Monday, November 13, 2017

Freedom of Religion & Ray Moore

Last week I attended Grand Valley State University's Annual Academic Consortium Conference. The topic was Can Religions Collaborate for the Common Good?

Dr. Scott Appleby gave the keynote address and touched on the differences between several religions, including Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu. 

The focus of that afternoon's speech and the panel discussion afterwards, was to set the groundwork for the evening's emphasis on answering the question of collaboration.

Dr. Appleby and the panel members pointed out the intricate nature of organized religion - especially being prone to the influence of politics and power.

Bruce Ashford, writing for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, makes the point that you can't separate organized religion from politics, and you shouldn't try to. (He is writing from the point of view that many white evangelicals take.)

On the other hand
, John Traphagen, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas wrote in a Huffington Post blog piece that separation of church and state is necessary to protect the very freedom of religious expression that has been an integral part of living in the US.

It's basically this tension, between recognizing the influence of politics on religion, and understanding the importance of separation between church and state that can cause conflict.

Freedom of religious expression is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

In the Constitution, freedom of religion is mentioned, in close proximity, to freedom of speech, the press and the right of people living in the US to "peaceably assemble and petition the government."

The framers of the Constitution seemed to understand the danger of linking the two (religion and politics) to the extent of making the formation of a state religion illegal. Perhaps their recent history of only being a few generations removed from Puritans - who were religious refugees from England - helped make them sensitive to this issue.

So, the issue of separation of church and state does not deny the influence that politics has on religion. It directly addresses it.

Too often in human history, religions have aligned themselves closely to governments to attain political power. The past is rife with examples of such actions. From the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, to the Ottoman Wars, to the Pakistan - India conflict, wars in Nigeria, Bosnia and Sudan, The Troubles (pitting Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland) and the current crisis in Burma among the Rohingyans.

All of these conflicts had the commonality of religion feeding ethnic or political differences.

What are ways of reducing conflict?

The First Tee website (actually a golfing organization) incorporates four steps:

1. Communicate
2. Actively listen
3. Review Options
4. End with a win/win solution

I would add that preceding any discussion, it's a good idea to promote purposeful understanding. Realize that our religious views - although extremely personal and at times emotional - are not the only viable ones and they don't exist in a cultural vacuum. Understand that other people, including our neighbors, co-workers and friends, may have different religious views than ours, but they are equally valid.

The columnist David Brooks recently penned a piece addressing the broader issue of the current level of cultural polarization. One of the commenters to his column noted: "Evangelical Christians, of whom I am one often confuse love of God with love of country and righteousness with patriotism. This makes it hard for them to separate the private life of faith and public life of citizenship."

separation between private faith and government has been part of the controversy surrounding senate candidate Ray Moore. When Moore was a federal judge in Alabama, he was suspended from the bench for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed in a state building. A few years later, in direct defiance of a US district court order, Moore was again suspended from the bench after ordering state probate judges to ignore a federal ruling that recognized gay marriage. In both cases, Moore went against decisions rendered by federal courts. 

He is a professed evangelical who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment when they were in their teens. In commenting on the allegations, William Brewbaker III, a law professor at the University of Alabama noted: "Evangelicals may love their country, and may even believe that it has been, on balance, a force for good, but they cannot affirm that the United States (much less its military) is the world’s hope. Nor can they affirm that a political party (or an institution like the Supreme Court) is the hope of the United States. Whatever their opinions about the political issues of the day, evangelicals must place their hope in Jesus, period.

"While this should not mean disengagement from the public square, it means that such engagement should proceed from a posture of humility, love of neighbor and ultimate loyalty to Christ, instead of arrogantly identifying the success of a given party or political movement with the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

Roy Moore’s success among evangelical voters — like Donald Trump’s — is a consequence of the fact that we evangelicals seem to have conveniently forgotten certain fundamental truths. We need to open our Bibles, or maybe better yet, our hymnals: “For not with swords’ loud clashing/Nor roll of stirring drums/With deeds of love and mercy/The heavenly kingdom comes.”

Molly Worthen, writing in the New York Times, observed the inherent challenge of a fundamentalist evangelicalism rooted in 'making America great again,' no matter what the moral consequences. "The battle for the soul of evangelicalism, the struggle to disentangle it from white supremacy, from misogyny — and from the instinct to defend politicians like Roy Moore — demands sound arguments grounded in evidence. But the effort must also advance at the precognitive level, in the habits and relationships of worshiping communities. Fellowship has the power to refashion angry gut feelings and instead form meek hearts and bounden duty."

So, here's how the process of finding commonality towards the common good could work in real life: My neighborhood library recently held two Meet Your Muslim Neighbors events. One was simply a panel discussion that included Muslim and Christian leaders. About a month later, a follow-up event, which included more discussion - but also an opportunity to sit down, have middle-eastern food, and chat with Muslim families.

Since I don't regularly spend time with folks of the Muslim faith, this was my first opportunity to have an actual conversation with a Muslim family. (It's heartening to report that so many people wanted to attend these events that the host site was moved from the local library to a neighborhood United Methodist Church so everyone could be accommodated.)

