Monday, August 23, 2010

"God will protect us, even from Sarkozy"

Crossposted at OnFire.

Immigration is not just a USAmerican "problem"

I began to understand the importance of comprehensive immigration reform not in interactions with immigrant communities in the USA, with whom I had little contact despite living in a farming community, but in studying abroad in France and traveling across Europe. In France, I took sociology and history classes that touched on the social impact of migration of maghr├ębins (North Africans primarily from Algeria but also Morocco and Tunisia)--- a particularly salient issue as there have been riots in these ethnic communities that have received national attention (in 2005 mostly, but this is not new or over--- watch the film La Haine [Hate] for an artistic exploration of this social dynamic). I spoke with my host family and other French people about Islam and immigration. And I began to see how across Western Europe, immigration is a hot button issue--- from the insanity of the border security in the UK (I stood in line once as the only white person in a long line of brown men in Heathrow for "random" security checks--- I was the evidence that they were supposedly not racially profiling), to the debates over whether or not Turkey should be admitted into the European Union, to learning about Turkish immigration to Germany and initial attempts to prevent Muslims from becoming citizens. In October 2008, one of my best friends, a Bosnian woman (so a woman from the "other" Europe and a Muslim---read: not white enough), was supposed to come visit me but her ticket was revoked when it turned out she needed a visa in order to land in Germany twice (she had two layovers in Germany and would have spent a grand total of two hours in the country). So I began to study the insanity of xenophobia (fear of the foreign) in my own country (you can check out some of my reflections here).

The news today turned me back to the mess that is xenophobia in Europe. Last month, French president Nicholas Sarkozy announced mass deportations of Roma immigrants (more commonly, though derogatorily, known as gypsies--- for more of an explanation check out the Slate article called "Why do the Roma wander?").

"Hey, hey Sarkozy why don't you like the gypsies?" (VAMA feat. Ralflo's "Sarkozy versus Gypsy")

This is nothing new, of course: Italy, for example, declared a state of emergency in 2008 "due to the presence of Roma" and, let's not forget, during the Holocaust, the Nazis exterminated 220,000 Roma in its attempt to "purify the race."

And, for the French government, such despicably racist and xenophobic policies are nothing new. They are forever trying to ban the veil and blaming young men of color for everything wrong in the world. Last September, police invaded and dismantled a migrant camp in Calais. This event has stuck with me these past months because I have often wondered where those families went and what it was like to live through such a traumatic experience of loss.

Thursday and Friday, French police began the ethnic cleansing* program, resulting in the removal of some 700 people and a dismantling of 40 Roma camps, according to the BBC. Robert A. Kushen, executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, pointed out in an interview for the New York Times that "Mass expulsions based on ethnicity violate European Union law...and the failure of France to do individual assessments of each case--- as opposed to cursory examinations of papers by the police--- also violates European Union rules." Sound familiar?

If that does not sound familiar what about this story from the UK's The Guardian:
Although [an unnamed 27-year-old Romaian man] has lived in Marseille since he was child, he still has no papers, and cannot get a job. "This discrimination will not go away. France has become the opposite of liberty, equality and fraternity," he said. Asked about any friends and acquaintances among the 1040 people to have gone home "voluntarily" from Marseille to their native countries since January last year, he said he doubted they would have gone happily. "Even in Romania you had discrimination," he remembered. "No one wants us. There is no place for us. Not in Romania, and not in France."

I read these articles and am constantly reminded of the stories of refugees denied asylum in the USA, of immigrants who arrive in the USA as children and know nothing of their "home countries" and yet are deported, of USAmerican politicians who are attempting to overturn the fourteenth amendment to deny citizenship to USAmerican-born children of immigrants. Xenophobia is not exclusive to the USA, which is something we must remember as we are fighting for comprehensive immigration reform in our own country. The reason for the French government's stance on immigration is an appeal to the populist vote--- much like the increase secure-the-border furor in the USA. This is a problem across the world--- and not just in the global North: in South Africa, for example, there have been violent attacks against immigrant communities. While we do need to focus on policy and reforming immigration law step by step in the USA, we need to be thinking globally of how we can create a world in which we welcome strangers rather than demonizing them.

