ZIMBABWE – Women of Zimbabwe Arise!

Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Zimbabwe police have repeatedly arrested activists from the women’s group Women of Zimbabwe Arise! (WOZA) for organizing peaceful demonstrations to protest the worsening social, economic and human rights situation in the country. WOZA members have been intimidated, harassed and ill-treated by police officers.

In the wake of parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2008, Zimbabwe’s future seems uncertain. The government has cracked down on human rights defenders, trade unionists, lawyers, journalists, election observers and opposition activists. On May 5, 2008, police broke up a peaceful demonstration by WOZA members, who were protesting the state-sponsored violence that has occurred following the elections. Approximately 60 WOZA members had to seek medical attention for the injuries they sustained at the hands of the police.

Amnesty International is deeply concerned by the repression of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. The government, in an effort to conceal human rights violations and prevent public protest and criticism of its policies, is actively seeking to silence them. You might consider incorporating the symbol of a rose into your messages of solidarity for WOZA, as WOZA members often give out paper roses during their peaceful marches to symbolize their message of peace and love.

Please send messages of support to:

PO Box FM 701

A Different Kind of War/Habeas Corpus

Here is an episode of This American Life you should listen to. People in Gitmo for 3 years for printing a joke. Held indefinitely even when classified documents say that they are no threat to the United States.

These are not people ‘plucked from the battlefield’. They are plucked fromtheir homes. Only 5% were taken by American troops on the battlefield – or fighting anywhere. And only 8% are classified as Al-Qaeda members.

Tell me again why we need to do this. I must be dense, but I’m still not getting why this is anything but evil. Evil, and possibly, like almost everything Bush or his administration has done, stupid. But the stupid part doesn’t excuse the evil part. Not by a long shot.

Here is a quote that made me stop what I was doing and listen again. This is how a detainee described his treatment. His crime? At some point in history, he was “present at Tora Bora.”

“…Americans forced him to the ground and urinated on him. We put out our cigarettes on him. We shocked him with an electric device. We spat on him. We poured a hot cup of tea on his head. We told him that “We brought you here to kill you”. We beat him until he vomited blood. We threatened to have him raped. We dressed him in shorts and left him in a frigid, air-conditioned room. We abandoned him in another room with no water. We invited him to drink from his toilet bowl, which he did. We wrapped him in an Israeli flag. We told him that we would hold him forever. We told him that we would send him to Egypt to be tortured. On a different day, we chained him to the floor and cut off his clothes while a female MP entered the room. We dripped what we said was menstrual blood on his body. When he spat at us, we smeared this blood on his face. We kissed the crosses around our necks and said “This is a gift from Christ for you Muslims.” We videotaped the entire episode.”

All techniques described by other prisoners, by officials at Guantanamo. While the above description of treatment cannot be proven, since the one it was supposedly inflicted upon is in an unprecedented legal black hole we have created, still…it is quite plausible. None of it is worse than what we know is already going on there.

The person described above later tried to hang himself in his cell. It wasn’t his first suicide attempt. His concern was that, if he died and only our military knew about it, then people would never learn what was happening to him and to others held in our illegal, immoral and unconscionable prison at Guantanamo.

And this is what John McCain wants to last for a thousand years. This is what Bush wants his legacy to be. The destruction of habeas corpus, which has been at the core of Western law for 800 years, which is in Article 1 of our Constitution, which is a reason that we fought the Revolutionary War in the first place.

This is Bush’s legacy. This is the legacy of the Republican party that supports his policies. This is the legacy of the Democratic party which lacks the conviction or backbone to fight back. This is our legacy as we pay our taxes, taxes that pay for people to be killed and tortured. Is it because they are Al-Qaeda? Nope. Because they were engaged in combat? No. Because we have proof they are terrorists? No. Because it is just? No. Because it is legal? No. Because it will make us safer? No.


R.I.P. Utah Philips

Utah Philips died on May 23, 2008.

I went on a road trip, sort of a pilgrimage, thinking I would find him where I he was living in Nevada City, CA. I didn’t make it that far – my wife and I found a bookstore to peruse instead in one of the little towns on the way, and had to turn back once we realized what time it was. I really regret that now, but you never know. You just never know. I have no idea what I would have said if I found him. I guess I just wanted more of a connection than just hearing his recorded voice.

I have at least four friends whose lives were changed, to a significant degree, by Utah Philips. Not by his music – as a musician, music wasn’t his great strength – but by his stories. He was a towering, tremendous, wondrous repository of stories. He described himself as a sort of story-collector, gathering up reflections of the lives he encountered as he traveled across the country. He was motivated by a moving love of this country, especially moving from my cynical and pessimistic point of view. He was a natural and relentless lover of people.

