Friday, June 22, 2018

Theology, the American Dream, and Human Rights in the Age of Trump


President Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy is as heartless as it is cowardly. It is also chillingly cruel. When this policy is paired with the president’s decision, announced on June 19, 2018, to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, we may reasonably conclude that the American creed promising “liberty and justice for all” is more than tarnished. The torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty is being extinguished before our eyes.
      Some commentators compare the detention centers and “tent cities” housing immigrants and refugees to the Japanese internment camps of World War II. In 1998, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered an official apology to the people of Japanese descent who had been incarcerated in the camps, and paid each survivor $20,000 in compensation. It is possible that somewhere in the future another president will make a similar apology to persons incarcerated by President Trump, but there is another precedent that I think is more likely.
In the late eighteen hundreds the US established and funded Indian boarding schools to solve what was then thought of as the “Indian Problem.” In the beginning these schools were located on Indian reservations and run by Christian missionaries. It was not long before off-site residential schools were established and private enterprise began competing with religious denominations for federal dollars. 
                The motto for the boarding school movement was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” In addition to receiving a classic Western education, students were beaten, handcuffed, locked in closets, and suffered multiple cruelties. Unsanitary conditions contributed to numerous student deaths. All of this was done in the name of love, and for the purpose of civilizing and Christianizing Indian children. Thanks to organizations like the Native American National Boarding School Healing Coalition stories about school conditions and atrocities are being documented today. We should anticipate that today’s immigrants will form similar healing coalitions in the future.
     Indian boarding schools were established ostensibly for the purposes of breaking down indigenous tribal communities, undermining tribal authority, dismembering Indian families, and assimilating Indian children into a white Christian culture. One of the unintended consequences was that the schools gave rise to a pan-tribal movement, because children from many different tribes from different regions of the country were thrown together in one place. The schools also strengthened Native resolve to achieve sovereignty.
President Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy is ostensibly for the purposes of solving the “immigration problem“ and “protecting our borders.” The government assumes that people crossing the US-Mexican border are criminals, and they are treated accordingly. Civil Rights advocates are organizing in response to the government’s actions. Collectively the experiences of the people who are being incarcerated, the enduring trauma of families torn apart by the Zero Tolerance policy, families the government now refuses to help reunite, and the work of Civil Rights advocates may begin a new and more hopeful chapter in US history. As the government is trampling on individual rights and freedoms, counter measures are being taken.
The role of the Protestant church in the midst of this struggle is of particular interest to me.        There are Christians whom I believe are confusing the ways of Christ with the ways of our dominant culture. These members of the faith community continue to support President Trump, and to disregard or dismiss the myriad scandals that cling to him and mounting lawsuits pending against him. But, at the same time, a broad healing coalition that strongly opposes the administration’s policies and practices is coming into being.
Broad coalitions of this sort are welded together over time by the torch of experience. Some members of this coalition remember the 1960s as a time when hope for change was ripe. Other members of this coalition have more recent experiences such as the Occupy Movement, the protest at Standing Rock, participation in the Me Too movement, or the Black Lives Matter and the GLBTQI campaigns. Participation in these movements is not mutually exclusive. People who are active in one movement often have ties to other movements. The common thread that weaves these diverse and otherwise apparently disparate causes together is other-regard.
        In this hour of darkness, I remain “a prisoner of hope,” to use a biblical expression, for I see us coming to a level of theological maturity that is not driven by ideological theology or un-proveable metaphysical doctrines, but simply by respect others, respect for the earth, and respect for ourselves. I submit that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the charter document for a future in which such respect is honored.

Rev. David Hansen




Friday, June 15, 2018

We Will Do and We Will Understand




I began to weep as I stood in the kitchen that day, and heard the news of yet another school shooting. This one in Texas, ten dead, eight students and two teachers. Such had been that painful week for all of us, for this poor, sorrowing world, for this nation, sick in the grip of its plague. So too had the week began, with far away gunfire ever so close, sixty Palestinians dead on the Gaza border, the grip of plague in Israel too. Oblivion seemed to reign in the face of such loss of life, while people from another planet partied in Jerusalem on the opening of the American Embassy, blood on their hands, on our hands.

