Category Archives: Life as the church

The new movement of the Spirit takes lament, commitment, action

On May 4th I begged a piece of paper from Gwen to take notes at the Jesus Collective Partner Summit. One would think a serious partner would be prepared to codify his marching orders! At least Gwen came prepared to move with the movement.

A Spirit-inspired vision still being born

I really should have had a few sheets of paper because there were many good things to collect! It was nice to be among a group of committed, often brilliant partners from around the world who are united by a vision for keeping a spiritual ball rolling. Beyond the reformation of Eurocentric, capitalist-bound, principle-centered, power-struggling, often narcissistic and male Christianity, there is a movement of Jesus-centered people who see another way to be the church. It is not a new way, but after hundreds of years of European domination, it seems new. Jesus Collective is working on a practical expression of the ancient-future way of the cross and resurrection that transcends all the boundaries of the world. If you explore the website you’ll probably get an idea of what’s going on. The website won’t tell you everything however; the new zeitgeist of the Body of Christ these days is better caught by experiencing like mindedness in relationship than taught with more left-brained schooling.

I enjoyed the relating but I was also schooled during the Partner Summit and Unite22. Jesus Collective has a unique view of the future because it was born right before the pandemic hit. Life these days is kind of “before the lockdowns” and “after a million Americans died.” It was not the most advantageous time to start something, but Jesus Collective started. Then the pandemic hit and then the revelation of Bruxy Cavey’s infidelity torpedoed the Meeting House which had been the collective’s incubator. The megachurch is still the incubator, only it is more like a NICU in a Kharkiv hospital. Since the inaugural in-person gathering I attended in 2019, the whole constituency has been traumatized and reformed. I was schooled about that, too.

What to do when the movement meets resistance

But there was so much more happening among the Jesus Collective than trauma! I came away stimulated and inspired – and convicted to keep the ball rolling! I can’t vouch for my notes, since my handwriting is often indecipherable. But I am still moved by three points I noted from a speaker I can’t remember. He or she was trying to answer the question, “What do we do now?” If there is still a movement of the Spirit alive in the world, how do we not only move with it but move it along when we are exhausted and beset with overwhelming circumstances? Jesus shows us a way. Here are three elements of staying on the way and showing the way with Him: lament, commitment, and action.

Jesus wept / lament

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. – Luke 19-41-2

My Christian psychotherapy clients, especially, often call lamenting “griping.” They are prone to say, “I shouldn’t be having these feelings” or “I am not sure I deserve to be sad when Ethiopians are on the verge of starvation.” Jesus did not talk himself out of crying. He did not shut himself down because people would see his despair and despise him for his vulnerability.

Emmanuel Katangole, from the east of Congo, justly became more famous during the pandemic because he has written so eloquently about the necessity and the power of lament. He says:

Lament is an invitation to see reality through the eyes of the most vulnerable, and to name and admit what is broken.

In this historical moment, only through the practice of lament can we imagine a new and better future. More than a personal spiritual practice, lament has potent political implications in three ways: connecting us to the oppressed, telling the truth to governments, and transcending partisan political borders.

I believe there is a new movement of the Spirit at work in the world, just as there is tragedy and evil afoot. If we are being reduced to repentance, that is a good thing. Lament is a positive spiritual response to our shame and hopelessness. Tears often water the seeds of a better future. If we can be moved, maybe we can energize a movement.

Edvard Munch, Melancholy (1894).

Jesus asked, “Do you want to be well?” / commit

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6

I asked one of my clients that question once. They had to think about it. Their aloneness had come to feel like their safe place. The vengeance they wanted over their abusers felt more important than health. The small space of control they felt they owned seemed violated by the question. I don’t think we should underestimate just how profound a question the Lord asks us, “No, really. Do you want to be made well?”

Taking the Lord’s outstretched hand is just the beginning. The man who was healed had to relearn to walk and experience being “the guy who was lame for 38 years.” He had to change how he saw himself and keep deciding to be well. At the end of the day we have to make a commitment to life. We often have to fight for our lives. Together we’re called to fight for the life of the world too.

I think Americans are so accustomed to their imperial ease that hysteria breaks out if gas costs a dollar more a gallon. Filipinos just elected the son of their former dictator because authoritarianism looks good if it promises some semblance of order. Even churches are adopting the authoritarian playbook. In these reactions, I don’t see a commitment to wellness, just control: I see little of the Spirit, mostly fear. I know a lot of Americans and a few Filipinos; many of them are exhausted, traumatized and often numb – and a lot of them are Jesus followers! For the first time, many of us may be able to relate to the man who couldn’t get to the pool. But here comes Jesus asking us for a commitment to him, not just to our own capacity. If we can get up and move again, maybe we can stoke the spiritual movement we all need so desperately.

Jesus taught: love God and your neighbor / act

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. – Matthew 22:36-8

When I went to the Jesus Collective Partner Summit, I admit I was wary. So it was moving when many people convinced me I was loved and accepted, even valued.  I have my own trauma that makes me suspicious; I’m still recovering from a love breakdown in my former church. Quite often I need to remind myself to act love, do love, see love as my daily task. Otherwise I might just do me; I might get in the habit of being suspicious.

The leaders of the church where I completed my pastoring shunned my entire family because they imagined we were a threat to them. It was a classic cut off. Since we all still live in the same town and still care about our old friends, the absurdity of it all comes to fruit when people get married, have children, etc. and throw parties. The people remaining in the church have to wonder if it is OK to still love us and include us. They aren’t sure why, but we are out and they are supposed maintain “boundaries.” I hope we will all be back together in love one day. But until then, loving hurts. It is the task the Lord gives me as much as a delight I experience.

