Thursday, June 25, 2015

Church, Race, and Guns

The shooter, Dylann Roof, killer of nine, including four ministers, at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, was many things: an ELCA member, baptized and probably confirmed in the ELCA, regular church attendee, and a summer camper at a church camp. And a White supremacist. Dylann's father, Franklin, goes to church twice a week. And there is more. Two of the pastoral victims were graduates of an ELCA seminary. 

What intrigues me is how the church is a central focus in this tragedy.  I am driven to my knees that as an ELCA pastor, I am led to ask questions about the place of the church, the teachings of the church, the practices of the church, my ELCA! And of the Black Church. Places of worship, learning, counseling, nurturing, community gathering, suddenly becoming central casting characters in a racist tragedy.

Yet, this scenario is unfortunately not new. The church has historically been the cauldron of violence. In the 1960's, more than 200 Black and multi-racial churches were torched. Similarly, in the 1960's, over 300 Black churches were bombed. In the fall of 1870, the KKK burned nearly every Black church in Tuskegee, Alabama to the ground. In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, 4 young girls were killed in a church bombing.

Why? Racism for sure. But more deeply, according to W.E.B. Dubois, churches were the "First social institution fully controlled by Black men in America." Pastor Belin, an African American pastor, said, "You attack the center, whatever you think is going to hit at the heart. The Black church has been the heart." The church was a center for growing Black strength which was threatening to the White power structure.

Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center says: "[The Black church] is a symbol of Black communion.  If you want to harm Black folks, it's an obvious easy target." The Black church was a vulnerable "soft target." There were no guard towers, land mines, or barbed wire protections. The church is about relationships, fellowship, sharing of means, learning, and listening to the Word, together. Come on in!

In the NEW YORK TIMES, Campbell Robertson and Rachel Swarns write: ""During segregation, churches became places where Black men and women found leadership opportunities denied them by White society." The Black church was about empowerment and human development, unsettling dynamics to White Supremacists. 

Yet unfortunately, the impact of church on violence is sadly legion. Church can create guilt. Church can create a relationship of us and them, insider and outsider. Church can create a justification of the righteous against the unrighteous. Church can be a volatile mix. Into this mix, guns can be the means of a distorted cleansing and blasphemous capital punishment.

Yet, the church must be the church. By its nature, the church is a vulnerable people. The church welcomes all people, opens itself to all, peaches and teaches to all.  The church is not a place for guns, nor a place to preach and teach hatred. The church is the place where peace and love are practiced, forgiveness is generous, where justice is planned and carried out in the world, where the nonviolence of Jesus is announced, taught, and practiced, where all kneel to receive the grace of God in the Body and Blood of Jesus. In church, guns do not have the last word, even as the gun cracks, the bullets strike, and the powder fills the room. The church is the place of eternal rising. The Emanuel AME Bible study has reclaimed the place of shooting: "This territory belongs to God." "Death is swallowed up in victory!"


Sunday, June 14, 2015

I'm Stickin'
James Carville, former advisor to President Clinton, wrote a book titled I'm Stickin'. He explained why he was staying with certain political positions and party. Call it a political apologetic! There have been times when I have had questions about whether to "stick" with the ELCA. I remember proclaiming that I was an ELCAer by confession, but a Mennonite at heart. I liked the Mennonite positions on peacemaking and nonviolence; whereas I felt the ELCA was rather "mushy" about both.

Since that time, I have remained with the ELCA.  I'm stickin'!  Why? 

Because, as I have made a major commitment to nonviolence and anti-violence action in the arena of gun violence prevention, the ELCA has stood-up and spoken-up about positions to address anti-violence actions that lend Biblical, confessional, and ecclesiological support for actions addressing gun violence prevention. The ELCA has stood strong. What has been said:

1.  Jesus has said "No more of this" and "Enough" and "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword." when addressing swords and weapons. Nonviolence anyone?

