Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Workers within the criminal justice system cry out

This week I have been weeping with those who weep, especially saddened at the violent death of many police officers. It had me going back to the recent ELCA social statement on criminal justice, where I read this passage:

Workers within the criminal justice system cry out. Many work in challenging cir- cumstances where violence and emotional trauma are common. Most ex- perience intense stress, yet are expected to respond to tension or violence calmly. Their professional challenges are rarely recognized or respected. 
Police regularly manage the stress of dangerous and unpredictable situa- tions, and are expected to intervene rationally and maintain a professional attitude in trying situations. Those who work in the courts desire to earn public trust and must balance responsibilities to many, including victims and offenders, families and communities. Large caseloads make it difficult to treat people as individuals. They rarely walk away from their work unaf- fected since they bear the burden of knowing the potential consequences of rendering a verdict or sentence. 
Correctional staff, administrators, counselors and chaplains face tense and demanding conditions. Those who work in victim services programs listen daily to painful stories and struggle to keep their own emotional balance.

https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Criminal-Justice

In my visits with police officers, correctional staff, and those who work in the courts, I find this summary poignant and true. We have, to a considerable degree as a culture contributed to the very problems these folks are at work rectifying, not the least of which is the terrible hyper-abundance of guns in our country, and a criminal justice system that struggles under the weight of for-profit interests and a culture that attempts to shunt corrections and reparative justice to the sidelines.

This week, as we pray and prepare for Labor Day, let's include all these workers in our prayers.

Prince of Peace, look in kindness on all communities who are affected by violence. Protect those who serve as police officers and other first responders, and all those who work in the criminal justice system, that they might contribute to actions that lead to repair and peace. Take from us all injustice and violence, O You who overcame both injustice and violence by the love of Your cross and resurrection. We ask the gift of peace from You, our Prince of Peace. Amen.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Deification of Kim Davis

In a way, you can blame Lutherans for all of this.

Prior to, roughly, the turn towards prioritizing individual conscience in modern Protestantism, no Christian would have thought their personal religious convictions had greater authority than the authority of the church or the state. Somebody like Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk, might have chafed at the political hierarchy or struggled internally with Christian teaching, but she would never have thought she could take a run at it, protected by her deeply held religious beliefs. Or if she did take a run at it, there would have been severe, probably lethal consequences. Just think of Jan Hus or William Tynsdale.

Philosophers like Charles Taylor argue convincingly that one of the greatest shifts in the modern era (what he calls the secular age) is a shift away from the communitarian sense that whatever we believe is what we believe together, and instead the development of a social imaginary where diversity of religious commitments, right down to the conscience of the individual believer, can take precedence and stand over against the beliefs or commitments of a wider community.

Taylor's specific argument, which he has been taken up in much of his recent philosophical work, is that a communitarian understanding of and commitment to institutions needs to take precedence over the "liberal" self. The sources of the self are more social than many recognize, and so whatever the secular age is in relationship to religion, it is more complex than simply an example of the decline of religion. It is instead a shift to conditions where religion and secular co-exist in a shared secular space.

And the reason you can blame Lutherans in particular for the bowdlerized version of the "liberal" position is our famous meme:

Here I stand, I can do no other.

Luther said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Or at least that seems to be how the meme has been received--often, I might add, to buttress theological positions quite at odds with Luther's own. In this sense, and much to their surprise, many conservatives are the most liberal people you will meet.

Of course Luther's position was more subtle than this. Luther wasn't interested in deifying his own conscience. Instead, he believed his conscience was bound to something higher, the Word of God, interpreted in light of Christian tradition. His hermeneutic, in this sense, although prioritizing the individual conscience standing under the tradition and Scripture, still had a new component to it, even if not as radically individualistic as it has now been taken by many Protestants ever since.

What we have in contemporary American Christianity is something like the deification of individual religious conscience, writ large. It is a personal acceptance of Jesus as savior that saves, not Jesus himself. It is deeply held religious convictions that decide what one should do as a county clerk, or teach in the schools, rather than the wider communal sensibilities of a secular democracy.

So, we have at least two items of major religious import entangled in this current conversation about religious freedom.

