For Christmas, let’s remember what’s fundamentally Christian

Works of Mercy Catholic Workers from Jim Forrest on FlickrMy wife is Jewish, and I was raised Catholic (confirmed and all) but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. Even so, I find myself explaining some of the finer points of Christianity in our household. That’s because there are so many supposedly Christian folk who do very unkind and ungenerous things. Since my wife is no fool, she interprets Christianity by what Christians do, not by what they say.

And since it’s Christmas time, some Christians are saying and doing so many unkind things. Maybe it’s that I’m hearing too much about what’s on Fox News, with its insistence that everyone say “Merry Christmas” or their vocal opposition to fair pay for low-wage workers… you are not making the case for what it is to be Christian, much less why people would want to be Christian.

I want to bring us back to three Christian fundamentals that A: make the world a more decent place and B: bring Christianity a great reputation when Christians do them.

1- Love everyone as if they are your brothers and sisters. Everyone.

Okay, this includes strangers, people different from us, and people we don’t even know. From any and all countries and even people of other religions (self-disclosure: this would include me now). In case this is unclear, take a look at Luke 10: 25-37, where the greatest commandment includes, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and someone asks Jesus, “but, really?” and he answers, “yes, really” and we get the tale of the Good Samaritan helping a complete stranger.

In terms of being “fundamentally Christian,” this one instruction offers a simple answer to all sorts of questions. For example, it means that we care about people and want to help them in any circumstance.

Instead of making arguments against health care insurance reform such as “why should I support change to the health care market to require insurance companies to cover infants when I’m too old to have children?” (Forgoing at the moment the myriad other reasons that is a ridiculous question.) I find myself shaking my head… why call yourself Christian then insist, “I’ve got my health insurance, but I don’t know why you think you need health insurance.”

This also means it’s fundamentally Christian to be against war, since war involves killing your brothers and sisters.

There is no “us versus them” in this directive to love your neighbor — it basically turns the whole world into “we” and a “we” that we are compelled to act for. This is pretty cool, and when I remember being Catholic, this is one of my favorite parts, a practice that I still work to hold onto.

Being self-interested is not fundamentally Christian. Being kind and generous to all is.

2- Christians live by example instead of condemning others.

Okay, and then there’s that great Jesus story that culminates in “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Which is a story about how it’s easy to be harsh on other people even though we generally want to be treated mercifully. I didn’t understand this story when I first heard it as a young person (I didn’t know what adultery was, and I was particularly puzzled as to why you would “stone” someone when you could just shoot them… I was very young.)

But at the core of the story is that if we want God’s mercy we would do well to show mercy to others, since we have plenty of our own sins to be worried about. Think of all the scenarios this covers… opposition to the death penalty, opposition to “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” This ethic in action brings us deep things like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work to lead the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa (and his support for restorative justice). We can still hold out accountability, just not harshness.

My mother and I talked about this concept of not judging people harshly when she was dying (when we had many long philosophical discussions, some of which involved how to respond to my brother’s murder). We talked about the Lord’s prayer, and how it says, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

My mom was laying in a hospital bed with a tube coming out of her nose and not much time left and she said to me with some despair, “Kath-a-leen, nobody cares about the second part of that as much as the first part.” Nobody? Really? Sometimes Christians hold themselves to a low standard.

But I care about it. This is one of my favorite part of the Christian doctrine because it’s hard to do in the moment, but it has so clearly made my life easier than if I were lugging around all that criticism and judgement.

Judging others harshly is not fundamentally Christian. Showing patience and compassion to all is. 

3- Question powerful institutions and be on the side of the underdog.

Here, I look to the recently-sanctioned nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who focus on doing good deeds and helping oppressed communities rather than enforcing randomly selected pieces of Christian doctrine (since there are plenty of biblical directives that Christians disregard, after all). Not that the Pope and I completely agree on this what this looks like — he has supported the bishops’ criticisms of the nuns for spending too much time on social justice.

Unlike the first two fundamentals, which I think of as hard but make our daily life easier, this one makes it harder because it involves siding with the “weak” and probably angering the strong. It means getting our hands dirty and sometimes, putting ourselves at risk.

