Beyond the Myth of Scarcity

Thanksgiving is coming up this week, and yesterday SheLoves magazine published a piece I wrote about my childhood memories of Thanksgiving dinner and the cultural myth of scarcity that I grew up with. In light of world events over the past few weeks–violent attacks and decisions about whether to welcome refugees in the wake of that tragedy or not–the choice between living with a mindset of scarcity or a mindset of abundance has never been more crucial. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Growing up in upper-middle class American suburbia, Thanksgiving was usually the day that we ate so much our stomachs hurt—seconds and thirds and dessert, as much as we wanted, because it was a feast day. And although Thanksgiving was a special meal because it brought my extended family together for a big party, it wasn’t like we were leaving the dinner table less-than-full on other days.  I cannot remember there ever being a time when we did not have enough.

I learned early on—in school and everywhere else—that being successful required that I “get ahead.” I learned that the economy and other national interests needed to be protected at all costs, whether that meant bombing our enemies or building walls to keep them out. If they came in, they might suck away our prosperity, leech off our system or, even worse, threaten the affluence and convenience that we had come to jealously guard as our way of life.

Still, we always had more than we needed–everything in abundance–but we did not believe in abundance. Scarcity, or the threat of scarcity, always cast its shadow over our lives…”

Head on over to SheLoves Magazine to read the rest!

 

When I think of Muslims, this is who comes to mind.

The most frequent command in Christian scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The New Testament even presents fear being the opposite of love, stating bluntly that “perfect love casts out fear.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising idea, but on closer inspection it makes perfect sense. Fear propels us to act first and ask questions later; to reason carelessly; to prioritize self-preservation over compassion. Fear can make us irrational, destructive, violent. When we experience terror, we are often willing to scapegoat or accuse or punish anyone if we believe that doing so will bring our unbearable terror to an end. We become obsessed with restoring our sense of safety and comfort as quickly as possible, and all other concerns can easily take a backseat to that one, compelling priority.

Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back in the slum in India, hanging out with some of the women and girls I know there. Frequently over the past year, I’ve had realistic dreams about visiting my friends’ homes, eating and talking with them, but this time it was different—the next morning, my former teammate (who is still there) emailed to say that he had visited our old neighborhood and that many of the people there had asked about Andy and me and passed along their greetings to us. He had likely been talking with them at the same time that I was dreaming about them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, my friends in India are on my mind a lot. Every time someone makes an ignorant generalization accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, I think of the generous and hospitable families in the slum who welcomed me into their lives. I think of the children suffering malnutrition and forced into tedious labor instead at a young age instead of being able to attend school. I think of their parents’ struggles with illiteracy, unemployment, and prejudice from the majority of society. I think about how they could do without any more obstacles placed in the way of living dignified, healthy lives, and I worry about the ways that negatives stereotypes and hatred toward Muslims will affect their lives.

I learned so much from my Muslim neighbors about compassion, loyalty, hope—and, yes, faith. They accepted me into their community despite the fact that we came from different races, different cultures, and different religions. When I remember the risk they took in choosing to get to know me as a person instead of allowing stereotypes to keep me at arm’s length, I can’t help but feel anger at the injustice of others in the West allowing stereotypes of Muslims to erase the humanity of my friends and neighbors in India.

But these are not the only people on my mind. I also think of my refugee friends here in Vancouver. One of them is a young woman from Afghanistan who was forced to flee her country with two young children to keep them all alive. Her daughter, little more than a year old, is nearly the same age as two of my beloved nieces/goddaughters in the United States.

If her case were being handled the way that refugee claims are in my home state of Texas, then she and her children would not be accessing counseling, supportive community, and legal aid to help them cope with the crisis they are in—instead, they would have already been sitting in prison for several months without access to a lawyer, and they would now be looking forward to indefinite detention with no one to help them.

If some of my friends on Facebook had their way, then this vulnerable family would not have even been allowed into North America because they are Muslim. Possibly, they would already be dead.