1) Which (or whose) particular religious freedoms are protected in a nation committed to the free exercise of religion?

2) How do we go about constructing our notions of what counts as religious freedom?

Clearly, not every deeply held religious conviction is protected by our laws. I might, for example, believe for deeply held religious reasons that I should issue marriage certificates to cult leaders so they can marry multiple spouses. But I wouldn't find any legal protections for this religious practice. In other words, what you believe internally is still your own, but you aren't allowed, even in a nation that protects religious liberties, from acting on every single one of your religious convictions.

Instead, there is kind of a ranking system at work, and this ranking system plays a role in how religious freedoms are expressed, and whether they are protected. There are criterion for the free exercise, rather than, as we see in Kim Davis, an emphasis on the bald assertion and re-assertion of the religious belief, because what she believes, internally, is clearly to her more important than absolutely everything else in the world, even the position of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, or the hope of her fellow Kentuckians to marry in her county.

In a democracy, by and large, the free exercise of religion is protected until it impinges on the rights and beliefs of others. At that point, once your deeply held religious convictions have some kind of impact on your neighbor, then your convictions have to be weighed against the rights and needs of the neighbor.

So, in the case of Kim Davis, although she might believe two men should not be married on religious grounds, and she is free to believe that and hold to that conviction, once she operates on that conviction in her position as an elected official, she has now forced her religious views on two men (or women) who have a right to the license they seek. Her free exercise of deeply held religious convictions curtails their free exercise of their religious convictions (even if in fact they are not religious, because in a secular democracy, the free exercise of secularity is itself a protected religious perspective).

In which case, and this is the point of the no establishment clause, her own religious convictions have to give way to theirs, precisely because if her religious convictions were allowed to hold sway in her position as a county clerk, that would amount to the establishment of religion, something our constitution aims to prohibit.

So what should she do? Well, she has some options. One option is the one she is taking--to play the martyr, accept the fines, take the penalties, break the law. If she does this, she is in good company. She's in the company of all those over the centuries who have engaged in civil disobedience. But if she takes this position, she'll need to work through and convince all of us who are Christian with her that her civil disobedience doesn't run afoul of other parts of our sacred scriptures. She might could do a bit more reflection, because the same Christian faith she claims prohibits her issuing marriage licenses also fairly clearly condemns civil disobedience.

Rom. 13.1   Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;  4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.  5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.  6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.  7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 

Now, Christians over the centuries have in fact disobeyed governing authorities, for a variety of reasons. But the most thoughtful Christians have been aware and a bit nervous whenever they disobey the governing authorities. Typically, they make the case, in some fashion or another, that the civil authorities are illegitimate. This is never easy, but it has been done, many times, all the way from the revolutionary war to the civil rights movement and beyond, there is a tradition for civil disobedience, but always, then I add, with some rational grounding in why the current governing body or laws are illegitimate.

What is fascinating in the case of Kim Davis is this: over and over again, it isn't about the illegitimacy of the government or the law, but rather about her deeply held religious convictions. I think she makes the argument this way for two reasons. The first one is practical: she herself is the governing authority, so to claim illegitimacy is to illegimatize herself. But more importantly, I think she doesn't make the case this way because she has deified her religious conscience itself. Her conscience is the sole guide and criterion, period. 

The problem with this kind of thinking is rather obvious. Once you have decided God is on your side, and your conscience is the only test of what God wants, then essentially your conscience is God.

Quickly, then, one is on the way to internally a martyr complex. I am sure many people already believe that Kim Davis is not unlike the Messiah they worship, who in Isaiah 50 speaks this way:

6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
  
Is. 50.7    The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me. 
9 It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

Once the hegemony of the individual conscience is in place, then all systems or individuals who resist the conscience are the enemy, the unfaithful. Even if that includes the circuit courts and Supreme Court.

It is also fascinating, from my perspective, that this county clerk, who is an Apostolic Christian--that is, a fundamentalist Protestant and Biblical literalist, is resisting the direct mandate of the Supreme Court, a court made up of six Roman Catholics and three Jews.

