March 29: Sons and Daughters of Abraham

For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob,
   shame shall cover you,
   and you shall be cut off for ever. 
On the day that you stood aside,
   on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates
   and cast lots for Jerusalem,
   you too were like one of them. 
But you should not have gloated over your brother
   on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
   on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted
   on the day of distress. 
You should not have entered the gate of my people
   on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s disaster
   on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
   on the day of his calamity. 
You should not have stood at the crossings
   to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
   on the day of distress. 
Obadiah 10-14

The tiny book of Obadiah is a prophetic tirade against Judah’s neighbor, Edom. To understand the book, one must know the historical context. In 587 BC, when Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon, the neighboring Edomites didn’t come to Judah’s defense. Instead, they took part in the plunder, looting goods and “gloating over Judah’s disaster.”

This betrayal cut deeply, since Edom and Judah were considered “brothers”; they traced their ancestries back to Esau and Jacob, respectively. Even though the Edomites were not Jews, they were still family. 

Through the prophet Obadiah, God promises to repay the Edomites, threatening, “As you have done it, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obadiah 15).

As Christians, we ought to hear these words in relation to our connection to our own faith “brothers and sisters” — Jews and Muslims. All three faiths are descended from the same central figure, Abraham; Jews and Christians find their heritage in the line of Isaac, while Muslims trace their ancestry through Ishmael.

Unless we want to face God’s wrath, we ought to consider the way we treat Jews and Muslims. Do we rush to their defense when they are mistreated or insulted? Do we gloat when representatives of their faiths fall or stumble? Do we “loot” their dignity by passing on lies, untruths, and propaganda about them?

In recent months, hate crimes and threats against Jews and Muslims in the U.S. have increased dramatically. 

A flood of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues, though revealed to be hoaxes, has opened the door to a rise in anti-Semitism. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are currently 130 active Ku Klux Klan groups operating in the country, as well as hundreds of other white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and Holocaust-denying hate groups. Earlier this month, the largest synagogue in Seattle was defaced with graffiti, including the tag line, “Holocau$t i$ fake hi$tory!”

American Muslims are also under constant threat and harassment. Anti-Muslim groups proliferated in 2016, from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year. So far in 2017, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported 33 separate incidents in which mosques have been targeted for vandalism or arson. Early Sunday morning of this week, someone threw rocks and a Bible through the glass doors of a Fort Collins, Colorado, mosque. 

The rising rhetoric of suspicion and mistrust against those who practice Islam and Judaism is unacceptable to those who believe in the God of the Bible. This goes beyond a simple affirmation of the Golden Rule; we must do more than simply “live and let live.”

God uses the word “brother” to describe Judah’s relation to Edom in the book of Obadiah, and God would surely use the same language to speak to us of Muslims and Jews.

We are all family.

Prayer: God, we often fail to see ourselves as brothers and sisters with people who believe differently. We may disagree over theological points, but we agree that you are one God, and that you are a God of love. Help us to love each other. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Since Jewish and Muslim communities are fearful and anxious these days, why don’t you reach out to a member of one of those communities and express your support? It’s as easy as sending a card or gift to your local synagogue or mosque; or taking a neighbor or fellow worker who is Muslim or Jewish to lunch.

March 28: The Blood of Nations

You have plowed wickedness,
   you have reaped injustice,
   you have eaten the fruit of lies.
Because you have trusted in your power
   and in the multitude of your warriors,
therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people,
   and all your fortresses shall be destroyed.
Hosea 10:13-14

The story of a nation-state is always the story of bloodshed. Every country has a legacy of violence, an origin story of war, and continues to hold its borders with at least the threat of military action.

Israel was no different from any other nation, even though its origin was fundamentally an act of the divine will. God laid the foundations of this nation and defended it against all enemies.

But over time, Israel began to trust its own military strength, as the prophet Hosea warns. The nation’s arsenal and number of soldiers had led it to believe that it was sufficiently powerful to defend itself, and did not need God’s intervention.

This will lead to disaster, says Hosea.

America is no different from any other nation, either. Our own origin is soaked in the blood of those who lived here when the Europeans came, not to mention the blood of subsequent wars, skirmishes, and police actions.

After two world wars in the 20th century, America began to see itself as the major global superpower, thanks to the development of a new type of weapon — the atomic bomb. Now that all challengers to the title of “superpower” have fallen away, in part because of our nuclear arsenal, it is not hard to trust “in our power” and in the multitude of our weapons. 

Even though nuclear weapons are inarguably the most demonic form of warfare in the world, designed specifically to inflict massive suffering to civilians and civilian society, we are reluctant to let go of them.

Yesterday at the United Nations, talks began on the possibility of a worldwide ban of nukes. One of the first to speak out in opposition of such a ban was our own ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley who said, “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”

Haley represents the current American strategy of deterrence, which is the idea that having nuclear weapons effectively deters other nations from developing or using their own nuclear weapons. She, and other government leaders, insist that we would never use them, but President Trump has publicly refused to take any options off the table when it comes to military action. 

Indeed, the sad truth is that America is the only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons in actual conflict. The result was the slaughter of over 200,000 Japanese civilians.

To date, America holds approximately 6,800 nuclear warheads, second only to Russia, which has 7,000, but far more than the remaining countries which have nukes. That’s a lot of firepower, sufficient to destroy a good segment of the earth’s population.

