Tag Archives: Religion

Ending Racial Disparity Calls for Non-Traditional Congregations


August 12, 2015

This last week Sojourners magazine gave us Jenna Barnett’s interview—A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Faith in Ferguson—with Leah Gunning Francis, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary professor. The article centered on professor Francis’ thoughts on racial disparities and the real “Ferguson Effect.”

When asked, What role should the church play in current racial justice movements?, Professor Francis said,

In my observation there are congregations that are taking seriously their roles in seeking to be agents of change in the movements for racial justice, but the church writ-large, is not. At some point we need to move beyond statements and posture to actually engaging in these matters in life-transforming ways. One good first step toward this is to open the constructive conversation about race in congregations.

Important in this statement is recognizing some congregations are serious about systemic change in favor of racial justice. However, this desire to engage and to act for racial justice is absent for most Christian congregations (“church writ-large”).

Barnett goes on to ask, What church did racial justice well this year? Professor Frances responded saying,

Compton Heights Christian Church is a modest size Disciples of Christ church in St. Louis. Maybe 25 percent of the church are people of color… They reimagined what it means to be a safe sanctuary…[by opening] their sanctuary doors as places of training, gathering, cooking—and equally important—as places of prayer.

The article gives gristle for a number of conversations. Two come to mind. First is the consideration of how inadequate the church is in conversing the issue of racial justice. One example of this struggle is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who in 1998 approved an Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation initiative. This initiative called the church to practice faithfulness with regard to the elimination of racism, which exists in all manifestations of the church, to discern the presence and nature of racism as sin, to develop strategies to eradicate it, and to work toward racial reconciliation. Good stuff, but as a whole not the stuff Disciple congregations want to jump in the middle of. As a result, the office of Reconciliation Ministry (whose ministry is to implement a conversation on racial justice) has struggled since it conception due to a lack of financial resources. Continue reading

Pope Francis’ Bolivian Apology: A Call to Conversation or A Religious Appeasement?

July 12, 2015

Many hoped Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, would take a path leading to a new voice from the Church. I don’t know if we are hearing a new voice, yet, but at least the voice we are hearing calls for deeper conversations.

While visiting Bolivia this last Thursday, Pope Francis apologized to Americans whose ancient heritage is the American landscape. The apology was for the Church’s support and involvement in the colonization of the Americas. Though not a direct apology for his predecessor’s support of the genocidal Doctrine of Discovery, the apology is a first step.

The Pope’s apology calls for an interesting conversation during the coming months. For just prior to Pope Francis’ arrival in the US this fall, church structure is in place to canonize Father Junipero Serra on September 23. Pope Francis is concluding a path begun in 1988 when Pope John Paul II beatified Fr Serra.

While many folk may not know Fr Serra, most Californian’s who attended school in California do. Few born and raised Californians did not draw or construct a Mission while in school. For me it was the Mission San Fernando Rey de España located an hour south or so from my elementary school. Mission San Fernando was but one of the twenty-one missions dotting the California coast from San Diego (San Diego de Alcalá, 1769) to Sonoma (San Francisco Solano, 1823). The credit of developing a mission infrastructure where missions were located one days ride from one another goes to Fr Serra. Known for his intellect, the development of the string of missions, and the conversion of California Indians, the church and the state has held Fr Serra in good regard. California Indians, whose ancestors provided the labor to build the missions have, let’s say, a different take. Continue reading

Defining ‘nation’: Guest Post


Reblogged from Faith and Values in the Public Square:

Prompted by our “Insert Catchy Title Here” debate between Dr. Michael Trice and Rabbi Anson Laytner, David Bell responds to the topic discussing the idea of nation and what it means to be the United States, what it means to be America, and what it means to be the United States of America.

If you missed the original debate posts find the opening statements and rebuttals previously posted on our blog.

By: David Bell

“Are we a Christian nation or a nation of Christians?”  As Dr. Trice noted, “The key word here is nation.”  To answer the question we must first be clear, what is nation?  Language in the United States often uses the term America as if it is the same as United States.  America though, is a landscape of soil, wind, plants, water, animals, and humans.  Whereas, the United States is a social and legal structure residing, with other social and legal structures, in the midst of the American landscape.  It is this social and federal republic legal structure called United States of America, which is nation.

We often do not think the United States a Christian nation because we do not experience the intimate relationship between Church and State—European Christendom—from which pilgrims and puritans separated.  We often support this feeling because of the Constitution’s First Amendment.  After all, if the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” surely, no one religion can dominate the social and legal structure of a nation.  Right?