I think about all of these dear friends every time I hear or read about Muslims being cast as a single, monolithic group characterized by violence. I think about the real people that so many of us are eager to condemn, but whose faces we have never seen, whose stories we have never heard, and whose lives we are willing to hastily cast aside in pursuit of the idol of our own “security.”

The young men playing love songs on their cell phones and flying kites on the roof in my neighborhood in India, my friends’ babies learning to walk and talk, giggly teenage girls walking to school, grief-stricken parents who will risk anything–even a dangerous voyage across an ocean in an inflatable raft–to save their children’s lives: these are all Muslims. Perhaps if we could recognize our own hopes and fears in them instead of directing our fear against them, we would be able to see them for who they really are.

6174828711_4f20846775_o

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37890481@N04/6174828711″>Bangladesh, Ramadan 2011.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

What American Christians Get Wrong About Israel

banksy graffiti on the wall

Graffiti art by Banksy on the dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Over the past month in Israel, violence has been ratcheting up towards the possibility of all-out war. I’ve noticed that Christian friends on social media have begun voicing support for Israel, or commenting on the inherent violence of Muslims. In bewildering circumstances like these, it’s easy to cling to simplistic ideas of good versus evil, typecasting individuals and societies as villains and victims. But until we deal with our unconscious biases and ignorance, we will not be able to see clearly what is happening, and we will not be able to respond effectively. A wise and faithful response to the crisis requires us to educate ourselves about the history and wider context of the conflict. As American Christians, what assumptions or beliefs may be obscuring our view?

We Equate Modern Israel with Biblical Israel

In Genesis chapter 12, God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you,” which many Christians interpret to mean that believers have a responsibility to offer unconditional political support the modern nation-state of Israel. This is an inaccurate assumption because in reality, there are important differences between the twelve tribes mentioned in the Old Testament and the nation-state of Israel. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, governed by priests based on direct revelation from God; modern Israel is a secular democracy, established through the actions of the British colonial government and the United Nations in the 1940s. Furthermore, the nation of Israel is not synonymous with the Jewish people. Not only is there a global community of Jews who have lived outside of Palestine for thousands of years, but within the nation itself, 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and Arab Christians and Muslims across the Middle East also trace their ancestry back to Abraham.

The belief that Christians are commanded to “bless” modern Israel tends to imply a divine stamp of approval for particular Israeli policies or military actions. But instead of unconditionally supporting Israel or any other nation, we as Christians should be evaluating a government’s laws and actions through the lens of the Kingdom Jesus taught: do they result in freedom for the oppressed, or protection for the vulnerable? Do they result in the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed, and the homeless housed? Or do they result in the opposite?

We Misunderstand the Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant is God’s promise to guide and protect Abraham and his descendants, and to give them the land of Canaan; they are commanded to be circumcised as a sign of faithfulness to this covenant (Gen. 15, 17). God not only promises Abraham that his descendants will become “a great nation,” but declares that “all peoples on earth will be blessed by you” (Genesis 12:3). So, the Jewish people are chosen not as a special ethnic group who are more important to God than all other people, but as a conduit of blessing for the whole world. In the Old Testament, non-Jews like Ruth and Rahab join the covenant community through faithful action, and Jesus mentions Gentiles who were cared for or healed by God even when Israel was in distress (Luke 4:25-27).

Jesus fulfills this promise by widening the covenant to include not only people of Jewish descent, but anyone and everyone who joins the family of God through faith. As the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2, Jesus has made Jews and Gentiles “one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 3:6 that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” God’s loving plan for the whole world has been revealed in Jesus.