2.  Paul writes of the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, all of which are nonviolent: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

3. One might ask: "What about the Old Testament?" Two responses: 1) We must look at the OT through the lens of the NT and Jesus, and in so doing we see an evolving arc of growing nonviolence; 2) Ask: If the OT was so correct about the way of following God, why was Jesus Christ necessary? I suggest Jesus was necessary because people had lost their way in knowing what it means to follow God, to live lives pleasing to God as created in God's Image, to live as human beings as God intended. God had to come in human form to remind us what it means to be a human being. To be a human being means to live nonviolently.

4.  Statements of the ELCA. When it comes to gun violence prevention, the ELCA has made some bold and courageous statements: In 1989 at the Church wide Assembly, a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons was urged as a study proposal meant to move the ELCA to consider an outright ban or regulation. In 1993, again at Church wide, support for the Brady Bill was passed, as was the urging of congregations, synods and agencies to support a broad array of gun control measures.

The 1994 Church Council called on members of the congregations to consider how they might be more involved in countering the reality of and fear of violence in their communities. Gun control was again urged. The 1995 Social Statement "For Peace in God's World" calls upon people to become peacemakers. The 2013 Church wide Assembly called upon members to contact their elected officials and advocate for passage of legislation that promotes universal background checks, prevents gun trafficking, and requires the reporting of lost or stolen guns. A 2013 Pastoral Letter endorsed by the ELCA Bishops urged the church to address gun violence.

Biblical, confessional and ecclesiological groundwork have been formed to encourage and empower people to address gun violence prevention. This is good enough for me! Now the call and the challenge to synods and congregations to trust the Biblical, confessional, and ecclesiological witnesses. With God on our side, who can be against us? [We] can do all things in Christ who strengthens us!

I'm stickin'! 


Ron Letnes

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson asked this question in the 1950's. Their answer? "Gone to graveyards, everyone." Yes, it is true. After visiting many museums, sites, and cemeteries commemorating WWI and WWII this spring, Linda and I, on our Europe 2015 journey, discovered that every grave we saw had a flower. Every cemetery was well manicured, free of rampant weeds. The headstones had varied inscriptions, some with names, units and citations, and some with "Known Only to God." So many cemeteries.  So many signs with arrows pointing the direction and kilometers to the next cemetery. Soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in November 1918: "I died in hell.  They called it Passchendaele."

In Ypres, Belgium, every evening at 8:00 P.M., since 1928 (Yes, you read that correctly), the city commemorates "The Last Post", a service of remembrance of 58,896 soldiers who sacrificed themselves but who have no known grave, the fragments of their bodies morphed with the fields. Their names are etched in the walls and ceiling of the Menin Gate Memorial. One name is read along with what is known of the soldier's life and duty. Poppies are in abundance in wreaths and on lapels. The mantra is the same: "You are remembered."

I think of a song written from Isaiah 49:14-16: "I will never forget you my people. I have carved you on the palm of my hand. I will never forget you.  I will never forget you.  I will never forget my own." "The Last Post" is a metaphor.

Northern France, in the Alsaac and Lorraine Districts, in Belgium and Luxembourg, poppies are in abundance. Poppies are the silent red symbols of the human cost of war. The poppy has the stubborn grace to grow amidst the denuded battlefields of Verdun, the Somme, the Ypres Salient, and Bastogne. Though its stem is willowy thin and blows easily in the gentlest breeze, it is bright, beautiful, and tough. And blood red. Like people. We are weak and strong, vulnerable yet capable of eye-catching beauty. Brigade doctor Major McCrae immortalized the poppy in a poem he wrote after the death of his friend: 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

During our Europe 2015 journey, I read Phillip Jenkin's book, Laying Down the Sword. He takes a detailed look at the violence texts primarily in Deuteronomy and Joshua, and compares them with violence texts in the Quran. Sadly, there is more violence in the Holy Bible than in the Quran. Jenkins  addresses the sticky question: "Does the Bible justify violence?" His answer is a quote from John J. Collins from his book, Does the Bible Justify Violence? Collins writes:

The answer is simple: if the circumstances
in which you live move you to seek such
justification, then you will find them, and 
the same is true of the Quran. If you don't
need them, you won't find them.