The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere is still one of my favorite albums of all time, any genre. The album is a collection of Utah’s stories (and one poem) embellished by an evocative soundtrack produced by Ani Difranco. It is incredible. I cry half the time when I listen to it. I try to do three things at least once a year – listen to that album all the way through, read the collected writings of Martin Luther King Jr., and watch the film Gandhi. It is…well, like I said, its changed the lives of at least four of my friends, and a cursory look at what people are saying about his death tells me that this happened to a lot of people when they heard him speak.

Maybe what is most amazing about him is that what he says has such an effortless weight. It just strikes you to the bone as obviously true, clearly true, undeniably true. His life, the lives he has collected stories about, just resonate with my life, even though there’s almost nothing on the surface in common between us. But when he talks about what it means to be alive – its so moving because I’m there with him, somehow.

When I talk about anarchism, Utah’s stories are quietly in the background, sharing the company of theologians and philosophers and revolutionaries. When I talk about pacifism, I am sometimes hearing his voice among all the other voices, which now reaches out to me even from beyond death, to remind me of what is true and beautiful in this world.

Its been a bad year so far for me in terms of people dying who I didn’t expect to die, and whose deaths are impacting me more than I’d expected.

A friend of mine blogged about Utah, and talked about a song that he heard him sing when he saw him in Chicago not long before he died. Here is a direct quote, because he says it better than I can:

The song was a perfectly simple call and response. He sang a line – “Dorothy said, swords into plowshares” and the audience responded “Ship’s gonna sail, gonna sail someday.” The chorus was equally simple:

We’re working on a ship, may never sail on it,
Ship gonna sail, gonna sail someday
Working on a ship, may never sail on it,
Gonna build it anyway.

Utah Phillips never got to sail on the ship. But he lived a life committed to building it, and to teaching others how and why to build it, and to telling the story of how it got to be built thus far. And now, even though we need that guidance as much as we ever have, he’s gone.

Ship’s still gonna sail someday.

Still gonna build it anyway.

But damn if it didn’t just get harder.

I honestly believe that the time for those in this world who worship violence and death and power at the expense of others – their days are numbered. I have to believe that, or else there is no point in believing anything at all. But the waiting until those numbered days run out…its a long, sad wait.


Anarchism is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics as “the view that society can and should be organized without a coercive state.”

“An anarchist is anybody who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.” -Ammon Hennessey, as quoted by Utah Philips

Prayer Experiment 1: Fear of Prayer is Fear of Pain

There’s some profanity in this one. So you’ve been warned. Also, this is not some kind of call for reassurance or that kind of thing. It is a post to myself, and I’m not even sure I’ll click [Publish Post].

The topic for this post has been rattling around in my head for a few weeks now. It occurred to me during the Multicultural Conference as my mind was, honestly, wandering a little at some point.

I often reflect to myself that I am not good at many of the things that are usually associated with Christianity. I am not a naturally trusting person. I think it has to do with going through abuse as a kid and adolescent and having a few hard knocks since. Nothing extraordinary, and at this point mostly reconciled, but breaches in trust when you’re very young just stay with you a lot longer than you’d think, and they come up in strange and disturbing ways.

I am also not naturally very hopeful. I am a pessimist. I hedge my bets. I always, always plan for the worst. If you ask me what I will do if something goes wrong, I’ve got at least three or four answers off the top of my head, because I’ve been obsessively thinking about it long before you even thought to ask. This could be connected to childhood issues as well. Also, to be honest, some things have gone wrong severely enough in my life that those worst-case-scenario plans actually had to be put into action. My life has been easier than most people’s lives, I definitely realize that, but there have been times that it has been as hard as I could possibly stand without absolutely breaking down.

I also don’t pray very often. I’ve said in the past that I pray publicly as part of pastoral ministry and other than that I pray as an act of desperation. I pray shipwrecked, stranded, hopeless, lost prayers when all else fails me. This is partly a habit from when I though that you should never pray when instead you could act. I’ve gotten past that view since to see value in prayer itself…I just don’t do it very often.

What occurred to me is that, to a large degree, I don’t pray because it is so painful to do so most of the time. When I’m leading prayer or praying as part of a worship service, I am caught up in the moment, and my thoughts of the other people gathered there, and so the pain is dulled, but it still comes out in what I say when I’m not scripted. But by myself, if I pray honestly, it is incredibly painful.

I mention not being a trusting person and not being a hopeful person because those definitely play into this problem. There are two other things that I have identified as well in my reflection (and there has been a huge amount in my life for a while now on this topic). Those two things are grief and fear.

The grief comes most strongly when I try to make any kind of intercessory prayer. I just…I feel the weight of tragedy and horrible things going on in the world very deeply and viscerally. I have been profoundly re-sensitized by my spiritual life and my service to the Church and my study of scripture and my life in different communities. All of those statistics that we gloss over so glibly have kept me awake in the past with anguish and still do. The idea that we are destroying hundreds of species, so that they are gone forever without even a trace in many cases, every year, is devastating. It attains the level of unimaginable tragedy in my mind – beautiful things I believe were created by God which we destroy wantonly and thoughtlessly. And they will never be back. Good things of God’s world that we will never, ever get back.

