When something must be done and there is nothing good to do

rev-charles-moore-327x388By Alan Bean

When I reflect on the self-immolation of Charles Moore, I can’t help thinking about the Palestinians.

Neither Moore nor the leaders of Hamas have found a way to change circumstances they consider intolerable.

Rev. Moore’s response was to set himself on fire in his home town of Grand Saline, Texas.

Hamas reacts to the seeming omnipotence of the Israeli military by lobbing rockets in the direction of Jewish cities and settlements.

Both actions are deplorable; but I’m not sure I have a viable alternative to offer either Charles Moore or the Palestinians.

Like Jesus and the prophet Jeremiah, Charles Moore experienced the besetting sins of his own people in a horribly visceral way.  Most of us shrug off the racism and homophobia infecting our culture with an air of ironic resignation.  Sure, it’s disturbing that little towns like Grand Saline are still riddled with racial resentment fifty years after the Civil Rights Act passed Congress, but change is always slow and incremental.  And it is truly unfortunate that for centuries our GLBT brothers and sisters were forced into the closet and ridiculed and scorned whenever they dared step out; but we’re making progress, right?

Charles Moore wasn’t wired to think that way.  He dreamed of things that never were and asked “why not?”  And if he couldn’t understand why sin should prevail with only token opposition, it bothered him in a way that few of us can comprehend.

Perhaps you have been too troubled by the specter of self-immolation to think very deeply about Moore’s motivation.  Many have concluded that the United Methodist pastor suffered from depression,but that was clearly not the case.   Continue reading

Why are New York lawyers defending a man who was convicted in 29 minutes?

CurtisFlowers (1)

This afternoon at 1:30 pm (Central time), Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers, and you can watch the proceedings live.  If you have ever wondered if a prosecutor could conjure up a case simply by manipulating weak and vulnerable witnesses, you will want to check out Professor Johnson’s presentation of the facts.

Tied up at 1:30 and can’t tune in live?  Read the text version of the appeal here.  As legal documents go, it’s a page-turner.

Tunnel vision on trial: an innocent Mississippi man gets his day in court

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Since 1997, the state of Mississippi has put Curtis Flowers on trial six times for the same crime.  But they have never been able to lay this case to rest.  Either the jury deadlocks along racial lines, or the state overturns the conviction on the basis of flagrant racial bias.  On Monday, July 21 at 1:30 pm, Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers and you can watch the proceedings live.

You can find the hearing by clicking here.  The feed will likely go “live” about 5 minutes before the 1:30 scheduled start at the Mississippi Supreme Court.

If you can’t watch live, you can find the text version of Professor Johnson’s beautifully crafted appeal here.

The text of Flower’s appeal quickly zeroes in on the salient issue: “Flowers’ sixth trial bore the essential hallmarks of the three proceedings whose outcomes were previously reversed by this Court: weak and unreliable evidence of guilt, and prosecutorial misconduct undertaken to overcome that weakness.”

We are dealing with a case of prosecutorial tunnel vision bathed in racial bias. Shortly after 9 am on July 16th, 1996, four people were found brutally murdered, each with a bullet to the back of the head, in a furniture store in Winona. Three hours later, investigators had ruled out the man tied to the alleged murder weapon and, without a shred of evidence, credible or otherwise, made Curtis Flowers their sole suspect. Continue reading

Want to help the unaccompanied immigrant children? Here’s how.

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Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Crisis

Thank you for attending Tuesday’s Information Meeting. Below are some highlights from that meeting as well as new next steps for the faith community in Greater Dallas.

The Situation

  • 94,000 unaccompanied children are expected to enter Texas by the end of the year, most coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to escape extreme violence, trafficking, and exploitation.
  • The majority will eventually return to their home countries, but first a safe environment will have to be created there.
  • Up to 2,000 children are expected to begin arriving at 3 Dallas-area shelters later this month where each child will only stay for around a month while their case is being reviewed.
  • It appears that Dallas will be a new model of faith-based collaboration with the government as President Obama wrote that into the contract.
How You Can Help Now
  • Family and Immigration Attorneys and Interpreters. All of these children’s cases need to be reviewed to determine the best course of action creating huge demand for family and immigration attorneys and interpreters. Orientation meetings are currently being planned.including one coordinated by Children at Risk on 7/29. Click HERE to volunteer in this capacity.
  • Foster Families. Roughly 15,000 children are expected to be placed with American foster families through the existing Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program which includes an expedited screening process. For more information or to apply, visit the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services or theUS Conference of Catholic Biships pages. Within the next 2 weeks we expect there to be information meetings for interested families.
  • Food and Laundry. Email marla.bearden@texasbaptists.org to be added to a volunteer waiting list. It is not known at this time exactly what volunteers will be needed for other than food and laundry services. We expect to also have information meetings set up within 2 weeks for volunteers interested in serving the children while they’re in the shelters.
  • Monetary Donations. Designated monetary donations are being collected byTexas Baptist Disaster Relief and Catholic Charities,
Expected Next Steps
A government contractor to provide care will be named in the next few days at which time we’ll find out additional ways we may be able to help. Likely possibilities include clothing and toy collection, social interaction, medical aid, and trauma support. We will let you know as soon as details are released.
Thank you so much for everything you’re already doing in the community. If you were previously on the Unite mailing list, you received a very similar message already. We’re in the process of figuring out how to best honor your inbox and still get everyone the information they need. In the meantime, if you’d like to receive updates about upcoming events and resources that will help churches transform ongoing issues in Greater Dallas beyond the Immigrant Children Crisis, click HERE.