Pogo was right.  The enemy is US. Where have all the flowers gone? The poppies are for US, on the graves of our choices. God have mercy.  Christ have mercy. God have mercy.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

By Their Fruits

Bear fruit worthy of repentance (Mt. 3:8)

Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees;
every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit 
is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Mt. 3:10)

...for each tree is known by its own fruit. (Luke 6:33)

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord
you are light.  Live as children of light-
for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good
and right and true. (Eph. 5:8-9)

The recent NRA Convention in Nashville, Tennessee was an orchard of bad fruit. You can get sick on bad fruit. In spite of the reality that over 30,000 people die of gun shot wounds each year, that guns in the home double the homicide risk and triple the suicide risk, despite the fact that gun injuries cost about $250 billion a year to treat, even though the United States has the highest rate of gun related deaths among all industrialized countries, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement recommending that pediatricians urge parents to remove all guns from homes, and pediatricians are calling for permission to talk with patients about the dangers of having guns in the home, the Nashville Gun Bash triumphantly sold rotten fruit to the 70,000 attendees.

Here are some NRA Convention "fruits"!:

All guns on the convention floor will be nonoperational
with firing pins removed....
The Tennessean (local paper)

Yet the NRA supports guns in schools, businesses, on college campuses, state capitol buildings, and everywhere. But not at their convention. Do they know something that we should know? Hypocrisy reigns!

Lt. Col David Grossman lectured:

[Prepare to kill children] Folks, we've raised a
vicious generation of children...Sandy Hook is just
the beginning...We have a million students who are
criminals, gang members, and its exploded...Our
Founding Fathers knew there would be days like
this....and they created the Second Amendment
for just a time like this....
Lt. Col. David Grossman

David Grossman is the man who lent understanding following Columbine, who spoke of video games as "basic training" for learning how to kill, who implied we need to do something to stop a killing culture, yet is now prepping us to kill youth, and assuring us the Second Amendment will assuage our consciences. After all, killing is a practical necessity for a civilized culture. Grossman has coined the word "killology", a study of the psychological and physiological effects of killing. Some attendees at the convention have said his talk was the best! Then he calls upon people to prepare to become "predators," saying "Only a predator can hunt a predator."

Then there is Mr. Rock 'n Roll, Ted Nugent, NRA Board Member, who in 2010 at the NRA Convention in Houston said:

[The Obama administration is] wiping its ass
with the Constitution....If the coyote is in your
living room pis____ on your couch, it's not the
coyote's fault.  It's your fault for not shooting him.

Ted made similar comments in Nashville.

I think most NRA members are good folks who would support reasonable gun laws in the interest of safety. There is abundant "good fruit" in the NRA. Eat up! But bad fruit contaminates good fruit. The leadership and corporate money folks too often sell rotten fruit which sickens society, ruins peaceable homes, spreads the fruit of terror in schools and public places. 

When listening to the NRA, we need not be intimidated and bow in fealty. Instead, we need to discern what kind of fruit they are selling. The shiny apples are on top, but too often underneath the shine is the worm infested fruit. 



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Week: Reformation and/or Revolution?

Holy Week is the Christian Super Bowl! Jesus' mission is revealed in its entirety: life changing, world changing, cosmos changing! Were Jesus' actions reformative and/or revolutionary?

The case for REVOLUTIONARY rests in the degree of violence and respect for human rights. Hence, to what degree did Jesus reject physical and ecological violence during his ministry? To what degree did Jesus promote human rights? These questions are appropriate because God became human to embody the human gift of all of us being created in the Image of God and being good stewards of God's earth. It is the People of God who are the expressions of Jesus in the world.  It is the People of God who are responsible for seeking and doing the Will of God towards people and the earth. We are called to imitate Christ! 

How does Jesus' Holy Week actions reflect REVOLUTIONARY actions? First, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of an ass. The colt is symbolic of humility.  The colt bears the burdens of others labor. The colt is basically a walker rather than a strider. The colt is often guided by others who are walking. The colt is never used on the battlefield. The colt symbolizes nonviolence.