Separation of church and state, as provided by the First Amendment, allows such events as Meet Your Muslim Neighbors to take place. It's a sign of a healthy democracy. It keeps any religion from overstepping its bounds when influenced by politics and power. And its the First Amendment that keeps the door open to exploring adventurous avenues of cooperation among people of all faiths.

Photo Credits:
top - Hacienda publishing, bottom - Irish Examiner

Monday, November 6, 2017

Beth Watkins, Blogger on Faith & Social Justice

Beth Watkins is a Christian writer, painter, has-been missionary, and wannabe homesteader. She spent six years working with vulnerable children and refugees in closed countries in North Africa, South Sudan, and Egypt. In those years Beth experienced some extreme situations: interrogation, expulsion, and evacuation from war.

She now lives in the US with her British immigrant husband, where she tries her best at, but (as ever) mostly flailing awkwardly into, neighbor love.

On her blog she writes about living toward the kingdom of God wherever we find ourselves, seeking justice, and finding neighbors all around us–even in places we didn’t know to look.

You tend to write incredibly thought-provoking blog posts. So, I’d like to focus on four of them and ask a few follow-up questions.

From your blog post on the vetting process for immigration to the US:

Your husband is an immigrant and you mentioned that he had to be thoroughly vetted before coming to the US. From your experience, what’s the most misunderstood part about the US immigration process?

There is quite a bit that is misunderstood, and the biggest is probably just how complex US immigration is. Even just figuring out the starting point for the visa took several hours of research. We probably put in 30 hours or more researching the process and working out how to complete it as quickly and effectively as possible. Information is difficult to find and decipher. People seem to think there is just a line to join, but that is not the case at all. SO many people were surprised that, as a spouse, and maybe because my husband is from somewhere seemingly non-threatening like England, we even had to apply for a visa for him.

People tend to be surprised how long, in depth, and expensive the process actually is, and incredulous when I share that this is the easy route. Marrying an American is the easiest way to get a green card, but the process is still complex, expensive, incredibly thorough and in-depth, time intensive, and anything but easy. Refugees, for example, take at least 2 years, even for expedited cases, but usually more like 5–10, and are checked by a total of 6 government agencies – whereas my husband only had to be vetted by two. Even the ‘easy’ routes for US immigration are difficult.

What was the most personal aspect of the vetting process?

We had to present birth certificates, extensive travel histories, proof that our relationship is legitimate and not a sham marriage, plus my husband needed to submit background checks from every country he’d lived in for more than six months. Much of it was quite intensive, but it was probably the finance parts that felt the most personal. There is something that feels intensely personal about printing off 12 months of bank statements, three years of tax returns, and official reports of any assets, and sending that in to the government.

Beth & Daniel Watkins
What did you and your husband learn from the vetting process? What was the biggest take away?

What really stuck out was the amount of misinformation from well-meaning people. It was kind of incredible the number of people with no knowledge of the vetting or immigration process who tried to give us advice. And when we would share about the process, it was surprising, still, how people were reluctant to believe how much time and effort it took.

We were also very lucky that my husband is fluent in English, and that he has a background in understanding bureaucratic language. Some of the instructions were difficult to decipher and we really felt for people who were applying who didn’t have those advantages.

One thing we took away was amazement with those who go through the process without visible anxiety. While we celebrated making it through each step of the process, all 11 months, we never fully relaxed until we’d landed and he made it through the final interview. After we were approved by the embassy, and picked up the provisional green card from them in his passport, packed up our home and boarded a flight to move countries, we were still on edge until he came out of the interview and joined me in baggage claim. Even if you have all of the correct paperwork and green card, it’s still up to the discretion of the border guard to let you in, and so we didn’t feel like we could relax until we made it through that final hurdle.

From your blog post on Johnnie Moore’s letter regarding his decision to stay on President Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council (EAC):

You take issue with Moore’s main point that only those on the EAC have a “seat at the table of power” to influence decision making. You wrote that the make-up of the EAC (mostly white) “doesn’t reflect the make-up of the kingdom of God.” Would you elaborate?

For a religion that follows a Middle-Eastern man living at the margins of the Roman Empire, it’s always surprising to me how easily some of his followers forget Jesus was far different from them.

But it’s not, not even in America. The evangelical church in America is 76% white – which is less white than mainline protestant churches overall (source); people of color tend to be more religious than whites, and POCs are driving church growth across the country – and yet they are conspicuously absent from the council. This council claims to represent American Christianity to the President – but it doesn’t look like American Christianity. A more accurate name would be the White Evangelical Advisory Council. That’s not the same thing, and to me, it doesn’t reflect the Kingdom of God that is made of every tribe and tongue, and dominated by no tribe or tongue.

Second, this isn’t just representation for representation’s sake – I’m not trying to get 24% of the council to be non-white for the sake of it – but a core feature of Christianity is the elevation of voices the world counts as unimportant. Jesus was very intentional in amplifying those on the margins, putting the last first, and this council only represents the dominant culture in America.