I read about what we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, what we have done in the past in so many dozens of places to millions of innocent people, and I feel a deep shame and a creeping horror that I cannot escape or wash off. That is the weight of sin that I feel most deeply – that horrible things are being done and I have not done everything in my power to prevent them. And I can’t. I don’t have the energy or the strength. I have so much to worry about just wondering where I will live in two months or how I will afford to live, or whether my wife will get to start work again, and in the meantime how do we pay our bills? I do little paltry things like this stupid blog and my stupid little letters and occasional volunteering (God I wish I had more time) and tiny donations that I can’t afford and its pathetic and shameful that this is all I do.

There is no way I can make any kind of accounting for my life. None whatsoever. I cannot even begin to think of how I would find my life acceptable in any theological or moral sense. I’ve got nothing. And I grieve for the terrible things that wound the world that I cannot stop, and I grieve at my own shameful failure to do more, to do something, anything more than I am doing.

This transitions well into my point about fear. I fear that I will be convicted if I dare to pray for very long, that my petty hypocrisies will be brought to light and will be made starkly visible. That I do not do enough to love my enemies. That I do not do enough to end violence against the helpless which my taxes pay for and my silence empowers. That I do not do enough to care for God’s creation. That I am too much a slave to the shit that I buy with money I earn doing a job that just feeds the machinery one hour, one transaction at a time. That I do not do enough to represent Christ to the people in my life. That I am too quick to anger and too long to forgive. That I let fear and anxiety control me. Over and over and over. One thing after another.

I always wonder what I am doing here. I know what I am doing here, and I also have no idea what I am doing here. You’re supposed to get things you deserve. Right? That’s what Job’s friends said, and they seem like smart guys. You are supposed to have earned what you have. Good things are a reward and bad things are a punishment. Right? So then how is it that I am being rewarded?

Partly it is the bare, terrible fact that I benefit from injustice and I let it happen. I can justify this to myself any number of ways, and God knows I do, but it is in the end unjustifiable. If I had any integrity whatsoever, I would never dare to spend money to go to seminary while a single human being was starving, or living in oppression, or dying from diseases borne by polluted drinking water. If I had any integrity, I would not be here. I only have a bare, reckless hope that having gone here, I can do more good than otherwise. That very much remains to be seen.

So I don’t have integrity. That can’t be what I am being rewarded for by having these opportunities. And we’ve covered the fact that I am untrusting and unhopeful, that I am moved to grief and shame when I consider who I am, that I am driven by fear to hypocrisy and a flinching hesitancy.

But then again – dammit – then again, there have been things that have happened, which have made it possible for me to stay here, when there are only the most feeble explanations for them, desperate grasping for things like lucky coincidence…deep down, below where I usually know things, I sense that this is God. This is God saying “you selfish jerk, I want you right where you are. And I am going to make you depend on me if it kills you.”

And it almost has. And it might yet.

And shit. I’m backed into a corner, have been backed into a corner a few times while I’ve been here, where my wife and I have just looked at each other, and usually started to cry a little, or a lot, in relief, and thought what is going on? This isn’t supposed to happen. How did this happen?

[And this is one big reason why I cannot accept penal substitutionary atonement. If God must punish, then God cannot possibly punish enough. But when the time came, God chose not to punish at all, not even to fight back when we in our insanity chose to punish God in our midst, to torture and execute the eternal Word for the sake of our fear and hysteria and arrogance. God is the one who accepts unjust punishment from us, and who, in love, refuses to mete out just punishment that we have long had coming. That is why this God is different, to me at least. This is why this God is actually God. Because this God’s grace is so huge that it shatters our concepts of what justice is, what punishment means, what we deserve; all of it lies in ruin on the floor in pieces, and God is still standing there, brushing the last bits of our notions of punishment and reward from God’s hands, saying “Now we are done with that.”]

But I digress. I have decided to take up an experiment, in light of all the things I’ve typed above, which are not new realizations at all. This experiment is going to seem paltry and elementary to most of you – a real no-brainer – but it is big to me. And if you want to make comments to that end, frankly, expect them to be deleted.

The experiment is: I will pray for a set amount of time every day. I will pray about all of these horrible things that I see going on around me, in intercessory prayers which are by far the most painful for me to pray. I will pray on behalf of the many people I know well who are suffering. I will pray on my own behalf, for all of the things that I lack. I will then see what happens. If I feel inclined, I will post about it.

That’s the plan.

