violence

2015 In Review

By Rev. Mindi

When I look back over this past year, there are a lot of things I think the world can regret.

More violence.

More war.

More mass shootings.

More hate against Blacks, Muslims, transgender women, and others.

In my own town south of Seattle, I have seen passage of anti-homeless ordinances as the rise of the population living in tents grows. I have experienced the failure of two school bonds, resulting in more overcrowded classrooms and not enough space, let alone resources, for students with disabilities as well as typically developing students, in our district where over 44 languages are spoken and all but three schools are Title IX schools.

Looking back, I remember the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting, in which nine black church members and their pastor were gunned down by a white supremacist. I remember unarmed African-American men killed by police officers, again. I remember the shooting last month at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver, and the shooting in Bakersfield, and the massive attack in Paris, France.

Then I remember June 26th.

President Obama comforted the nation by singing and speaking at Rev. (and Senator) Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. In the midst of tragedy, I found hope.

The Supreme Court of the United States declared that marriage between same-sex couples was legal and a constitutional right.

And remember June 27th?

That was the day Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole in Charleston and tore the damn flag down.

And after that?

Several businesses stopped selling the Confederate flag on merchandise.

There were some good days, even absolutely wonderful days, in 2015.

The world isn’t always getting better. It feels, at times, the world is revolving backwards, that we have made no forward motion in terms of civil rights or justice. But then I remember those days to hold on to, those days when the world changes and doesn’t go back. And I see the kingdom of God is near. I hear the call of John the Baptist, and later of Jesus: “Repent, and believe in the Good News.”

As we draw near the end of 2015, and look to 2016, I hear the Baptizer’s call. Repent, and believe in the Good News. For there is still Good News to be revealed, Good News to be shared, and Good News to engage.

Living by the Sword

by Rev. Mindi

American children are nine times more likely to die in gun accidents than children anywhere else in the developed world.

Firearms were the third leading cause of injury related deaths nationwide in 2010.

The CDC reports that 21,175 suicide deaths are by firearms, just over half of all suicide deaths every year.

This year alone, over 62 shootings have taken place at schools, over twelve thousand killed in gun incidents, and almost 25,000 have been injured in gun incidents in the US.

And the list goes on and on and on. These statistics alone, and report after report after report, ought to make us question the plethora of guns in the United States, the attitudes about gun ownership rights and responsibilities, and the overall risk of life when it comes to gun ownership. I know—some of these are criminals with guns. Yes. However, look at the rates of accidental death and injury, especially to children—and we ought to at least question our attitudes about availability of guns.

On Monday, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made the statement that Christians should be arming themselves to shoot Muslims. He later clarified he meant Muslim extremists, but still. “Christians should arm themselves.”

What?

Why in the world should Christians arm themselves? Isn’t this antithetical to the message of the Gospel? To Jesus, the one who saves? Jesus, the one who gave up his own life?

Carol Howard Merritt writes about the reality of domestic violence and murder when guns are present in the home. We all know the church has a history of hiding abuse and covering up domestic violence, persuading women to stay in abusive situations where they are more likely to end up killed by their partner.

Rebecca Sumner writes about a time when she stopped someone with a gun by using her words. And she isn’t the only one—remember this story? It was in 2013 that Antoinette Tuff talked down a shooter in a Georgia school, in an incident where no one lost their life.

Both Carol and Rebecca mention the phrase, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” in their stories. Here’s my story. I know more than one person—who are generally good people, who have been law-abiding citizens for the most part—have, at times, been so angry they pulled a gun on someone who wasn’t armed. Or threatened to pull a gun on someone who angered them. Or talked about going and shooting up someone who had hurt them. Or even pulled out a gun on someone they loved.

Good guys, all with guns, who, if they had their gun with them in that moment, would have become the bad guy. Because it is so much easier to lash out in a fit of rage with an accessible gun. It is so much easier to do something you could never imagine yourself doing if you have a gun. It is so much easier to kill someone, or yourself, if you have access to a gun. And it is nine times more likely that your child will die in this country than anywhere else. So we need to stop saying “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” because more often than not, the good guy will become a bad guy.

Jesus, when met with violence in his arrest, argued against violence. Jesus’ disciples did not carry weapons, even when their lives were at stake.

 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Matthew 25:51-52

 

Violence is not Redemption

By Rev. Mindi

By the time you read this, Kelly Gissendaner will most likely be dead. Killed by the state of Georgia. Five others are due to be executed in our country this week, including Richard Glossip, scheduled to be killed Wednesday evening.