But this is bigger than just representation, it’s about whose voices are heard through that council. If you’re sitting at that table representing Christians, you better be amplifying the voices that are marginalized, and speak for the ones Jesus identified himself with – the hungry, thirsty, prisoner and immigrant. You can’t claim to represent Christians and the Kingdom and really only be advancing the interests of straight, white, middle-class men – especially as the one we follow said the first would be last, and the last would be first. I see no reflection of that on the council, and have no reason to believe this is the voice of Christians in America – or anywhere, for that matter.

You state that the current make-up of the EAC’s table “shows a narrow view of how the kingdom and change and progress comes.” How so?

I elaborate on this in my essay a bit, but Johnnie Moore’s statement was essentially, that to make change on Christian issues, you need a seat at the table. And I think that’s just wrong from the start, in part because most of us never will have a seat at that table. So, if what he says is true, it kind of implies the rest of us shouldn’t even try, because very few of us will ever have the ear of the President.

Also, it’s not even true. The early church thrived in spite of the hatred by the Roman government and an active campaign of suppression – it’s in the book of Acts! Historically, too, Christianity has thrived in spite of governments and worldly powers, like the thriving underground church in China right now.

But more than the argument about effectiveness, this seems to me to be a departure from a Christian idea of how the Kingdom comes. If, suddenly, the only way we can make a difference, or be faithful to our call, is with a seat at the President’s table, then what do we do with Church history? And what about Christ? The government of Jesus’ day killed him, and John the Baptist before him, and the disciples after him. They didn’t just not have the ear of the government – they were actively despised and pursued by government. Were these failures? Or was that how the Kingdom came?

To me, a Christian theory of change that hinges on having the favor of government isn’t a Christian theory of change at all. 

You mention several individuals and groups that, despite not having a seat at the table (of power) went on to implement major social change. Then you go on to say: “I think we forget neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin gave Jesus a seat at the table.” Why is this significant, given today’s culture and political climate in the US?

I think all of the above matters because that thinking – that we need to have the ear of the powers and principalities rather than be standing as a bold witness in spite of them – has crept into our Church culture.

Perhaps it’s always been this way, but these days it seems many people are ambling to the top, and by doing so, making compromises for the sake of power. American Christians are far less likely than they were even five years ago to condemn a political leader for moral failing (source), pastors willing to speak out about racism in America are being forced to resign (source) leading to other pastors unwilling to speak up against white supremacy and racism, not wanting to jeopardize their jobs. Pastors and prominent Christian leaders defend Donald Trump for morally reprehensible statements and behavior. People are making compromises for a chance at having a seat at the table, and supporting political agendas that harm the poor and benefit their bottom line.

They excuse evil for small gains because of this thinking that we have to have a seat at the table. I think we desperately need a re-think, and to affirm that having positions of power is not a Christian goal.

Jesus didn’t scramble to the top. He astonished the scribes as a child, but didn’t work his way to the top of the Sanhedrin. Jesus interacted with Roman soldiers and state tax collectors, but he wasn’t in awe of Rome’s power, and didn’t boast to reason with Pilate. He didn’t need to be at the top to heal people, to perform miracles, to feed the hungry, to challenge society’s conscience, to forgive sin, to bring in his Kingdom.

That should be comforting to those of us who follow him. We don’t need the world’s approval or success to be faithful followers of Jesus and see his kingdom. We’re called to faithfulness, not success. And, more than that, I think we need to be really careful that our pursuit of success doesn’t compromise our faithfulness to a Savior who seemingly couldn’t have cared less about political power or gain. Those are the footsteps we’re to follow.

From a blog about when not to quote Jeremiah 29 (“I have a future and a hope for you…”)

In times of trouble you wrote: “It (the quote from Jeremiah) doesn’t mean I get to offer easy answers to my friends who have known some of the greatest evils, heartache and hardship in the world… We don’t get to quote this verse to others in pain and go about our lives. We are called to the hard work of suffering with those who suffer.” How do we accomplish this?

That is a big question, and one I asked myself a lot in my years overseas, and am still asking now. As with so much, I think a lot of it comes down to relationship, and being willing to do the work of grief and lamentation.

On a systemic level, we need to build relationships with those who suffer at the hand of society, so we can better understand their suffering, their hopelessness, their grief. And be broken with them. Spend time listening and trying to understand if we can’t identify with their life or their pain. And search, honestly and openly, to any hand we may have in the suffering of others. Repent, if such is the case. Not justify or excuse pain, but accept the pain of others, and grieve with them. Then, we have work to do to dismantle the causes of suffering, but not before we’ve sat in pain and grief and have stopped blaming people for their own problems, and searched our own hearts and lives to see if we have any part in the suffering of others.

On a personal level, we need to hurt with our friends who are hurting. It means not looking for someone to blame, God or our friends, not being quick to jump to the promise of hope and redemption, though those are key and important. It means we’re willing to do the necessary work of grief and lamentation to get there. Otherwise it’s cheap grace. A microwave meal version of nourishment.