We Ignore the Occupation

Israel invaded Gaza and the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, and continues to occupy these territories today. Having their homes demolished, losing their land, facing mass incarceration without trial, and denied equal protection under the law, many Palestinians are losing hope of things ever changing. Gaza’s 1.8 million residents live in poverty, unable to access adequate food or safe drinking water, experiencing 40% unemployment; in the West Bank, Palestinians’ water supply is often cut off or destroyed by Israeli settlers. Crossing into Israel for work, Palestinians spend hours each day waiting at security checkpoints, and in emergencies, this restricted movement sometimes means that people die before they can reach a hospital. Palestinian Christians have voiced their belief that conflict will not end until the occupation ends, and they are calling on the international Christian community to hold the State of Israel accountable for its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

The occupation creates an unequal society in which Israelis hold the vast majority of power, wealth, and land, and in which their safety and well-being is maintained at the expense of the safety and well-being of Palestinians. The segregated inequality in which the two groups live generates the fear, resentment, and hatred that breed violence in the first place, and the occupation is a barrier to peace because it depends upon exclusion and violence for its very existence.

We Forget about the Church’s Mission of Reconciliation

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are called children of God,” and the apostle Paul makes clear that a large part of the Church’s mission in the world is reconciliation. Forgiveness, enemy love, and creative nonviolence are all things that Jesus modeled and taught, and throughout history there are numerous examples of this kind of “Kingdom living” bringing peace and healing in situations of conflict. God is the source of true peace, but He brings peace into the world by working in and through human beings.

Working for peace does not mean being neutral, but it does mean that we move past tribal alliances with the people who are most like us. Peacemaking means that we stand on the side of compassion, of life, and of justice, no matter whose government or ideology we find ourselves standing against.

The truth is that the only way for either Israelis or Palestinians to achieve the freedom and safety they want is for them to recognize the humanity in each other, to understand that their well-being is tied together, and to work towards a future in which all are respected and included, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

The New Testament makes clear that our allegiance as Christians is not to any earthly government or ethnic group, but to God and his Kingdom (Matt. 6:24, Acts 5:29). So, I don’t stand with Israel. Neither do I stand with Palestine. I stand with every human being who is angry and afraid, and I stand against the occupation which blocks their shared future.

Like A Mighty Wave: the Power of People United for Justice

There are different kinds of power. Power that liberates, power that oppresses; power hoarded, or power shared. There is the kind of power that comes from external props and circumstances, and then there is power that arises from within.

Today I’m reflecting on power, and remembering the brave women I marched with in India last year. The demonstration was a confrontation between two kinds of power, really–but soldiers and police with their guns and blockades were nothing against the strength of these women with their hearts set on justice. Read the story at SheLoves Magazine.

Love & Solidarity: My guest appearance on the JesusHacks podcast

JesusHacks podcast

So… a few weeks ago, Neal Samudre found my blog and asked to interview me for something called the JesusHacks podcast. As part of a podcast series on what it means to love your neighbor, I shared stories about incarnational living in the context of the slum communities I got to know in India. I love storytelling through writing, but working in the medium of spoken words was an interesting experience–exciting, and also a little intimidating! Hearing my own recorded voice played back was kind of a jolt… but I guess none of us really knows what our voice sounds like to other people until we hear it recorded 🙂 Anyway, this week the podcast went live! You can give it a listen here, or on itunes.

 

Going to college with Christopher Columbus

christopher columbus

I’m not sure what Christopher Columbus was doing on our university campus. Maybe he had taken up residence on the commons because we were a Christian university and he was a Christian explorer, whose voyage to the “New” world had been funded with the property confiscated from European Jews during the Christian Inquisition. Maybe it was because he represented the “manifest” destiny of the Americas; God’s plan to give an entire continent as a Promised Land to Christian settlers (how Indigenous peoples figure into this supposed plan, other than as obstacles to the will of God, has never been explained to me).

For whatever reason, Columbus was allowed onto the school grounds, where he struck an authoritative pose there on his pedestal, pointing a commanding, bronze finger out towards the Pacific Ocean as if to direct manifest destiny even further west. Perhaps towards another ocean; another people to conquer.