The Chief Priests, Elders, and Scribes sought ways to kill Jesus. They were tricksters, trying to catch Jesus acting contrary to Roman law, thereby opening the door for Jesus being arrested and imprisoned. To these attempts Jesus responded that people should pay to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. The fig tree is given prominence as a metaphor for what it means to be obedient to God. Furthermore, the religious elite were looking for a Davidic figure who would lead the People of God out of Roman oppression. Violence was on the table and Jesus was not playing their game. At no time did Jesus advocate violent overthrow of Roman rule. Finally, Jesus told the leadership that God would destroy the "tenants" of Israel (religious leadership) because of their denial of God's intention for their mission.

Yet, through his actions, Jesus used the power of speech, of the Word, of the mind and Spirit to teach, preach, and heal nonviolently. Human rights were addressed through his explanation of paying taxes to Caesar and giving generously to God's work.  Both expenditures are necessary for human dignity and life preservation. Jesus taught the Great Commandment: love God, love yourself, love others. Loving each other honors human rights and supports human dignity. Finally, Jesus told the people to expect persecution, NOT to be persecutors. Living nonviolently with a commitment to human rights invites persecution. This is the Cross: Jesus accepting death and suffering for us rather than inflicting it upon others. 

Was Jesus a REVOLUTIONARY? Yes, with a scandalous style, changing the methodology, surprising the world and followers with unconventional acts. 

The case for REFORMER is grounded in how he addressed the religious and cultural Jewishness of God's Chosenness through the People of Israel, unveiling radical new faith practices. 

Consider Jesus' chasing the animals and sellers of sacrifices out of the Temple. The worship life of God's followers was redefined. One does not earn God's grace by paying for a substitute for one's sins. Jesus' sacrifice for us will take care of that. Furthermore, worship is about prayer and nurturing relationship with God and God with us through focused attention on the Word through the Spirit. Relationship instead of paying blood money for God's love was central. 

Jesus taught the resurrection was for all which was contrary to the teaching of the Sadducees. Jesus was inclusive rather than exclusive.  Jesus expanded the definition of "chosenness" and "holiness" to include the world! All are welcome! One's bloodline was not the arbiter of life with God! What one wears, one's level of religious education, ecclesial position, appearance and pomp does not make one holier and closer to God's pleasure. Love makes the difference! Obedience to God's freeing us to love defines our holiness. The widow, not the Sadduccess, nor Scribes, nor Elders is lifted up as the exemplar of the God life. The Temple is redefined as where prayer, the Great Commandment, and generosity towards mission are practiced. Bricks and mortar are helpful, but they do not and cannot wall out all people of the world! Jesus opened the hearts of God's people to ALL!  Jesus went global! 

The Lord's Supper is for ALL!  ALL are welcome! Come!  Receive and meet Jesus! The Cross and Jesus taking upon himself all that would separate us from God's love and from us loving others and the earth is killed on the Cross. The Resurrection is for ALL people in the world, for a renewal of our care for the earth, for being Jesus' hands and voice in God's transforming grace!

Yes, Jesus was a REFORMER!

The Great Week!  Holy Week! A time of REVOLUTION and REFORMATION! Let's do it! Let's be it! It's kick-off time!


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Volatile Mix

The mix of inequality and guns is volatile. Gun violence increases as inequality increases.

In their book The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson reveal the distressing cost of inequality. What I find persuasive is their reliance upon reputable data. They go beyond simple opinionating, and instead allow the numbers do the talking. Some snippets:

Greater inequality equals higher degrees of homicide.

Economic inequality leads to higher rates of homicide.

Inequality widens race/ethnic differences.  

In more unequal societies, people are five times as likely 
to be imprisoned, six times more likely to be clinically obese, 
and murder rates may be many times higher.

What seeds of violence are sown through inequality? What is the poison within inequality? Their analysis reveals: 

In more unequal societies, more people are oriented towards dominance,
self-enhancement and status competition. People need to be self-reliant 
and other people are seen to be rivals.

Inequality weakens community life

Francis de Tocqueville, writing about America, observed that
substantial differences in material living standards between people
was a formidable barrier to empathy.