Read more…

Allow the Doorway to Decay?


November 17, 2013

Martin Marty wrote an article for Sightings called Mormons and Native Americans.  He uses and article by Fernanda Santos, in The New York Times, where she talks about Navajo people reclaiming their roots thanks to the Mormon Church.  Marty concludes saying,

Non- or anti-Mormons, who regard the Book of Mormon as fiction, may question the validity of framing identities on the basis of stories which cannot be verified in conventional scientific or historical terms.  However:

It happens that most families and tribes and peoples live off stories that cannot be conventionally verified.  This is the case with most sacred scriptures, but there is a mythic dimension to the way other stories are received, e.g., those of America’s “Founding Fathers.”  Citizens find identity and motivations, good and bad, from such roots.

Welcome to the company of the Mormon-Navajo Smith family survivors!

Fair enough.  We all live lives based in mythical stories.  Some of my favorite family stories—that I hope are passed down—are those who have grown to mythical proportions with their retelling.  Yet, I find this writing—in a publication (Sightings) claiming the identity, “The cliché about polite conversation is that there are two things never to discuss: religion and politics.  We at Sightings know better (at least about religion)”—religiously wanting and polite.

A conversation concerning mythical stories and how they inform us culturally and inter-culturally is valuable.  However, from a Christian religion perspective, Santo’s article calls for a much different, much need, and much less polite conversation.

Santo’s tells a story about the Smith family and makes  note that when Mr. Smith, a Navajo, talks about being placed in a Mormon home as a child, he says, “Here was an outside group of people telling me I wasn’t just someone who was poor…that I had a great heritage, that I have potential.”  Continue reading

The Doctrine of Discovery Trinity


April 06, 2013

Balancing Theology, Polity, and the Indigenous Voice is an “Item For Reflection And Research” document moving through the process that leads to its consideration at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in July 2013.  The following is based on an argument I learned from Sarah Augustine about how Christendom (the Christian Church and European nations) justified the Doctrine of Discovery.

A century before the voyage of Columbus, Pope Nicholas V wrote the papal bull Romanus Pontifex (1455).  The bull followed-up his 1452 bull Dum Diversas which permitted Alfonso V of Portugal to place pagans, specifically Saracens (Muslims) into generational slavery.  In writing Romanus Pontifex Nicholas V enhanced his early bull by allowing the subjugation of non-Christian land and peoples by Catholic/Christian nations.  A century later, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Caetera.  This bull fashioned the last bit of theology needed to endorse the colonization desires of Christian European nations, by asserting that once a Christian nation claimed and subjugated a land and people, no other Christian nation could occupy and claim that particular geographic landscape.  These three bulls, Romanus Pontifex, Dum Diversas, and Inter Caetera are the theological documents of the Christian Church that serve as the Doctrine of Discovery’s documents of origin.  In time, other theological and secular documents led to a political philosophy that cumulated in Emer de Vattel’s 1758 work The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns, which influenced the development of United States law and legislation.

The Law of Nations is but one of many works making up the body of laws, edicts, bulls, pronouncements, and books that make up the body of work called the Doctrine of Discovery.  Long before Vattel’s work though, the Doctrine of Discovery created a systemic worldwide slavery trade, supported the genocide of indigenous people, and the robbery of non-European land resources.  There are many theological, political, and business oriented writings endorsing the subjugation of non-European land and peoples, however three concepts, two of which are Christian, led Pope Nicholas V, Alexander VI and their successors to believe worldwide European conquest and colonization appropriate: The Great Commission, Terra nullius, and Romans 13.

The Christian Testament’s gospel of Mathew speaks of what folk call The Great Commission.  After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus reappears to the eleven remaining disciples on a mountain in Galilee.  There Jesus says,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (MT 28:18-20)

The concept to make disciples of all nations became a foundational concept of the Christian religion.  As Christianity grew into a dominate religion of European empires after the Roman Emperor Constantine  legitimized it in 313 C.E., Christian leaders began to take advantage of power gained in a Religion/State relationship and soon the notion of Christianizing the world became embedded into national laws.