It means understanding that God doesn’t cause or prevent our suffering, but that he is with us in it. God being with us is the good news, but it doesn’t diminish the hurt or the suffering. The church should be a place where the hurting find healing, but aren’t told they shouldn’t be hurt, or should already be over their hurt by now. I would love it if the Church had a reputation for being a place for people who are hurting found comfort, the broken find healing, and the hungry are fed.

You wrote “Pain doesn’t need easy answers, and it can’t be fixed by them. It needs faith, hope and love shared in an embodied form.” How can the local church accomplish this goal?

There are lots of ways, and I’m sure I can’t even imagine all of them. I think one heading it might fall under, is solidarity with those whom Christ showed solidarity with. The poor, the sick, the broken, the hurting, the stranger. If we show solidarity with those on the out, we can be an embodied form of hope. A people who value people our society has said have little or no value. Can you imagine? If God’s people made a point of gathering around and flocking to people who are without hope? Looking inward is important, and looking outward equally so – and realizing we are the in-between. We are not fixed people fixing broken people. We are broken people walking with broken people.

I grew up hearing a lot about being Jesus’ hands and feet. Jesus fed people who were hungry, healed people who were sick, welcomed those who were unwelcome. Can we embody that? Can our churches be known for that? Can church people be known for helping single moms, seeking for all in their communities to have a safe place to sleep and enough to eat, as people who care for the earth, who speak truth to power, who admit mistakes and dismantle or subvert systems that harm people? There are a million things the local church can do to reach this lofty goal, but all of it must come from knowing their communities, listening to the people who have real needs, and willing to be in it for the long haul.

From a blog about having to choose between right belief or serving others.

In this particular blog post, you gave the example of World Vision losing thousands of child sponsors because of their initial stance on same sex unions. “If our seemingly pure principles and beliefs keep people hungry and poor, then I think we’re wrong.” What would you say about the white evangelical movement’s propensity to support candidates who say they are “pro-choice” while having histories of voting against legislation that would help the poor?

I was one of those white evangelicals for a while, so I understand the heart, and also, in my case, the misinformation informing my politics on the issue. I know the hard anti-abortion position comes from a place of deep care for the unborn, and a desire to be a voice for the voiceless, and an affirmation that life is precious to God, both of which are commendable and good.

I was incredibly challenged, though, by Sister Joan Chittister’s words on the subject, that have really informed my thinking: “I do not believe you’re opposed to abortion that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life, that’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Preserving life doesn’t stop after the womb. If the leaders I’m electing support legislature that keep people hungry and poor, stuck living in unsafe neighborhoods, without access to proper healthcare, working multiple jobs and still unable to make ends meet, shutting down family farms to profit agribusiness, polluting the earth that feeds us, that’s not being for life either, is it?

From what I can gather, to be pro-life in the way Christ taught is to affirm that life is precious to God, and to be a voice or the voiceless. In everything. From birth, through death, regardless of status or position. For me, that conversation is so much bigger than abortion – and we do ourselves a disservice when we limit it to a person’s stance on just that one issue.

What was your own faith journey like?

I was raised in a Christian household, and have been trying to follow for Jesus as long as I can remember. In high school I was really involved with church and youth group, and about that time I felt ‘called’ (I use that term loosely these days – I felt it was what God wanted for me, but also what I decided I wanted to do) to full time ministry. At some stage, feeling burdened for vulnerable kids and places with a very small or no Christian presence, plus a fascination since childhood with Africa, I decided that meant full-time missions. I went to a Christian University, majored in Cross-Cultural Studies, waited tables for a few years after graduating to pay off my loans. I was accepted with a mission’s organization and did the requisite training, then moved sight unseen to a closed country in North Africa to work with street boys and learn Arabic.

That was the start of six extremely beautiful, wonderful, hard, and breaking years overseas. I experienced interrogation, expulsion, three days stuck in a city at war, evacuation, and eventually serious health problems. I ended up in three different countries, though that was never my intention. I only ever wanted to put roots down in a place, and that was never able to happen. I worked with street kids and refugees, trying hard to help them generate their own income, have some hope, and be self-sufficient in places and situations where every odd was stacked against them.

We were forced to move back to the US a few months ago because of my health, and we don’t see being able to move back overseas anytime in the foreseeable future.

All of that to say, my faith journey took me to places and through experiences I never expected. It rocked my theology in ways I never would have dreamed, and I am so, so grateful. There is much I’ve had to unlearn about what Western thought and tradition, that was sold to me as Christian belief. I love Jesus deeply, I hope I always will, and I desperately want to live my life doing unto those hungry, naked, poor, and prisoner as I would unto my Savior, while resting in the promise that His love for me is not conditional, in the hope of the coming kingdom, and trying hard to be a part of ushering it in wherever I find myself.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

If folks want to keep up with me, the best way to do that is over at my blog. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I send out A Neighborly Newsletter every two weeks, where I round up bits of the internet and a few thoughts encouraging us to love our neighbors, and even our enemies, better. You can also download my free mini ebook For the Moments I Feel Faint, about fear and my first two years overseas as a single woman in a predominantly Muslim context, here.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Immigration: Facts & Faith

While we are waiting for Congress and the president to take ownership of DOCA and immigration policy, let's consider some facts about the subject.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, (EPI), as of 2012, there were 40 million immigrants living in the US. They accounted for almost 15% of the US' total economic output from 2009-2012, through wages and salary earned.

