Friday, July 19, 2019

Thinking about Resistance on the 40th Anniversary of the Sandinista Success

Forty years ago today, the Sandinistas deposed the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza.  I have no memory of that particular moment in 1979.  When I think of 1979's most important historic moment, I think of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran.

Both of those events had profound influences in the 1980's and beyond.

I could make the argument that the events sparked by the Sandinista victory led us to where we are today with the humanitarian crisis on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.  I have distinct memories of President Reagan trying to make us all scared of Communists swarming up from the South and taking over Texas.  At the time, most of us assumed that Reagan envisioned an armed invasion, not the kind of movement that we see today of people looking to build new lives in the U.S.

I had no doubt that Texans could have taken care of that kind of armed attack.  I often wonder if the Sandinistas hadn't won, would Reagan have been able to manipulate our fears as easily?  I don't think so, but humans are easily manipulated by fear, so I could be wrong.

I've been thinking about our current moment of resistance and past time periods too.  I'm writing a dystopian novel that takes place not far in the future, but I have a vision of exploring past resistance movements too.

On Tuesday, I was delighted to come across this article in The Nation about the Pledge of Resistance in the 1980s (do an Internet search for Pledge of Resistance, and you'll discover that there have been several).  I remember signing the pledge, but would I have really followed through if Reagan had launched a military strike?  I was a college kid, so I might have; in many ways, college kids have less to lose and less of a sense of consequences, and in that, I was no different.

The Pledge of Resistance was different than past pledges.  The article says, "But the Central American Pledge of Resistance was unique in linking disobedience to an invasion that had not yet happened. By providing a threat of future action, the pledge bore resemblance to the strike votes taken by unions to show unity and demonstrate workers’ readiness to walk off the job. 'The innovation in the ’80s was that the pledge had a trigger event,' explained Jeremy Brecher, a social movement historian. 'It was a very creative way of establishing a nonviolent deterrent.'”

This social justice movement of the 1980's accomplished amazing things, which so few people remember.  It was peaceful and less heirarchal than movements of the 60's--and those two factor probably contributed to the success of the movement.

How do I define success?  After all, you could argue the fact that we have so many people fleeing those countries in 2019 is because of the failure of the 1980's.  I could point to any number of government policy failures that have led us to this moment; are social justice movement failures more to blame than the various governments that have failed in so many ways?  I would argue no.

In fact, I would argue that without the social justice movements of the 80's, our current situation would be worse.  We might be involved in a decades long hot war, the way we are in the Middle East, if the Pledge of Resistance and other movements hadn't convinced the Reagan administration to back off on threats to invade Central American countries.

As a student in the 1980's, I remember wondering if we made any sort of difference as we protested, as we resisted, as we supported those who did more, like Jubilee Partners who got Central American refugees safely to Canada where they were more likely to win their asylum claims.  When I moved to South Florida and had a chance to talk to some of those people who had fled Central America in the 1980's, people who had gone on to build better lives here, I concluded that we did make a difference.

Hopefully future generations will look back on these days of the Trump administration and be able to take courage from what we managed to accomplish.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Canoeing Mountains and Other Places that Are Difficult to Navigate

I have spent many years reading about ways to grow the Church--I think of it as a genre of books.  For years, I was part of the leadership of a different Lutheran church, and we spent lots of time talking about how to get bigger, how to find members, what to do.

Then as now, I often turn to books when I'm looking for answers.  And there were plenty of books written on the subject.  The huge one of the time was Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, which was a best seller--but he also wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Church.  I read both, and we did all sorts of exercises, which were enlightening, but in the end, the church membership stayed the same.

At some point in the past few years, I declared a moratorium on improving the church books.  But I'd heard such good things about the book I just finished that I decided to make an exception.  Plus, I loved the title:  Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

Tod Bolsinger has written a great book, but I have the same complaint as I usually have about these books.  I've read it, but I still have no idea what to do.  I have insight about what may help and what may impede, but no clear strategies.

It's got some interesting insights about life in general.  He's got great suggestions about how to get clear on conviction by asking these questions:  What are we passionate about?  What do we have the potential to do better than anyone else?  What will pay the bills?  (pp. 129-130).

The book has lots of good advice when it comes to leadership.  It talks about the good leader as having the ability to be a click or too calmer than everyone else, which allows people to dial back their own anxiety; as Bolsinger reminds us again and again:  "For leaders, this is the point to remember about anxiety:  People who are overly or chronically anxious don't make good decisions" (emphasis Bolsinger's p. 145).

Here's a quote (originally from Ronal Heifetz) that I triple underlined:  "Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb" (p. 172).  The book reminds us "Part of the dynamic at play here is that not only does everybody have a constituency but everybody also wants to be a hero to their constituency" (emphasis is Bolinger's, p. 158).