Terra nullius comes from the Roman legal concept of res nullius—things without owners.  Res nullius allowed nations to develop the idea of land without owner, leading to the concept of terra nullius.  By occupying and subjugating a terra nullius, a nation obtains sovereignty over that territory.  Such occupation meant indigenous peoples were not only not owners of the landscape they had lived within since ancient times, but because of their primitive-pagan state, they were also not fully human and because they were sub-people without political order they were a people not capable of negotiations.  Thus, all non-Christian lands were open to occupation and all non-Christian people open to perpetual slavery.

The last concept arises from Romans 13 of the Christian Testament.

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. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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; 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.  (vv. 1-4)

Christian European empires used Romans 13: 1-4 to argue they obtained their authority and dominion because God ordained it so.  Such a theological construct gave European empires the God given right to bear the sword and impose genocide upon any land and people whom they believed the wrongdoer.

Together these three concepts allowed Pope Nicholas V, Alexander VI, and successors to argue; the Great Commission imposes an order from God to convert the world to Christianity; Christians and Christian states have the right to occupy and subjugate non-Christian terra nullius; and should the people of terra nullius refuse to become Christian and recognize the States ordained authority, then as a servant of God the State must execute wrath and place the people into perpetual slavery at best, or to the sword at worst.

© David B. Bell 2013

Wombed Is To Life, As Life Is To ???


March 28, 2013

2013 Kids: Day 3
Part 3

The day began with an almost death and ended with the real thing.  Death is weird.  Can’t explain it, can’t explain it away.  And like birth, everyone does it sooner or later.

As I reread what I wrote yesterday, I noticed I said that when the first kid of the last doe of the day was born, it was birthed dead.  That got me to thinking, was it dead?  The kid never took a breath.  Can there be life without breath?  Can there be death without life?  The old storytellers of the Hebrew Testament tell the story of Creator gathering up ground, forming it, and then breathing the breath of life into the mud ball.  With breath, forth came human life.  For some of our ancient people life comes with breath.

I choose to think life comes with breath with birth.  Many folk don’t agree and say life comes before breath before birth.  However, defining existence prior to birth and prior to breath as life is accepting society’s norm of thinking in absolutes.  Absolutes like right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral, hot or cold, life or death.  Absolutes are problematic because this either-or way of thinking does not allow us to wonder in liminal space.  In other words, by defining everything we know as not death as life we confine the fullness of creation, but when we dull the edges of what we choose to call life and death we enhance the richness of life and death because we become comfortable with the ambiguousness of existence.

Years ago, Belinda and I had a baby after twenty-five weeks in the womb.  Breath was not breathed into and breath was not taken.  So, like the kid from the previous post, was she born dead?  Well, she did not have life as we know it.  She was not a walking, breathing being.  And yet, there was something prior to birth.  Something like life, something real, something extraordinary and unique existed, but that something did not fit the language box of life.  In our want for simpleness, we have not taken the initiative to find a word (or words) which best expresses the state of being lying somewhere between non-human and human existence.  Or have we?  Perhaps we do have a word to talk about unique existence prior to life, but in our sloppiness we have not allowed it to become all it might be.  After all, womb is a fairly decent word that expresses something more than an ammonic sack.  The womb, created at conception, is a unique landscape—at least as unique as the landscape we call earth.  The landscape of the womb is a place of extraordinary existence—every bit as unique as life is on earth.  Therefore, it seems a shame to use the word life to talk about an existence that is extraordinarily different from this breathing walking around life we know.  Instead of describing existence in the womb as life, wouldn’t be more appropriate to talk about being wombed or wombing or wombingful?  Would not such language speak to an extraordinary and creative existence that is equal to but not the same as life?  To value womb and life as different but equally unique existences is to appreciate the rich and imaginative nature of creation.  By letting go of either-or absolute thinking and allowing our language to become creative and imaginative, existence becomes fluid and rich.  Moreover, fluid existence means we can better cherish death.

Cherishing death though, is to find fertile language that honors post-life existence in the way womb honors pre-life existence.  As wombed existence becomes richer when we let go of phrases like life in the womb, post-life existence becomes richer when we let go of words like afterlife.  In doing so, after life or post-life would speak to that existence which comes into being when the breathing walking around life we know, ends.

It is within the human imagination find language that speaks to post-life existence as extraordinary, creative, and equal to life, but not the same as life.  The trick is to find a word(s) (Many that come to mind seem inadequate: Heaven, Hell, paradise, angel, eternity, afterlife, Hereafter, eternity.) that speak to post-life as wombed speaks to pre-life.  There is also the need to find new ways of thinking and descriptions of existence that allow us to imagine post-human as fetus speaks to pre-human.  In doing so, we move away from words and phrases like, life in the womb and afterlife toward constructs like, as the womb is to life, life is to ??? and as the fetus is to human, human is to ???.  With such words, we can better speak to and honor the fullness of our human and non-human existence.