There are still people in Philly who operate according to the old redlining boundaries from the past. Family systems still don’t talk to descendants of a “black sheep.” Whole protestant denominations still recoil when something seems like it might be “Catholic.” For some reason the Supreme Court will sacrifice the peace of the country to overturn the right to privacy. There is a lot of broken love built right into the infrastructure. I may feel like I’m making bricks without straw, but we all need to bring at least one brick to the building of the beloved community every day. If we can move another brick onto that vision, maybe we can nurture the movement of the Spirit springing up in the strangest places.

We are called to get up every day and do the work of love. We are not called to get up every day and wish someone would do the work of loving me or get up angry about the people who don’t do the work. The desire and demand to love may flood some days with the tears of lament – let it come, let it sink in, and move with the Spirit anyway. The desire and demand to love will make us wonder if it is worth it to be well since well is hard — listen to the “yes” of the spirit resonating with the truth “You are beloved and valued” then make the commitment.

Let’s love others because we are lovers not because everything is working out well. Love is a feeling that becomes a task. Love is a desire that can’t help but become an action. Love is Jesus looking over Jerusalem with tears, reaching out his hand in compassion and challenge, getting himself killed, giving his life and forgiveness freely and in hope of resurrection. The Jesus Collective, in league with people all over the world, senses a new movement of raw, Jesus-y love like that spreading around the ever-warming globe, changing and rebuilding lives and churches. Maybe like never before we have a chance to bring good news to everyone in an era full of bad news and broken institutions.

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it

More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”

I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.

I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.

Royal & the Serpent gets it

In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.

FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.”  Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:

Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”

Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.

booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…

I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….

It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”

And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.

Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.

Signs of overwhelm

Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.

If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.

Here are some common signs of overwhelm:

  • You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
  • You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
  • You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.

Causes of overwhelm

When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.

We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities  make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.

Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.

Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.

A therapist can be a big help. Even if your are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.

Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.

  1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.

5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.

4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.

3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.

2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.

1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.

This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.

  1. Clean up your immediate surroundings.

The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.

You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.

  1. Stop accidentally multitasking

Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.

Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.

  1. Take the next tiny step.

When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.

  1. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.

This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).

When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.

Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.

Freedom for the word “religion”

The members of my spiritual direction cohort, by and large, love David Benner’s book Soulful Spirituality. In it he is working on reinforcing how my spiritual life is embodied –– we are also incarnations of the Holy Spirit in our unique and dependent ways. I am not as big a fan of this book as my friends, so far. I’ve been told it gets better. Even if it doesn’t, we will always have The Gift of Being Yourself, which is one of Benner’s gems.

I may have been in a mood when I was reading, but I became fixated on Benner’s binary assumptions regarding “religion” and “spirituality.” This is a common dichotomy, so I don’t know why it began to bother me. It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before.

For instance, at Psychology Today’s site, a contributor talked about the same issue. She wrote:

The purpose of religion, in general, is to unite a group of people under the same values and principles and to facilitate their collective and individual communication with a Higher Power and/or philosophy. In other words, religion was meant to enhance spirituality.

That said, it must also be said that it is entirely possible to be a very religious person yet be totally out of touch with spirituality and its essential connection to an authentic Self. On the other hand, true spirituality unites a person with his or her authentic Self.

By the way, I think the author, Andrea Matthews, capitalized “Self” because her interest and writing leans into “The territory of the Self” and “differentiating between the authentic and the inauthentic” leading to a “peaceful internal home.” Psychoanalytic and Jungian people, in particular, use a capital S Self to differentiate from the false, unrealized, unintegrated, lower-case self. (Me too, sometimes.)

You don’t need to hear all my arguments about her Christless musings. I just want to offer one argument about “religion” that made me feel better.

Religion is a modern invention

I decided to find out when people in the so-called “West” started using the word “religion” in the way Benner and Matthews use it. As when Matthews starts with “the purpose of religion” and she assumes we all understand the abstraction called “religion” and can sort various groups under that definition. I had never studied it, but I had the idea that “religion” is probably a modern invention, like a lot of powerful things contributed by the Enlightenment and Europe’s project to colonize the world and remake it in its own image.

Brent Nongbri

I came up with a very interesting book that confirms my suspicion: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) by Brent Nongbri. He is now a professor at the Norwegian School of Philosophy in Oslo. But he was raised in Texas and got his doctorate at Yale.

My thought was the way Benner is talking about religion does not match the Bible’s worldview. Like so many things, the word “religion” had been redefined to fit the straight-jacket of European (and now American) thinking that posits a unifying theme and then collects like things under it. We are all being fitted into abstract categories as if that is important. I often squirm under the abstraction “identity,” which comes from the same thinking; now we all must choose an identity to become authentic. On the map we are all wrestling with the abstraction “nation,” defined by lines which cut through family systems and language groups and create endless conflict in service to a European imagination; the U.S. wall along the border with Mexico is a visual reminder.

Nongbri’s thesis is straightforward. For the past two centuries people have assumed “religion” is “a universal human phenomenon, a part of the ‘natural’ human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history.” This modern notion has been criticized in the last thirty, postmodern years. The main criticism comes from the fact that no ancient languages have a term that really corresponds to what modern people say when they mean “religion.” In fact, the names of supposedly old religions can be traced back to the recent past. “Hinduism” for instance, starts showing up named around 1787 and “Buddhism” in 1801.