"Come, you blessed of my Abba God! Inherit the kindom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me...The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it for me."**


The title of this blog, comes from a quote in a New York Times piece from Ioan Lingurar.

* I know a lot of activists reject using the term ethnic cleansing when talking about Arizona's SB1070 and other anti-immigrant policies because its connection to the Bosnian genocide such a term brings with it. I am not suggesting that we forget that the term ethnic cleansing served as a euphemism for genocide. However, I am asking that we look at the definition of ethnic cleansing--- the forced removal of an ethnic group from a geographical area--- and use the weight of the term to name the reality of anti-immigration policies like France's.

**Matthew 25: 34-36,40, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Priests for Equality (Sheed and Ward 2007).

UPDATED November 9, 2010 with the "Sarkozy versus Gypsy" song.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cleared for take off

I have flown commercially often, and have been in quite a few smaller planes used to go back and forth from Bosnia and Croatia or from one island in Hawai'i to another. These smaller plane experiences have not been my favorites as the pressure changes are horrendous, the seats are far too cramped, and the plane seems easily tossed in turbulence. So the chance to fly in an even smaller aircraft, one that seats four people, was not one I had always dreamed about. Yet, this week I found myself in a Mooney M20 and loved it! I thought I would write a little bit about the experience to kind of shift gears from political issues (though of course, everything is political, and I can't fly without noticing class dynamics) to just share the experience of being in flight, of "partaking in the miracle of flight."

Aaron Harrington, the person with whom I've shared the last seven and a half years, has wanted to fly since his grandmother brought him to a little airport in Laurel, Maryland, every Friday as a kid. They used to eat tuna fish sandwiches and watch the planes take off and land. She created a monster, really--- he eats sleeps breathes airplanes and has since then. We watch movies about airplanes, he reads books about airplanes, he got his Bachelor's and is working on his Master's in aerospace engineering. And as soon as he had enough money to begin taking lessons to become a pilot, he jumped at the opportunity. After several months, our schedules finally clicked and I was able to go with him on one of his lessons with his kick-ass instructor Nizar Bechara (I would like to write this man's biography one day) of Royal Air FlightTraining.

I was expecting the flight to be, well, rather rough. I don't know why, but I was expecting it to be a lot more like perpetual turbulence would feel in a bigger airplane. I grabbed a handful of hard candy on the way out to the plane and popped one in my mouth as soon as the engine was on, but it was totally unnecessary this time around. It was a beautiful flight. It was Aaron's first time flying a complex aircraft (ask him to explain the difference), so there were times when I could tell he was just trying to get used to the way the plane responded to him, but honestly, I was too busy gawking out the window as we flew along the eastern shore of Maryland. I loved looking at the shape of the earth, where it met the water, even seeing the leaves on the trees as we began descending a bit. And on the way back, I really enjoyed being so close to the ground we could see everyone's pools! I love traveling that way.

Some people asked if I was afraid or flying, especially in such a small aircraft. Fear was never an emotion I encountered flying--- I was with Aaron and he was flying, which is what he likes best in the world! In fact, I was so comfortable that with the added the gentle vibrations of the plane and the sun warming the cabin, I almost fell asleep!

Flying this way, surrounded by windows so you can see on all sides, is amazing. I feel like before in a bus or train, I was looking at pieces of a huge painting close up, but, in the plane, I am able to see just how beautiful the picture is when all the pieces are put together.

Friday, August 13, 2010

we keep our confessions long, but when we pray we keep it short

There is no experience quite like a concert. Live music does something to a person. Tuesday night I to the Ottobar in Baltimore to see (one of) my favorite band(s) mewithoutYou (and got the added benefit of hearing Buried Beds and Murder by Death open). Always after going to a good concert, I feel more whole--- not whole in the sense of complete, but whole in the sense that implies some kind of healing has taken place. Art does that.

