Revisiting Finding Nemo

The election is over and progressive Americans are in shock. This wasn’t their expected outcome. Now what? As a white, straight male I want people to know that I am not a racist, hater, Islamophobic, or misogynist. If you were to look at my social media feed there are lots of ways that people who look like me are trying to say, “I not who you think I am.”

This week my mind drifted back to one of my favorite Pixar movies, Finding Nemo. It tells the story of a father’s love for his ever maturing and adventurous child. One day in a fit of frustration with his father’s overprotective nature, Nemo ventures away from the reef to touch the bottom of a fishing boat. He is captured by a scuba diver and taken away. The rest of the movie tells the story of Marlin, Nemo’s father, and Dory, an unexpected friend, as they search for Nemo.

One of the first characters they meet is Bruce the shark. Marlin and Dory are immediately brought to an AA-type meeting for sharks. The gathering begins with a pledge “fish are friends not food.”

As I have been replaying this scene in my mind, one question keeps surfacing. When a great white shark tells a small fish that he has become a vegetarian (read – I didn’t vote for him), who has to have the faith that the relationship will work out? Bruce can change his convictions at any time and without any warning. What assurances do Marlin and Dory have that Bruce will stick to his new diet?

Since last Tuesday those of us who are white have been exposed. How do we demonstrate that we aren’t racist? I can no more quit being white than some of my staff can quit being people of color, women, or gay. I never asked to be born with the power and privilege that comes to me simply because of the color of my skin. But I still have it.  Is it possible that under all my best intentions there are still whiffs of unconscious racism and privilege?

Should I wear a safety pin? Maybe. Will that make you safe? Maybe.

In many ways to be white is much like being Bruce, a great white shark. When we reach out to others asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, and honestly desiring relationship, it is critical to never forget who we are – sharks, people with access to power and privilege.

Just because I reach out to a person of color, a woman, or a GLBTQI person with an honest desire to be friends does not immediately mean that I have quit being scary. It is important to never forget that it takes a tremendous amount of faith to look past the teeth of a great white shark and see a potential friend.

A Civil Rights Tour and lesson in Leadership

My job requires me to spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. I oversee a ministry with programs, staff, and board members in five states. Keeping everyone one the same page while providing the space to be unique and creative is a constant challenge. Last week I was afforded an opportunity to join with a group of collogues on a Civil Rights tour through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I have spent the better part of the past two decades reading, reflecting on, and educating myself about diversity, race, and civil rights. This was my first time going to the locations where history was made in the 1950’s and 60’s.

We visited Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park) the staging ground for many demonstrations and catty corner from 16th Street Baptist Church the site of September 15, 1963 bombing where four young children were murdered. I walked through the Freedom Ride Museum and heard the stories of the riders, who prior to joining the ride, filled out their wills. They were riding for change and knew that the price might be their lives. In Montgomery I heard the story of Rosa Parks, a strong yet humble women whose single act of defiance, refusing to give up her seat to a white man, set in motion a set of events that would change the south (and north) forever.

In Selma we visited Brown Chapel and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later we heard firsthand accounts of the Bloody Sunday, the turnaround Tuesday, and the Selma to Montgomery marches.

In Mississippi Roscoe Jones sat with us and shared his story. In 1964 he was friends with James Chaney, one of three civil rights leaders who were murdered. Their story was retold in the movie Mississippi Burning. Roscoe was supposed to be the fourth person in the car. Events conspired in such a way that he was unable to join them. As a result Roscoe lived and his friends were brutally murdered by the KKK.

This tour shook my soul at many levels. Two things continue to stand out for me. The first was the age of the leaders and many of the protestors. They were young. Somewhere along my journey I began to assume that mature, wise, and prophetic leadership was something that only came with time. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and a host of other peers (foot-soldiers) were all in their 20’s and 30’s. They stepped up and led. They were not limited by their youth.

Second, these leaders were not part of the legitimized and elected power structures of the day. They had no access to these structures. Their legitimacy came from the grassroots. They prophetically spoke truth to power and in the end the official powers of the day began to make space for these young, brave, grassroots empowered leaders.

The work and mission of the Civil Rights leaders is far from over. This “ism’s” of prejudice and judgment are still alive and well.