I think he was welcome in our midst because we as descendants of Christian European settlers have yet to look critically at our heritage. We have not yet owned up to the brutality of massacres, rapes, and trails of tears that litter our history. Did you know that before he was elected president, Andrew Jackson and his men cut strips of flesh from the bodies of murdered Muscogee Indians, including women and children, and tanned them into human leather to make bridle straps for their horses? It’s the sort of blood-curdling violence we associate with sociopaths, but in this case the perpetrators were men who later returned home to their communities afterward as respected fathers, husbands, and members of local churches. The perpetrators were the U.S. army. This was typical of the genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples across North America from 1492 onward.

Our ignorance of the past prevents us from understanding the ways that colonization continues unabated in the twenty-first century. For instance, did you know that in Canada, hundreds of thousands of First Nations children were forcibly taken away from their families and communities to attend mandatory, church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them into white culture? The last of these schools did not close until 1996. Or did you know that to this day, there is no law enforcement agency in the United States authorized to prosecute a non-Native person for rape, homicide, or any other crime committed on a Native American reservation?

Here we are, 523 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, still celebrating the colonizing oppressor and sweeping the colonized oppressed under the rug, as if they are not still here. As if they were never here.

Why do we do this?

Perhaps, our society celebrates in Columbus the idealized version of our own history that we want to believe. Perhaps the evil he perpetrated and continues to represent is the same shadow side we are unwilling to acknowledge in ourselves as a society to this day.

Now that I think about it, maybe the statue of Columbus on Pepperdine’s campus should stay exactly where it is. Not as a monument to any kind of discovery or heroism, but as a ghost from our own past to serve as a reminder of the incalculable evil that is possible when we refuse to acknowledge the personhood of those who are not like us, and when we take God’s name in vain, pasting it onto our own campaigns of self-interest and self-aggrandizement.

The Surprise Apocalypse

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

An apocalyptic landscape: Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

I’m not in the habit of writing apocalyptic poetry, but I wrote this a few months back as I reflected on what I’ve been learning about the industrial food system, the global economy, and climate change. We often use the word “apocalypse” to refer to the idea mass destruction or the end of the world, but in the original Greek it means “uncovering”: the lifting of a veil; a revelation.  For people who seek to be shaped by the Biblical narrative, its important to know who we are, and where we are, in the story. Imagining all kinds of evil outside of ourselves or our own community without recognizing our role in contributing to life or to destruction is worse than useless–it actually distracts us from using the power available to us to take meaningful action.

I grew up in churches where we talked about the end of the world fairly often, but it was all mystifyingly spiritual–beyond our control and even beyond our understanding. We rarely discussed any of the real-world destruction going on around us in the form of wars or other man-made disasters. We never imagined that we might be benefiting from, let alone contributing to, the very systems of power that were destroying God’s creation or the lives of our fellow human beings.

St. John wrote the book of Revelation to help his readers understand the times in which they lived and to help them respond faithfully to their situation. Here is what it might look like to interpret the book of Revelation in our twenty-first century context of climate refugees, mass extinction, and a worldwide economy that depends on ecological and human exploitation to sustain its perpetual growth:

 

Apocalypse

I nightmared of the rapture

From the age of ten

Looking out for all the signs

That would mark the end:

 

The blood-red moon,

The rebuilt temple,

Rumors of famine and war

It was simple

 

To keep watch and prepare

For the tribulation:

A mysterious age

When the world would be one nation

 

With power concentrated

In a single pair of hands:

The evil antichrist

Against whom we would stand

 

We brave, holy Christians

Ready to be martyred

If we hadn’t been raptured already

By the time the suffering started

 

Yes, this was the revelation

According to St. John

And Tim LaHaye

And on and on

 

They proclaimed with confidence

All those fiery preachers

They understood it all;

They were inspired, spiritual teachers

 

The evil they envisioned

Was otherworldly; other

It had nothing to do with us,

With how we lived with one another.

 

But what if apocalypse does not depend

On events beyond our knowing?

What if the world will meet its end

At the hands that should have been sowing

 

Gardens of perpetual abundance

Instead of economies of perpetual growth

Contentment instead of greed

So that life would not be choked?

 

“Rule over all the earth,and subdue it,”

Say our scriptures in the beginning.