The isolation of something called “religion” as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics and science is not a universal feature of human history. If you take a look at the Bible, no one is thinking that way. If you look at the Bible from a European Protestant lens, through which all the past looks like a projection of European thinking, then you can find the separation. But once you begin to imagine a world in which God is present in every activity and, indeed, enlivens the planet, then these abstract separations can’t be found.

James Tissot — The Tribute Money (Le denier de César), 1886-1894.

It is not in the Bible

For instance, in Matthew 22 Jesus famously said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The modern lens sees a dichotomy in the verse between the secular government and the religious establishment, or between the realm of humans and the realm of God. I find the stultifying arguments that Bible students have had my whole life over this quote pretty tiresome, much as I was finding Benner’s dichotomy between religion and spirituality. The endless arguments about abstractions are a modern imposition.

I don’t believe Jesus or the writers were seeing the world through such a corrupt lens. Nongbri notes that Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, reflected 1 Tim. 2:1-2 when he interpreted what was “owed to Caesar” were prayers on his behalf. In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan understood Jesus to be encouraging people to give up their property and lead an ascetic life like he was living, free of Caesar’s things.  No one in the Bible thought Caesar’s things should be religion-free (like John Locke) or thought religious things would be threatened by secular authorities (like Roger Williams).

I don’t like being an abstraction in the lens of some powerful leader corralling me into their Eurocentric organizing principles, especially when they do it in the cause of religion or spirituality. Moreso, I like trying to walk with Jesus in the light of God’s revelation in the Savior. When I am suckered into seeing through the eyes of modern thinkers — and that is not unlikely since they made the situation we are in, I feel caught. I think Jesus is still calling us out. Paul says, in Col. 2 (and Gal. 4)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces (basic principles) of this world rather than on Christ.

I suspect Benner is going my direction and also wants me to be close to my Savior. But I would like him to tighten up his thinking. The idea of religion is a recent abstraction that has become a debilitating “basic principle.” I think people fill the idea with good meaning and use it in good faith to good ends. But I don’t want to live under it and I do want to get in touch with what the rest of the church in history taught and what many non-Europeans intuitively know.

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology?

The Washington Post surprised me the other day with an op-ed featuring Warren G. Harding – the first president after World War I, most-remembered for the corruption in his administration. That’s him throwing out the first pitch. It was a weird week. First, I liked Dick Cheney, of all people, for accompanying Liz to the Jan. 6 commemoration. Then I read WaPo and ended up admiring the super-capitalist, Teapot Dome president!

I did not know that Harding forgave Eugene V. Debs! He commuted the sentence of the  Socialist who ran against him from prison! Debs’ crime was doubting-out-loud the validity of WWI — he called it a diabolical capitalist war. I guess I would have voted for him. However, he got no affection from the Woodrow Wilson administration. They threw Debs in jail for his speech with a dubious application of the Espionage Act. When Harding followed Wilson he decided, against the advice of his advisors, to forgive Debs. He even made sure the traitor came to the White House on his way home from prison, so he could meet him and form some connection.

Biden has been acting out a similar public drama for us all year. He’d love to forgive people. But he took the gloves off on Epiphany and laid out Trump. For most of the year he has been restrained, trying hard to bridge the divide. But maybe that’s over. Are you similarly conflicted? Do you rehearse snappy things you would say to your enemies in your head — the zingers you will never get a chance to deliver? What do you do when your offender will not apologize, much less reconcile?

Have you decided how you are going to handle the people who have undermined you, lied about you and then blamed you for what they did to you? A lot of us are in a lot of drama. All over the country divorces have gone up, families have been divided over politics, churches have split and pastors have resigned. You can’t look at the news, if you dare, without someone worrying about American “democracy” – which Eugene V. Debs did not think much of when he was jailed for saying something that 900,000 people voted for.

It can be hard to forgive sometimes, but if Warren Harding can do it, maybe we can too.

What if they don’t say they are sorry?

This is always the big question when it comes to forgiveness. What if the person who hurt us is not sorry? It is not uncommon for someone to protest when forgiveness is suggested:

I can’t let my guard down. That would be surrendering and acting like they were justified in hurting me. They would get away with their crime! I would be just as vulnerable to more of the abuse I just suffered.

I will not forgive until the other person: 1) knows that wrong was done; 2) feels an inner sorrow for doing it; 3) apologizes to me; 4) and makes amends. Then I’ll know it is safe to forgive and enter back into the relationship.

Most of us are taught to apologize from a young age along the lines of those four conditions.  We bite a sibling, say something cruel, push someone around, and some well-meaning adult intervenes and tells us, “Now, say you’re sorry.” Half-hearted apologies ensue along with forced hugs and we move on. But something changes as we age. Apologies are harder to come by and pain cuts a little deeper than “She took my Sports Diva!”

What are you supposed to do when someone intentionally hurts you, rips your heart wide open, and then leaves you to pick up the pieces? What if they move on with their lives, with no well-meaning adult to come along and demand they apologize?

From our playground lessons, we’ve been conditioned to think that forgiveness follows an apology. But things change and people forget how to apologize. We protest and we hear “That’s your problem.” We get the unspoken message we’re wrong for being hurt. But living wronged with that prickly disconnection installed is a recipe for bitterness and it might even make us sick.

When hurt remains unforgiven, when the memory stays unprocessed, it sits in our hearts as if it is still happening. We wait for an apology in order to get some relief. Do you have anyone on whom you are still waiting? Is it fairly easy to get all worked up when their face pops into your mind or someone speaks about them fondly or you see them succeed? Jessica Harris wrote:

“My dad left our family when I was in elementary school. The pain caused by his abandonment ran deep. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly when I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Then, as I got older, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly and not care.