It was the prelude to Shavuous, the feast of weeks, second of the year’s three harvest festivals that mark the seasons in the Jewish calendar. It was the Torah portion of Bamidbar/In the Desert, the turning of Torah calling us to turn, to seek a new way. We come to Sinai and are reminded of the greatest unity that ever joined the Jewish people as one, in that moment when the Torah was given and we spoke with one voice and said, na’aseh v’nishma/we will do and we will understand. We are still trying to learn what to do, what it means to live the values of Torah, to live human values, humane values, still waiting to understand, waiting for the way to open. Through acts of love and compassion, we are touched by intimations of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to oppress or mistreat the stranger, to provide for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the most vulnerable among us, and so to be holy as God, our God, is holy.
       By doing, we come to understand. It is in the way of means and ends, the nature of means determining the nature of the ends.

I had an intimation during that week of what it might mean to act and only then to understand, receiving an unexpected gift, a moment of pause in the midst of all the sorrow. It was from the beginning a bittersweet evening, invited to a gathering of friends of the German Consul General to New England, Mr. Ralf Horlemann, a gathering of those whom he had touched in his time in Boston. My own life was touched deeply as part of the journey of twelve rabbis to Germany two summers ago, Ralf our guide on a Journey of Remembrance and Hope. Whenever I need a moment of catharsis I close my eyes and feel the hot torrent of tears that poured down my face at Dachau, Ralf crying with us. It was a transformative journey, one through which I will always be joined to Ralf, son of a German soldier from then, and a Jew who had vowed never to go to Germany.

Of people joined across divides, the gathering was held in an art gallery, a Holocaust survivor’s tormented art upon the walls. After words were spoken, words were then transcended as a string quartet of young musicians lifted their instruments and began to play. Members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, they were led by Maestro Benjamin Zander. It was not a concert, but in effect a master class, the Maestro dancing among them, singing the notes from memory, so loving and as enthralled as we were. Suddenly he would stop the violinist, asking of her feelings in such a moment of loss of which her instrument sang. And then the deeper feeling came through as bow returned to strings, bringing tears to all of us. And to the cellist he said to raise his eyebrows, show the surprise and magic of the music and the moment. He emphasized the importance of the second violin, the message clear, that each one has their own task and purpose, each one so needed for the gift of their presence.

So the lessons continued to come, the bittersweet teachings of the bittersweet gathering, sweetness somehow touching the bitterness of that week. The Maestro spoke of these young musicians, from Russia, from Asia, from North Carolina, joined across whatever might divide. “They all speak Beethoven,” he said. He modeled the finest way of the teacher, how to correct without hurting, doing so with such love, with such joy. Suddenly stopping the music, he said how perfect it was, and then said, “that is what Motzart wrote, but it’s not what he meant….” It was a lesson in Torah, the written Torah of notes on paper, and the oral Torah of soul and spirit interpreting.

In sharing words of friendship with Ralf, the Maestro told of his own father as a young man, a Jewish soldier in the German army of World War I. He told of how his grandmother would send her son music scores that he would bring to life in a place of death, giving wing to notes on paper, song rising from the trenches.           And now Maestro Zander has those scores, precious reminders of hope, of a universal language, that one day the song of the human heart might transcend inhumanity and violence. Then the whole world shall stand as we did at Sinai, saying with one voice “we will do and we will understand….”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, June 8, 2018

