We, the United States of America, are now charged with human rights violations by the United Nations. Apparently, deservedly so. Jeff Sessions, whose actively racist behavior previously prevented him from serving as a federal judge, now acts as Attorney General and charges people of color who migrate to our country with a federal crime under the name of an America First law enforcement initiative. This led to the active separation of family units with no declared intent or specified method of ever reuniting children with parents. Make no mistake: this is legalized, state-sanctioned terrorism against migrants. Though now stayed by an executive order, it leads instead to a different practice: indefinite detainment of migrants, practically exclusively people of color, in camps. Internment camps for Japanese Americans and concentration camps from WWII Germany to present day North Korea should ring loudly in our ears. Indefinite detention is a different type of human rights violation, one for which countries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have been consistently critiqued. That is our company.
Per Sessions, this practice of separation began under the decree of Donald Trump, whose heart cannot be known but whose actions have declared, among other things: (1) a preference for consolidated power and wealth at the top social strata, the product of the most recent tax reform, (2) a disdain for peaceful protest, whether among millionaire professional athletes or common people in movements like Black Lives Matter, (3) an affinity for dictatorial modes of government where the masses sit up straight at the presence of a strong man, rather than provide critique as coequal members of society, (4) a confession of committing sexual assault, and (5) an erosion of support from the rights of LGTBQ+ people and communities, among many others.
The current practices of the United States government endanger the lives and threaten the integrity of people of color, people who lack access to financial resources, people who migrate here, people of all sexual and gender identities, and people who resist the dominant narrative of the administration. Fundamentally, this government’s practices are a threat to people, period.
I resist this government's oppressive behavior and policies entirely of my own volition, not claiming to stand for any other person or organization; yet, I do so in the legacy of Jesus, a person of color who came to proclaim good news to the poor, who survived as an undocumented migrant, who actively supported the rights and responded to the protests of racial and ethnic minorities, who supported women, who was conceived by an unwed mother and who gave us a new law, to love one another as he loves us. I stand in the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, disciple of Jesus, who refused to submit to the authority of a corrupt government and died as an active resistor. I follow the leaders of #blacklivesmatter (cofounded by women of color Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi) and Pride, the guidance of womanists and feminists, the convictions of liberation theology, the witness of Ghandi and Sojourner Truth, the organizational resistance of Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce, and Martin Luther King, Jr.. It is a matter of both human dignity and Christian integrity that compels me to condemn the behavior
It is time for more than electing a different party in power or a different leader to run the system. The system is down, and the only feasible solution is a new way of life that constructs a new community. While a sort of new age Amish option sounds attractive, going off the grid is not an option, not if we’re called to love our neighbors. To love someone involves not only our liberation, but theirs as well. We must become like a virus, infecting the cells around us with the DNA of love that transforms our immigration policy, our concepts of black and brown bodies, our relationships with people who express intimacy, gender, and sexuality different from ours, our economic policies and our obsession with money.
Honestly, I’m not sure what this looks like. Dr. King and other leaders from the Civil Rights Movement developed particular trainings and utilized particular strategies to accomplish particular goals. That’s admirable and informative for how we accomplish change; yet, it also concedes much power to the system at hand, which will ty typically seek appeasement rather than transformation. Those with power and privilege rarely want to accomplish equality because, for them (and in many ways, as a straight, white, cisgenedered middle class male, I am one of "them") loss of privilege feels like active oppression. Incremental change is good, and specific accomplishments make progress tangible, but we need to ensure that this change is stemmed by the authoritarian gaze that declares, “Good enough for now.” A question that still haunts me is this: can we truly make the progress we need working within the system as currently constructed? I hope it is possible. I fear it is not. If we can't build the plane while we fly it, a phoenix must rise from the ashes of the crash.
I admit that this is not brave speech. This is delayed realization and response. I’m way behind siblings in Christ like Kwame Pitts, Elle Dowd, Lenny Duncan, Elizabeth Rawlings, and others at Disrupt Worship and #decolonizeLutheranism. Many are already organizing, demonstrating, speaking up and and acting out in ways that seek this change. I’m now, perhaps for the first time, overwhelmed with the need of it in light of the children who suffer without parents - parents who risked their own lives to provide a better chance at life for this children - because of the silent complicity of myself and so many others like me. Moreover, brave speech is only known by accompanied action of bravery. We must speak and must act, not to earn our salvation, but to share the abundant life God opens to all people.
We must speak up and act out. We must say clearly that God’s word does not condone oppression or terrorism, but instead, in the grand arc of scripture, calls us to redemptive, inclusive love. We must speak up that both in the Bible’s Eden and in the Bible’s eternity, there are no boundaries that prevent people from migrating toward one another. We must speak up that, in Jesus, we see the fullness of God’s intent for humanity: grace with a preferential option for those who’ve known mostly oppression and poverty, abuse and hatred, fear and want.