Our ambassador urges us to “be realistic” when it comes to nukes. 

I believe Hosea is being quite realistic when he says, “Because you have trusted in your power … therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed” (10:13-14). He recognizes the basic truth which Jesus uttered in the garden: “All those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). 

Those who trust in the shedding of blood to keep themselves safe, may find that they are the least safe.

Prayer: God, you hate war, because it destroys your good creation. May I hate war with the same passion, and do all in my power to make peace. Help us to turn swords into plows, and spears into pruning hooks. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Follow the efforts of ICAN at the UN to ban nuclear weapons here: http://nuclearban.org Sign up to receive updates through the rest of the week.

March 27: The Land Mourns

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel:
for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
   and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
   and stealing and adultery break out;
   bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
   and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
   and the birds of the air,
   even the fish of the sea are perishing.
Hosea 4:1-3

Last week, news reports from Michigan revealed that mercury levels in Great Lakes fish is climbing again, after decades of decline. Mercury is, of course, toxic to humans and animals; the news doesn’t bode well for the region’s fishing industry.

Scientists still don’t know exactly why this is happening, but they are beginning to look at a familiar culprit — the warming planet.

It seems we hear a report like this every few days. Another chunk of the Arctic ice is melting; the sea rises another couple of inches; a reef is eroding. The globe is getting hotter, but so far, humans have done little to reverse the alarming trend.

According to Bill McKibben, Methodist Sunday School teacher and founder of 350.org, the world is heading to unprecedented waters unless humans begin to roll back the amount of carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere. Currently, we are over 400 ppm (parts per million); in order to keep the planet from warming further, we need to get under 350 ppm (hence, the name of McKibben’s group). 

If the warming is left unchecked, sea waters would rise, creating millions of climate refugees; drought and famine would multiply; mosquitoes carrying dangerous diseases would proliferate; and the amount of extreme weather we already encounter would increase.

Surprisingly, the prophet Hosea predicts this phenomenon! He speaks of a time when “the land mourns and all who live in it languish,” including animals, birds, and fish. Hosea foresees an environmental crisis, and he attributes the blame to the injustice of the people who live in the land. He claims that this is the result of a lethal mix of violence and crime.

Hosea doesn’t only indict the people of Israel; he is addressing us. His words challenge us to think of global warming and its effects as the result of our own sinful, unjust actions. 

We have enthusiastically and uncritically embraced the use of fossil fuels, and allowed gas and oil corporations to continue to mine and drill ceaselessly. We are addicted to the use of these fuels, even though we know they are unrenewable and are bad for the environment. For the sake of short-term, low-cost gasoline in our cars, we accept the long-term high-cost of carbon emissions’ effect on our climate.

We have rejected the wisdom of the Iroquois, who believed that all decisions should be considered for their impact on the seventh generation to come.

Hosea would have likely ridiculed our lifestyle and carelessness; later in chapter 4, the prophet laments, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6).

The problem these days is not really “lack of knowledge,” though; it’s an unwillingness to act on the knowledge we have. 

Prayer: God, we love the world you have created and called good. We confess that we have not cared for it with the tenderness and compassion that you desire. Help us to fall in love with the creation again. Amen.

Justice Challenge: The White House is expected to issue an executive order tomorrow which would roll back President Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, (which is currently under review by the Supreme Court), and spur job growth in coal and gas industries. Despite the appeal of new jobs, policy which encourages the use of more fossil fuels, at the expense of alternative, clean-energy, renewable sources, is harmful and damaging to the environment. Let your Senators and Representatives know today how you feel about the administration’s approach to climate change.

March 26: Remembering Oscar

On that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
   and raise up its ruins,
   and rebuild it as in the days of old …
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
  and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them:
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
   and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
   and they shall never again be plucked up
   out of the land that I have given them,
   says the Lord your God.
Amos 9:11, 14-15

You will be glad to note that, technically, the Sunday of Lent are not fast days; they are considered feast days, and thus, you do not have to observe your fast on Sunday. We don't have that luxury; since we are practicing the fast that God chooses, we can never cease the work of justice.

Instead, each Sunday we will focus on one positive and inspirational example of a person who is actively working for justice.

Only two days ago, we marked the 37th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador. It’s still a largely unknown and forgotten event, though highly dramatic.

Romero had just finished a sermon in a hospital chapel and had moved to stand behind the altar to start the Mass. At that moment, a gunman entered the back of the church, fired two shots, and sped away.

The bishop died there in the chapel, as the world gasped.

Romero was assassinated, not for his great preaching or his impressive prayers. He was condemned by the government of El Salvador and its many supporters, including the United States government, because he spoke up for justice for hundreds of thousands of poor and marginalized Salvadorans.

The hierarchy in Rome never expected Romero to be such an activist; in fact, he was sent to El Salvador precisely because he was considered to be “non-political.” They thought he would avoid the controversy swirling around national politics.

But when one of his priests was assassinated within a couple of weeks of Romero’s arrival in El Salvador, the archbishop realized that something sinister was happening in the country. The government began to crack down on Catholic priests who worked among the poor. Over a three year period, fifty priests were attacked, six murdered, by right-wing paramilitary groups or government forces. Romero spoke out against the persecution, and went so far as to write a personal letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, pleading with him to stop sending aid to the Salvadoran government, a plea which was ignored.