Taking in the fullness of the creativity of our human and non-human existence allows humanity to grasp the richness of death.  The movement, if I might call it that, from wombed to living or fetus to human is that of birth.  Birth in its own right is a transitional moment from one existence to another.  There are times at the farm when we have watched a doe mother give birth to a kid, only to have the kid fully within the ammonic sack and fully outside of mom lying on straw.  This moment only lasts for an instant, but in that instant, one can watch the kid moving and having its existence in two realities at once.  The instant the sack breaks, one begins to understand that birth is a unique transitional moment.  Death is similar and transitional, but not the same as birth.  Unlike birth, where the fetus body becomes the human body, death is a transitional experience into a post-life existence that is bodiless.

The lack of body brings forth the realization that both the wombed-fetus and the living-human experience death.  This lack of body in post-life existence is why I commented that when the first kid of the last doe of the day was born, it was birthed dead.  However, there is one stark difference between the death of the wombed and death of the living.  Those which experience life have the opportunity to experience the movement of being from wombed to life to ???.  Whereas the fetus experiences the movement from wombed to ???, missing the experience of life.  Does missing the experience of life matter?  I don’t know.  But I do feel creation experiences deep loss when either a doe births a kid or a mother births a baby (and I choose to allow the mother to define that existence within her as baby) that is dead.

Death really is weird.  Can’t explain it, can’t explain it away—as might be noted in my reflection.  However, in this season of birth, of Holy Week and of Passover, which is a time of life and a time of death, nailing an explanation for death and life doesn’t seem as important and as taking a deep breath and wondering about the richness and fullness of our (goat and human) existence.

© David B. Bell 2013

The Failure of American Exceptionalism


December 28, 2012

Before the election, I received an email from Daniel, a dear person who served as an intern.  He wondered if “Romney’s statement about the 47%, and the subsequent statements both He and Paul Ryan have made about the ‘American Dream’ and people pulling themselves up out of despair,” is endorsing a sense of superiority based from the Christian Doctrine of Discovery (Doctrine).  I didn’t respond at the time because the best I could do was grumble like many others about how out of touch this wealthy white guy was, and yet I figured the answer must go below the surface of race, culture, and economic injustice.  So, I allowed the question to linger.  Well, lingering got me as far as the “fiscal cliff” debacle.

The fiasco of the “fiscal cliff” has made great fodder for the media and their pundits since the election.  So, to add my two cents worth, it may well be that the lack of Congresses getting along, finding places of commonality, and compromise is an indicator that Romney’s arrogant 47% statement could have been said by most any of the folk hanging out in Congress.  As the fiscal cliff talks unfolded, it became somewhat evident that the people whose work is to find commonality are instead living as if they know their way of thinking and acting are the only right ways of being.  This approach of living absolutes, based on knowing I and my community of like thinkers are correct and those other folk are missing the mark may very well be an aspect of the Doctrine of Discovery rising to the surface.

In an era of European Christendom, the Doctrine fashioned theological arguments holding Christian people and governments as the only people and governments endorsed by God.  Such thinking created a theological and political European worldview sanctioning Christianized European people as better than all others.  This thinking not only allowed European empires to develop a worldwide discovery movement that endorsed the subjugation of land and peoples who looked, talked, dressed, ate, and prayed different from themselves, but also embedded such thinking in many of the landscapes they conquered.  The North American landscape of which the United States claims is one of them.

As U.S. government and business developed and began looking different from their European homeland, so also changed the personality of the Doctrine.  The Christian theological argument of God sanctioning U.S. people and their government as better than all others slowly slipped below the surface (ready to re-emerge when necessary), and more secular jargon took its place.  This transition of Doctrine language is noticeable in three eras of U.S. development: In 1630 John Winthrop uses Mathew 5:14 (Jesus’ sermon on the Mount) to distinguish the future Massachusetts Bay community as the city upon a hill; In 1850, secular U.S. jargon begins to move to the forefront when John L. O’Sullivan claims it is the United States manifest destiny to “overspread and to possess the whole of the continent;” and by 2012 one must have the ear to hear the Christian influence in the popular terminology of American exceptionalism.  This reality means, from the moment of European arrival to the North American landscape, it has been difficult to raise a child in the U.S. and not have them believe themselves better than all others.