That ate away at my heart for years. The hurt remained unresolved as I waited for this man to return to my life and apologize for wrecking it. I thought my anger was my power. My ability to never forget was going to ensure I would never get hurt again. It was how I protected my heart.

That anger bled over into my other relationships. I became angry in general, always blaming it on my dad. If he would just admit he was wrong, my life would be better.”

I couldn’t tell that same story.  But I have definitely had to work through similar hurts in the last few years. You probably have had some hurts too. My clients certainly share them every day: a trauma that is lodged in the memory and won’t go away, a loved one who betrayed their trust, an unscrupulous salesman or contractor who swindled them, a family member who hurt them but has since passed on. They still feel people who cut them deep but have never once breathed an apology. You might feel you have a right to hold a grudge, yourself.

What if anger is not strength?

Bitterness is an enemy of resilience. It is the opposite of joy isn’t it? It is the taste of poison.  You cannot be strong and move forward with your life while still dragging around chests full of bitterness from your past like you’re Jacob Marley.

What kids rarely learn is that forgiveness is more for the forgiver than for the offender. Forgiveness is not, “I am OK with what you did.” It isn’t even, “I accept your apology.” It is, “I am not going to hold this in me or against you anymore.”

The point of forgiveness and apologies is ultimately reconciliation. An apology is extended by the person who committed the hurt. They need to do that to get free. Forgiveness is extended by the person who was hurt. It frees them more than the offender. Then two free people who have freed one another can move on to work out how to live together in love.

Even if you can’t get to reconciliation you can still forgive, and bring closure to a hurt. You can do that even if there is no apology. If you’re too hurt to forgive right away, take time to scab over. But try not to hold on too long. The anger you nurse is just the hurt hanging on. Being angry is not being strong. Forgiving brings strength that lets us really heal and move forward with life without waiting for someone to let us out of the bitterness prison.

Go ahead and forgive

Forgiveness is uncommon enough that it is actually studied. You can be a forgiveness expert.  A growing body of research shows that best forgiveness practices are about people exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness even if there is no justice or even hope of reconciliation. One tries to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. As a result, the forgiver reduces their anger, anxiety and depression and improves their self-esteem and hope (Robert Enright). A good reason to forgive is to protect your health!.

We dare not conflate forgiveness and reconciliation. People often do, but we dare not. Forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation, restitution or justice. The offer of forgiveness can be unconditional, not dependent on the other’s response at all, including an apology. Sounds like Jesus, right? Reconciliation, when at least one party is deeply and unfairly hurt, is the fruit of forgiveness and apology and is conditional; it depends on how the offending party or parties understand their hurtful ways and change. Sounds like what Jesus would like to build, right?

A forgiver is motivated by their desire to be rid of resentment and act as good as is possible  toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, you don’t act like they do. Yet, you can still have the intention to reconcile if the person changes and interaction becomes safe. You even can show an outward quality of forgiveness, for example, by not talking disparagingly about the offender to others. It is working out Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If a person keeps abusing you, you can struggle for peace instead of just struggling against hurt. You don’t need to bear their responsibility.

Why not be healthy? If you reject forgiving because you conflate it with reconciliation, you  deprive yourself of a chance to recover, lead a healthy psychological life and even a healthy relational life with others (if not necessarily with the offending person). Deep anger from injustices can lead to a lack of trust in general, thwarting potentially uplifting relationships.

How we think about forgiveness is important. If we make the mistake of waiting for an apology or holding out for an ideal reconciliation, we allow the offending person or a passing act to dominate us for a long time, maybe even for a lifetime if the wound is deep enough. Forgiving and reconciling are not the same. You are free to forgive, if you choose, even if someone refuses to apologize.

Jesus Collective is taking us back to the future on the “third way”

Jesus Collective is having a hard time keeping their “third way” idea from sinking into the polarization that dominates North American thinking these days. Here’s a podcast that reveals the struggle.

I think some Christians, likely more “progressive” types,  might bristle when they brush up against Jesus Collective and hear “third way.” They might think we refer to more third way politics, which is an idea common enough to have its own Wikipedia page.

A third way approach to politics is probably why “the squad” is usually frustrated with Joe Biden who practices a kind of centrism which tries to  reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by synthesizing elements of center-right economics with some center-left social policies — a third way between the binaries.  Some elements of the church have been meandering through the minefields of post-modern discourse for some time with this third way political approach. It feels tepid to much of the new generation.  The newest regimes are busy deconstructing entrenched compromises that perpetuate evils like white supremacy and heteronormativity.

At its best, the “third way” what Jesus Collective is talking about is older and newer than finally taking a side within the politics of the present era. The best way of Jesus is not one side or another in the endless arguments of the world and not a tepid way of conflict avoidance down the middle. It is a transcendent way of love following Jesus in his death and resurrection.

Click pic for James Emery White post

A new flowering of the third way

There is a new generation of leaders in the church, worldwide, who have taken the Third Way baton from thinkers in the 1970’s, who were experiencing what some people name the “fourth great awakening” in the United States. In his famous book, The Dust of Death (1973), Os Guinness said,

How often in the contemporary discussion a sensitive modern man knows that he cannot accept either of the polarised alternatives offered to him. In Christianity, however, there can be a Third Way, a true middle ground which has a basis, is never compromise and is far from silent.