It is important, completely apart from this specific case, for all of us to chart this territory of religious freedoms carefully as we move forward. There are a number of attending dangers. If we allow individual consciences to have free reign, we will have, in the end, a kind of anarchy. Imagine if every county clerk in the country started deciding to exercise or not exercise their legal obligations depending on their individual religious commitments!

On the other hand, in an increasingly pluralist context, we are going to need some guidelines on how to honor the conscience of our neighbors. My own faith community, the ELCA, has made a commitment to recognizing the "bound conscience" of others a hallmark of how we walk together in faith. We have said we are committed to this. It is much more difficult to practice it.

Essentially, recognizing the bound conscience of the other is a selfless kind of neighbor love completely different from the assertion of our own bound conscience. The latter results in the kind of thing Kim Davis is up to. Sheer exercise of her power couched in religious terms.

Honoring the conscience of others means entering into their way of thinking sufficiently to understand it, if possible, from the inside out. Then it means coming to the table and working out ways to move forward together, adopting communal ways of living together as one people, one nation, while remaining made up of very diverse people, and often contradictory religious perspectives. Nobody said communicative rationality would be easy. But the only alternative is the deification of each individual religious conscience, which is in the end both a strange kind of Nietzschean will to power, and idolatry.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Martin Luther, MLK Jr., and Worker Justice


by Alexia Salvatierra

Economic justice was not one of Martin Luther’s primary passions, nor has the Lutheran church been
consistently at the forefront of the fight for economic justice. However, the core beliefs of Lutheran theology clearly support the struggle for fair wages and benefits in the workplace. At the core of Lutheran theology is the call to faith in a God whose love is unimaginably great, broad, deep and full. God’s love embraces all aspects of our physical and emotional lives. God intends that we have “everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property.” Martin Luther saw the process of obtaining what we need, our labor, as a holy act when performed in faith and gratitude; “picking up a piece of straw” could be equal in God’s eyes to formal prayer and study (Treatise on Good Works).

While Luther emphasized the internal stance of the individual and the individual’s existential relationship with God as primary concerns, he unquestionably expected faith in God’s grace to result in righteous action. In his small and large catechisms, he painted a passionate picture of the kinds of behavior that would arise from faith – including the arena of labor relations. Luther’s exegesis of the seventh commandment (Thou shalt not steal) includes the following passage:

“For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor. To steal is to signify not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market ... wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor. Therefore they are also called swivel-chair robbers, land- and highway-robbers, not pick-locks and sneak-thieves who snatch away the ready cash, but who sit on the chair [at home] and are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext.
No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion-pit of extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged, new burdens and high prices are imposed, and every one uses the market according to his caprice, and is even defiant and brags as though it were his fair privilege and right to sell his goods for as high a price as he please, and no one had a right to say a word against it.”

Luther clearly sees from the perspective of an independent producer, a small businessman, whose experience of being robbed by the powerful is primarily connected to price gouging. However, the heart of his accusations would apply equally to the modern multinational corporations that seek profit at the expense of people not primarily by raising prices but rather by lowering wages. The core violation of “using the market according to his caprice as though it were his fair privilege and right” is as characteristic of WalMart as it was of the noblemen of Luther’s time.

Luther also believed it was clearly the job of political decision-makers to protect the rights of their constituency. His doctrine of “two kingdoms” recognized that even human beings who have faith do not always live in accordance with their faith and that most people do not automatically treat one another with the love and respect called for by the Gospel. We all live in two worlds, the emerging world in which the law is written on the heart and people treat each other well out of love, and the old order in which it is necessary to intentionally ensure respect for human rights through civil authority. As Luther continues in the commentary on the seventh commandment:

“... to check such open wantonness there is need of the princes and government, who themselves would have eyes and the courage to establish and maintain order in all manner of trade and commerce, lest the poor be burdened and oppressed nor they themselves be loaded with other men’s sins.”

While Luther could not have envisioned a world in which every citizen had the right and duty to participate actively in political decision-making, we can see that in a modern democracy, we all have power and authority in the political realm and we all need the “eyes and the courage to establish and maintain” correct order in the economic sphere. When we campaign for living wage legislation or conditions on Big Box development, we seek to ensure an economic order that does not allow the poor to be burdened and oppressed. Unions are another modern structure through which workers can exercise legitimate power and authority in the public sphere to ensure protection of their rights.