Meanwhile, Romero realized that his own life was in danger. In one interview in 1980, he said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”

Romero’s story is not a comforting one. Instead, it reveals the truth that the prophetic voice comes with some danger. Romero stands in a long line of noble truth-speakers who paid the ultimate price.

In his last sermon, Romero said, “One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

Prayer: God, thank you for the witness of Oscar Romero. May I have the courage to stand up for my convictions. And may the witness of Romero continue to shine in the people of El Salvador. Amen.

March 25: Buying the Poor for Nike

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practice deceit with false balances, 
buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ 
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob;
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Amos 8:4-7

Sophorn Yang worked in one of the thousand garment factories scattered across the Cambodian countryside. She was one of the young women who made up 90% of the workforce at these factories, a workforce of nearly a million.

She suffered the same indignities as all the rest of these million, faceless, unknown workers. “Every day, workers commute to factories on crowded truck beds,” Yang said. “Many workers suffer from malnutrition, deprivation of health insurance and wage thievery.”

Throughout the workday, workers are forbidden to take breaks for ordinary needs, such as going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water. Meanwhile, the conditions inside the factory are oppressively hot and uncomfortable.

Yet this is the way that American athletic shoes are made. 

When we shuffle through the aisles at our local department store and try on our favorite Nikes, we are handling the sweat, blood, and tears of millions of Cambodian workers. Their efforts enable us to purchase those shoes for just a few dollars less than we might ordinarily have to pay. 

The prophet Amos had harsh words for those who sell out the poor in order to increase their profit margins — God promises not to forget their deeds. Deceitful business practices are a great crime against God.

Unfortunately, in a globalized economy, it has become increasingly difficult to know exactly how unjust a company’s business practices are. Large numbers of corporations now do their manufacturing overseas, far away from sane regulations and the protective eyes of watchdogs. Some businesses plead that they aren’t responsible for how their products are made because the manufacturing has been subcontracted out — they insist that they have nothing to do with these sweatshops.

For the American consumer, however, these excuses ring hollow. It does matter that Nikes are made by Cambodian workers who are deprived of basic human decencies. It does matter how our coffee ends up on shelves in the grocery store, and where the lumber comes from that is fashioned into tables and chairs. It matters who assembles our computers and where its parts come from.

Because we are the ones who benefit. 

But who suffers?

Prayer: God, open my eyes to the chain of production that eases my lifestyle. I know that my shoes don’t materialize from nothing. Someone has put them together, stitched them up, and put them in a box. Though I don’t know who did that, I pray for their welfare, their security, their shalom. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Download an app called Buycott to your phone. Sign up for a campaign called “Avoid Sweatshop Labor.” Whenever you are about to purchase an item of clothing, you can scan the UPC and determine quickly whether the company is known for manufacturing items in sweatshops.  

 

March 24: A Day Without Prayer

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24

This Scripture sounds similar to the text in Isaiah with which we began our Lent devotionals. The prophet Isaiah lambasted the people’s practice of fasting; the ritual of symbolic repentance had a hollow ring to it, thanks to the fact that the people themselves did not act out their faith in ways that were consistent with justice.

But in this passage, God lambastes the people’s celebrations, the festivals which they were enjoined to host several times a year in gratitude of God’s provisions. Again, the celebration is nothing but noise; it grates on God’s ears because there is a great injustice in the land.

So it appears that, when there is no justice, God simply doesn’t enjoy our worship — whether it comes quietly in a hushed prayer, or loudly and aggressively in shouts of acclamation and praise. No songs or meditation, no choir anthems or powerful sermons are worth anything unless they lead to, or are reflections of, holy lives.

The point is that there must be integration between our worship and the substance of our daily lives. Do you and I treat others with dignity and respect in the workplace, in the market, in the park? Do we vote according to our conscience? Do we take part in activities which build up community?

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your own place of worship. Put yourself in the pew, or in the seat where you normally sit. What do you see? Can you see the stage area, the pulpit, the musical instruments? Can you smell what it smells like? What sounds do you hear?

Now imagine a place of great suffering. Perhaps you can conjure up a bombed-out village in Syria, or a famine-stricken landscape in South Sudan. Maybe you can imagine the inside of a maximum-security prison, or an impoverished inner-city neighborhood in Dallas. Now what do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear?

Is there any relation between the sights, sounds, and smells of the church to the sights, sounds, and smells of this place of suffering? Do you sense the presence of God in each place? Why or why not?

If you are the sort of person who regards the worship service as a place where you go to “escape” the world and “bask” in the presence of God, which is a common concept in many contemporary churches, then you might have the wrong idea about what church is all about. There must be a vital connection between what happens in worship and what is happening in the world, particularly among those who suffer. When done well, worship should enhance and enlarge our understanding of God’s world. After all, creation is God’s good work, and God desires shalom for the entire creation.

Justice Challenge: Don’t pray today. You read that correctly. Don’t pray. Act today as if God is not interested in your worship or solemn prayers. Instead, open your eyes wide to the people, places, and things around you, and do everything in your power to let justice flow all day long.

March 23: Seek Good

Seek good and not evil,
   that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
   just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
   and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
   will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Amos 5:14-15

I witnessed a strange miracle last Saturday night.