There are lesson that need to be remembered. First, it is the youth who will lead the way. Those of us who are older need to find the humility to make way for leaders who are young and reckless. Second, change, real change, will always emerge from the bottom. Those of us who are in legitimized leadership positions would do well to remember this.

Faith and Diversity

For the most part I have chosen not respond to comments made about my blogs. My hope it that comments both positive and negative spur deeper conversation. Some like this policy while others think it is a bad idea. Today I am going to deviate from my policy and reflect on a theme that emerges whenever I write about diversity - women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. Interestingly enough people do not challenge the idea that women and race are important when it comes to faith and diversity. It seems that including people of color and women in the kingdom of God and church leadership has become a theological “given.” This is good news!

This is not always the case when I move further down the list. Including immigrants and especially people of various sexual orientations stresses people out. The result of this stress is a movement from acceptance to exclusion. For many the Word of God is clear, and these people are out. Even entertaining the possibility that they might be part of the kingdom of God is viewed as wrong, verging on sin.

Now I am a white straight male; from a certain perspective I have nothing to gai2014-06-26 09.16.06n or lose by including immigrants and gays in the list. (Although I do have to visit the Department of Homeland Security later this week to renew my Green Card.)

I realize that there is a major theological and biblical debate raging about sexual orientation and to a lesser extent immigration. There is much you can read on these topics. The cliff notes version of all of this is that the bible is not nearly as clear as people assume, need, or want it to be.

I am fascinated with is this deep-seated need to have someone or some group to exclude. In many ways this desire goes back to Acts 6 when the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews could not get along with each other. It almost seems as if people of faith have always needed someone to exclude, and the list is long – women, Jews, people of color, Catholics, protestants, communists, Muslims, insurgents, immigrants, and homosexuals. For every one of the excluded groups or individuals the church has found biblical and theological reasons to place them outside the kingdom of God.

What would happen if the church adopted what I am calling the Mark Twain approach? “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” When Jesus was asked about the important stuff his response was simple and clear: love God, love people. It will not be easy to overcome the need for a “sinful” other. If we can find the courage to move past exclusion I suspect the world and church will be a much more joyful place.

Thoughts on immigration

“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.” Can you imagine Enrique Peña Nieto, the 57th President of Mexico, giving this speech?  How would Americans react?  Don’t we have the right and responsibility to protect our land?  To keep our people safe from invaders who would take our jobs and abuse our social systems?

I am old enough to remember when in 1987 then President Regan issued a similar challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.  Interestingly not many folks took notice when the speech was first delivered; in time this became the prophetic moment of the Regan Presidency.  Within a few years the wall came down and western style freedom spread like wildfire through much of Eastern Europe.

Last week Mennonites from all over the USA gathered in Phoenix, AZ to discuss where they are as a denomination and where they are headed.  The theme was “Citizens of God’s Kingdom.”  I believe that this theme also has the possibility of being a prophetic moment, not only in the life of the Mennonite Church but also in the life of the American Church.  It was a theme which affirmed citizenship in the kingdom of God and the notion that Christianity and the Christian community crosses all borders.

Without a doubt immigration is a controversial political issue.  I sort-of get why, but as a Christian matter I am not sure that there is much controversy.  After all, Jesus calls us to a new understanding of family.  Blood lines no longer define relations.  It possible to say, “Our unity in Jesus trumps blood, borders and anything that would separate us from one another.”  As we all know families need to connect, get together, and fellowship over meals.  Anything, including politics, which prevents this from happening, needs to be called out.

So maybe it is time for a new speech, this time from people of faith – “Mr. Obama tear down that wall.”

The DOOR-Cloud

Apple has the I-Cloud, but my place of employment has an even more impressive cloud! This past week the DOOR summer kicked off.  The 10-12 weeks following the Memorial Day holiday, DOOR hosts approximately 2,500 Discover participants in 6 cities.

After almost 18 years it is tempting to fall into a “look what I have accomplished” mentality.  More than 30,000 people have participated; many have made significant faith commitments as a result of a week with us; leaders have been empowered.   Claiming all of this as my own not only leads to arrogance, but is dangerously wrong.

