Friday, September 19, 2014

God and Guns

Put a bunch of faith leaders together and you are not likely to find many of them arguing that Jesus really wanted everyone to have a gun. So the panel called God and Guns at the Religion Newswriters Association 2014 conference had activists who want to find ways both to regulate the proliferation of guns in American society and to change the culture that idolizes guns.

It’s not that there was not a spectrum of hackgrounds on the stage. The head of the National Council of Churches and someone with deep roots in Southern evangelical Christianity. Someone from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta.

In some ways, they covered familiar ground in the gun debate, but a recurring message was that this is an effort for the long haul. “Persistence” was the word of the day. But there were some vivid phrases in the discussion.

“We are truly messed up in this area,” said David Gushee of Mercer University, the evangelical as he compared gun violence in the U.S. with other nations. “We have a constant low-grade bleeding going on every day. A lot of our domestic problems are resolved by bullets.”

The disequalizer is the amount of money the gun manufacturers and gun lobby have in this debate. It is a classic example of “the power of vested interest money to override the public sentiment.”

What’s missing, said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, is the support of the grass roots. As if to reinforce what Gushee said about the U.S. standing apart in the world for its gun violence, he said that in a year, Philadelphia loses more people to gun deaths than all the developed nations in the world except one – the U.S.

“The faith community is the most logical one to take the lead,” he said.

Bishop Wright
Bishop Robert Wright, the first African-American Episcopal bishop in Atlanta, offered the theological rationale for that among Christians.

“Piece carry is at odds with the Prince of Peace,” he said, explaining why he banned guns from all Episcopal churches after a new George law allowed guns in churches.

He cited lax gun laws that reinforce people’s hostility to one another as being at odds with Jesus’ call to look out for our neighbor. “They are an affront to God,” he said.

He looked at Scripture and said there are no texts that affirm our obsession with self defense, adding, “You can’t put those words in Jesus’ mouth. Jesus is not from Georgia, he does not speak English and he is not a member of the NRA.”

Finally, he said that enlarging fear is not a very imaginative response to issues around neighborliness. “It is an absolute offense to human dignity,” Wright concluded.

This issue will get some attention in Madison next Monday. There will be a Hearts & Soles rally to prevent gun violence in Wisconsin at noon on the State Street steps of the Capitol. Here’s the explanation:

“Every year, an average of 467 men, women, and children in Wisconsin are killed by guns. One death is too many -- 467 is a crisis that requires decisive and meaningful action. That’s why WAVE is traveling across Wisconsin with a powerful display of 467 pairs of empty shoes, which serve as both a stark reminder of those we’ve lost and a compelling call to action.  

“We will be joined by elected officials, community and faith leaders, victims of gun violence, and other concerned citizens. Together, we will form a united front in the fight to prevent the tragedies that have devastated so many families and communities.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Immersed in immigration – 10 takeaways

Six hours, 21 speakers, four topic areas – it was day exploring immigration in the U.S. There were panels on politics, acculturation, faith communities and human trafficking. It was all part of the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference for 2014, held at the Law School at Emory University in Atlanta. 

1 – Obama’s basis for delaying executive orders on immigration – Merle Black, politics and gov prof at Emory and one of the nation’s pre-eminent (and oft-quoted) scholars of elections, cited poll data from the last few months showing that for Obama, “taking action would mean organizing the election around his weakest issue.” The data shows more disapprove of Obama’s stance on immigration than approve, it’s not a priority for voters and neither party has an advantage on this as an issue. And here’s a twist. Obama has said he would take action by the end of the year. But Black pointed out that in Louisiana and Georgia – two key states in the battle to control the U.S. Senate – the winners must have an absolute majority, not just a plurality. If they don't, there will be run-offs – in December in Louisiana, in early January in Georgia. Will Obama act before those if the Senate hangs in the balance?

2 – And it’s complicated for Latino voters as well – Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute and one of my favorite sources on data, says that immigration is a critical issue for Latino voters, but not the most critical issue. The economy/jobs and the rising cost of health care rank above it for a majority of Latinos.

3 – Religious resonance or not? Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said “When you have read scripture week after week, when you have sung hymns weak after weak, the words of immigration have a familiar sound to them.” But Robert Jones noted that for folks not immersed in faith communities – like the growing portion of religiously unaffiliated Americans – the Biblical phrase “welcome the stranger” sounds strange when the dominant theme with kids is “don’t talk to strangers.”

4 – Family reunification – A recurring theme throughout the presentations was the issue of family reunification. This comes up when one family member is deported, it comes up when Central American kids head north to join family members here, it comes up in the reality that there are some 9 million people living in mixed-status families – one or more members have the needed legal documentation but at least one other person does not, meaning they always live on the edge of disruption.

5 – Domestic violence is an issue – Aparna Bhattacharyya is executive director of Raksha in Atlanta, an agency that works with issues of domestic abuse and exploitation of women from South Asia. Because immigrants may lack proper legal status or because they are vulnerable in other ways, when they are abused, they often do not know where to turn. There may be cultural inhibitions as well, so organizations like Raksha play a vital role (a counterpart in the Madison area is Freedom Inc.).

6 – Immigrants from Africa – We tend to think of immigrants from Africa as slaves brought here a few centuries ago. We tend to think of today’s immigrants as being from Latin America or Asia. But there is a significant increase in immigrants from Africa in the last decade, said Jehu Hanciles, who teaches world Christianity at the Candler School of Theology. Almost half of the African immigrants now in the U.S. have come here since 2000. They are dispersed throughout the U.S. Traditional patterns of assimilation may not apply, both because of their skin color and because they often tend to stay involved in life in their homeland even as they live here. They assimilate with language and social interactions and the roles they take on here, but they tend to retain their religion and cultural values and patterns of family life.

7– Rethinking diaspora – Don Seemnan teaches Jewish studies in the Emory Department of Religion. He noted how much of the Jewish story is built around ideas of exile and diaspora, yet today, the Jewish population of the world is largely concentrated in the U.S. and in Israel, not scattered through many countries as it once was. What does that do the meaning of Jewish life as it shifts from stories of migration and movement to issues of certainty versus vulnerability?

8– Breaking the bonds of sex slavery – Jeff Shaw directs at Organization in Atlanta called Out of Darkness that seeks to give women an escape from sex slavery. He talked about going out at night to hotels and truck stops and giving women working the sex scenes a rose, a card with the group’s phone number and the message “You are beautiful – there is a way out.” The group runs three safe homes with 14 beds and helps women who want freedom to get it.

9– The roller-derby nun – Well, that overstates it a bit. Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck lead her La Crosse congregation of Franciscan nuns from 2002 to 2010 and then was head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious from 2009 to 2011. That’s the group the Vatican went after. She is deeply involved in efforts to eradicate modern slavery (that’s what she was talking about during intermission at a La Crosse roller derby). She talked about nuns forming an underground railroad for contemporary slaves through the network of institutions that congregations of women religious run in this country, of nuns tackling investments in companies that profit from slavery, of working with hotels to train their staff to recognize the signs of human trafficking. And how might religion get in the way of breaking down slavery? “Any denomination whose exclusive focus is on abortion, contraception or sterilization will turn off victims. The only way is to walk with the victims one by one. Those doctrines are precious – we believe them – but it’s not where we start.”

10 – Check how many slaves you have – There’s a web site recommended by Luis CdeBaca, President Obama’s appointee to coordinate U.S. government activities in the global fight against slavery. It’s  I took it quickly. I apparently have 34 slaves working for me around the world.