I attended the 19th annual CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) banquet at the Doubletree Hotel in Dallas. I have been at the last several banquets because of the many Muslim friends I have made since observing Ramadan in 2012. Plus, I’ve become a good friend of Alia Salem, CAIR-DFW’s executive director.

I was excited to see and hear the keynote speakers, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents who spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention. But I was also looking forward to seeing many interfaith friends.

One of those friends is Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. in Dallas. Dr. Waters is a passionate and determined advocate for justice, and has stood by Muslims in the face of Islamophobia and bigotry.

On this night, he was simply attending, like me. We were sitting “in solidarity.”

However, the primary reason for the gathering is to raise money for CAIR’s work. Salem has set a goal for greatly increasing the organization’s budget in order to expand the work. One part of the program was set aside to raise money.

For some reason, the energy in the room began to sag when the fundraising started. The poor soul designated to invite contributions was having no luck at all.

And then all of a sudden, Dr. Waters took the stage and grabbed the microphone. He began by sharing the story of visiting Emmanuel A.M.E. days after Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a Bible study. He saw the bullet holes in the room, talked to the survivors, and prayed with the church family.

IMG_5392.JPG

He then reminded the crowd that hatred was still alive in the country. He told the participants that a movement was underway.

“Look at me,” he said. “This is important. Do you remember the bullet holes? I need $50,000 from one of you. Stand up.”

Someone did.

Others stood to give $25,000. And then $10,000. And then $5,000.

Dr. Waters kept pacing the stage, exhorting people, reminding us all of our obligation to fund the organizations that protect those who are vulnerable. He sounded like a

Even I raised my hand at some point. I just couldn’t help it.

The Christians and Jews in the ballroom that night who contributed to CAIR were simply heeding the words of the prophet Amos, who said, “Seek good and not evil.” In other words, no matter where you find good, reward it. No matter whether the good is being practiced by people who don’t believe like us or look like us, the good must still be celebrated.

CAIR does good work in Dallas and across the country. In fact, in protecting the religious freedoms of Muslim-Americans, they are actually protecting the rights of all Americans. That is good.

I don’t think I will ever see anything like it again — an African-American Christian pastor preaching justice and raising money among American Muslims! That’s just downright good stuff!

Prayer: God, help me to embrace all the good in this world, and to reject the evil. Don’t let my prejudices get in the way of recognizing good. Amen.

Justice Challenge: I’m going to continue Dr. Waters’ appeal — consider making a donation to CAIR today, and help them fight religious discrimination.

March 22: Dark Money in the Gate

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
   and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
   and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
   but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
   but you shall not drink their wine. 
For I know how many are your transgressions,
   and how great are your sins —
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
   and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time,
   for it is an evil time.
Amos 5:10-13

You may have noticed that the prophets often spoke about justice “in the gate.” What does this mean?

Ancient cities were usually surrounded by a wall, with one main gate. Just inside this entrance could be found a large public gathering spot where the elderly men of the city spent their days, hearing cases and disputes that were brought to them by citizens. The men would rule on these cases, thus it was a place where justice was administered.

Amos complained that this is a place where injustice reigned. Instead of impartial and honest judges, the men who sat in the gate took bribes and disregarded the needy.

The prophet infers that the wealthy and powerful pressured the judges to rule in their favor, disregarding them when they spoke the truth.

As Judge Neil Gorsuch endures his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, it would be good and right for us to consider whether the same problem is in effect in our own justice system.

In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which fundamentally altered the shape of the American political system. The Court ruled that corporations and labor unions could spend as much money as they wanted on political campaigns, as long as they did not actually act in concert with such campaigns. 

A subsequent lower court ruling determined that there was no financial limit on how much could be contributed to independent organizations, leading directly to the creation of “super PACs” which have spent millions of dollars on political advertising since. Furthermore, “social welfare” groups and some other nonprofits don’t even have to disclose who their donors are, creating a lack of transparency in the process.

The result seems to be that money, more than ever, drives our political system. Those with the most, get the most out of the vote.

How do the poor get justice out of the legislative process? Who represents them? Who advocates on their behalf? Who will find justice in the gate?

Prayer: God, when the poor cannot be assured of finding justice in the gate, you cannot be happy. When the powerful thrive at the expense of the weak, you can only be angry. May we become advocates for truth in our time. Amen.

Justice Challenge: According to this article from The Atlantic, perhaps the best way that citizens can address the problem of dark money in elections, is to work for reform in state legislatures. Earlier this session, the Texas Senate unanimously passed an ethics reform bill which stopped short of banning dark money or serious campaign reform. Keep watch over this issue, and the influence of lobbyists in general, with Texans for Public Justice, at www.tpj.org.

March 21: Arise, Women of This Day!

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
   who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
   who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’ 
Amos 4:1

In a rather unfortunate phrase, the prophet Amos implicates the women of Samaria who benefit from their husbands’ oppressive practices against the poor, calling them “cows.”

Perhaps Amos is trying to get the attention of the Samaritan men by insulting their wives. But a better approach for Amos would have been to rally the women of Samaria into a movement for social change! It’s unclear how well that would have worked, since ancient Middle Eastern culture was quite patriarchal; men called all the shots, religiously and politically.

Yet women have always been at the forefront of major social movements. I like to remind United Methodists that it was Methodist women who led the charge for Prohibition at the start of the 20th century. They were reacting against the way that the Industrial Revolution had crushed the spirits and souls of working men — too many men drank their paychecks away on Friday evening on cheap liquor, leaving them nothing to support their families at home. 