Now my friends often comment that the art I like is horribly depressing, and this is certainly true. mewithoutYou's early work especially is most certainly not happy (though their latest album is decidedly more uplifting). I think I am drawn to the sadness because there is realness to it that is not found in much popular culture entertainment. The sadness is just part of what it means to live in this world post-Holocaust, post Vietnam. We need to break out of the apathy of this culture in which we live, and good art--- particularly that which confronts us with our own brokenness--- can help us do that. When I was younger, I used to want to be a politician because I wanted to change things, but as I got older I realized it wasn't the politicians who make change. It is artists who are the prophets of change, who can galvanize people to move. So even when the images described by music, poems, paintings are horribly depressing there is a healing to real art, I think, because of the truth within it.

Here is an example of what I mean. Samuel Bak is a prolific painter and a survivor of the Holocaust. He has worked on a series of paintings based on the picture of the Warsaw ghetto boy (check out this article [PDF] about it). When you look at these images, you don't feel warm and fuzzy inside the way you might looking at entertainment. That isn't healing. But Bak's work gives voice to the horror that is genocide in a way that touches me deeply. He reveals our brokenness and forces us to face it. Now Bak is not an artist who suggests solutions to our brokenness but his art does hold us accountable to the horrors that we have committed. Healing cannot happen without this accountability because it is the beginning of the path to reconciliation.

mewithoutYou has touched me in a similar way on this path to reconciliation. Even since my friend David introduced me to them, I was relieved to find religious art that was not shallow the way praise music (which is not art) is, but that dipped into doubt, into the struggle of being human. This is intensified live, even in the happy songs from it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright!. Though I love singing in church, even good old hymns full of bad theology, I can never just raise my hands in worship the way I did when mewithoutYou played.

Messes of Men*

"I do not exist," we faithfully insist,
sailing in our separate ships and from each tiny caravel---
tiring of trying, there's a necessary dying,
like the horseshoe crab in its proper season sheds its shell

such distance from our friends,
like a scratch across the lens,
made everything look wrong from anywhere we stood
and our paper blew away before we'd left the bay
so half-blind we wrote these songs on sheets of salty wood
caught me making eyes at the other boatman's wives
and heard me laughing louder at the jokes told by their daughters
I'd set my course for land, but you well understand
it takes a steady hand to navigate adulterous waters

the propeller's spinning blades held acquaintance with the waves
as there's mistakes I've made no rowing could outrun
the cloth low on the mast like to I say I got no past
but I'm nonetheless the librarian and secretary's son
with tarnish on my brass and mildew on my glass
I'd never want someone so crass as to want someone like me
but a few leagues off the shore, I bit a flashing lure,
and I assure you, it was not what I expected it to be!

I still tastes its kiss, that dull hook in my lip
is a memory as useless as a rod without a reel.
to an anchor-ever-dropped-seasick-yet-still-docked
captain spotted napping with his first mate at the wheel
floating forgetfully along, with no need to be strong,
we keep our confessions long, but when we pray we keep it short
I drank a thimble full of fire and I'm not ever coming back
Oh, my G-d!

"I do not exist," we faithfully insist
while watching sink the heavy ship with everything we knew
if ever you come near, I'll hold up high a mirror
Lord, I could never show you anything as beautiful as You

I felt more whole, even among all the sweaty, tattooed people crammed into the Ottobar. Because there is a truth to the words, to the way Rickie Mazzotta, framed up there on stage by a kind of sweat halo as David says, throws his whole body into drumming to the way Aaron Weiss bends awkwardly over the microphone...I can feel it. The last song, "In a Sweater Poorly Knit," people emptied the floor to get up on the stage until the stage was full, everyone singing “I do not exist, I do not exist, only You exist." It's a healing that helps you wake up, even if it's only for a few minutes, from a world where so many of us feel alone, feel guilty for doubting, feel powerless. Art is healing in the way it can help knit us--- an individual us, yes, but ultimately a collective us) back together. It's like we drank a thimble full of fire and we're not ever going back.


*Didn't find many good live versions of this song (too many shaky videos with bad sound), but this is a pretty awesome performance!

Monday, August 2, 2010

To be liberated creatures committed to the freedom of humanity

Crossposted at the Beatitudes Society blog.