Uprooting Racism and Colonialism: An exercise in historical theology


Politico and other news media reported recently that the president has advanced the idea that Native Americans are a race, and not sovereign nations. I argue in this article that this is a racist idea rooted in the history of white domination, subjugation, and exploitation of Indians and the history of Indian genocide, which Native scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn calls, “The Disavowed Crime Lurking at the Heart of America” (Cook-Lynn 2007: 185–95). We must expose this criminal history and oppose the president’s plan.
         For centuries Native Americans have been targeted as the “objects” of Christian missionary zeal. White missionaries were intent on “civilizing and Christianizing” Indians, whom they branded as “savages,” “heathens,” “pagans,” and worse. Steven T. Newcomb argues in Pagans in the Promised Land that this enthusiasm was and is rooted in “Christian Nations Theory.” He explains as follows:
“The United States has the right to exercise ultimate control over American Indian nations simply because Christians ‘discovered’ non-Christian lands and simply because Christians supposedly succeeded in conquering the ‘heathen’ nations of North America” (Newcomb 2008: 117).
According to Christian Nations Theory, indigenous peoples appeared to be human beings, but because they were not baptized into the Christian faith they lacked both morality and basic human rights (Newcomb 2008: 108). Euro-American Christians thought of themselves as guardians and purveyors of Christian morality and culture, defending the same against Indians, whom they called “wild beasts,” “savages,” “pagans,” and “heathens.” Such stereotyping dehumanized Indians, and at the same time it created a shared identity among white people. The residue of this painful history is displayed in the contemporary use of disparaging images of Indians in sports logos, and in the president’s proposal.
According to Robert A. Williams, Jr. the word “stereotype” gained currency in the US in the nineteenth century when Walter Lippmann featured the term prominently in his book, Public Opinion (1922). Lippmann called stereotypes “pictures in our heads” (Williams 2012: 2). These pictures function even now as “identity badges” for Native Americans who are still required by law to identify themselves as tribal persons in order to sustain treaty rights, which otherwise would be denied, and to get permission to hunt or gather domestic or religious material from the countryside (Cook-Lynn 2001: 190).
         It is an ironic twist of history that “reservations” for American Indians have become a new flash point of conflict between the dominant culture and Native peoples. Observes Cook-Lynn: “Some suggest that ‘reservations’ for American Indians in the West were and are extermination centers, and it may have been the intent of the predatory democracy called the United States of America to kindle in this way an end either by death and starvation or economic destruction for the native peoples with whom they had fought wars of annihilation for many decades for possession of the land.” But, she notes, “The citizens of Indian nations now believe ‘reservations’ to be their homelands, and they defend them legally and economically on a daily basis.                 . . . [Reservations are] treaty-protected enclaves, now called domestic ‘nations-within-a-nation,’” (2001: 191, 192). The president’s proposal to identify Indians as race would deny them their political status. Many people view the proposed shift as advancing an agenda of cultural and economic genocide because it would put the lives of many Natives at even greater risk than they are now, and it would deny them the necessary resources for self-determination. Tribal leaders argue in response that their status as sovereign governments was recognized by President George Washington and more recently affirmed by presidents Clinton, George Walker Bush, and Obama.
Though largely unreported by the mainstream media unless there are major confrontations such as happened in 2017 at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation when Indian nations and water protectors sought to protect treaty rights that were being violated by the Energy Transfer Partnership and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, issues related to tribal rights and the sovereignty of Indian nations are test cases for uprooting racism and colonialism. 
Steven Newcomb’s definition of colonization is worth quoting at length here to remind us that this is still the reality:
“Colonization can be thought of in terms of steps involved in a process of cultivation: taking control of the indigenous soil, uprooting the existing indigenous plants (peoples), overturning the soil (the indigenous way of life), planting new colonial seeds (people) or transplanting colonial plants (people) from another environment, and harvesting the resulting crops (resources) or else picking the fruits (wealth) that result from the labor of cultivation (colonization). . . . From a Christian European colonizing perspective, the indigenous peoples are considered as being among those solids (objects) that must be filtered out of (or expunged and washed from) the land in order to acquire that which is most valuable . . . that can be transmuted into wealth to fuel the economy and enrich the elite of the imperium” (Newcomb 2008: 14–15).
Fortunately there is a growing international consensus that offers an alternative future—a future that recognizes the humanity and rights of indigenous peoples. This emerging consensus is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international agreements. These documents and agreements chart a path into a future beyond racism and colonialism.
There are also significant theological traditions upon which Christians can build, beginning with the foundational claim that all people are created in the image of God and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Additionally, we can refer to the “innovation of Christ,” a phrase coined by Will Herzog as a way of moving away from the classic idea of the “imitation of Christ.” Joerg Rieger adopted this phrase in his book Remembering the Poor, and identified the following elements (Rieger 1998: 174). One is mapping out plans and paths into the future that will reduce pain and suffering. These maps must be drawn with an awareness of the terrain of past and present experiences of oppression and repression. Second, as cartographers of the future, we must make strong connections between the present, as understood by the experiences of those who are marginalized and oppressed, and shared hopes for a future that has not yet attained its full form. Third, we must pay attention to the distribution and use of wealth, power, and authority in our society. Rieger notes: “The most pressing problem of modern theology is not that it has become relegated to the private sphere of the modern self, an often repeated criticism, but that theology has become politicized without being aware of it” (1998: 185–86). Lastly, he calls Christians to reclaim the power of the Eucharist. Citing first the work of Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez who proclaimed: “Here, on the terrain of real life, among the poorest, is where the eucharistic celebration takes on its full meaning of sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ,” Rieger goes on to write: “The power of the Eucharist is experienced in new ways where the conflicts and brokenness of poor people are included. In this context, the Eucharist becomes one of the nodal points where new thought about the redistribution of power and authority begins to germinate” (1998: 214).
              Traditional tribal communities and people of other faith traditions have their own nodal points. What is important at this time in our history is that together we find ways that honor our diversity, build on our commonalities, and construct new ways to distribute wealth, power, and authority. Simply put, indigenous peoples and all people, regardless of race and creed, are not the objects of Christian mission, but partners in a common task of creating a sustainable and just future.
 David Phillips Hansen
References
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, 2007. “Anti-Indianism and Genocide: The Disavowed Crime Lurking at the Heart of America,” Anti-Indianism in Modern America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Diamond, Dan, Rachana Pradhan contributing. May 4, 2018. “Trump challenges Native Americans’ historical standing,” Politico. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/04/22/trump-native-americans-historical-standing-492794. Accessed June 5, 2018.
Newcomb, Steven T., 2008. Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Rieger, Joerg, 1998. Remember the Poor: The Challenge to Theology in the Twenty-First Century. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf.
Williams, Robert A., Jr., 2012. Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.