The original inspiration for Mother’s Day came from a woman who wanted to make an anti-war statement, Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, designed the day for mothers to unite in opposition to the carnage and wanton violence of the Civil War. 

She proposed an international gathering of women to protest war in the following proclamation:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

 "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

 "We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with Our own.
It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have of ten forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.

 Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

 Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

 Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

 In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.

Howe’s dream of a anti-war Mother’s Day has slowly died away, even after a Methodist laywoman revived the tradition in the early 20th century. Sadly, the holiday has become merely a time to honor and remember our mothers, instead of a steadfast call to peace.

In the wake of the Women’s March on Washington, perhaps Howe’s vision yet remains alive.

Prayer: God, continue to raise up women to pursue Amos’ vision of a just and peaceful world. Make me a part of that movement. And let the call to “Disarm, Disarm!” resonate throughout the earth. Amen.

Justice Challenge: The organizers of the Women’s March on Washington are urging people to participate in 10 Actions in 100 Days. Their current Action is to engage in a book, article, or film study together with your “huddle” or community group. Check out their list of suggested reading and viewing, choose one, and read or view it!

March 20: To Sell the Poor

 

Read More

March 19: Seek the City's Welfare

 

Read More

March 18: Idols of Injustice

 

Read More

March 17: Preachers of False Peace

 

Read More

March 16: Payday Robbery

Thus says the Lord:
Go down to the house of the king of Judah,
   and speak there this word,
   and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah,
    sitting on the throne of David —
you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates.
Thus says the Lord:
   Act with justice and righteousness,
   and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.
Jeremiah 22:1-3

Robbery comes in all shapes and forms.

It might be taking a wallet from a purse, or shoplifting something from a department store. Some people consider certain kinds of taxation “robbery.” Others think that the price of certain goods to be “highway robbery.”

But perhaps the most pernicious type of robbery is the crime of taking advantage of someone’s misfortune.

That is how payday lenders operate.

When working class people find themselves short of cash or in need of an emergency loan, they often turn to storefront payday or title lenders. But the interest charged on such loans is onerous, averaging over 400% APR. When a borrower can’t repay the loan, a new loan is offered, trapping the client in a cycle from which it is difficult to emerge. In the end, families find themselves unable to pay bills, put food on the table, or provide for children. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, these kinds of loans cost borrowers over $7 billion in fees every year.

The payday lending scam is such a lucrative endeavor that the industry has a strong lobbying presence in state capitols. Texas is one of the friendliest states to the payday lending industry, in part because the lobbyists give generously to many of our state politicians. And even when rules are passed restricting lending practices, lenders find ways to circumvent the regulations. For example, a report last October discovered that payday lenders are currently registering as “credit repair businesses” in order to avoid state laws which would limit how much borrowers can be charged.

In the end, payday lending is simply robbery. And not even a very noble robbery, because the victims are those who can least afford it.

Jeremiah’s words condemning those who steal are addressed to all the people of Israel, beginning with the king and trickling all the way down to the peasants. He recognizes that theft comes in different forms as well.

But Jeremiah doesn’t attack robbery for its moral quality. He does not defend the concept of “private property”; instead, he would argue that all property belongs to God and that such property is given by God to the people for the common good. Thus, robbery is a sin, not because it violates ownership rules, but because it perverts the normal course of prosperity which God has established for all people.

In other words, to steal from your neighbor is to diminish God’s shalom, to rob from God’s own glory.

Prayer: God, thank you for sustaining and keeping me. I am content with what I have. Open my eyes to see the way that my neighbors are robbed, and let me be their advocate. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Get involved with the #StoptheDebtTrap movement. Visit the website, and read the stories of payday lending victims. Sign up here to stay informed of pending legislation related to payday lending.

March 15: Pure Religion

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings,
   if you truly act justly one with another,
   if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow,
      or shed innocent blood in this place,
   and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,
then I will dwell with you in this place,
   in the land that I gave of old
   to your ancestors forever and ever.
Jeremiah 7:5-7

This Scripture contains a familiar triad of people groups with whom God is specially concerned — the alien, the orphan, and the widow. In fact, these three groups are found together in ten different places throughout the Old Testament, not to mention the times that only one or two is mentioned.

In other words, WE OUGHT TO PAY ATTENTION CLOSELY to these words.

According to the Law and the Prophets, a nation is judged by how it cares for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Not its gross domestic product, nor its military strength, nor its unemployment rate. It doesn’t matter how great a country is, or how prosperous, or how secure — if aliens, widows, or orphans are suffering, then God will turn away.

It can’t get much clearer than that.

At this precise moment in the US, an argument could be made that each of these three groups is currently under attack.

Regarding the alien, consider the fact that the new administration has ramped up enforcement of existing immigration laws, and broadened the definition of those who might be targeted for deportation. The result is that ICE raids have sharply increased, separating parents from children, and striking fear in the hearts of immigrants. Furthermore, the recent executive order has frozen refugee resettlement for four months, and drastically reduces the overall number of refugees who will be admitted into the country. It’s clear — the alien is oppressed in our land.

Regarding the orphan (in Middle East culture, a fatherless child is considered an “orphan,” even if the mother is still alive), consider the fact that Dallas has the highest rate of child poverty of the biggest American cities. And see yesterday’s devotional for a report on the failure of Child Protective Services to protect Texas children from abuse. It’s clear — the orphan is oppressed in our land.