Jesus Collective is fond of referring to Paul Hiebert and his 1978 application of “bounded” and “fuzzy” sets to human groups and proposing the church as a different, or third, kind of set: a “centered” set. Heibert, the great missionary and practical theologian, suggested that rather than staying stuck in a Western, left-brain-dominated prison, Christianity needed to be released to regain its natural dynamism and allow everyone, as it traditionally had, to be a part of the movement toward Jesus as their definition of belonging rather than a set of superficial and static identity markers.

The new leaders carrying this old baton are running into a difficult world. It is hard to say where the politics of the world is moving right now. It seems hopelessly polarized. No one knows what to do. In some sense, the politics all seem very new, since the world has never been so united by common media, by huge technologies, by a pandemic and by climate change. But something very old is at work, too. An authoritarian spirit has often accompanied social disruption throughout history. It is here again. Leaders are promising troubled people a return to what was, or a reform to what should be — promises of safety sure to disappoint.

I think Gerald L. Sittser in his book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (2019) helps people who only know third way politics to understand third way Christianity — a way that transcends whatever are the most common ways the godless world relies on and presents an alternative way.

Sittser says the Christian alternative,  the new or “third” way, was first identified in a second-century letter written to a Roman official named Diognetus. You can read it, here. In this letter, an anonymous apologist is trying to explain the essence Diognetus has noticed in this new people group expanding across the Roman Empire. Other people were writing similar things at the time but this letter is the first, extant piece that alludes to a “third way:”

You want to know, for instance, what God they believe in and how they worship him, while at the same time they disregard the world and look down on death, and how it is that they do not treat the divinities of the Greeks as gods at all, although on the other hand they do not follow the superstition of the Jews. You would also like to know the source of the loving affection that they have for each other. You wonder, too, why this new race or way of life has appeared on earth now and not earlier.

When the author uses the word “genos” to describe the “new race or way of life” of the Jesus followers, it is a bit hard to translate since the word has some dynamism to it, much like the movement Hiebert sees in his centered sets. Jesus followers are a people defined by how they were born and where they are going. They don’t match the definitions of the present age. They are born and live just as the Apostle John said:

[Jesus] was in the world (a fuzzy set), and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own (a bounded set), and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name (a centered set), he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)

The way of Jesus in the second century was noticeably in contrast to the Roman way (the first way) and the Jewish way (the second way) which Romans respected. Neither of these distinctive features of the church lasted, unfortunately, and the “third way” became a persistent minority in the church at large. At least in Europe, the church became Rome and reinstated the imagery of the sacrificial system of the Jews along with its legalism. But at the time Diognetus received the letter, these things were not yet true. He was a Roman searching out the way of Jesus which is presented as a new or third way.

What makes the third way an ongoing new way?

Many people are talking about the third way these days, which is why Jesus Collective is being found by people all over the world. In every denomination and nation people are seeing beyond what polarizes them, moving toward Jesus, and travelling with others on the way. Many people are teaching what the third way means. Here are three of its distinctives I can name for you.

  • The Third Way is about a transcendent destination

Sittser says

Christians believed in the reality of another and greater kingdom over which God ruled. It was a spiritual kingdom—not of this world, but certainly over this world as superior and supreme, for this world’s redemption, and in this world as a force for ultimate and eternal good.

To move with Charles Taylor, Jesus followers have an appreciation for what lies outside the immanent frame of modernity.  In the words of Iain McGilchrist they are not in bondage to the left-brain philosophies and practices associated with scientism and capitalism. Like James (4:4) says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” Having a relationship with Jesus conditioned by the ways of the world is unsustainable.

  • The Third Way is a movement

Like the sun overwhelms the lesser light of the moon and stars, God’s kingdom transcends lesser authorities. This revelation can only be known if one is moving toward the center. One day mercy and justice will be revealed to all. Now is the time to move with the light we have toward that glorious day.

I don’t totally understand this chart, but i feel it.

Heibert struggled for a way to help people out of their static orientation when it came to knowing God:

Centered sets are dynamic sets. Two types of movements are essential parts of their structure. First, it is possible to change direction—to turn from moving away to moving towards the center, from being outside to being inside the set. Second, because all objects are seen in constant motion, they are moving, fast or slowly, towards or away from the center. Something is always happening to an object. It is never static.

Illustrations of centered sets are harder to come by in English, for English sees the world largely in terms of bounded sets. One example is a magnetic field in which particles are in motion. Electrons are those particles which are drawn towards the positive magnetic pole, and protons are those attracted by the negative pole.

Much of Christianity and most of postmodernism is bound by definitions and power struggles about purity. Heibert was struggling to present a deeper picture. I think he is moving with the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Corinthian church:

 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God [here are those three ways again],  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:32-3)

He is not trying to find a secure place in a well-defined and protected territory, he is moving with the mission of Jesus.

  • The Third Way is fueled by a passionate motivation

Love is deeper than righteousness. The Apostle Paul struggles to get this across in his letters. To the first way Romans he writes:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-9).

That is the subversive conviction that undermined the authoritarian Roman Empire.

To the second way Judaizers in Galatia he writes,

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

We always need to keep ourselves reminded that law condemns but love forgives. Law makes for fuzzy or bounded sets, but love is the centering impulse of the Lord.

If love for Jesus and others, love from Jesus and others, does not hold the church together, there is no center, nothing to keep it together and moving together. It is only a fuzzy or bounded set and has rejoined the way of the world at the cost of the Word. The growing, new understanding of the Third Way which was so humbly powerful in the Early Church is still the best way to move with Jesus through this troubled time.

Resources for Understanding and Impacting the Borderlands

Saulo Padilla at the wall.