We must also act in ways that foster substantial change. Don't just settle for the other party when you vote when their platform still ultimately supports practices that restrict wealth at the top and refuse to release power to more people. Don't just settle for fair trade when you can instead purchase items from cooperatives owned by farmers and artisans in the Global South. We must admit the roles we have played in furthering systems of oppression and the prejudice that still festers in our own hearts while simultaneously using that privilege to lift up others rather than ourselves and choosing to act in ways contra to the prejudicial dispositions formed deep within each of us. We will only transform the world when we create equitable relationships with the people of the world, of all races and genders, ethnicities and financial means, of all sizes and abilities.
The system is down. We must speak up and act out to change it from the inside out.
I recently finished speaking at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Ohio Staff Training Conference. I was invited to speak about how to communicate faith to youth with different approaches to faith. In other words, if we have a group of campers who come from (1) no religious or spiritual background at all, (2) spiritual but not religious contexts, (3) nominally religious homes, and (4) families that embodied religion as a daily lived commitment, then how do we communicate to all those different people? It was no small task!
Even so, it gave me a chance to compile some of my learnings from campus ministry and congregational life. Throughout that time, I've seen plenty of things fail. Fortunately, what's proven reliable is effective for people from all backgrounds. Of course, these things won't necessarily make them believe the content - that's the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts - but they will make it more likely for people to remember the stories, theologies, and practices you teach to them.
1. Before you teach it, you have to know it. This is true of Scripture, because before you tell the story, you have to know the story. Before you describe the theology the incarnation, you have to recall the details. Before you teach someone how to lead worship, you have to have command of the practices yourself. On campus, the most effective formation of faith I see in college students directly reflect the knowledge that I know the best.
Notice, though, that this should be an encouragement to learn more, not to simply teach the stuff with which you're comfortable. Church leaders should always be deepening their knowledge of scripture, of church history, of theology, of practical ministry concerns, and especially how these things relate to issues that affect the daily lives of congregants. The more you know, the better you can teach, so commit to learning yourself.
2. Acknowledge your limitations. None of us are experts on everything. Humans are necessarily limited creatures, so enter these situations with humility and a willingness to learn from others as well. If you don't know it well enough to teach it extensively, admit that to yourself and invite other leaders with more expertise to lead in those areas. This isn't weakness. It is wisdom.
You can also utilize a plethora of other teaching resources, like The Work of the People, Why Christian, or SparkHouse. Some of the best leadership is curating resources that fill in the gaps within your knowledge, even as you develop further knowledge and additional skills.
3. Repetition is the mother of mastery. I learned this phrase from Jim Duxbury, my high school Environmental Geology teacher. Rather than cram before a test, Mr. Duxbury taught us to take five minutes at the start of every class to review all of our notes from the semester. The repeated engagement with the material familiarized us with the words, the concepts, and their relationship to other important pieces of the course.
We employ similar practices in the church. Memorizing biblical verses engrains not just the words, but the associated emotions, into our beings. Reading the same lectionary scriptures every three years centers us on a particular set of biblical content. When I was in confirmation classes, I learned the books of the Bible by repeating a silly song over and again, and I learned Martin Luther's explanation of the 10 Commandments by first repeating the commandments and then repeating the explanations.
No matter how well we know something, repetition helps us to better know it and to ingrain it more deeply within our hearts and minds.
4. Apply and reapply. This is where you can get specific and address on the person's personal background. It's not exactly rinse and repeat, because it's going to be a different application depending on the person(s) with whom you're working, When you are sharing faith content, generic stories and general ideas don't make the same depth of impact as incarnated theology. After all, it was God becoming human that made all the difference in the world. The best theologies we have are the ones that come alive in the lives of our people, and in so doing, promote God's abundant life within them.
Teaching, say, the story of Jonah will different not only based on age groups - for instance, seven year olds likely won't understand how genre magnifies the meaning of the text, but seventeen year olds will - but on familial context. A child with no introduction to religion might hear this story as something like Aesop's Fables, while a young person raised in an evangelical home might argue the historical veracity of the events. In so doing, both may miss the content arc of God's radical grace and narrative plays that suggest Jonah is some of the earliest recorded satire available. Yet, you can help them see those markers and how big God's truth can be within the myth, regardless of the story's historicity.
5. Find and utilize the common ground and goals. Much effective teaching begins from the same level as learners. Common ground, simply the reliability of the teacher, helps your content become more palatable and approachable. Discovering or developing shared goals can help to overcome some obstacles in the educational process. The way that we often structure classrooms, with a single authority at the front of auditorium-style seats, suggests a strong division between teacher and student. Destroy that barrier. Instead, find ways to flip the learning experience, where you exist among the learners, as a learner. Mutual education provides an opportunity for you to be heard as a trusted source and allows you access to the lives of students that enhances your understanding of how information may impact their lives. Commonality breeds common understandings, so establishing common ground and goals will help the information at hand take root in the soil of the entire community.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.