Recognizing U.S. citizens are raised from birth to believe they are exceptional to others, there little surprise Romney might believe his “job is not to worry about those [47% of the] people” who cannot be convinced “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”  Nor should it be surprising a Congress, on both sides of the aisle, cannot find common ground, for they were raised to believe they are better than their neighbor.

I think Daniel is on to something.  And I think it is sad.  For even if Congress has come together on the fiscal cliff by the time of this writing (hopefully so…), they were unable to honor one another, unable to honor the people, and unable to honor the landscape of their birth.  Sadly, they have adopted a belief that they (and like thinkers) are exceptional and not prone to mistake, and therefore not called to find middle ground unless forced.

Of course, the Congress arises from the people and as such, their problems are our problems.  At some level, we who are U.S. citizens must admit we believe ourselves exceptional and that we are wrong.  We must let go of Doctrine of Discovery values, and, from the grassroots up, rethink that which we have traditionally accepted as normal and just.  In rethinking, we surely will not get it right or be just every time, but we can create an atmosphere where rethinking is normal and where being wrong is okay.  Should we do so, we just might create a landscape where the voice of all is valued and the need of a scapegoat is something of generations past.

© David B. Bell 2012

Jury Duty


December 08, 2012

Jury Duty.  Two words that place fear into the hearts of the best of us.  Well, maybe that is a bit strong.  Yet, isn’t amazing, most everyone who is called for jury duty has a story.  From getting time off to being questioned by the judge to the time of trial, these stories, told with fear, trembling, and humor, often speak to an individual’s questioning of moral, ethical, and religious issues because they find themselves facing an individual(s) who often looks like themselves, but is in a time of trial and faces the real possibility of prison.  Funny, but in its own weird way, jury duty seems to get many of us to go much deeper and do a bit of self-reflection we would never chance within the walls of, say, a church, a synagogue, or a mosque.

Jury Duty.  Okay, so my turn came around a few weeks ago.  I had hardly opened the mailbox—yep we still have the traditional mailbox on the side of the road, you’ve gotta wonder, with all the different ways of communication we have these days, just how much longer this generational icon is going to be around?—when the notice with JURY DUTY stamped across the front seemed to jump from the box into my hands.  “It can’t be,” I thought.  “Didn’t I just do this?”  It turns out—I went straight home and looked it up on my computer—the last date they (the County Clerk) called me for Jury Duty was exactly one year and one month since the last time I sat in a courtroom answering questions (some I’d prefer not answering) posed by a judge.  Somewhere in the summons there was a note saying they develop the Jury Duty list from voter’s registration and driver’s licenses.  Really?  In all of Yakima County there are only enough people that your Jury Duty card comes up every year and one month?  I doubt it.  But, then, my doubt doesn’t go far to dissuade the County Clerk, so I did what any self-respecting citizen does under the threat of fine and/or jail time; I showed up at the courthouse at the appointed time!

Funny thing, you run through a lot of stuff through your head in a year and a month.  Last time, I didn’t make past the judge’s initial juror questions, one question in particular.  In a year and a month I gave that question a fair amount of thought, and I had my doubts, as I entered the courthouse that this time around it would turn out any different.

Last time, we were about a third of the way through the judge’s questions when the question came up.  Of course, I didn’t know that until this time when the question came up after two and a half hours and the judge said this would be the last question.  In both cases, it seems the question is one that seldom is questioned.  For both times, once the judge raises the question, the pause allowing time for potential jurors to raise their hand because they had an issue with the question was not nearly as long as with the other questions.  Fair enough, for both times the only hand that went up after the judge introduced the question was mine.  And each time it appeared that raising my hand surprised the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney.  Additionally, the courtrooms tenor changed in a way that made it feel that I was no longer bald but rather a skinhead.

I continue to ponder the question weeks later—a year and two months after I first answered it, because I’d like to see hands raised.  Sure, probably narcissistic of me, but I’d like to think more folk think like me!  The dark reality may be though, I’m just a bit out of wack and my rationale is wanting!  Regardless, after two rounds with two different judges, I’ve cut myself a little slack and figure a little preoccupation with the question is a good thing.  After all, what if round three comes up someday?

The job of a juror is to find the facts of the case.  The job of the judge is to give the law of the case.