Regarding the widow, consider the fact that, according to AARP, the new healthcare bill proposed by the administration and Congressional Republicans “would hike premiums for older Americans, weaken Medicare and put at risk the 17.4 million low-income seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicaid.” Given that the average age a woman becomes a widow is 59, healthcare costs can be a significant burden on a widow. It’s clear — the widow is oppressed in our land.

The repeated theme to care for the alien, orphan, and widow is not restricted to the Hebrew Scriptures alone. In the gospels, Jesus took particular notice of aliens, orphans, and widows. Not only did he move comfortably around foreigners and Gentiles, but he welcomed children to his side, and showed special concern for widows.

The writer of the book of James put it succinctly: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27).

Is it clear enough now?

If we are going to do this “Christianity” thing right, at the very least, we’re gonna have to take care of the alien, orphan, and widow.

Period.

Prayer: God, let me be a sanctuary for those in need. Keep my eyes open to the aliens, orphans, and widows in my community. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Write down the name of one alien, one orphan, and one widow whom you personally know. Do one act of kindness for each one of them today. NOW.

March 14: To Prosper the Children

Like a cage full of birds,
   their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich, 
   they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
   they do not judge with justice
the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,
   and they do not defend the rights of the needy. 
Shall I not punish them for these things?
   says the Lord,
   and shall I not bring retribution
   on a nation such as this? 
Jeremiah 5:27-29

One year ago, the Dallas Morning News told the tragic story of the death of Leiliana, a four year old girl from Grand Prairie. She had been experienced horrific abuse at the hands of her mother and abusive boyfriend. 

But the gut-wrenching part of the story was the fact that the office tasked with protecting children like Leiliana had utterly failed. According to the News, “a chain of errors, incompetence and systemic problems” kept the Dallas bureau of Child Protective Services from preventing her death. And the story implied that thousands of other children were at risk.

Lawmakers in this year’s Texas Legislature recognize that the state CPS office is broken, but halfway through the session, no fixes have been passed yet. Instead, a fight has erupted over exactly who ought to pay for the fixes.

God sent the prophet Jeremiah to speak harsh words to the people of Judah, in part because of their mistreatment of children. Jeremiah condemns them for not promoting “the cause of the orphan” and not defending their interests and needs. In fact, on the heels of this complaint, God asks, “Shall I not punish them for these things?”

Children are especially vulnerable and needy humans; when they have no parents, or have parents who are abusive, neglectful, and harmful, they are in need of outside support. In that case, it is the responsibility of the community to intervene; these children require a compassionate and protective response from those outside of their immediate families.

Child Protective Services was established to play this role in our communities, but suffered from massive state budget cutbacks in 2003, which it has never fully recovered from. Part of the problem was the fact that prevention programs such as community-based parenting classes, crisis intervention and case reviews tailored to reduce child deaths, were among the first cut; we are living with the results now. The foster care system budget has also been slashed.

In December 2015, a federal judge ruled that Texas' system for caring for its foster children was "broken." She wrote that children routinely exit the system in worse shape than they were when they entered. This happened because the office was underfunded and understaffed.

But in 2017, Texas still spends less than half the national average on its children. 

What would Jeremiah make of this fact? Would he not insist that the welfare of orphan and foster children was the responsibility of the entire community, of the whole state? Would he not deliver a blistering rebuke of our own failure to protect those who are most vulnerable?

Prayer: God, protect the children of our neighborhoods and cities. Raise up advocates for them on every street and in every institution. May our hearts break until every child is given a safe place to grow. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Read this editorial from the News which urges the state to take the advice of the federal judge who ruled that Texas’ CPS system must change. Follow the effort of the Texas Legislature to reform CPS, and contact the following four key lawmakers who are working on this issue: Contact key lawmakers working on Child Protective Services: Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair: 512-463-0112 ; Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown: 512-463-0105; Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo: 512-463-0558; and Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls: 512-463-0534. In particular, urge them not to choose the route of privatizing the functions of CPS, which would likely cause problems such as conflicts of interest, increased removal rates, and demoralizing effects on the remaining state-employed caseworkers.

March 13: Release the Prisoners

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners.
Isaiah 61:1

I have never spent any time in jail or prison, and so my understanding of what it is like to be incarcerated is extremely limited. I can only imagine what it must be like to have one’s personal freedom restricted. 

Because I have no personal experience of being a prisoner, I also am subject to wild distortions about who makes up our prison population. I have always assumed that the people locked up are the “really bad guys,” the worst of the worst, those who must be restrained or else they will victimize others.

Over the last few years, I have become sensitized to what is really going on in our nation’s prisons. And what I have discovered is disturbing.

The “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” rhetoric which began in the 1980s, led to harsher legislation for lesser drug violations, including minimum sentences and “three strikes, you’re out” policies.

The result is that our prisons are full of people who are not violent offenders, but caught up in drugs, addiction, or simply too poor to defend themselves properly. According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, over half (53.4%) of prisoners in state prisons with a sentence of a year or longer are serving time for a non-violent offense. 

Further, 17 states currently can imprison people for debt, even though debtors’ prisons no longer formally exist (banned under federal law in 1833), nor are they constitutional. As recently as 1983, the Supreme Court affirmed that incarcerating indigent debtors was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. 