I’ll give respect to the Pope for his commitment to live in relative austerity and reach out to prisoners, atheists and, well, pretty much everybody. Then there’s his recent exhortation (seriously, that’s what it’s called) to stop worshipping money like it’s God. He’s not using his powerful position to align himself with powerful institutional forces, and of course, he’s being criticized for it. Good for him. Good for all of us.

Aspiring to power and wealth is not fundamentally Christian. Siding with the disenfranchised is.

When you stick to the fundamentals, Christians can be a pretty awesome force for good in the world. These fundamentals are also where Christianity overlaps with many other great religious traditions as well as many great secular ideas that make the world more livable for all of us. So, please focus on these: for all our sakes.

Oh, and if you’re celebrating it, have a great Christmas!

Image from the “Works of Mercy” series by Ade Bethune, a Catholic Worker and artist, courtesy of Jim Forest on Flickr.

Nelson Mandela: Both World Leader and Convicted Criminal

In hearing people talk about the passing of President Nelson Mandela, I’ve noticed that people don’t use the word “convicted criminal” to describe him, presumably out of respect. But “world leader” and “convicted criminal” are both chapters of his story. We act as if one term describes his greatness and the other is a blemish on it. But they are both part of what made him an exceptional leader that came at a point when the world needed him.

Nelson Mandela’s first arrest was in the early 1950s, and he went on to be arrested and convicted on multiple occasions. In U.S. terms, Mr. Mandela was (like some of my favorite people) a “felon” multiple times over. In the U.S., a list of arrests — even for legitimate political activity — can lead to problems ever securing a good job, home or an education. And it generally rules out a future in American politics.

The term “convicted felon” or “convicted criminal” in the U.S. is applied to people for one conviction or twenty, for political crimes or crimes of addiction or of poverty. Then people are judged harshly for a lifetime, as if a criminal record tells you everything you need to know about them. How we use the word “criminal” and how we act on it are ultimately short-sighted and unfair. And we all lose out as a result.

In Mr. Mandela’s case, the ruling white government of Apartheid South Africa locked him up to stop his political activity, and they also bet that labeling him as a “convicted criminal” would invalidate him. Convicting and imprisoning him was supposed to make people forget about him. It was supposed to make people stop listening to him. It was supposed to make him just another criminal black man.

What they didn’t account for was the unrelenting number of Black South Africans who would not be deceived by that label, and who would still listen to and accept Mandela’s wisdom and leadership. They didn’t account for Black South Africans who would connect with people around the world to advocate for this “criminal.”

Mandela did not become president on his own — a nation of people accepted him as a leader and made him a president. For decades, they rejected the label of “criminal” as something an unjust government had placed on him. 

Honestly, many of my friends with previous felony convictions were not convicted for political crimes protesting large injustices. (Like many other people in U.S. prisons, they mostly did stupid and/or hurtful things while in the grip of addiction.) But many of them have the experience of being a prisoner in common with Mr. Mandela. They’ve experienced the isolation, the mistreatment, the separation from their families and for some, the deaths of family members while they were incarcerated.

And like him, they also somehow, miraculously, endured prison and came out wise and compassionate leaders. But many of them still face big barriers in reaching their potential because of the harsh label of “felon” or “criminal” that is attached to them by the people around them.

Before you say, “but Mandela was no common criminal” I want to remind you that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, plenty of people described him as a criminal and as a terrorist for the violent actions of the ANC (such as 80s-U.S. Congressman Dick Cheney). His role as a future president and transformational world leader was by no means assured.

One lesson I take from the story of President Nelson Mandela is that today’s prisoner could well be the next generation’s transformational leader. If the rest of us act that way.

Anyone who has never been in prison can ask ourselves — Do I go along with the myth that a person who has been incarcerated would not be a great employee or neighbor or leader? Do I hear the label “criminal” and take it as if that judgement is negative and permanent? Because if so, we need to think about how we can do better.

I look forward to the day that “convicted criminal” is not seen as a blemish. (Meantime, I generally use the phrase “formerly incarcerated person” or “person with a previous felony conviction.”) I continue to work for a community where no one is judged for life by the fact that they have a previous felony conviction, and that they can still reach the greatness they are capable of — whether in their family, community, or country.

The world has lost a giant in President Nelson Mandela — someone whose achievements are nothing less than making the world turn on its axis differently. I find myself a little sad, although I also think that he gets to rest after a long life of service to his country, his people and the world.