If you don’t know Kelly’s story, look at the hashtag #KellyOnMyMind. Kelly had her husband murdered. There is no question about that, no doubt about guilt. But there is also repentance and forgiveness. Kelly has repented of her actions, reconciled with her children who have forgiven her, attended seminary while in prison, helped counsel and care for many women while they were in prison. But all actions as of 8 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday night have not resulted in clemency or a stay of execution.

What strikes me about Kelly’s story is not her own work, though anyone can see from her life that repentance and forgiveness is possible in this lifetime. What strikes me is that we still have not learned our lesson as a people.

Fourteen years ago this summer, I was in the middle of my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, 400 hours of intensive works as a chaplain intern at a hospital in Boston. As I entered a patient’s room, I paused, because I noticed he was crying. He wiped his eyes quickly, but I asked him how he was, what brought on the tears. He jerked his head up to the TV, and I looked to see the names of the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. Timothy McVeigh was being executed that day. The patient told me that he was from Oklahoma City and had lost a friend in the bombing. “This has brought it all back. His death hasn’t made this any better, but it has brought all this grief back.” His expression turned to anger, and he said to me, quietly, “Timothy McVeigh killed over a hundred people, but we killed Timothy McVeigh.”

Though I have always been, for the most part, against the death penalty, McVeigh’s case had caused me to almost change my mind. This ruthless act, without remorse, to kill as many people as possible—if anyone deserved death, it was McVeigh in my mind. To this day, I can never forget the TIME magazine article with the photo of the firefighter carrying the dead baby girl out of the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

However, to this day, I can also never forget the words of that man in the hospital, with the tears down his face, reliving his grief as if his friend had been killed that very day I was visiting him.

The death penalty does nothing to deter murder; it does nothing to relieve pain and suffering. While I have never experienced the grief and pain of having a loved one murdered, I have met more people since that day whose loved ones were killed, who find that the death penalty does nothing to bring them healing or wholeness. It does not bring their loved one back.

We have mistaken punishment for justice. We have believed in the myth of redemptive violence. Our own Jesus was killed through capital punishment. So why do we still hold on to it? Why do we still believe that capital punishment is just, that killing another is a satisfactory response to murder?

I’m glad that Kelly’s life was transformed by Christ, that she has reconciled with her children and experienced forgiveness. I’m glad that so many have spoken up and that this movement has swept across the country and the world. I’m very saddened that at the moment I am posting this, there seems to be no hope at this time to save Kelly’s life. I am grieved that so many call this justice served, when there is no hope of restoration in this. Murder does not cancel out murder.

We must work to abolish the death penalty entirely, for the innocents and for the guilty, for those that grieve and those who cry out in anger. For the death penalty will never bring justice, but only relived pain, grief, and emptiness.

Peace vs. Justice

By Rev. Mindi

Recognizing that I am a white pastor and writer on this blog, and guessing that the audience of this blog is predominantly white, my question is this: do our prayers for peace mean silence?

Often, sadly, I think they do.

In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s violent death while being in police custody, protestors took to the streets of Baltimore. It wasn’t long before more police were called in, then stones were thrown, then hundreds of police in riot gear, then fires started, then the National Guard was called in. What I hear and see from my white colleagues is “pray for peace in Baltimore.” What I hear and see from my colleagues of color is “work for justice in Baltimore.” Sometimes, I think white Christians think that peace and justice are the same thing. They are not.

True peace comes after the work of justice, not vice versa. I think all too often white Christians quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others about nonviolent protests and do not quote them about anger and the work of justice. We quote Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but not “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King clearly calls out white clergy who have tried to silence him in the name of peace. We think that if people who are oppressed would just sit down and talk calmly and rationally about their feelings, the oppressors will then listen.

Imagine if Jesus had walked calmly into the temple and sat down at the moneychanger’s tables and said, “Listen, I want to talk to you about how you are cheating the poor by selling them doves that are not acceptable for sacrifice and are not giving a fair exchange rate for the temple currency.” Do you think they would have listened? Or would they have ignored him, or even had him removed?

Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Jesus also turned over the moneychanger’s tables, scattering the coins, and stopped the carrying of merchandise through the temple. If that doesn’t sound like the beginning of a riot, an act of vandalism, an outpouring of righteous anger, I don’t know what does. Jesus didn’t call for the harming of others. But it’s clear that Jesus didn’t care about property, either. He cared about people. And after he threw the tables around, the leaders looked for a way to kill him because they were afraid of him (Mark 11:15-18).

We claim to follow Jesus to the cross, but I bet we never got past the temple doors. We never got to where the message became uncomfortable. We want peace, not the sword of division. But calling out injustice may cause division, uncomfortableness, and anger.