And yet the practice goes on.

The result is that our rapidly-expanding prison system is full of people who are simply victimized by their own poverty, class, race, and social location.  They are the ones who need to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah today: “proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners.”

When Jesus began his ministry in his home synagogue, he read these very words from the book of Isaiah, then said to the congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” What he meant was that he was the one, the anointed one, who had come to set the prisoners free. He declared at that moment that the time of unlawful, unfair, unjust imprisonment was over. 

Interestingly, we are not told of any specific instances in which Jesus literally freed prisoners, but his teachings, parables, and works of mercy all point to a society in which people are not treated as criminals or thugs, but as individuals of dignity and worth.

The job falls to his followers to continue the work of releasing prisoners and setting free captives. What are you doing to dismantle and disrupt the massive prison-industrial complex of 21st-century America?

Prayer: God, give me compassion for those who are in prison today. Open my eyes to the injustices perpetrated on the poor and the addicted. Set me to work as a liberator, not an oppressor. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Here’s a practical way to support less harsh penalties for minor drug offenses. A bill has been introduced to the Texas Legislature which would reduce the penalties for the possession of small a mounts of marijuana. Under current Texas law, possession of 2 ounces or less is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail. House Bill 81, which was introduced by Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a non-criminal offense punishable by a fine of $250. Call your state senator and representative today and urge them to pass House Bill 81, and its related Senate version, Senate Bill 170.

 

March 12: Light in Rutba

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Isaiah 60:1-2

You will be glad to note that, technically, the Sunday of Lent are not fast days; they are considered feast days, and thus, you do not have to observe your fast on Sunday. We don't have that luxury; since we are practicing the fast that God chooses, we can never cease the work of justice.

Instead, each Sunday we will focus on one positive and inspirational example of a person who is actively working for justice. 

The simple promise of this Scripture is that, when the world is at its darkest, those who do God’s justice will shine brightest. 

When we work for God’s shalom, we are covered by the Lord’s own glory. Our way is enlightened; our steps are made sure and steadfast. 

And our testimony becomes a beacon of hope for others. 

One of those people whose testimony has become an inspiration to me is Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, founder of the Rutba House in North Carolina, a New Monastic house where Christians live in community together. Jonathan is a powerful writer and speaker, and has been instrumental in leading the fight for racial reconciliation, peace, and economic justice for many years now.

But it’s his story about what happened in 2003 that has made the biggest impact to me. In the early days of the Iraq War, Jonathan and his wife, Leah, traveled to Baghdad with a Christian Peacemaker Team to show solidarity with the Iraqi people. As he later wrote, he believed “that the way of Jesus called us to interrupt the unjust war our country was initiating.”

As the team was driving a highway outside of Baghdad in multiple cars, shrapnel caused one of the cars to veer off the road into a ditch, causing injuries to the Americans inside. Jonathan noted that immediately Iraqis rushed to their aid, helped the victims out of the car, and rushed them to a doctor in Rutba.

The doctor said, “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital,” he said, “but we will take care of you.” He sewed up their heads and saved their lives. Jonathan says that when they asked the doctor what they owed him for his services, he only said, “Please, go tell the world what is happening in Rutba.”

I have heard Jonathan tell this very story in person. He always concludes by saying that this story is a modern-day version of the Good Samaritan parable which Jesus told. In that parable, it’s not a neighbor who saves the victim; it’s a foreigner, an enemy in fact. 

Jonathan concludes, “The gospel of Rutba is that hope lies in the ‘enemy.’”

All of Jonathan’s subsequent writings and work has the glow of the gory of the Lord. Here is a story of light in the midst of darkness, of shalom in the middle of war.

Arise and shine, people of God! Your light has come!

Prayer: God, thank you for the witness of all those who work for peace in the midst of war. May our souls be nourished and strengthened by their example. Teach us to be peacemakers, too. Amen.

 

March 11: Isaiah and "Fake News"

Justice is turned back,
   and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
   and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
   and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
   that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    and was appalled that there was no one to intervene.
Isaiah 59:14-16

Legend has it that the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes wandered the streets of Corinth, carrying a lamp, searching for an honest man. As a Cynic, he didn’t believe he would ever find one. And he didn’t.

It sounds as if the Lord is on a similar quest in today’s reading from Isaiah. According to the prophet, there is no truth in the public square. This is the fundamental problem for Isaiah, the ultimate concern at the heart of Israel’s unjust state.

Truth and justice are interrelated concepts. You can’t have one without the other.

The last year of election campaigning has dealt a serious blow to the concept of “truth” in public discourse. The term “fake news” has become a regular feature of our politcal lexicon, as both sides have criticized the sources of various so-called “journalistic” organizations. An adviser to a president has offered the idea of “alternative facts”; a press secretary has repeated, and supported, presidential claims which have been proved demonstrably to be false.

You could be excused for simply throwing up your hands and saying, “Who knows what is true? It’s too complicated to figure out!”

But this can never be the solution for the followers of Jesus. We believe in the existence of facts, in the exercise of reason, in a reality which generally disadvantages the poor and oppressed. We know that we must seek the truth in order to fight the powers and principalities of this world.

How do we do this?