The Question went something like this, “Your role as jurors is to determine the facts of the case based on what is presented to you.  As the judge I will determine the law which applies to this case and inform you, the jury, about it.  Are there any of you who cannot uphold the law as it is given to you?”

There is a unique feeling that bubbles up when yours is the only hand raised in the courtroom.

The ensuing dialogue went something like this…

Judge:  You feel you cannot uphold the law?

Me:  Well, I the answer is not that easy.  We need to have a conversation to flesh this out.

Judge:  Yes, go ahead.

Me:  Chances are, I am not going to have a problem with the law as you give it to us.  However, I am well aware in the past we have had laws, such as “Sundown Laws” and “Segregation Laws” that today we know as unjust laws.  While I believe you bring a much greater awareness of the law into the room than I, I must allow my own critical thinking to engage about the law in light of the reality that our laws are not always just.

Judge:  While I thank you for believing my education and experience brings much awareness of the law into the room, I do not make the law.  Rather, legislators and the people determine the law.  I bring that law into the courtroom.  As you may know there have been problems with jury nullification.  That being, there are instances when a jury has gone beyond deciding the facts of a case and moved to deciding the law, contrary to instructions given by the judge.  I believe, we live in a society where the law must be upheld, as the system is designed, for without the law there can only be anarchy.  The law and the legal system is that which gives structure and stability to our society.  And it is that Law which must be upheld.

Me:  Yes, I understand we live within a societal structure that is informed by the law.  And I believe chances are, in this case or any other, that my having the insight to understand a law as unjust is slim.  Any more than my White grandfather could have understood the segregation laws of his day being unjust; it is unlikely I am going to recognize a law as unjust today due to the societal lenses I wear.  However, I believe we should bring the whole of ourselves to a decision that may determine guilt, know laws have and can be unjust, and in doing so, should I determine the law given to me is unjust, then I must reserve the right to be critical about it and bring that voice into the room with my peers.

Judge:  So, you are saying that should you feel the law is unjust, even though that is the law I have instructed you to determine the case by, you would not uphold it?

Me:  Yes.

Judge:  District Attorney, do you have a problem dismissing this juror?  “No.”  Defense Attorney, do you have a problem dismissing this juror?  “No.”  Juror 72, thank you for your candid responses, however, I am dismissing you from this case.

As I walked through the courtroom and out the door the Judge continued:  This conversation as in others today is not always easy, but as in the case of every person dismissed today, it is only in your willingness to express your thoughts and convictions that we are better able to provide a system of justice.  After lunch we will return at which time the attorneys will ask you questions much as I have done…

The judge’s words, “better able to provide a system of justice,” remain with me today.  Societal justice is a fluid thing.  Yesterday it was lawful to segregate people of color from White people.  Today we have laws that separate undocumented parents from their documented children.  Tomorrow’s generation may understand our current immigration laws as abhorrent we understand the segregation and slavery laws of our folks before us.  Our “system of justice,” is ever changing and it seems we do well to question when and where our current system serves the mainstream voice of power and causes suffering within the lives of the voiceless and powerless.  I never gave jury nullification much thought before, but I wonder, perhaps jury nullification is a reality we should all be aware of, have a conversation about, and wonder if it is appropriate power to know and use.

Maybe, rather than thinking of jury nullification is a person or people’s way to undermine the law, an argument might be made that juror’s have the ability to bring the whole of him or herself to the courtroom, responsibly, and become critical thinkers of the law.  Our system of justice surely would look different, but might it become a better system because the people are engaged with the law they govern themselves by?  Or perhaps the question we need to ask is, if we were on trial in a time of segregation or a time of slavery, would we want a jury of our peers  critically thinking about the law of which they deliberating to convict us by, or do we want them to “just find the facts?”

© David B. Bell 2012

Jesus vs. Pilate: Empowerment From The Loss of Voice

November 24, 2012

The end of Native American Heritage Month and a conversation with a friend has me considering one way of thinking about this week’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John.