I call myself out in this. I was all set to preach last November as we were waiting for news of any indictment of Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. But I never got that far. Even in praying for Michael Brown’s family, I was asked to not be so divisive. I was asked to pray for the police officers and to pray for peace. And in my own fear of being seen as divisive, of causing controversy, I consented. I still was active in public conversation and social media, but within the hour of worship, I went silent after that. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I failed the church, and I failed the children of color that are part of my church family.

We cannot pray for peace without justice. Psalm 34:14 says “seek peace, and pursue it.” The pursuit of peace is the path of justice. Justice demands that the violence of murder be accounted for. Justice demands that the systemic subjugation and killing of black persons in America be stopped. Justice demands that the cries of the oppressed, through chants and signs to rocks and flames be heard. Be listened to. Be understood. Not simply condemned without accountability for the death and violence that has already taken place.

If you are like me, wanting to speak for justice but afraid to do so, please do one thing: stop simply “praying for peace.” If you want peace, as everyone knows, work for justice. Look to the prophets and preach on justice. Look to your community and find ways of working for justice. Amplify the voices of the oppressed in your community and share their stories (with their permission, of course—or better yet, invite others to come share their stories) with your congregation.  

We can pray for peace, but only if we first have truly worked for justice. Otherwise, our attempts at peace are just to make ourselves, often white Christians, feel better and safer, instead of lifting up the oppressed and seeking justice, as Christ called us to do.

National Moment of Silence 2014 #NMOS14

by Rev. Mindi

Michael Brown became the latest victim of unarmed black teens murdered in this country on Saturday afternoon. He was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. As a response to this, to the killing of Eric Garner and many others by state violence, a National Moment of Silence has been organized via social media, and there are vigils taking place across the country. To find one near you, search on Facebook or twitter #NMOS14 +your city’s name. If there isn’t one for your area, consider holding one—there is still time. Also, check the national site on Facebook for further instructions. The goal is to have a peaceful vigil as a response to the violence happening especially to young black men in our country.

Now, here’s the thing: most of you probably won’t bother to look. I know that the readership of this blog is primarily white. I’m writing this not to insult you, but to make you look at yourself, your congregation, and what we value. All too often, White Christianity ignores the experience of Christians of Color around us. I know I have. I have taken up the cause of my LGBTQ siblings, I have spoken up for rights for people of all abilities, but rarely do I write or speak about racism. It’s not because I don’t know that racism exists; it’s that while I can temporarily look at the world and see oppression through the lens as an LGBTQ ally, or look through the lens as a mom of a child with a disability, I do not look through the lens as a person of color. I see the world through my whiteness.

Only rarely, occasionally, have I had a glimpse of what my friends who are black have experienced. I have been in the car with a black friend when he was pulled over by the police, asked to step out of the car with his hands behind his head and searched, then released with no ticket, no explanation but that he was swerving in his car (he wasn’t). I have been pulled over for speeding and received a warning, even when I spoke up to the officer that I wasn’t speeding. Let’s face it—I talked back. If I was black, I do not think I would have gotten off so lightly. I have black children in my church whose parents and grandparents have told me about the times they have been harassed by store clerks because their kids were “attempting to shoplift” when all they were doing was picking up toys and looking at them. My child is loud and runs up and down the aisle, and I can explain that he has a disability, but he is still seen as white first. 

But the truth is I don’t think about it much at all. I don’t think about the systemic racism in our country that filters young black men into the prison system—or worse, they end up dead. I don’t think about the numbers of times that black men are pulled over verses white men. I don’t think about the Stand Your Ground laws and assumptions about black people that protect white folks and cause black youth such as Trayvon Martin and Reshina McBride to end up dead.

I have to change my way of thinking. I have to stop talking and to listen. Go to these vigils. Listen to the stories in our cities, in our communities of the loss and harm that black families have experienced. Work for systemic change. Go to your police departments and ask what sort of training they have to end racial profiling. Find out what the demographics are of your community and how many police officers of color serve. Work to educate your own church and community on racial profiling and violence against persons of color. And White Christians, may we start listening to the experience of Christians of Color in our congregations, in our denominations, in our communities.

Proverbs 21:3 To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

Funding Weapons & Expecting Peace

By J.C. Mitchell

I was mistaken for a Mexican. It was 1994, and I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There was a group of college-age men I knew that were obsessed with American Westerns.  These young men had jokingly referred to those from the Free State (Ireland) as Mexicans.  It was not a derogatory term, for some I knew had close ties with the RA (The Irish Republican Army or IRA), but those brothers and sisters from “south of the borders,” were referred to in this group occasionally as “Mexicans,” because of their obsession of classic Western Films.  Because I picked up a mild brogue when I lived in Belfast, they just assumed I was from the Free State.  They were utterly confused I did not know much about Westerns, or cared. 

