legal and undocumented, for our nation’s social problems. We were the first denomination to affirm marriage equality.

None of this has been easy.  Having a black president does not mean that we have arrived and that racism is behind us.  Our progress on race has been uneven, but we’ve made progress nevertheless.  However, this election cycle has exposed sentiments many of us thought were laid to rest years ago.

We cannot let the progress we have made as a nation slip backward.  We have to be attentive to voices and actions that potentially will shred the hard won tapestry that this nation is becoming.  We have to stand firm against these voices and actions and vigorously oppose them.  We have to make loud and clear that there is no place for racism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in this nation.

Like Isaiah, we must be prophetic.  Though the words from Isaiah 2:2-4 are a beautiful vision, they come after his comment on Jerusalem: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.  Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isa. 1:21-23)  Judah strayed.  It lost sight of God’s precepts.  Following the glorious vision of beating swords into plowshares, a vision of shalom, the prophet said, “For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence.  The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.” (Isa. 3:8-9)

The conference in Washington on November 19 is a reminder that we need to do more work, especially to end hostility and hatred rooted in “otherness.”  We must ensure that the ideals of this nation are not reserved for people of one race, but are for all people of all races and of all genders from all places and of all religious backgrounds.  We must ensure that we are nation where people can love the person of their choosing regardless of gender or sexual orientation.  We must remain true to the words engraved on Liberty’s tablet: “”Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Isaiah had a vision of true peace and justice rooted in God’s steadfast love for Judah and Jerusalem. That vision is timeless.  It has not changed.  It is universal. Though we have made slow and uneven progress over the decades, that vision has gotten closer. Today, however, it is under threat as we watch and listen to the alt-Right’s coded language cloaked in the guise of respectability.  It is under threat as we see political leadership with a history of hostility towards non-whites, immigrants, LGBTQ people, ascend to positions vested with substantial and broad authority and power.  We must be vigilant and must stand firm in opposition if we want to preserve the hard-fought, hard-won gains we have made for those gains have brought us closer to shalom envisioned by Isaiah.

If there is a time for the church to be the church, it is now.  Jesus went to the cross to uphold the dignity and rights of those who were overlooked, forgotten, and oppressed.  He went to the cross to ensure justice for all.  The call to protect those without power is as loud today as it was a thousand years ago.  We stand in a long line of prophets who have upheld a vision of true peace and justice rooted in God’s steadfast love.  We must do our part to help all people hold fast to the hope upon which this nation was founded, a hope that remains a beacon for all people across the globe.  God calls us to stand as Christ did then to be Christ today so that we can uphold the gospel’s light to offer hope and healing informed with grace and compassion rooted in love.

[1] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/08/25/guess-who%E2%80%99s-coming-dinner-tila-tequila-and-alt-right

[2] Joseph Goldstein.  “Alt-Right Exults in Donald Trump’s Election with a Salute: ‘Heil Victory’” The New York Times.  November 20, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/alt-right-salutes-donald-trump.html

[3] Transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with staff from The New York Times.  November 22, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/trump-new-york-times-interview-transcript.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=b-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

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