Something came up years ago when I was engaged in undergraduate work that I have never forgotten.  I no longer remember which business class it was, but the teaching I do (an idea, I imagine, most of all of who majored in business remember).  The class instructor presented a case study: Protestors are at the gate leading up to XXX Logging Company, as well as at a number of log deck.  They are protesting XXX’s logging practices of cutting old growth timber.  The protestors actions have reached a point where they are damaging the company’s public image and its financial bottom line.  The instructor then lays out the question, “What should the company do?  After a fair amount of small group processing, the instructor continued.  XXX asked for a meeting with the group representing the protestors.  After a number of meetings, it became apparent one individual was the group’s leader.  (After a fair amount of time)  This individual was asked to meet with the CEO of XXX Logging Company.  Once at the table, the CEO said something along the lines of, “While I am not in agreement with all of your demands, I do believe changes are before us that we cannot avoid.  Because of this reality, I want XXX Logging Company to become known as THE environmental logging company who deeply cares about the environmental conditions of our forests!  After all, the wellbeing of our forests and trees is our wellbeing.  To make this happen, I am instructing the board of the need to develop a division that will focus environmental issues, such as those you have raised.  And I believe there is no one more capable of making this happen!  You, more than anyone else, understands the needs, pitfalls, and benefits of such a venture.  Would you consider coming on board with us, leading this division, and help us become a logging company like no other in the world?”  After a fair amount of discussion, the protestor came on board with XXX Logging Company.  In the coming years the protestor helped improve XXX Logging Company’s public image, however, true structural change of company logging practices never changed.  Bottom line, the company gained public goodwill, without ever changing company giving up structural change within the company itself.

We can go into the problematic structural and systemic morals the college instructor taught to a roomful of future CEO’s; but that is probably best left for another time.  Instead, in the context for this week’s lectionary passage from John, we do well to recognize one core aspect to the case study is the logging company’s CEO created a space that gave the illusion the protestor had voice (a sense of power), when in reality only the CEO had voice.

The writer of John gives us,

33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?”  36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  38Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Similar to the CEO and protestor, Pilate creates illusionary space where Jesus has voice—and where the audience to John’s gospel believes Jesus as an equal.  Pilate does this by asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?.. What have you done?.. So you are a king?,” as if Jesus’ voice matters.  However, that last question is critical to revealing the true state of the Pilate-Jesus relationship.  For Jesus’ response, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Sounds as if he has voice and power, but…Pilate has the last statement, as power often does, “What is truth?”

As with the CEO-protestor study, the truth bares down at that moment.  Like a cat and mouse, Pilate only gave the illusion of voice to Jesus.  While the audience has been playing along, the writer of John throws them a jolt and they quickly find Jesus has no voice in this room, rather the room is the center of the structure which gives Pilate power.  As Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” a pall shrouds the room, Pilate’s tone deepens, and sarcastic smile slides across his face as he says, “What is truth?”  In that moment, Jesus’ voice is obliterated and John’s audience is shattered.  For in that moment everyone learns the Truth is the truth of Pilate’s power; evil reigns, John’s audience find they have been duped, and their hero’s voice is distinguished and his power is blown away like so much smoke.  It is in this boiling turmoil, this thrashing of the people’s hero, that the story becomes powerful.  For it is at this point John’s audience must take a step back, lose their passivity, become critical thinkers, review the Pilate-Jesus conversation, and re-consider an earlier response they so easily passed over, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

The first time around the comment comes across as some otherworldly response—of things as it will be.  The second time around though the audience finds the comment calls them into the here and now.  Now they must enter into relationship with a Jesus who has no voice and no power within the structure of this world.  Yet in this space, they find they have all the power needed to change this world.  In that moment of reality, when Jesus loses voice to the truth of Pilate, Jesus’ life is clarified for John’s audience.  For now, John’s audience learns Jesus has lived a life, in action and voice, as if the structure of Pilate has no meaning.  He doesn’t ignore Pilate’s structure, rather he lives as if his community of care, compassion, empathy for those who struggle and are held aside by societal structure is the realm—the kingdom of this world.  This realization is the second time John’s audience is shaken, for now they learn the power of the realm of God lies within themselves: their thoughts, their actions, their voice.

The people’s voice is what arose from the conversation my friend and I had concerning Native American Heritage Month.  It seems as if having a month designated Native American Heritage Month matters to the structures of our world and out of it American Tribes gain voice.  And yet the reality is something very different.  Like the voice of the protestor, like the voice of Jesus, Native American Heritage Month has U.S. folk believing American Tribes have voice.  Yet their voice is as lost in the landscapes current structure as that of the protestor and Jesus.