Friday, June 1, 2018

Gratitude

It was a required course for my specialization in Seminary. My clinical pastoral education component was at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, in one of the New York City boroughs. It was a long subway ride from where we lived on Riverside Drive. The ride gave me plenty of time to worry about what I might encounter when I arrived and plenty of time to consider the events of the day on the way back home.

         For the first few days at the hospital I simply followed the Chaplain on his rounds. There were always people coming and going. Greeting new people and saying good bye to others was common. Sometimes on a slow day, I sat in the office and read or we talked about different situations a person might encounter and what resources were available to help in those situations.

Not many days into the experience, the Chaplain had a meeting in Manhattan. He had to leave early and asked me to cover for him. With some trepidation I agreed. No sooner had he stepped out the door than a woman appeared in the office. She asked if I could go up and have prayer with her mother. It was at her mother's request.

Once more I agreed. As I went to the elevator and rode up to her floor, I was mentally working on the outline of a prayer. I didn't know this woman. I'd never met her. I knew nothing of her situation or condition. Should I have checked that out ahead of time? Obviously, the Chaplain and I hadn't spent enough time on this kind of event.  How did I offer a generic prayer? Or should I spend some time visiting with her first in order to make the prayer relevant?

As I entered her room, I was still confused and not certain what to do. It didn't matter. After I had introduced myself  she thanked me for coming. Then she started to pray. She prayed for at least five minutes. It was probably the longest prayer I have ever experienced. It was a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer of gratitude. She held up all those people and experiences in her life for which she was grateful. It was a long list. 

        When she was finished, she thanked me again for coming. I knew my role had been fulfilled and I was dismissed. My role was listening! She taught me how listening can be prayer. More than anything, she made me appreciate the richness of a life lived fully with gratitude. As I left, she looked almost radiant, a picture of health. The next day when I checked, she was dead.

I'm thinking about gratitude. There was an article in one of my journals recently about this subject. It reported that psychologists and medical professionals often recommend keeping a gratitude journal to heart patients. Recording things you are thankful for each and every day has proven to help reduce the burden of those stressful things encountered and improves one's mood. There's even a term for it now, "gratitude intervention."

One seems to think more about such things as we age. Perhaps it's because our lives have slowed down to the point where we can actually be present in the moment to watch the birds (or the squirrel) at the feeder. Maybe it's because the problems and failures of the past have receded to the point where they no longer seem that significant. Maybe it's because the future seems just around the corner and we need to be prepared for it.  

I've had enough experience with dying to know that my first encounter at Brooklyn Methodist happens repeatedly. Not a five minute prayer of thanksgiving! But a life lived fully and gratefully slips into that other dimension we call death, quietly and easily.

Especially in a time of division and violence, I want to cultivate gratitude. Journal-ling about gratefulness is on my mind and my agenda. Years ago, a good friend suggested I paint a smiling face on the ceiling above the bed. That way when I woke up in the morning, I would be reminded to smile at the new day. It would move the muscles in my face into the proper form for the rest of my day. What a combination that could be, smiles and a gratitude journal. 


      The journal article I mentioned quotes Maya Angelou. She offers some real wisdom for a well lived life. "If you must look back, do so forgiving-ly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present … gratefully."

Carl Kline