I am going to use this entry to collect resources I have for understanding and experiencing the tragedy and grace happening at the border in Arizona. The area on both sides is called the “borderlands” since it has a character and government all its own. On the American side the military presence of the U.S. and an array of Christians, mostly, who alleviate its cruelty meets the power of the cartels on the Mexican side, who have taken over immigration and made it human trafficking. The shadow Mexican government is also met, mainly by Christians, who care for people caught in the many crises that bang up against the U.S. wall.

Each of the headings is a link to one of seven blog posts I wrote while on the learning tour. Click the title to go to that page. On each of those posts are more specific resources connected to what we were learning each day. Below are general resources.

1. Fridays for the Future #6 — Phoenix/Tucson the most unsustainable: It’s about water

As far as I can tell, now that I know some, Tucson residents are as in denial about their unsustainable sprawl as my research indicated.

2. Education in Agua Prieta

I later got to know more about David Bonilla. He was an intelligent, kind beginning to our exploration of the borderlands, the first of many amazing people making a difference.

Root Causes

Webpage:
Migration Root Causes – MCC US Video
https://mcc.org/safe-refuge

Article:
Indigenous diaspora: Leaving home and the journey across Mexico

Podcast:
Aviva Chomsky on the Real Root Causes of Migration

3. Twentysomething migrants out in a cruel world

I had dinner with a young family of migrants in a shelter designed for their care. They gave me a personal picture of what is happening.

The Migration Experience/At the Border

Article:

How climate change is fueling the U.S. border (3 part series)
Border Patrol Leaves Migrants In Remote Town As Deaths Rise
https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/landless-mayans-coups-and-death-squads

Podcast:

The Out Crowd I: Goodbye, Stranger (thisamericanlife.org)
On Being: Luis Alberto Urrea-Borders Are Liminal Spaces

Books:
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Rigoberta Menchu – Nobel Peace (Book)

Film:
Harvest of Empire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gW84cAN2Pw

Short Youtube Videos:
Guatemala, the CIA and United Fruit Company
Banana Republic: Guatemala, CIA and UFC

4. The two sides of the border wall

One of the main reasons I went to the borderlands was to see where Jesus was there. This was a good day for sensing the Lord’s presence in one of the wounds of the Earth.

Border Militarization and Deterrence

Website:
 The Birth Of Border Militarization
100- Mile Border Enforcement Zone

Article:
Failing To Bring Back The Dead
La Frontera: Artists Along The U.S. – Mexico Border

Podcast:
Beyond the Wall: Reflections From A Former Border Patrol Agent
The Out Crowd II: Take the Long Way Home (thisamericanlife.org)
NPR: When Migrants Die, Many Bodies Remain Unidentified

Books:
Intercultural Church: A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration: Safwat MarzoukSafwat Marzouk
The Devil’s Highway
The Death And Life of Aida Hernandez

5. The legal razor wire on the other side of the wall

I helped migrants during the 2-5am shift at the immigrant center at the port of entry where people can come after they have been caught and summarily removed from the U.S. Then I learned about the lawyers who are trying to help them as they hold the U.S. accountable.

Border Crossing/Sponsorship/Detention

Video: Locked in a Box
Title 42 video: https://www.facebook.com/jorgeramosnews/videos/175798981046625

Podcast:
 Seeking Asylum: Reality at the US / Mexico Border

Books: Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants

6. Fridays for the Future #7: The Climate Wall

We met Todd Miller who has spent a lot of energy looking at the borderlands. He even wrote a book about how climate change  is creating immigration issues.

7. Death in the harsh desert

On the way to Sasabe we got into the desert ourselves to see and feel the desperation and courage of migrants – and to see how many of them die.

2020 open letter on migration from MCC U.S. executive director J Ron Byler.

 

Death in the harsh desert

On day six of our MCC learning tour of the Borderlands in Arizona, we spent a stirring time with Brian Best, one of the Tucson Samaritans. They are devoted to saving the lives of migrants who are making their way through the treacherous Sonoran desert. We took a dirt track off the two lane highway to Sasabe and were soon off the beaten track. The following video gives you an idea of the terrain a migrant has to get through without getting caught by the border patrol.

Our group was ending a time of prayer and remembrance around a cross placed by artist Alavaro Enciso on the spot closest to a reported death of a migrant. Thousands of deaths have been verified since Pima County started carefully tracking twenty years ago; many more people have never been found.

A baby cholla invaded my shoe

Brian Best gave us three hours to get a taste of what it is like to try to make it into the US. For one thing, almost every plant has stickers. I stepped near a baby cholla and spent the next hour getting spines out of my foot and shoe. It takes days to get through the desert and no one can carry as much water as they need. It might be safer to travel by night but hard to navigate and avoid the dangerous plants. There are rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and other animals you need to avoid. It is very likely you don’t have the best clothes or supplies because you can’t afford them. It is quite cold at night and very hot in the day. It is a miracle anyone gets through.

As soon as we exited our van to walk with Brian, we saw a backpack laying on the ground, and then a pile of camouflage shirts and hats nearby. From the bushes we extracted two little satchels we saw. One had three phones in it. Brian’s best guess was the Border Patrol tracked the migrants with hilltop cameras and drones until they emerged at a convenient place to nab them.

My heart broke for these poor, desperate, invisible young men. Most people do not care about them. But they deserve to be remembered like anyone else. I took comfort that God sees and loves them, just like you. But I suffered over the fact that most Americans don’t see migrants as people and feel obligated, for economic reasons, not to love them.