I was living there working on my Division III for my undergraduate degree from Hampshire College, which can be best explained as my senior thesis. I studied at Queen’s University and in the Public Houses, as most students would.  Students came from both the Loyalist and Republican enclaves, with a smattering of people from the mainland (UK) and the continent, and one American.  However, America was certainly present beyond just me—not only in the references to Westerns, but in the Chicago Style Pizzeria, (a shame they didn't get authentic Connecticut Pizza), and especially the funding of the RA by the Republican diaspora in New York and Boston throughout the decades before. 

Now the Troubles, the term used for the conflict, is very complicated.  It is both a very old conflict that goes back centuries, and during the 20th century it should be described as a civil rights conflict that happened because of colonization.  It is not unlike the conflict in the Middle East--everyone claims it is a religious conflict, but it is actually a conflict based on ethnicity, where those of privilege are supported by the state.  Actually the privileged were supported by an armed and ruthless police state, and in response, the oppressed have done the same, to fight back, making the analogy quite interesting.  Now for various reasons the peace process has progressed on the island my grandparents are from, but there seems to be no progress in Palestine/Israel.

I am not sure what the solution is, but I know one thing we can do in the USA: Stop funding weapons.  When the Irish diaspora stopped funding the IRA and began instead funding their Independent Retirement Accounts, and the United States also allowed Gerry Adams a visa and thus allowing criticism of the violence from the UK, the US finally got out of the way, and greater dialogue was encouraged. USA influence may have continued with television, movies and pizza, but it ended with the funding of weapons and lifting the censorship of the oppressed.  This helped lead to the Good Friday Accord, and the continued work of peace.  

So when I hear we are funding weapons in the Middle East, and we censor the voices of the oppressed, what are we expecting?  I am not suggesting simply being xenophobic and letting them figure it out, but if we call for peace and fund one side and essentially censor one side, what do we expect? 

We are not talking about just some money collected in bars in NYC and Boston; we are talking multi-million dollar funding of weapons.  May we not be known only as cowboys who only answer with the gun or hired gun, for we should know that violence never creates a peace that lasts.  

 


Don't give up on the work for justice

By Rev. Mindi

As I write this, late on Saturday night after the verdict has been read for the George Zimmerman trial, I’m overwhelmed with emotion.  Sadness for Trayvon Martin’s parents and friends. Grief that our court system failed, once again. Anger that an unarmed teen was killed, for no reason other than he was perceived as a threat because he was black and was wearing a hood. Frustration that racism is alive and well and even more flustered that so many in the United States don’t believe racism exists.

A boy is dead. And there is nothing that can change that. Not even a guilty verdict could have changed that.

I believe, and hope, that most of us Christians would not want retribution against George Zimmerman. God’s justice is not about retribution but restoration. An acknowledgement that racism is prevalent. An understanding that racial profile is real. A push to change our patterns of suspicion. And work to end unjust laws such as Stand Your Ground that allow for someone to shoot and kill another person who is unarmed, who is only perceived as a threat.

But we can’t give up hope just yet. We can’t just pray for the Martins in our prayers and not do anything as the church. We have a voice. We have power that can be used to speak out for justice.

We can work to change unjust laws. The “Stand Your Ground” laws are designed for people to be able to defend themselves on their own property. When they are expanded beyond that, we end up with people taking matters into their own hands, such as George Zimmerman following and then shooting an unarmed teenager instead of waiting for police, or, in an infamous case near my hometown in Alaska, people who had committed a crime who were running away were shot in the back and the shooter was also found not guilty. We can work to change “Stand Your Ground” laws in restricting how they are applied.

We can work to change our cultural attitudes. In our congregations, we must begin preaching against the violence in our culture, the attitude that says live in fear and carry a gun everywhere, the attitude that says everyone who looks different might be a threat, the attitude that violence is the only answer.  We have to work on teaching nonviolence as the way of Jesus, as integral to our faith as our baptism, our communion, our Bible study, our worship. Nonviolence is the way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

We have to talk seriously about racism. We are not in a post-racial society, not even with a black president. Black men are still profiled regularly, not only by authorities but by everyday people.  I hear racism even in church circles. We have to speak out and stop the stereotypes, stop the profiling that happens. And we have to talk about the fact that we live in a white privileged society, that white women and men will not be suspected of wrongdoing most of the time. We have to talk about the mass incarceration that is occurring of young black men (and I highly recommend purchasing and reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). We need to talk about race especially in our Euro-American congregations, even when we don’t want to, because we have to acknowledge and recognize our privilege. When only white faces on TV talk about how justice is served, while our prisons are full of young black men, we have to have this conversation.