These modern structures and the responsibilities that accompany them are recognized in a Resolution of the ELCA Church-wide Assembly in 1991 that reads, “The ELCA commits itself to advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, and church-related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective bargaining process and protect the right to strike.”

However, while Luther would have supported those with legitimate authority acting in the public realm to protect workers’ rights, he would have seen clergy as having a different role. Luther saw the work of clergy as belonging to the second realm, the kingdom of God. The heart of that work, for Luther, was proclamation – the speaking of the truth that transforms. When religious leaders in interfaith worker justice committees utilize their moral authority to call business and political leaders to accountability to the scriptural vision of economic justice, they are fulfilling Luther’s understanding of their calling to speak the Word of God.

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, an ELCA pastor, is executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles.

National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice • www.nicwj.org

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Six ways to love people who are really, really wrong

People around me do things or say things that are wrong. I know they're wrong. They're embarrassing, dangerous, hurtful, and if they keep it up, I'm going to have to move to Canada.

Some of them are politicians, and they're on television. Lots of them are on Facebook. It's like I can't escape. No matter where I turn, people are wrong.

How do I live with these people? Here are six possible moves.

Get a grip on the actual shape of forgiveness. There are a number of things forgiveness isn't. Forgiveness is not victims letting the offender off the hook. Forgiveness is not a hegemony of harmony. Forgiveness is not forgetting, regaining automatic trust, ignoring the offense, restoring the same relationship, or removal of consequences. Perhaps one reason we have trouble loving people who are wrong or have wronged us are false assumptions about how forgiveness and reconciliation work in our relationship with others.

Forgiveness is a choice, moving forward, dropping resentment and judgment, the removal of an emotional burden for the person forgiving, a step towards healing for the forgiver, and letting go of revenge. Moving forwards towards justice and repair is different from revenge. Justice more than getting even; it's the rebuilding of right relationship and community.


Realize that our moral commitments are like flavor sensors. If the current presidential campaign illustrates nothing else, it illustrates the extent to which different people can take the exact set of data and experiences and come to radically different conclusions. It's as if we live in two worlds, two Americas. At least in part, this may be because we literally sense the world morally in different ways. Although awareness of this will not change our tastes, it will raise our empathy, realizing that others are tasting the moral universe differently than we are. There are ways to disagree more constructively.


Practice rationality. This may seem overly trite or pedantic, but all of us could do better, constantly, at logic. Many of the conversations that fall apart in person or online fall apart as we increasingly resort to irrationality and logical fallacies. So, review some, and start avoiding them. You will be surprised how freeing this is. Oh, and remember, the best move is to avoid them yourself. It doesn't always go that well to point out specifically logical fallacies others are making while they make them.



Sometimes silos make good neighbors. You know that thing you do where you just look away, or block posts from that person, or decide you just aren't going to debate partisan politics with your zealous uncle? Sometimes, that's a good move. Talk about the weather instead. Read stuff that doesn't make steam come out of your ears. Focus on the good, and the positive you share in common with many.

Do it anyway. Everything inside you is screaming, "I can't forgive this person. I can't even love them, and that sign or flag they have in their front yard, I want to tear it down and burn it in a giant pyrrhic inferno. Well, that will feel satisfying for about ten minutes, until you're arrested. So instead, just do what seems impossible. Remember, God specializes in impossibilities, anyway. Christ encouraged things like praying for our enemies. So just go for it.

Anyway (from Zero Church by Suzy and Maggie Roche)

People are often unreasonable, illogical,
and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, People may accuse you
of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some
false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone
could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway

Author unknown, music by Maggie and Suzzy


Finally, just watch this movie. It's a documentary, I know, not quite as exciting as The Avengers. But I watched it a few years ago with my congregation, and plan to do so again, because it changed my life. The stories are powerful. Even more powerful than the stories, forgiveness is a psychological process that has a specific shape, and being intentional about practice forgiveness is powerful and healing, not just mentally, but physically and socially. Apparently Jesus was on to something when he put forgiveness at the center of his ministry of healing and shalom.