It begins by making a firm commitment to only speak the truth ourselves, whether in our speech or in our social media feeds. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implored, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). His point is that our speech must be grounded in truth, not lies. We must not dissemble, mislead, or distort.

Our political discourse has been greatly harmed by the proliferation of fake news websites, in which stories are fabricated for the sole purpose of generating clicks and making money. These stories have no base in reality; they hurt all discussion partners in the political process. Not only must we not tell lies; we must not pass them along to others.

It also behooves us to become more savvy media consumers. We cannot simply buy the line that the mainstream media is unreliable because it is “liberal,” nor should we conclude that all journalism has to be partisan.

All journalists, editors, and reporters have biases; they are human, after all, and they will make decisions based on conscious and unconscious factors. Total journalistic objectivity is impossible. However, when a particular event has happened in space and time, the journalist’s job is to recount the event as accurately as possible. We want to know the who, what, when, and where to the best of a reporter’s ability.

The “why” of a story belongs in the area known as “opinion.” And unless there is a clear “why,” that part of the story must be confined to the editorial pages, to the opinion feed. When the “why” of a story creeps onto the front page, into the click-bait headlines, into the nature of the story itself, such that the reader or viewer is tempted to think that this is the story itself, then we have traveled down a very dangerous road.

The followers of Jesus have our own interpretation of reality; we see the events of our times through the lens of the kingdom of God. We see all things through the eyes of God, who desires that all creation experience shalom.

But we can’t work for that shalom until we know the truth about this creation. 

It’s getting harder and harder to know that truth.

Prayer: God, may my tongue not mislead or lie. May I only speak the truth, and may I seek honesty in all I do. Help me to discern what is good and right. May my question for justice be grounded in truth.

Justice Challenge: To learn how to discern which stories on your Facebook or Twitter feed are true or false, read this article by NPR, Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts. This is also a good time to buy a subscription to, or make an investment in, journalism which you know to be objective, honest, and professional. My suggestions include: NPR, ProPublica, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

 

March 10: Bloodstained Hands

For your hands are defiled with blood,
   and your fingers with iniquity …
Their works are works of iniquity,
   and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
   and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity,
   desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
   and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
   no one who walks in them knows peace.
Isaiah 59:3, 6-8

The first military casualty of the new administration occurred a few weeks ago in a strike on the country of Yemen. The action sparked controversy in the US because of conflicting accounts of whether the raid was “successful” or not. The widow of the slain Navy SEAL soldier was honored in the President’s first joint address to Congress, receiving a long standing ovation.

What is largely lost in the news reports, however, is the fact that six women and ten children of the village of al Ghayil also died in the raid, dozens of homes were destroyed, and over 120 sheep and goats were killed.

Nobody has given these women and children any kind of ovation. In fact, these civilians will forever remain nameless in the minds of Americans, a mere afterthought in our ongoing war against terror. Most of us don’t even know that civilians died in the raid. And even if we do, we find ourselves justifying the deaths as “collateral damage,” as one of the “necessary” evils of war.

The desire to eradicate terror in our world is noble and worthwhile; in fact, it is a pressing necessity in the 21st century. Terrorism freezes the collective good, and laces all social interactions with fear.

But the way in which nations and states combat terror often only ends up compounding fear and doubling down on evil. 

In chapter 59, the prophet Isaiah condemns the bloodshed and violence of Israel’s army and people. His listeners may very well have complained that their violence was “defensive” and “justified.” They may have argued that it was necessary to kill evildoers in order to protect their borders; they may have defended the idea that sometimes there was collateral damage, even among civilians. They may have justified every drop of blood that had been spilled by their army’s actions.

Yet Isaiah is relentless. 

“Your hands are defiled with blood,” he says. Blood on the hands is an indictment, a sign that one is unclean before God and covered in shame.

“They rush to shed innocent blood,” he says. The critical distinction between combatants and non-combatants is blatantly ignored in a rush to be militarily strong.

“The way of peace they do not know,” he says. The violent always take the violent option first in conflict, ignoring the many possibilities inherent in a nonviolent response.

Isaiah argues that violence always spirals; it never ends up settling the conflict it sets out to settle, but only ends up furthering and lengthening the cycle of revenge. As Jesus himself said, those who take up the sword will ultimately die by the sword.

Lent is the appropriate time for Americans to consider their own nation’s bent toward violence, particularly as it is expressed through its armed forces. 

In Yemen alone, the US has conducted 197 drone strikes since 2002, which have killed between 1100 and 1400 people, including civilians. The US also uses military drones in Somalia and Pakistan, and similar data can be retrieved on these strikes. But because American lives are not at risk when drones strike, these stories are rarely covered or noticed.

But just because we don’t see these victims or hear their stories, doesn’t mean that our hands are clean.

Prayer: God, you hate it when humans use guns, bombs, missiles, and tanks. Your heart breaks every time one of the beings whom you lovingly created is maimed, wounded, or killed. How do you handle the grief? Amen.

Justice Challenge: The new administration is proposing a $54 billion increase in military spending this year. The US already spends more on defense than the next seven countries COMBINED, including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, Japan, and France. If a national budget is a moral document, as Christian organization, Sojourners, maintains, then our national spending is already immoral and sinful, particularly when spending that benefits the more vulnerable people in our society continues to be cut. Read more about the budget online at CodePink, and sign their online petition to Rodney Frelinghuysen, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Mac Thornberry, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to resist the President’s request.