Within the US economy as a whole, there are almost as many immigrants in white collar jobs (46%) as in all other occupations combined. "The perception that nearly all immigrants work in low-wage jobs is clearly inaccurate."

46% of all immigrants have at least some college education.

Nationally, the income of immigrant families is not much different from non-immigrants. 20% of immigrant families live below the poverty line, compared to 16% of those from native-born households.

In regards to immigrants' effect on unemployment, the EPI states that "the evidence shows that in the long run, immigrants do not reduce native employment rates." In times of a weak economy there is a small, short-term effect.

Similarly, the EPI found that the effect of immigrants on wages among native workers is "extremely modest... including those with low levels of education."

The EPI study points out that if there is anything to fear regarding immigration, "it stems from not providing legal status to unauthorized immigrants... Any situation where workers' individual bargaining power is reduced is going to put downward pressure on their wages and therefore, also, on the wages of workers in similar occupations and industries."

"Unauthorized immigrants contribute more to the system than they take out," the EPI says. Primarily because although they work and contribute payroll taxes, sales tax, property and income taxes, they are not eligible for government programs.

The Social Security Administration estimates that in 2005, unauthorized immigrants paid $7 billion into Social Security via automatic payroll deductions, "but they can never claim social security benefits."

By and large, unauthorized immigrants cannot receive income support via a state or federal program.

The EPI speaks to the issue of unaccompanied migrant children, pointing out that it was projected that by fiscal 2014, there would be some 51,000 such children in the US, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

The EPI notes that typically most of these children either turn themselves in to the US Border Patrol or they are caught. If they are not from Mexico or Canada, they are turned over to the Department of Health & Human Services. At this point they are placed in shelters while they wait for an immigration trial.

Curiously, the EPI report makes the point that actions to strengthen the border "are likely to have little or no impact on the flow of unaccompanied migrant children or safety near the border."

The problem, says the EPI is not border security, but a lack of funding for services to this population, including a shortage of shelters and immigration judges.

So, a case could be made that the proposal by the current administration for $15-20 billion to fund construction of a new border wall and the millions of dollars needed annually to hire thousands of ICE agents would be better spent on providing additional services to immigrants and their children.

The bottom line is that:
. immigrants are not a drain on the US economy
. immigrants actually contribute more to the US economy than they take from it
. undocumented immigrants, especially, are paying into an economic system that they cannot derive many benefits from (like social security)
. paying billions to strengthen border wall security efforts are not necessary
. attention and funding needs to be given to help unaccompanied immigrant children and other undocumented immigrants.

What should be common sense and logic in regards to caring for the common good, seems to have been thrown out the window. David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently noted: "These days, partisanship is often totalistic. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial."

Brooks goes on to write that: "When politics is used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness, it’s harder to win people over with policy or philosophical arguments."

From a religious point of view, however, the evangelical movement in the US seems to be turning towards support of immigration reform.

When President Trump announced he was set to reverse the order on DOCA in March, 2018, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops called the move "reprehensible." 

According to an opinion piece in Bloomberg News, a group of evangelicals called the Evangelical Table is advocating for immigration reform "consistent with Biblical values."

One hopes that this group, in particular, will recall that when God called Abraham out of his home country, telling him he would make "a great nation," in effect that nation would be made up of immigrants. Centuries later, Jesus and his family were forced to immigrate back to Egypt from Bethlehem to avoid being killed.

So both the Jewish and Christian faiths were essentially founded by leaders who were immigrants. 

The spiritual descendants of the evangelicals (Puritans) were also refugees and then immigrants. And they would not have survived their first winter without help from Native Americans. It all points back to what the prophet Micah (of both Jewish and Christian renown), wrote as God's definition of true religion. "What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8).

To sum up: God seems to be very pro-immigrant. Shouldn't we follow God's lead?

Photo Credits: New Yorker,

Monday, October 23, 2017

Deregulation Behind the Scenes

Considering all the attention being paid to President Trump's tweets, much of the real damage being done by his administration, in regards to deregulation of long-standing consumer safeguards, has received little notice.

Take, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The New York Times recently reported that Dr. Nancy Beck, the new director of the EPA's toxic chemical unit has been hard at work pushing to deregulate the use of several toxic chemicals known to inflict significant damage on humans. Dr. Beck joined the EPA after spending five years as an executive at the American Chemical Council - the main chemical trade association in the US. 