Further resources

In Sasabe we visited the recently-opened welcome center for migrants, Casa de Esperanza, a project of Salvavision. Sasabe is a sleepy little desert town, but it is still a point of entry for migrants and a place where removed people are set loose. While we were there we were treated to snacks in the Super Coyote convenience store down the street.

Sasabe is the starting point for the annual Migrant Trail experience, which you can join. One of our MCC leaders for our tour, Saulo Padilla, walks the trail every year. He would be glad to tell you all about it. (Read Open Your Arms: An Invitation)

Saulo Padilla 
MCC US Immigration Education Coordinator
saulopadilla@mcc.org
574-304-9196

The next day we had another feast at the Tucson table of compassion and activism. We met John Fife, one of the originators of the Sanctuary Movement, which has spread much further than sanctuary churches. (More history)

Fridays for the Future #7: The Climate Wall

On day five of our learning tour in the borderlands in Arizona we met Todd Miller (toddmillerwriter.com). He has been writing about the borderlands for many years and filled us with useful, if a bit terrifying, info.

Miller wrote Storming the Wall: Climate change, Migration, and Homeland Security in 2017 and co-authored Global Climate Wall last month for the Transnational Institute (tni.org). I was glad to meet him. What follows is a version of what he is trying to get everyone to hear.

Climate change drives migration

Guatemala provides a good example of how the changing climate is impacting immigration and what the wealthy countries are doing about it.

As soon as the floodwaters of Hurricane Eta began to recede in November of 2020 people began to head north. 339,000 Guatemalans were displaced by natural catastrophes in 2020. Many people became desperate. They felt they had to face the walls, armed agents, and surveillance systems deployed by the U.S. — and forced on other countries, starting with the heavily enforced border in southern Mexico, to have a chance to live.

The U.S. Government knows environmental catastrophe and displacement within and migration from Central America are linked, whether caused by flooding or drought. In September 2018, after a year of severe drought in the region, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the press, “Food insecurity, not violence, seems to be a key push factor informing the decision to travel from Guatemala, where we have seen the largest growth in migration this year.”

U.S. climate scientist Chris Castro said Central America is “ground zero” for the impact of global heating impact on the Americas. “It’s a paradigm of the wet gets wetter, the dry gets drier, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Everything gets more extreme.” There is an ever-widening swathe of land populated by subsistence farmers where rain has become less reliable.

Then came 2020. At the end of a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic came two back- to-back category four hurricanes. By January 2021, the World Food Programme calculated that those experiencing hunger nearly quadrupled from 2018 to 8 million, and 15% of people surveyed were making concrete plans to migrate north, twice the 2016 level. In 2020, in Honduras alone, almost a million people were displaced because of climate-related causes. This was only only a glimpse of what was happening worldwide with over 30 million people displaced by such events, three times more than those displaced by conflict or war in the same year.

Mexican police corral migrants after they cross the Suchiate River in January 2020

The response of big polluters? Invest in border security

In response the climate disaster and the migration it causes, wealthy countries are building security walls. I have now seen the incredible investment in border security at the US border with my own eyes. All over the world, the largest greenhouse gas emitters are also the world’s top border enforcers. Besides the US, countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK, as well as the European Union and its 27 member states, are constructing walls, deploying armed agents, erecting sophisticated and expensive surveillance technologies and biometric systems, and unmanned aerial systems, often in collaboration with a burgeoning global border industry. Globally, 63 border walls have been built, with 9 new ones announced, up from six when the Berlin Wall fell and South African apartheid was dismantled in 1989. This wall-building has accelerated since 9/11, and particularly since 2010. The US is funding and forcing Central American countries and Mexico to reinforce the US border by militarizing their own.

It seems that there is no limit to spending on national borders and immigration enforcement. US spending on militarizing its southern border and detention and deportation of immigrants has nearly tripled since 2003 from $9.2 billion to $25 billion today. Yet the world’s richest countries have failed to meet even their inadequate promises of money to tackle the impacts of climate change in the world’s poorest countries. The ratio of U.S. Border spending to climate financing, for example, is 11 to 1, based on the annual average between 2013 and 2018.

We are living in a world in which walls, border patrols, Black Hawk helicopters, unmanned aerial systems, motion sensors, and infrared cameras are placed between the world’s highest emitters and the lowest ones (like Guatemala), between the environmentally relatively secure and the environmentally exposed. The U.S. is exporting border protection to Central American countries in an attempt to deter people before they get too close.

This expanding global border regime is increasingly built by private industry. This fuels a lucrative border security industrial complex. Many of the same companies that the US, the EU and Australia have contracted to fortify their borders and detention systems also have been hired by fossil fuel companies in order to protect oil pipelines and other parts of the industry. The company G4S, for example, not only has contracts with the CBP to provide armed and armored transport for migrants arrested near the US–Mexico border, but also provides protection services to Royal Dutch Shell, the seventh largest corporate emitter of green house gas worldwide.

Rhetorically, political leaders from the world’s highest emitting countries are aware that the poor bear the burden of suffering. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for example, says he knows that the “consequences are falling disproportionately on vulnerable and low-income populations. And they’re worsening conditions and human suffering in places already afflicted by conflict, high levels of violence, instability.” With such awareness, one might assume that US national budgets would reflect the will to alleviate the suffering Blinken describes. Instead, the United States – and many of the other high-emitting countries – pour increasing money into border and immigration enforcement.

At the end of the day, budgets speak much louder than rhetoric. In the present status quo, tens of thousands of people from Guatemala and beyond will face the armed guards and gates of the United States, as thousands of others face the rough Mediterranean waters around Fortress Europe.