Thank you, President Mandela, and thank you, South Africa, for showing us how to recognize and facilitate great leadership from someone who was once labeled “a criminal.”

Iran: Where the story starts matters

Flag_of_IranI got to hear a great piece about Iran on WNYC yesterday: Robin Wright gave an insightful interview on what the approaching inauguration of the new Iranian president could mean for U.S.-Iran relations, especially given that the U.S. House has voted to yet again renew and deepen economic sanctions against Iran.

Wright mentions that the relationship between our two countries has been broken for 34 years, “since Iranian students took the American Embassy hostage.” And that’s when a little bell started to ring in my head.

We mostly talk about the broken relationship between the U.S. and Iran as a story that starts when Americans were taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Most reasonable people can agree that taking hostages at an embassy will wreck a relationship between two countries.

But why not start the story in 1953 instead of 1979? 1953 is the year the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état in Iran to put the Shah back in power so that he could maintain our political and economic interests.

To be clear — no one disputes that it was a coup, or that our CIA was behind it. Former CIA-guy Kermit Roosevelt has written a book about it. Perhaps the main fact that is unclear is how much money we spent to do it, and how much we spent maintaining the autocratic rule of the Shah from 1953 to 1979. And the exact role that our embassy played in the coup and bribes to support the Shah’s government. Yes, the same embassy that was taken over by Iranian students in 1979.

Starting the story of our relationship with Iran in 1953 instead of 1979 starts it when we are not the victim.

This is one of problems always facing us when we are talking about violence (whether it’s violence writ large or interpersonal acts of violence). Where does the story start?

Does it start when something bad happens to the party that we sympathize with? Because that’s always going to be easier, and always going to lead to short-sighted solutions that don’t address what the real situation is.

Or does it start earlier, when the party we sympathize with might be the party who is doing harm? What is the sequence of events that have brought us to the present?

Where does the story start? It’s something I have wrestled with for a long time. I did not give too much thought to Germany (except for their role in World Wars I and II) until my brother was stationed there in 1984. I had maybe seen some news stories about the Red Army Faction, but I would read them then forget about them. For me, for a few years after his death, the story of the RAF started with them killing Eddie on August 8, 1985.

It was only when I was ready to look deeper into the story that I took a long look, and realized that even though the story of my family’s connection to the RAF started in 1985, my government’s connection to the RAF started years before, and that my brother was the victim of someone else’s possibly righteous anger, even though he himself did nothing to deserve it.

But perhaps that what so much international conflict is about: governments have fights and ordinary people feel the pain of it in our daily lives. I don’t need to stay complacent, though, and I can look for places to learn about the root of some of our international conflicts, and to look for meaningful spots to intervene.

I’ve contacted by congressional delegation from time to time to encourage a diplomatic, non-escalating approach to normalizing relations with Iran. Because I know that the story doesn’t just start and end with the hostage-taking of 1979.

The harm of our current broken relationship with Iran is mostly felt in the daily lives of the people of Iran, who have to deal with the effects of sanctions. It’s mostly hidden from our view. But if you want to know about what we should be doing with Iran, here’s some good sources of information:

  • http://www.niacouncil.org/
  • https://www.facebook.com/dabashi
  • https://www.facebook.com/NotoSanctionsorWarAgainstIran

In addition to all the places on the web you can read about the 1953 coup, I highly recommend William Blum’s book, Killing Hope (I wish I could say it’s ironically named, but it’s not). It’s a fairly comprehensive list of American military and covert intervention since World War II.

When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Killing Hope a great resource to figure out that the story probably doesn’t start when you think it does.

Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice

HK_Central_Statue_Square_Legislative_Council_Building_n_Themis_sWhen I found out that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, I had the feeling of having someone reach in and pull my stomach out of my body.

Then I realized something was wrong.

I couldn’t believe that I was the person hoping that Zimmerman would be convicted of murder because I am someone that knows that a criminal conviction is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I am someone who has worked against the expansion of prisons for a significant part of my adult life. I know that when it comes to young black men, prisons are one of the most harmful institutions in their lives, and pretty much all of our lives because they drain our families and communities.

I am not someone who roots for someone to go to prison. Ever. Not even in the murder of my only brother, Eddie.