Easter Part Two: Tell It

I regret to inform you that my experience during the Easter season has only strengthened me. Part of it was the experience of designing, writing and leading a Good Friday service that focused on death and grieving and then coming to an Easter service that was chock full of people and which went very, very well. I like worshiping in small spaces when you have small amounts of people. 50 people in a room built to seat 300 is depressing. 50 people in a room where they are violating the fire code by exceeding capacity is awesome.

I don’t want distance, don’t allow myself distance, partly because another part of me craves it. Part of me wants to stand On High at the pulpit, declaring to the congregation what The Word of God is for them today, with them looking up with rapt stares, hungrily receiving my brilliant words. But the part of me that wants distance is the part of me which, if I am to be a good person, I need to ignore. I got a lot of participation out of the members who came to Good Friday, and it made me tremendously happy to see it and be part of it, and I can’t get participation if I’m Up Here and “you” are Down There.

The reason I say “I regret to inform you” is that I know that the positions I take are not popular with a majority, perhaps, of my denomination. When I say that as Christians we should never support violence of any kind, I know that I’m going against a long tradition of American (and human) war-making. When I say that anyone who reads the Bible is already interpreting the Bible, I go against the grain that says the Bible is plain-sensical, and that those who disagree with this “plain sense” are plain wrong.

Specifically, I feel even more strongly that God wants us to ordain homosexuals to Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I am not going ahead with my own convictions and dragging the Gospel behind me. I am following in a direction that I honestly feel the Holy Spirit is leading us. The time is coming. The tide will turn. I am patient, but I am also resolved, and even energized. Even, dare I say it, hopeful now and then.

I don’t plan on ignoring the standards that we have in the PCUSA. I plan on joining the work to transform them, until they are in line with what I think we are being called to do – to welcome our brothers and sisters whom God has called. I cannot even begin to believe that all of these wonderful, intelligent, faithful people, who frequently embarrass me with their commitment and courage, are a threat to any good and Godly thing. I cannot do any less than believe them when they say they are called by God to ministry. And given that, it is my duty, at the very least, to support them.

I think yet another in a long line of Peter-and-Cornelius moments is coming for us, and probably soon. The table is set by God with some things that we thought for a long time were unclean. The doors are being opened to people we’ve dehumanized and excluded for too long. The conflict is real, and there are substantive issues at stake, but I came out of Easter with some hope for resurrection, some hope that our current troubles are not life, but are the grave, and that life is what is growing in us daily. I honestly want that life to be together, but I understand that well-meaning, intelligent people of conscience can disagree…maybe for a long time. How long, and how many times, has the Presbyterian Church been split on various issues?

I’m about done with the book A Generous Orthodoxy, and in it at one point Brian McLaren talks about how Jesus threatened not with exclusion, but rather with inclusion. I think right now a lot of people are threatened with inclusion. I don’t mean to say that we should give up standards altogether, but rather that…when I talk about this issue, I see the faces of people I have in mind, and am thinking of the stories of the many others. I am thinking of when I was working in campus ministry at The College of Wooster, and the Shower of Stoles came to the college. I didn’t know what it was when I first heard about it. I spent hours in the auditorium where the stoles were draped over everything, an overwhelming array of colors and patterns, each in their own way representing the pain of those whose wish is to serve the church. I took part in reading the names that corresponded to the stoles. I learned some of their stories.

To me, those stoles could be the stoles of African Americans in the past, or the stoles of women who are not ordained in some denominations even now, or the stoles of other groups who have been excluded on “Biblical”, “moral” and “theological” grounds which we have now rejected – for stronger Biblical reasons, for stronger moral reasons, for stronger theological reasons.

Peter felt he had excellent Biblical, moral and theological reasons to protest when God said to eat unclean food, to go out and share the Gospel with an unclean Roman centurion. What he found was that God’s purpose was greater than he had dared to think, greater than he was even comfortable with. I think we are going to find the same thing to be true.

And if it is God’s purpose, then it is inevitable. We will see the change that I and many others hope and pray for. If it is God’s purpose, we will know it by its fruit, won’t we? So far, the fruit of our division over the issue has been venom and vitriol, threats and allegations, exaggerations and invectives. So clearly, to me, this is not God’s purpose. So what do we do instead? What do we do differently, with an eye to bearing fruit that benefits everyone?

Perhaps we say, either way, that it is God’s work and not merely ours. Exhausted, frustrated advocates can rest now and then, trusting that God is bringing good out of all of this. Defensive, punitive defenders of the status quo can take a moment to breathe, to trust that if they are indeed right, then it is God’s work and not theirs, and they will be vindicated. As we become more desperate, feel more threatened, we lose sight of our participation in the Body. As we rely on ourselves more and more, we become defensive and hateful toward our opponents. As we find it within ourselves to trust, however, I think it might make some room for actually being together and not seeking to hurt each other. And that would be a welcome change.