Beck's marching orders came from the top down. Scott Pruitt, the EPA's new chief, has already overridden several bans on use of toxic chemicals. Ahead of Pruitt's appointment, Time Magazine ran a blistering take on his past anti-environment stance - which includes lobbying against national mercury standards and limits on ground-level ozone (smog).

The EPA, under the Trump administration, has reversed a proposed ban on outdoor use of chlorphyrifos, a nerve gas pesticide, manufactured by Dow. This same chemical has already been banned for indoor use for 17 years. Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece offers more details. "So Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide will still be used on golf courses, road medians and crops that end up on our plate," Kristoff writes.  "Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but E.P.A. scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe.

"Remember the brain-damaging lead that was ignored in drinking water in Flint, Mich.? What’s happening under the Trump administration is a nationwide echo of what was permitted in Flint."

The New York Times quoted Dr. Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, the former top EPA official overseeing pesticides and toxic chemical regulations. "It was extremely disturbing to me," she said of Pruitt's actions. "The industry met with EPA political appointees. And then I was asked to change the agency's stand."

Dr. Hamnett, who had spent her entire 38 year career at the EPA, resigned in September, noting, "I had become irrelevant."

The current administration continues to push for more coal mining on public land. According to the Times, the Trump administration reversed a temporary ban on new coal mining leases on public lands and is moving on ways to "rapidly expand" oil and gas drilling in the west.

The head of the Interior Department is Ryan Zinke, who seems to be pro-mining and drilling on public lands. The Times reported that a lobbyist for the coal industry noted "coal will suffer the same fate as cigarettes, unless the industry stood its ground."

All of this stands to reason considering the administration's stance on global warming, as evidenced by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. In September, the Trump administration restated its position, adding it is not interested in the Agreement unless it can be re-negotiated.

Even the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) may be under fire. The Times has reported that the Justice Department, Treasury Department and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency have all issued public statements giving the CFPB the "cold shoulder" Richard Cordray, the current director, will see his term expired in July, 2018. Meanwhile, lobbyists for the financial industry are working to dismantle some of the CFPB's premiere initiatives.

All of this activity goes back to the president's campaign promise to "drain the swamp," and open wide the doors to deregulation.

In February the president signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to form deregulation teams. The Times has been reporting on these efforts, and has stated that "the process is being conducted in large part out of public view often by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts."

In fact, most government agencies declined to disclose information about their deregulation teams, including who is on them and their past affiliations. So the Times had to use the Freedom of Information Act to request such information.

Long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader penned an opinion piece summarizing a plethora of problems directly linked to deregulation. Nader began his article by making the point that, "[Trump] has declared war on regulatory programs protecting the health, safety and economic rights of consumers. He has done so in disregard of evidence that such protections help the economy and financial well-being of the working-class voters he claims to champion." Nader went on to conclude: "Preventing casualties and protecting consumers are, in fact, good for the economy."

The Washington Post has been keeping track of administration actions in regards to deregulation. Here's a few of them:
. INTERIOR DEPT. is preparing to set aside ban on development in federally protected wilderness areas, green-lighting a proposal to build a nearly 12-mile long road through a wildlife refuge in Alaska;
. HEALTH CARE President Trump wants to halt payments to insurers that help millions of lower-income Americans afford coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which could wreak the insurance marketplace;
. EPA chief Scott Pruitt has issued a proposal that would repeal sweeping legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from existing US power plants;
. TREASURY DEPT. recommended rolling back key parts of Wall Street regulations that include disclosing pay gaps between CEOs and their employees.

Senator Elizabeth Warren once succinctly stated that "what we need isn't less government, but smarter government."

Given its track record so far it's easy to see that the current administration is not on the road towards that end. 

Photo Credits: 123RF stock photos, all-free

Monday, October 16, 2017

Meet Kaitlin Curtice, Author

Kaitlin Curtice is a Native American Christian writer, speaker and worship leader. She is an author with Paraclete Press and writes at Kaitlin's first book, Glory Happening, releases on November 7th.
You’re a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Can you describe how this heritage influences your faith? Your writing?

About three years ago I had an experience in which God opened my eyes to the reality that I hadn’t learned a lot about my Native heritage, and I realized how much more I want to know both for myself and for my children. From that moment, it has deeply influenced my faith in every way, but especially the way I view American Christianity. It has brought me into new aspects of my own faith that I didn’t know existed.

Is there one common misconception, myth or stereotype about native peoples in North America that you’d like to address?

The lazy, poor Indian or the “savage” are some of the stereotypes that I’d like to see disappear. There are still so many misconceptions about how people carry so much generational grief, and it makes situations worse when people put judgment onto Native people because of that grief and the way it has affected our lives for generations. I think there is a lot that needs to be taught about the beauty of Native culture, within every tribe. Teaching more about the cultures of the people would help with some of these misjudgments, I think. 

Could you tell us about your own faith journey? Have you always been a Christian?

I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. I’m really thankful for my childhood faith and the way it led me to where I am today. I’ve deconstructed a lot of that faith, and obviously, the combination of that faith with my Native American faith is something unique. I’m really grateful for it. I’m not a Baptist anymore, but I’m okay with not being labeled with any denomination. 