It is not difficult, then, connecting the dots between inequality and gun violence. Guns are expressions of power. Guns put dominance into one's hand. Guns are about me proclaiming superiority. Guns negate empathy. Whether I am hunting, protecting my family, fighting for my nation, stalking my rival, a gun means I will control and conquer you, that your community, your nation, your gang is less valuable than my mine, that you are a threat to my way of life and my community's existence, and you will do my bidding.

Certainly, guns can be legitimately used for hunting, protection, enjoyment, and national defense. But, all too frequently, tossing guns into the inequality mix is like tossing a match into a can of gasoline.

Pickett and Wilkinson open windows of peace. They imply, and I would suggest, if we want to lower gun violence, people need to come together, work together, seek the common good, listen to each other, support each other in difficult times, serve the poor, encourage the vulnerable, focus on loving, work for justice, lobby for political change, provide means for employment with a fair and sustainable wage, socialize, insure that all people have health care, provide resources for families, invest in education for all, allow people to have time together apart from work, and....

Personally, I believe the church is perfectly positioned to open these windows.  I think we know a bit about "things that make for peace." 


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Economic Anathema!
The recently introduced Republican budget is economic anathema to the vast majority of our nation's citizenry! The middle and lower classes, along with the most vulnerable are treated as expendable tripe; whereas the corporate and upper power groups are provided with succulent steak and lobster delicacies, laughing as they sail away on their yachts and drink martinis lounging in their private jets flying to the Cote Azure on the Mediterranean.

I would presume that a majority of these moral pygmies are church going folks, faithfully listening to their pastors and priests babble about living righteously and responsibly in the gracious forgiveness and love of a prosperity god of gold, comfortably convinced they are doing God's work. They have been fooled! This budget is anathema to God and to anything similar to following Jesus! Jesus would puke! Grace and Gospel are snuffed! Profit and pride are worshipped! 

What is this dastardly slight of hand economic patriotism?  I am grateful to Robert Reich for outlining the scandalous low lights:

1) Huge cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and Pell grants to college
students from poor families, decimating programs for the poor
2) Cuts to federal aid to education
3) Turns Medicare into a voucher system which does not keep
up with expected increases in health care costs
4) Repeals Obamacare which is now providing 16.4 million people
with health care which they did not have previously
5) Boosts military spending by nearly $40 billion next year
through off-budget war funding (remember how we funded the Iraq War)
6) Increases military spending in subsequent years while further
cutting domestic discretionary spending
7) Doesn't raise a dime of taxes on the wealthy and doesn't close any
loopholes used by the rich

This budget needs a wrecking ball! In the paraphrased words of Bruce Springsteen: "We [need to] take care of our own." By taking care of ourselves we can take better care of the world.

All of these proposals create more economic inequality. It is economic inequality that weakens our nation because it crushes hope and opportunity for the overwhelming majority of people's lives. In their book, THE SPIRIT LEVEL, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkenson state the "Index of child well-being in rich countries is related to inequality....[Economic inequality] creates more inequality which in turn creates more health care and social problems." Trickle down doesn't trickle down. Luxury for the few is not justice for the many.

This budget continues to feed the maw of a ravishing military machine. Our military budget overly consumes our nation's future quality of life and moral standing. We spend more than almost all other nations in the world "combined!" Yet, we cut out the muscle and soul of our people by stripping resources for personal development. We are becoming a nation of beggars through our own faulty budget priorities. 98% of our people are road kill for the limousine drivers and coiffed ladies and men of luxury.

Unless we repent and focus our resources on what is good for ALL, we will fall with our destination the Babylon of indignation! All that is good about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will be memories in the winds of history. Indeed, we have taken giant strides towards that "nether" already. The words of Amos are spot on for America:

"Thus says the Lord: For the three transgressions...and for four,
I will not revoke punishment....So, I will press you down in your place."
Amos 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1;11, 1:13, 2:1, 2:4, 2:6

"Create in [us] a clean heart, O God, 
and renew a right spirit within us."
Psalm 51:1