Since we are playing with the story of Pilate and Jesus, we might as well consider the structure of the Christian Church in considering the above argument.  And it is probably best to begin by observing my own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (DOC).  From a structural perspective, there is caring for the people of American Tribes.  The denomination gives a bit of money to native ministry, and time to time a sermon uses Tribal history, story, or myth as an example to make a point.  Kinda seems like voice.  But where voice matters, in the midst of decision-making, the DOC has created a structure—congregational—where any people who do not have a critical mass of congregations do not have voice.  Since the creation of American Indian congregations was never a great concern for the DOC, there are no more than one or two American Indian congregations (Honestly, I know of none, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt.)  This means, while the DOC chose to believe American Indians have voice within their structure, the voice is non-existent.

What if we look outside the DOC and consider a bit more of the Christian Church.  Let’s consider two denominations who had a fair impact on American Indians: Methodist and Episcopal.  Both denominations created a good number of boarding schools and churches for Indians over the last two centuries.  This resulted in many congregations who have a critical number of American Indians in the community.  It has also resulted in each having a community of American Indians who have voice within the denomination.  But these voices, like Jesus’, are only given enough leeway to have the people of the greater denomination believe they have voice.  However, the denomination is not accountable to the American Indian voice.  In other words, the denomination is not giving the American Indian voice the power to change structure, nor follow this voice with the understanding that American Indians will take the denomination’s best interest at heart in their decision-making.

Which leaves us, the people, in the same situation as John’s audience (Appropriately so, for are we not the audience of the gospel as well?).  Like John’s audience, we are called to be fully aware of the structure of power around us—governmental, business, and religious, throw off our passivity, and live, in action and voice, as if structural power doesn’t matter.  In doing so we work toward creating a realm where people who have been pushed aside, placed outside, and given their own month, are given the power of determination.  This is a call where the people of Christianity become a people who believe abundant care for the displaced is care for themselves and by becoming accountable to the voice of the displaced they become accountable to God, which invites the realm not of this world into our midst.

© David B. Bell 2012

Girded Language

November 5, 2012

I never gave homosexuality much thought until 1982.  Until then, like many folk, I allowed others to define homosexuality.  Best I remember it was always through derisive language.  Such language seemed more the norm than not, in those days.  Then 1982 came along and the language become so disdainful it called for new and deliberate thinking.

The intolerable language came from a surprising and not so surprising group folk: Christian pastors.  “AIDS is God’s wrath on homosexuals,” became the Christian mantra.  It’s not that all Christian pastors held this viewpoint, but rather the lack of a public Christian voice speaking the opposite led much of society to believe this rhetoric as Christian.

The 1980’s naiveté is mostly gone now and thinking is more just; AIDS is a human rather than Gay epidemic; biblical criticism endorses Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Inter-sex, Questioning/Queer (GLBTIQ) folk as naturally and wonderfully created; And what is right for straight folk is right for GLBTIQ folk.  The naiveté is mostly gone, but not entirely.

In Washington State, Referendum 74 (R74) is on the ballot, (Approving Referendum 74 means the State and the law would approve the marriage of all people, including GLBTIQ folk.) and with it a bit of 1982 is back.  Language, spoken by those against R74, is not the in your face ’82 language of “God’s wrath,” but, to be sure, it is just as painful for it separates family, neighbor, and community.  It is possible to say “I don’t have a horse in this race” and stand to the side, but if next week comes along and we, as a whole, as a society, continue to hold people apart, separated and segregated from the rights and joys we (straight folk) ourselves enjoy, then we are the cause of their hurt.

Hard language, “we are the cause.”  Yet, we are one people whether we like it or not.  If those of us who wholly and fully accept our GLBTIQ sisters and brothers as created, if those of us who have married our GLBTIQ sisters and brothers outside of State and legal approval, do not speak, do not act, and do not convince our straight brothers and sisters that we are called to radical and open equality, then we, ourselves, have also missed the mark.  Only when we hold ourselves—in my case a Christian Pastor—accountable, do we begin accepting the reality that when another hurts, so do we.  Such accountability breaks through the illusion that we are alone and on our own, and that our faith is individual rather than communal.  Instead, such accountability brings us into awareness that salvation is ours rather than mine and it is possible now rather than tomorrow.

A hundred years from now—ten more decades—we are all hanging out with our ancestors.  Our actions of today will tell a story we can no longer speak.  It may be another story of segregation, but imagine if it is a story of a people who gathered their wits, girded their loins, and entered into the fray because this was the time to bring forth a radical equality serving to better the lives of their community’s children and their children’s children.