Reflecting on what I mean when I claim for myself the name Progressive Christian*

According to a Gallup poll released this month, 54 percent of adults nationally are unsure of what the word “progressive” means. Add the word Christian after it, and I'm sure people become even more confused. These past eight weeks I have been working through what it means to be a progressive Christian with six other Beatitudes fellows in DC. Defining progressive Christianity is perhaps an impossible task but I am going to explore here what I mean when I claim that name as my own.

Progressive Christianity is, as I understand it, a movement of the Spirit. It is a radical renewal that points us back to our roots (radical) to better seek the kindom of God. The vision of the kindom on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), Jesus Christ's call to live abundantly (John 10:10), seeking the shalom of the city (Jeremiah 29:7)--- this, for me, is what drives progressive Christianity. We hold onto the idea that we as Christians are called to work within this world for social change.

This radical vision is a rejection of the Christian voice that has within my lifetime been the primary voice in the USA--- that of the religious right. The religious right is a criminal distortion of the Christian faith in so many ways because it has become merely a way to anchor USAmerican imperial, white, male, middle and upper class hegemony rather than a movement that follows the teachings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. I reject the idea that salvation is only individual, or the idea that being a Christian is defined by opposition to abortion and non-normative sexuality and a blind support of free market capitalism. I claim the name progressive Christian in part to separate myself from this blasphemy.

Progressive Christianity as a movement really came out of the horror of the 2004 election. People of faith woke up and realized that the outcome of the election had been dominated by voices of the religious right--- voices that did not speak for so many of us. This is when organizations like Faith in Public Life and the Beatitudes Society emerged to work together to voice this opposition to the nationalism, militarism, racism, and materialism of the religious right. It was a revival, God's answer to our plea: “Won't you revive us again, so that your people can rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6).

Though there is still much to do, the tide has turned. Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a leading voice for progressive Christians points out that the religious right peaked in 2004, but now the religious right has lost its children because so many young folks are more interested in reclaiming the social justice in the gospel message than participating in the culture wars over abortion and sexuality.

This reclamation of the gospel message of social justice is not, for me, centered on favorite lefty scriptural passages like the Lukan blessings and woes 6: 20-26 (the more radical version of the Beatitudes), but rather on the greatest commandments described in Matthew 22:37-39.
You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the greatest commandment. The second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.

Within these two commandments is a threefold love of God, self, and neighbor that is central to living the kindom vision of the Gospel. The Phoenix Affirmations are a beautiful progressive creed of sorts that are organized according to the greatest commandments. I will highlight three of these affirmations to illustrate:

Loving God includes: Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God's Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human. (Affirmation 3)
We live in a disconnected culture in which we are often blind to the ways in which God is manifest in everything around us. Progressive Christianity recognizes God’s movement among us, even in spaces like the environment that have been devalued in the evolution of Christian tradition.

Loving our neighbor includes: Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others. (Affirmation 6)
Our God is the God of the oppressed. We see that over and over throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Progressive Christianity puts this revelation back into the definition of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

Loving ourselves includes: Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth. (Affirmation 10)
Progressive Christianity is a movement that does not demand compartmentalization of body and spirit in order to participate! Particularly moving to me here is the mention of doubt. When I claim the name progressive Christian, I am acknowledging that I doubt. We have grown up being told that doubt is negative, but I believe that the moment you stop doubting, you have let a vital revelation slip through your fingers.

My exploration of what I mean when I talk about progressive Christianity is constantly evolving. My own understanding of progressive Christianity is that it is (a) movement. But what I have written today is my first attempt to put it to paper. I am always looking for new language through which to understand my relationship with God, so please engage me here.

I want to end with James Cone’s definition of being a Christian from God of the Oppressed because I think it says hauntingly what I am stumbling to find my own language to say here.

To live as a Christian simply means being what God has made us, namely, liberated creatures committed to the freedom of humanity.


All scripture passages are quoted from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Priests for Equality (Sheed and Ward 2007). The last quotation comes from James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Harper San Francisco 1975), 207.

*This summer I am a Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed experience outside of parish ministry if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision.

This is my final reflection on this experience and I dedicate it (yes, I know that sounds hokey, but this reflection comes from so many of our discussions this summer) to the six other DC Beatitudes Fellows of 2010.