But what I loved most about the book is its rootedness in the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The title comes from the expedition's original purpose, to find a water route across the continent.  That results in this kind of language:  "Be Meriwether Lewis and find your William Clark" (p. 167) and  "Last, make it a conviction to stay calm and connected so you can stay on course.  Endure.  Stick with it.  Be dogged and determined.  If you stumble onto the Great Falls of Montana, find a way to go around them, even if it takes you thirty times longer than expected.  If you find yourself facing the Rocky Mountains instead of a river running downstream, ditch the canoes and find horses.  And if someone starts to sabotage what you have already been doing, consider it confirmation that you are exactly in the right path" (p. 178).

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 21, 2019:

First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Amos 8:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 15

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 52

Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-28

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

Ah, the Mary and Martha story, another story that's familiar to many of us who have been going to church through the years. It's one of those stories that provokes howls of rage from people. Like the story of the Prodigal Son, it may trip our "That's not FAIR!!!" switch. It's easy to see how the Good Samaritan is the model for our behavior. The Mary and Martha story prickles us more.

Many of us were probably raised to be the Martha. I have a friend who won't let herself even exercise until her household chores are done, so engrained is the idea of "work first, play later" into her psyche--unlike some of us, who see exercise as one of the daily chores that must be done before we can play.

Think about the last time that someone visited you. If you're like many of us, you spent the days and weeks before the visit getting ready: cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, restoring order. By the time your guests arrived, you may have been too exhausted from getting ready for them to be fully present.

That's the story we see in this week's Gospel. Martha scurries around so much that she can't be present for Jesus. How often are our current lives similar? We often get so consumed by the chores of our daily life that we neglect to notice the Sacred in our midst.

Keep in mind that even though the story revolves around women, men are not exempt from this paradigm. All humans must wrestle with the question of how to balance the chores that are necessary to sustain life with the spiritual nourishment that we need so desperately. Unfortunately, often the chores win.

I can hear some of us shrieking by now: "Yes, but those chores must be done!" Really? Are you sure? What would happen if you didn't vacuum this week? What would happen if you wore your clothes an extra time or two before laundering them? What would happen if you surrendered to the dust?

Jesus tells Martha that she worries about many things, and the implication is that all of the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It's a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again--maybe every day.

We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. For some of us, charging through our to-do lists is a way of quelling the anxiety. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

Give up one chore this week, and return to the Gospel. Notice that Jesus never--NEVER--focuses on the household chores. Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are those who keep a clean house, for those have already possessed the Kingdom of God."

You may think that Jesus said, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." Jesus did not.

All of our busyness takes our focus away from God. God will not appear with white gloves to assess our spiritual progress by way of household upkeep. The assessment of our spiritual progress will focus on much more serious issues than those.

All those chores keep you away from your earthly relationships. Jesus called on us to care for the poor and the dispossessed, not the dusty objects that clutter our houses.

Jesus reminds Martha that Mary has chosen what’s important: listening to God. What are you choosing today?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Ways to Shatter Worlds

On this day, in 1945, we entered the nuclear age for real. On this day, in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear bomb in the desert of New Mexico, and launched us all into a different world with different mental landscapes.

I'm always a bit in awe and horror of those scientists, who exploded their bomb without being fully sure of what it would do. Some of the scientists worried that the explosion might harm the atmosphere irrevocably. But they went ahead anyway.

Humans are full of this kind of hubris. Many of us never seem to think about worst case scenarios, and in some instances, this optimism is infectious and admirable. Unfortunately, we've spent a long time assuming that scientists will be able to solve all the problems that our progress creates, and we've probably propelled ourselves into a new climatological age; if you don't believe me, Bill McKibben makes a compelling case in his books Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet and Falter.  David Wallace-Wells makes a much darker argument in The Uninhabitable Earth.

Oppenheimer claims that he thought of lines from The Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." If I had to choose a motto for the twentieth century, with its genocides and mass slaughters and illnesses and technology run amok, I could make a strong case for that line.

Unfortunately, I don't see much of a change here near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Those of us who are Christians, however, must keep working towards a better care of creation. We are charged to be good stewards of the earth, and today, the anniversary of the explosion at the Trinity site, is a good day to ponder that mission.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Dog Days of a Spiritual Life

It's the time of year again:  hot, endless days of summer.  I find myself yearning for a different season:

How to maintain spiritual health in a time of drought?  Perhaps by returning to nature, the river that runs deep:

Perhaps we will find the secret in the cool catacombs of a library:

Maybe by approaching an art form from a different angle:

Let us sit quietly on the porch:

We will cultivate our gardens in the belief that rains will come again:

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bastille Day Bastions

If you're not ready to stop celebrating the human drive for freedom from tyranny, you're in luck!  Today we have another chance to celebrate the human thirst for liberty and to ponder who gets to enjoy equality and who does not. It's Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy more liberty than those in developing nations. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).