Hebrews 12 talks about a cloud of witnesses.   These are people who have gone before us and walk with us, offering wisdom, correction and encouragement.  Without this cloud of witnesses effective authentic ministry is not possible.  If I am going to brag about anything, it is the “DOOR-Cloud.”  This cloud includes the visionaries who first began thinking about structured service trips in 1985, years before youth mission trips were on anyone’s radar screens.  Then there are the gatherings of 2005 and 2006 when we brought together all our local board members of color and asked them to help DOOR be less racist.  These were not easy meetings.  It is never fun to confront individual and institutional racism, but the courageous work of these men and women helped us to better understand the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.

This cloud also includes former and current staff.  There are the women of DOOR who have fearlessly and compassionately lead even when men have questioned the legitimacy of their call.  We have immigrants who have endured insults and unwelcoming attitudes, yet they have loved and cared for participants in ways that mirror Jesus’ love for us.  We have gay staff members that have been told that they are somehow outside the reach of God’s grace yet in spite of this they have loved and cared for the very people who are condemning them.  We have staff of color who have endured both subtle and blatant racism and still they have not let this ignorance and mean-spiritedness stop them from reaching across racial barriers and seeking places of understanding and friendship.

For 18 years I have been surrounded by the DOOR-Cloud.  If you count yourself as part of this group, thank you!

Un-Documentable

In the last three weeks I have been drawn into at least five separate conversations regarding immigration.  The general tone of these encounters has been critical of current USA policy.  At the more benign level people argue that Christianity and hospitality are connected.  This call to hospitality demands that Christians advocate for an open immigration policy.  On the more radical end there are those who say that the USA made its wealth by taking much of the American Southwest from Mexico and continues to reap benefits from unfair trade practices and sweat shops.  For these folks immigration isn’t so much about hospitality but rather it is about reparations.  People are coming here because they want their “stuff” back. As you can well imagine, these discussions are filled with a whole lot of emotion.

The exchange that I keep coming back to occurred this week.  It was with my friend Anton Flores.  He runs a small not-for-profit in La Grange Georgia called Alterna.  Alterna is a group of people that offers community, fellowship and hospitality to the “un-documentable.”  It is important to note that “un-documentable” does not equal criminal or terrorist.  These are people who have come because providing for their family in their home country has become all but impossible.  More often than not the conditions that have driven them to the USA are tied to foreign policies and actions of the past and present.

I empathize with those who wish for stricter immigration laws and regulations.  The desire to feel safe and secure is powerful.  What I do not understand is why the church so often supports these laws uncritically.   Hospitality and making things right are cornerstones of the Christian faith.  As believers our first loyalty is to each other and humanity.  When this loyalty comes into conflict with the laws of the land, our faith commitment must always come first.

Seminar

Sometimes I agree to do something before I fully think through all the implications.  Months ago a coworker and I agreed to lead a seminar titled “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race” at the upcoming Mennonite Convention in Pittsburg.  Apparently we are going to talk about White Privilege.  This is one of those “elephant in the room” topics.  I want to live in the world of Martin Luther King’s dream - a world where people are only judged content of their character. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world has not yet arrived.  It means admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color.  This is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born White and will die White, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?  One 55 minute seminar will not solve the issue.

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by White Privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for White people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

I was thinking… about citizenship

You can learn a lot about a church by visiting its sanctuary. I enjoy getting guided tours. One can learn a lot about a particular congregation just by how the worship space is set-up. A few weeks ago a pastor was giving me a tour of the church he worked at. As we entered the sanctuary I noticed that they had two flags – a church flag and an American flag. This in and of itself is not all that uncommon. Lots of churches have flags.

On this particular day, the flags got me thinking. Would Jesus have put flags in his church?

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus makes the following statement, “No one can serve two masters…” As Jesus wraps up this verse he says, “You cannot serve God and money.” The common interpretation of this verse goes this way: Jesus was speaking only about money.

Interpreting Jesus’ words this way certainly make the “No one can serve two masters” statement more palatable.

How would our lives change if we interpreted “No one can serve two masters” at face value? Can you call yourself a Christian and serve both God and Country?

My initial reaction was to ignore the thought. It is one thing to talk about the seduction of money, but suggesting that service to our country might equal serving the wrong master will not win any popularity points.

In Philippians 3:20, the Apostle Paul declares that our “citizenship is in heaven.”

Now I am left with the following question, “Is it OK with God to hold dual citizenship?”