Your book, GLORY HAPPENING is filled with the spiritual significance of everyday life. On one level, you could say it serves as a spiritual diary. Was that your intent in writing it? The motivation?

I absolutely wrote it in the spirit of journal or diary entries. I started thinking more about being present, because I was experiencing these really beautiful moments throughout my day, and I was also experiencing beauty through my past experiences in ways I hadn’t before. And along with these stories, I wrote prayers as I was processing them, that often feel like poems as well. This book wasn’t difficult to write. It was like catharsis for me, a beautiful release of a lot of things I’d been holding inside of myself for a long time. 

In one of the chapters of GLORY HAPPENING you write about being invited to a gathering of friends of a couple that you and your husband Travis had recently met. You describe what it was like to be under a “covering of hospitality.” A week after this gathering you found out you were pregnant. You and Travis were hit with the realization that “these people will be our people.” Can you talk about the importance of friendship? Especially in a Christian context?

My husband and I believe that in community, friends become family. We live far away from both of our families, and it’s been blessing after blessing to find people who connect to us, who claim us and do daily life with us. And in the context of the church, being with people who follow Jesus and try (and fail together) daily to love one another—there is nothing like it, and it has taught us so much about ourselves, about the glory of God in the most unexpected places. 

You quote Barbara Brown Taylor, “At the very least most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves…” Can you expand on that thought?

I think when we release the stories of our lives to one another, we first learn how to claim them for ourselves, but then we realize that our story actually belongs to the lives of others as well. This helps us let go of ourselves—of our egos, of our pretense. It’s in those “me, too” moments we both find and forget ourselves in community with others. 

You describe a time when, in the middle of a busy day with your sons asleep, you seek God. You whisper to God: “I trust you. But, help me trust you.” Not unlike the person in the Bible who came to Jesus, asking him to heal his son. Jesus tells him, “All things are possible for those who believe.” And the man replies, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!” (Then Jesus heals his son). You called your own encounter with God, “a few moments of fuel. A tiny sliver of kingdom-to-person contact.” Can you elaborate on this experience, and why it was so important to you?

That quote from the Bible is one of my favorites, because I’ve asked so often to overcome my unbelief. This story was just one of those moments that really stood out to me, and still does. It was quiet and dark and I was truly alone with God, even for just a few short minutes. When we are stripped of everything and in a sense, naked before God, there is no need to run or be distracted. It was one of those moments that revived me for the rest of the day, and I believe all of us need those moments, especially in a world that feels so heavy and chaotic. 

Of an interaction with your son Eliot, (he asks to pray with you), you write, “We do not understand how God’s spirit spreads itself inside of a child when we do our small part of mentioning that He loves them and that He’s listening.” As a parent, why are these types of moments so important?

I honestly feel that my sons have taught me more about God than I’ve taught them. It seems we do this dance together, back and forth, one after the other, exchanging our ideas of who we think God might be to us. As a parent, I get to tell my sons what my ideas of God are, but then I get to watch the way they live their lives and learn from those moments, too. 

A few paragraphs after this interaction with Eliot, you write, “We are shaped by our daily habits, by the way we pray in the light and in the dark, by the way we speak and the way we trust.” Can you elaborate on the importance of trust and its link with intimacy?

I think trust and intimacy increase together. It goes back to those moments of being unashamed, of being raw with God. It leads us to be raw with others, to walk and live without pretense, to fight against our ego that so often keeps us from being connected to others. As we slowly break away from that, our trust, our ability to be intimate and connected to others increases. That’s the power of storytelling and the power of stillness. 

On a purely practical level, can you share your routine for writing? Do you have one? Is there a place and/or time of day that works best for you?

I like to write most in the mornings, but often, it comes out of this sort of need for catharsis. I write to process life, to process grief, to process, well, everything! I try to blog consistently on my Patheos and personal blog, and I write fairly consistently for Sojourners. Often these pieces come out of church experiences or other things I’m reading that are helping me digest my own journey as a Native American. 

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I’m currently working on a second book that will be a lot more about my personal journey as a Native American Christian. I’m really excited to continue working on this so that I can get it out into the world.

I’m also one of the main speakers of the Why Christian? Conference in 2018 with Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber, so please check out this conference and consider coming! (It's taking place March 16-17 in Durham, N.C.)

Kaitlin's book, Glory Happening, releases on November 7th.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Guns & Questions

Last week, in Las Vegas, the US recorded another in a series of heart-wrenching episodes of mass murder due to guns.

As expected, several elected officials duly expressed their condolences. There was much print and on-line discussion given to  examining the perpetrator's motive.

In the end 59 people lost their lives, including the perpetrator.

At this point, we know next to nothing as to why this individual had 22 guns in his hotel room.

Meanwhile, the NRA (National Rifle Association) as of the first half of 2017, had spent a record-breaking $3.2 million in lobbying efforts.  Among the things the NRA wants are:

. Hearing Protection Act, focused on silencers. Since the 1930's you have to pay a $200 fee to get one, and have a special background check, that could take months. If passed, this piece of legislation would eliminate these hurdles.