Many years after my brother’s murder in 1985, two different people were convicted of the crime. The circumstances of my brother’s murder are nothing like Tryavon Martin’s, except that like Trayvon Martin’s murder (and many others) people get preoccupied with whether or not the killing was justified. And that my brother was also killed by a single bullet, fired by someone at close range.

No one has ever been convicted of specifically shooting my brother. Two people have been convicted of being central to the crime (and two more deaths related to my brother’s), and between the two of them, they spent decades in prison. It turned out that that didn’t matter when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of murder.

So then what does matter after murder? That a wonderful young man is dead, never able to have a long full life. That my family needed counseling and assistance and my mother needed an extended break from her job that she did not receive until years later, when her employer told her, “you haven’t really been the same since your son died,” and let her go after almost 20 years.

What mattered is that in our immediate community, people looked for places to be kind. It has mattered every time someone has told us he did not deserved to be killed. (Although over time, I’ve encountered people who have various explanations for why he deserved to die.)

So I know what matters and what doesn’t, yet somehow here I was, horribly sad, that Zimmerman wasn’t convicted of a crime. I felt hollow and manipulated.

Like many people, I have been “trained” to think that a criminal conviction for murder is “justice being served.” But a criminal conviction isn’t justice. Justice is when every mother’s child is valued and every family gets support after a violent death.

Yes, in my mind, that means Trayvon Martin and also George Zimmerman. Both of them, and both their families. The current system requires us to value one of these young men over the other — it requires us to punish Zimmerman to show that Martin was a valued human being.

That absolutely doesn’t mean that Zimmerman gets a pass. He does not deny that he shot Trayvon Martin, and so now he has something to make right. And although I have known some people to find ways to do positive things while they were incarcerated, what Zimmerman has to make right is out here in the world.

Our current system pushes Zimmerman to say, over and over again “I was justified” so that he doesn’t have to go to prison, and that isn’t justice. It doesn’t help us get to the truth of what happened when he could literally lose years of his life in prison for being honest about it. The threat of imprisonment is a driving force in discussions of far too many murders.

Tayvon Martin’s life mattered, and it’s not at all surprising that this court could not re-affirm that. Our current court system cannot reaffirm that for young black men. When it requires us to wish for another young man to go to prison to show that Martin was someone’s precious son, it’s especially broken.

I understand that the women on the jury were not thinking about the flaws of our system when they acquitted him. They were just going through the motions of what our system does when a person is killed — this unreasonable weighing and comparison of the lives and value of two people.

And we need to remember that this system doesn’t work. Guilty or innocent, there is much for us to do to make it better. There will be many opportunities for people to take action that matters — to listen to the grief of the Martin family, to listen to the fears and concerns of other families who have experienced murder (there’s no shortage, remember, of families who have experienced murder). To take on racist policing practices that presume guilt in young people of color, to start talking more about what reasonable responsibility looks like for anyone who leaves their home carrying a gun.

I have a certain dread I feel for all the young black boys and men I know, and their justified fear that we are drawing the outline of a target on them. And all of the parents of black youth, who live with fear for their children. And my sadness, of course, for the parents, family and community of Trayvon Martin, dead at 17.

And I need to remember that this broken jury system is not what tells me that Trayvon Martin and other young boys matter, and that I can’t reasonably hope for the system to show he was a valuable person by punishing George Zimmerman. Instead, I need to focus on what does matter.

We hold the truth of that, of what’s real and what matters, in the way to treat both these families over time, in the way that we set up alternatives that stop directing young black men into this prison pipeline. I need to remember (and to have my allies remind me) that this empty feeling I have when I don’t get the satisfaction of a conviction is just something that I’ve been trained to look for, and I need to remember what I really value. Instead, I need to not be satisfied, and to stay active working to change this system.

I spent over 20 years looking into the grieving eyes of my mother after my brother’s death. The two criminal convictions had provided a fleeting comfort to her, but eventually she realized that the people who were serving time in prison were someone else’s children. That part of her heart, at least, was not completely broken by his murder. And I can only hope for the same for the friends and family of Trayvon Martin, and for all their allies. Don’t let this take away too much of your heart, or the place where you know that everyone, no matter what they’ve done, is still someone else’s child.

A pronouncement from a judge in a system that doesn’t work would’ve just been a fleeting satisfaction, and not what matters. Instead, I have work to do.