I am afraid that today we may have reason to reflect on the nature of government.  We're told that ICE agents are planning raids today in 10 cities to find people with deportation orders.  We might argue that people with deportation orders must be forced to leave.  We also know that these raids find many people who are awaiting due process, and they often get deported too.

So it's a good day to think about the storming of the Bastille, about what happens when the powerful abuse the powerless for years and centuries and the powerless finally decide they've had enough.

Bastille Day is the French Fourth of July, and you could make a strong case that both revolutions should be celebrated in tandem. The French began their revolution in the decade after the American colonies broke away, and for the next century, maybe 2, abusive leaders worried about the example set by these revolutions.

I remember very few dates without having to look them up to be sure, but I do know that the storming of the Bastille happened in 1789--and by reversing those last 2 numbers, I can remember that Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. I can make the case that both events forever shaped the future.

Today is also the birthday of Woodie Guthrie, an artist who always had compassion for the oppressed.  I find Guthrie fascinating as an artist. Here's a singer-songwriter who doesn't know music theory, who left behind a treasure trove of lyrics but no music written on musical staffs or chords--because he didn't know how to do it. For many of the songs that he wrote, he simply used melodies that already existed.

I think of Woody Guthrie as one of those artists who only needed 3 chords and the truth--but in fact, he said that anyone who used more than two chords is showing off. In my later years, I've wondered if he developed this mantra because he couldn't handle more than 2 chords.

I love this vision I have of Guthrie as an artist who didn't let his lack of knowledge hold him back. I love how he turned the deficits that might have held a lesser artist back into strengths. I love that he's created a whole body of work, but his most famous song ("This Land Is Your Land") is still sung by schoolchildren everywhere, and how subversive is that?  The lyrics are much more inclusive than you might remember, and there's a verse that we didn't sing as children, a verse that talks about how no one owns the land.

If I could create a body of poems that bring comfort and hope to activists, as well as one or two poems that everyone learns as schoolchildren, well I'd be happy with that artistic life. If I could inspire future generations the way that Guthrie did, how marvelous that would be. I could make the argument that artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the members of U2 would be different artists today, had there been no Woody Guthrie (better artists? worse? that's a subject for a different post).

So, Alons, enfants de la patria!  There's work to do and people who need us to do it.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Lights for Liberty: Pembroke Pines, Florida

I wasn't sure what to expect last night.  I liked the idea of being part of a nationwide group of people saying, "We do not approve of this administration's immigration policies which result in immigrants held indefinitely in substandard conditions which result in human rights violations."  But I also knew that my church had only been part of the group for a few days.

I thought we might have the 10-20 people from the congregation who feel strongly on this issue and are able to drive at night, along with a few community activists.  We're fairly close to the Homestead site where unaccompanied minors are being held (45 minutes if the traffic is running smoothly, but the traffic is rarely running smoothly), so I thought the bulk of the community activists would make the trek down there.

Imagine my surprise when we got to church and took the last parking space.  Even on most high holidays, like Christmas Eve, we don't completely fill the parking lot.

The time before the 9 p.m. candlelit vigil was surprisingly inspiring--I had worried it would be dreary/horrifying, like a newscast but with real humans speaking.  Instead we had singing, poetry, and a reading of the words of children being held in awful conditions.

My pastor asked people as they came in to be part of the reading, so the voices were varied, which gave the readings a more genuine feeling.  We also had a period where a woman read the names of children who had died in custody followed by a bit of information about each child.  Then one of our choir members rang a hand chime so that a bell tolled for each child.

The time went quickly, and soon it was time to light candles.  We processed with our lit candles to the front of the church which is at the intersection of two busy streets.  There, too, we sang songs, and one woman had thought to bring a sign.

Traffic zoomed by, with some cars honking.  I want to believe that they honked in support.  And then we blew out our candles, and most people went home.

Some of us lingered, and we had a delightful time with a child and musical instruments.

 My spouse had his violin with him, and she's had lessons.  She could play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," which seems to be the first song that most children learn on the violin. 

In so many ways, this picture sums up the evening:  a mix of ages, genders, religions, beliefs, but finding intersections of solidarity:

As we all interacted, I did think about how lucky we are to be assemble peaceably, light our candles, sing our songs, and criticize our government.  I have always assumed we would always be able to do this, but the current administration does give me pause.  But I also believe it's important to resist--if we just cave in, if we obey in advance of even being asked/ordered to succumb, evil will take complete control.  As Timothy Snyder says in On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, "Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy."

Last night's demonstrations around the country, and the expressions of support from those who couldn't make it to vigils, tells me that although we're in danger, we may survive.