The Bible consistently tells us that how we treat the stranger is a measure of our right relationship with God. How the rich treat the planet creates strangers on their doorsteps. What would the Lord have us do?

Further Resources

One of the big moments of this day on our learning tour was visiting Casa Alitas. This mission started when someone found an immigrant released from custody and wandering around the bus station in Tucson, where they had been dropped. Women, especially, started inviting these strangers into their homes. They got a house where they convinced the authorities to drop released people. They outgrew it and moved into a soon-to-be-demolished monastery. The country eventually gave them a large, unused part of the youth detention center. I was moved to tears by the generosity and service of these inventive, compassionate people! Over 400 volunteers make their mission effective. One of them became an MCC worker and the leader of our tour. You might like to know her:

Katherine Smith  
Border & Migration Outreach Coordinator
West Coast Mennonite Central Committee
Tucson, AZ
Cell: (520) 600-1764
katherinesmith@mcc.org

Valarie Lee James found a manta buried in the desert sand near Tucson. It is the all-purpose cloth Central American women often embroider and then use to keep tortillas fresh or any other regular purpose.  It was a shockingly personal item to find. She then found another and another. She cleaned them, honored the, and turned them into art installations. One of which is in a permanent museum collection in Sweden. She then encouraged migrant women by engaging them in their art. She then realized their art could support them and other causes. Thus, their is an Etsy shop called Bordando Esperanza (hope embroidering/crafting).

The legal razor wire on the other side of the wall

I actually fell asleep in the back set of the van yesterday and missed my second visit to Bisbee Arizona!

I was sleepy because I volunteered to help with the 2-5am shift at the Migrant Resource Center, which is right at the exit of the border crossing. It is a project that began in the Church and remains a wonderful place of mercy for tired, scared and often bewildered people. We had sandwiches, coffee, blankets, a place to nap and a few supplied for about 80 people by my count. I helped one young man find a new pair of pants since his had been ripped on the razor wire. I also found him some new outerwear since his coat was full of thorns. Most of the mostly men waited to be retrieved by their smuggler and taken to a cartel “safe house.”

I was glad to be awake enough to meet Noah Schram of the Florence Project out of Tucson, now 120 lawyers and trained people advising and defending people in the immigration process. One of us jokingly told him we were on our learning tour trying to make sense of the U.S. Immigration process. He laughed too, because no one can really do that.

Right now Title 42 is still in place. It was one of Trump’s executive orders that effectively closed the border. In the name of public health no one was allowed in when they went the legal route of presenting themselves at the port of entry and there was no means to appeal. All the lawyers note this is against the international agreement on refugees to which the U.S. is a signer.

People still get in, however. They evade capture when they scale the wall or they manage not to die of thirst or exposure when they cross where the wall ends far out into the desert. Many do die and their remains quickly dry up; no one knows how many.

Those who cross and are captured from certain countries can get through an asylum loophole since Mexico will not take anyone back who is not from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. Unaccompanied minors get dropped off and get through the port of entry now under Biden’s rules. If a family with a young child is caught in the desert they usually get through.

Getting through and into the legal process of gaining asylum means going to the detention center part of a prison. There 14% of the migrants will get representation to help make their case to the immigration judge. Imagine being in your twenties, fleeing your impossible or violent situation, making it through the longest trip you’ve ever taken under the thumb of the cartel, making it over the wall or around it and through the desert, being caught by the military presence in the United States, taken to a prison, then getting into a bureaucratic and legal fight which is done mainly by English speakers!

That’s where Noah and his people come in, God bless them. The system is not designed to welcome strangers, just repel them. The judges are rarely impartial, taking the side of the unrepresented; many of them function more as another prosecutor. When I read the Bible these days I see how much of it is written with such injustice and lack of compassion in mind.

Further Resources

Noah Schram in making such good use of his law degree! The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project is on of many such projects along the border. Every immigrant needs an advocate to get through a system designed to trick them, detain them, and thwart them even when they are in line with international and U.S. law.

The 1951 Refugee Agreement is still in place.

The United States has long guaranteed the right to seek asylum to individuals who arrive at our southern border and ask for protection. But since March 20, 2020, that fundamental right has been largely suspended. Since that date, both migrants seeking a better life in the United States and those seeking to apply for asylum have been turned away and “expelled” back to Mexico or their home countries. These border expulsions are carried out under a little-known provision of U.S. health law, section 265 of Title 42, which the former Trump administration invoked to achieve its long-desired goal of shutting the border. The Biden administration has continued using this provision, and over 1.2 million expulsions have been carried out since the pandemic began, even though ports of entry remain open with nearly 11 million people crossing the southern border every month and thousands flying into the United States every day. (full article from the American Immigration Council)

The Department of Justice contributes to non-profits like FIRRP through its Legal Orientation Program. Only 14% of people seeking asylum are represented however. We spoke to one of them who somehow connected with people from a Tucson church visiting  Eloy. It took TWO YEARS for her unjust detention to be ended, but she made it. Now she has started a business.

Why do the authorities release people without their shoelaces? What in the impact of the Migrant Protection Policy (MPP)? (Anchorage Daily News)

Immigration court judges are not impartial. The system in broken. (NYTimes)

On this day we also visited the brick-making neighborhood of Agua Prieta, Sonora, to see DouglaPrieta. It is a project begun by women seeking more dignity to make their own way in the world. It is a mutual teaching center for backyard farming, sewing, carpentry and other skills. What we witnessed was how good a training center it was for disempowered women to become leaders and builders. They even made their own adobe bricks to make one of their buildings! I bought some of their work to take home.