“Tend this garden in my stead,”

But already our heads were spinning…

 

With ways to turn this mandate

For protecting the work of God’s hand

Into the right to rape and plunder

like warlords on stolen land.

 

God said that it was very good

But we couldn’t just take that at face value

There was still untapped potential

For air-conditioning and indoor bathrooms

 

And look, God approves–

With wealth He does bless!

Convenience, comfort,

More is always better than less

 

But somehow we missed the signs

Of the snowballing destruction

That we “the faithful” brought about

With our affluent consumption.

 

“Fallen! Fallen

Is Babylon the Great!”

Her sins are piled to heaven,

Judgment will no longer wait.

 

The saints and apostles

and prophets rejoice,

But we wealthy who made merry

Cannot find a joyful voice

 

“Come out of her,” the Lord had said

But we all felt just fine

It was difficult to leave—

We all had drunk her wine

 

Drunk with power, and distraction

It was difficult to see

all the blood there on our hands

as we lived our lives in ease.

 

For our finely-built houses

We turned forest land to sand

For our juicy beef burgers

We drove peasants from their land

 

But this all was done by proxy,

Please try to understand,

We would not have done this dirty work

Directly with our hands.

 

“Woe! Woe, O great city,

O Babylon, city of power!”

All your horses and chariots and tanks

Could not prolong your life by an hour.

 

For your growing empire was rotting

All along, from the inside out,

Destroying the very nourishment

That you could not live without.

 

You sought to trade

and buy and sell

Human bodies and souls

ecosystems as well

 

You poisoned your own rivers

And you counted it as profit

The important numbers grew,

But you never measured losses.

 

Why think about the future?

In the present, you could thrive.

No need to let inconvenient fact

Intrude on your way of life:

 

Freedom of choice

Freedom of trade

Slave labor hidden

In everything that’s made.

 

Poison air that burns the lungs

Of the workers making shoes

“Pleather weather” over factories

That produce for me and you

 

Ocean waves enclosing

An island homeland beneath the surf

That’s the end of someone’s world,

If not the entire earth.

 

Famines, droughts, deforestation,

And wars waged over water

This certainly will end the lives

Of certain sons and daughters

 

Genocides of birds and of fish

And bees and soil, too.

All creatures that eat food will die.

Eventually, humans do.

 

No showy Armageddon;

Just a slow fading out:

Like a self-inflicted wound

That finally brings death round.

 

Or like the drug addicted

Overdosing on the sidewalk

En masse, of course, but just as

accidental and suicidal.

 

This, the self-made apocalypse

Of prideful, self-made men

More predictable than what we sought

In our cryptic verses back then.

revelation apocalypse

Choosing Love Over Fear When It Comes to the Refugee Crisis

Palestinian refugees in Damascus at Yarmouk camp, 2014

Yesterday I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about what it means to respond as Christians to the plight of Syrian refugees.

This week, I’ve continued to read news stories about the refugee crisis–a crisis which had been unfolding for quite sometime before the Syrian civil war produced enough refugees and enough shocking images at one time to awaken our collective conscience. I attended a town hall meeting here in Vancouver last Tuesday where I learned that despite that bloody civil war and the expanding empire of ISIL, the vast majority of the world’s refugees still come from Africa rather than the  Middle East. At Kinbrace, I’ve also spent time talking with refugees and refugee claimants from Ethiopia, Nepal, Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries, and their stories remind me that even in places that don’t make the headlines, millions of people fear for their lives every day because of oppressive government regimes and armed conflict.

These stories fill me with sadness, but also with frustration and anger over the way that many of us in the West have allowed fear to prevent us from extending compassion to those who are in urgent need of our help. Hungary has now closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict, and the government is arresting those who deem an illegal crossing their best bet for survival. Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean as “Fortress Europe” deliberately refuses to help as a matter of official policy, in order to deter further immigration. But those who are desperate enough to risk the lives of themselves and their children on the rag-tag dinghies of human smugglers will not be deterred from making these deadly voyages, because they clearly have no choice. These journeys are their last hope: either they risk losing their lives, or lose them for sure by staying where they are.