. Concealed Weapon Reciprocity Act, which would make all states recognize each other's concealed carry licenses. In effect, the lowest ranking state, in terms of ease of granting requests for concealed carry licenses, would then become the law of the land.

Quick questions: Why would any civilian gun carrier (outside of a law enforcement official) need a silencer? Why would you want to lower the national standard for obtaining a concealed carry permit to the lowest common denominator?

A few days after the Las Vegas incident, the New York Times published a graphic of the amount of NRA lobbying dollars that the top ten US senators and representatives have received in their careers. The total amount spent on these elected officials topped $43 million in the senate and $4 million in the house. The top five senators included:

. John McCain $7.7M
. Richard Burr $6.9M
. Roy Blunt $4.5M
. Thom Tillis $4.4M
. Cory Gardner $3.8M

The top five representatives included:

. French Hill $1.0M
. Ken Buck $800,000
. David Young $707,000
. Mike Simpson $385,000
. Greg Gianfonte $344,000

Question: What sort of influence do you think the NRA's efforts have had with these elected officials, and others like them, resulting in a lack of a coherent gun control policy in the US?

The number of mass killings in the US since 1984 reads like a sad litany of our inability, as a nation, to proactively address the issue of gun violence. The total number of individuals killed in these 16 instances alone was 526. Hundreds more were injured.

1,500 Mass shootings in US since Sandy Hook/Graphic VOX News
Unfortunately, these are only the major mass killings, which get national news coverage. It's just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Mass Shooting Tracker (MST) there were 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, which killed 475 people, and injured 1,870. MST defines a mass shooting as "a single shooting incident which kills or injures four or more people, including the assailant."

In January of 2016 the BBC News reported that of all the murders committed in 2012, 60% involved guns in the US, 31% in Canada, 18% in Australia and 10% in the United Kingdom.

According to the Small Arms Survey (referenced in a USA Today article shortly after the Las Vegas shootings), the US owns 42% of the 650 million guns owned by civilians worldwide. That's 90 guns for every 100 US residents.

The same article references how Australia has handled gun ownership. After a mass killing there, over a decade ago, the country enacted a series of changes. Civilians are no longer allowed to own rapid-fire guns. Gun ownership rules have been strengthened. There was also a national buy-back/turn in your guns effort. All these actions have resulted in a rapid decline of gun ownership. In 1994 in Australia, 16% of households owned guns. By 2005 that figure had declined to 6.2 percent.

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor wrote: "To those elsewhere in the world who look on aghast each time a shooting rampage rocks the United States, the answer [as to the cause] is blindingly obvious: guns... [In] no developed nation is it as easy or as accepted for citizens to acquire weaponry and ammunition capable of exacting mass violence. The state of Nevada, home to Las Vegas, is particularly lax."

Questions: Why does the US rank at the top of the world in civilian gun ownership? Why can't the US take the template that Australia has already created and pass legislation to implement solid gun control laws that result in significantly fewer guns owned and fewer mass killings?

After the Las Vegas shooting, President Trump noted that "we will be talking about gun laws as time go by." But on February 28th he signed a resolution which disapproved (stopped) the inclusion of Social Security Administration mental health records in federal background checks. President Obama had given the FBI authority to receive such SSA records. President Trump rescinded it.

Almost without fail, one of the first things anyone, including the current president, has to say about the perpetrators of mass killings is that they were not mentally healthy.

Questions: Knowing this, why did President Trump rescind the inclusion of mental health records as part of federal background checks for gun purchases? And what sort of "talking about gun laws as time goes by" is he referring to? 

It seems the time for constructive dialogue is now, not "at some point." 

There is more than enough evidence that clearly shows we, in the US, need to take action - sooner rather than later - before what happened in Las Vegas fades into just another part of the sorrowful litany of gun violence already in place in the US.

Postscript: As if to underscore the prevalence of guns in the US, today's local newspaper, on page A15 had an article about a suspect involved in two armed robberies, who is "likely" connected to other robberies in a neighboring state. Underneath this article is another with the headline "Gunman found guilty of 15 counts in long standoff with police." Directly across the page from these news stories was a 1/4th page ad from a sports center that included a sale on Ruger American 450 rifles as well as a Smith & Wesson M&P shield semi-automatic guns. On the very next page, A-16 (backing the gun ad) was a local news roundup which included a story on two suspects being arrested in an armed robbery. One of the suspects was only 16 years old. Another story in the same news roundup was about a shootout along Interstate 94, involving state police and a 24-year old suspect who is wanted for killing his mother in Alabama.

If you're interested in joining a movement that is focused on "reasonable solutions to address our nation's culture of gun violence," check out Mom's Demand Action. You can also follow them on Twitter at: @MomsDemand.

If you'd like to take a few minutes to get to know some of the 58 victims of the Las Vegas killing, the New York Times has published a sobering listing that goes a long way to personalize these most recent victims of gun violence.