We have to continue the work for civil rights for all people. While we work for equality for LGBTQI folks, while we work for inclusion for disabled folks, we also have to continue to work for equality, inclusion and justice for people of all races and cultures. We have to work for immigration reform. And we must not give up or assume the fight is over for civil rights for people of color.

I will dare to say it is evil that wants us to believe we are color blind. It is evil that wants us to believe everyone is on equal footing in this society. It is a systemic evil, rooted in our sins of the past that we have never fully repented of, that continues to make white people afraid of black people, that continues to profile young black men and continues to say violence is an appropriate response, especially against black people. We have to repent of this evil, and we have to change, and we have to talk about this in our churches.

Do not forget Trayvon Martin. And do not hate George Zimmerman. Instead of hate, let us use righteous anger to work towards justice. Let us use anger and frustration with the repetitions of sins of the past to repent and work for justice and true equality, in the nonviolent ways of the Prince of Peace, who stood for justice and nonviolence even at the most violent cross of capital punishment.  But please do not let our justice be only passive conversation. Let it be active change, in each of us, in our congregations, and in our communities. This time, let us not give up.

Reclaiming Religion

By Rev. Mindi

In the aftermath of the events of the past week, now that a suspect in the Boston bombings is in custody, now that the media has buzzed once again with the purpose behind the bombings being Religion—how are we to respond?

First, we need to take this question out of the “Islamic Extremists” reasoning.  While both suspects may have identified themselves with Islam, it’s clear that for the deceased suspect, he didn’t understand the Qu’ran at all (claiming that “the Bible is a cheap copy of the Qu’ran” he obviously doesn’t understand how to read history, either), and the younger suspect had only been to the local mosque once in the last three years, smoked marijuana and drank, all activities that would not be condoned by a typical “religious” Muslim.  In short, though these two brothers may have claimed to identify with Islam, they didn’t really understand the very religious tradition they claimed as what had driven them to bomb innocent civilians in their anger against the United States. 

While fundamentalism can be dangerous in any religious tradition and certainly we have seen the results of fundamentalist Islam, I see a tide shifting in the media portrayal and coverage. It is no longer about Islamic fundamentalism, but religious fundamentalism, and not even fundamentalism but religion in general.  When “religion” is labeled as a reason for why people would kill innocent civilians with homemade bombs, we all are getting thrown under the bus.

This adds fuel to the fire of why people reject religion altogether. They hear the shouts of the Westboro Baptist Church (which neither is Baptist nor a church, in my opinion, though they may be located in Westboro) and see Christians as hate-filled people. Even if, as most people know, the Westboro church is rejected by most Christians, there are enough other churches that reject lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks that people don’t want to be associated with a church, let alone Christianity. 

My concern about this recent hype in the media and the use of the word “religion” is that the discourse is going beyond the extremists, beyond the fundamentalists, beyond the right-wing branches of religious traditions. The journalists are reporting that the older brother was becoming more devout, “praying five times a day.” As one of the basic principles of Islam, that’s like saying “they began taking communion every Sunday” about a Disciple. The basic practices of a faith tradition become extreme to the rest of the world.

Religion is getting a bad reputation, and those of us in church leadership ought to be concerned about it. Because the real problem is not religion, it’s the use of violence that uses religion as a cover. It’s the use of religion as a blanket excuse to kill in the name of God, when we kill in the name of humanity, in the name of violence.

There are plenty of verses about peace in the Qu’ran, in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, in many other religious texts around the world. Most religions, since ancient times, have had passages and practices about peaceful living with one’s other religious neighbors, alongside the passages that justified war and violence.

What happens when we allow the media to characterize any one religion in a negative light? Eventually, it catches up to all of us. 

In the “Spiritual but not Religious” conversation, the pull to reject religion is greater with these kind of definitions. When religion is labeled as the reason for one’s negative, violent actions, it is hard to reclaim the word religion as anything good. But we must do so. If our argument for religion is that being part of an organized community is better than being solo or being part of a detached community (lest we run the risk of assuming that people who identify as Spiritual but not Religious aren’t part of a community, so be careful here) we need to speak out against those who would characterize Muslims and Islam, against voices within Christianity that are violent, hurtful or abusive, and we must not be silent.