Many in Europe are afraid that the influx of Muslims will threaten the “Christian identity” of Europe, but as Giles Fraser so starkly pointed out in an article for the Guardian newspaper on September 4, the Christian identity of Europe is threatened not by Muslims, but by Christian politicians who refuse to live out the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the oppressed.

And what about North America? Canada welcomed 19,233 government assisted refugees in 1980, but that number has plummeted to just 6,900 in 2015. Furthermore, despite the government’s promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over 3 years, Canada has settled just over 1,000 Syrians so far. Meanwhile, the United States has taken in fewer than 1,000. So far, we North Americans haven’t shown ourselves to be any more hospitable than Europe.

Another security concern that has been raised is the possibility of terrorists slipping in amongst the flood of legitimate refugees seeking asylum. Security experts have already addressed the unlikelihood of this happening. Yet few people have talked about the way that welcoming refugees from Muslim countries actually offers our nations an opportunity to address the root causes of terrorism: poverty, lack of opportunity, traumatization and loss of loved ones in conflict zones, and hatred of the West due to foreign policy and military interventions which negatively impact Muslim civilians in the Middle East. This is a chance to show genuine love and concern to our Muslim neighbors, and to provide a secure future for exactly the kind of children who might otherwise be at risk for radicalization by opportunistic terrorist organizations who prey upon those who are impoverished and discontented.

As citizens of a world increasingly interconnected by economic ties, military involvement, and technology, the refugee crisis is not some distant issue from which we can pretend to be entirely separate. The current situation forces us to confront our political and military contribution to the crisis, and challenges those of us who follow Jesus to live out some of the core tenets of our faith.

Encountering the Enemy

encountering the enemy

illustration by Seth T. Hayne for CAPC Magazine

I wrote this piece awhile back, but today my feature article for Christ and Pop Culture Magazine–on nurturing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through film–has been made available  for free.

At a moment in history where more people around the world have been displaced by violent conflict than ever before, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions about our role in cultivating conflict or peace. Now is the time to question the narratives we tell ourselves about war, vengeance, “redemptive” violence, and enemies. The same ignorance and fear that generates war in the Middle East and Africa and pushes refugees to the shores of Europe and North America also plays out in our own society as alienation between people of different races or faiths, and as destructive relationships between individual people. Forgiveness of others’ sin, and repentance for our own, are both central to the Christian faith. So for those of us who seek to be shaped by the life of Jesus, enemy love and reconciliation should be central to our understanding of our role in the world.

As a Jew, Reena Lazar has worked towards reconciliation in Israel/Palestine by finding creative ways to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth face-to-face with “the enemy” (each other). Yet the wisdom she has accumulated in the process is applicable far beyond the scope of this particular geopolitical conflict.  Her work has much to teach us about building bridges instead of walls, regardless of the role or the part of the world in which we find ourselves. Head on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the article.

Strong Enough to Hold Me

communion

So, I’m writing about church two days in a row–that never happens.

This essay for SheLoves Magazine is a bit more raw; more up close and personal. It explores my journey with Church from a different angle, zooming in on what it looked like sort out my faith in burn-out mode after India. This is what it was like to show up in church, dragging my baggage and doubts behind me. In particular, this is what it was like to take communion on days when I wasn’t sure I was–or wanted to be–part of the Body of Christ. This was what it was like to experience grace on the other side of failure. Here’s an excerpt:

Seeing the delight that the entire congregation took in including small children in the service, gave me hope. So did the fact that there was an old woman who felt free to dance in the aisle while the rest of us sang worship songs with typical Baptist understatement, slightly swaying or clapping where we stood.

For the past two and a half years, I had lived in slum communities in India where children were always buzzing around the edges of adult conversation and activity, but were rarely the focus of constructive attention. I had seen kids locked inside of dark rooms while their parents were at work during the day; I had seen them slapped around, kicked, screamed at, threatened, and neglected…

Head over to SheLoves Magazine to read the rest of the piece.