Dallas preacher says Jesus would seal the border

JeffressBy Alan Bean

The Rev. Robert Jeffress thinks Jesus would build a fence at the U.S. border so desperate children from violence-ridden countries would be discouraged from heading north.

“Yes, Jesus loved children,” Jeffress admits, “but he also respected law. He said, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars.”

In other words, Christians shouldn’t trouble themselves with immigration policy; that’s Caesar’s concern.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, once suggested that Barack Obama is preparing the world for the coming of Antichrist, so his “Caesar” reference probably doesn’t mean that we should leave immigration policy in the hands of the presiding president.  He means instead that everything Jesus said about welcoming children, and all the warnings he pronounced against those who harden their hearts against the pain of young ones, is irrelevant to American immigration policy.

Sure, Christians must be kind to the children they encounter within the suburban bubble, but the boys and girls of Honduras simply are on their own.

Since nothing can be done for the unaccompanied migrant children on our doorstep, the most compassionate course is to build a border wall so thick and so tall that the poor little blighters will have no choice but to return to the violence and squalor that drove them into the arms of America.

That young girl of seven or eight, carrying her two-year old sister on her back has spawned a crisis of conscience among American Christians.

On the whole, we have responded admirably.  “This is an unfortunate, even awful, situation for everyone,” said David Hardage,  Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “So much of what has happened and is happening is out of our control. What we can control is our response to human need. We will try to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.”

Hardage sees Jesus standing on the side of desperate children, an assumption shared by most Texas Baptists.

Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, compressed the issue to a simple question: “If Jesus was standing here with us, what would he tell us to do? That sounds kind of basic, but that’s the deal.”

That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Robert Jeffress doesn’t provide the expected answer.  He thinks Jesus would slam the door.  Call it tough love. Continue reading

Haughty eyes in Murrieta

more murrieta

By Alan Bean

Proverbs 6:16-19 (NRSV)

16 There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
19 a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.

Everybody can define “hottie” these days; but the old-school word “haughty” doesn’t come up much in casual conversation.  If you’re not familiar with the term, the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides a simple definition:

Having or showing the insulting attitude of people who think that they are better, smarter, or more important than other people.

CALIFORNIA-FAMILIAS INMIGRANTESIf you would like to see haughty eyes, look no further than the faces of the men and women protesting the arrival of migrants from Central America.  The woman who screamed, “we don’t want you; nobody wants you!” may have believed she was speaking for the entire nation.

She wasn’t.

She was speaking for the slice of America that believes white Anglophones are “real Americans”.  A tea party web page in Texas reprinted a virulent screed from a California protest group that summarized the attitude perfectly:

“Americans are not breeding while ‘the bronze master race is.’ … We will die out and they will win.”

arrogant-bossHaughty people don’t always look down their noses at the rabble; more often they are fearful, angry and paranoid.   Continue reading

A Muslim journalist reflects on the varieties of American bigotry

Heba Said

Heba Said

Heba Said attended the Texas Republican convention dressed in a hijab.  She was shocked by the harsh reception she received.  But it wasn’t just tea party conservatives who reacted negatively.  Liberals, associating the hijab with “patriarchy”, have accused Ms. Said of setting back the cause of feminism.  In this piece, written for the Washington Post, Heba reflects on her close encounter with American extremism.  AGB

A Muslim American journalist explains how she became the story at a Texas GOP event

June 30

The frustration kept me awake the first time I read the comment. It is difficult to understand how, in a land that each year honors a man who marched for everyone’s equality, people could not want the same for me, a fellow American.

The comment that suggested I was responsible for reversing the work of feminists in this country because I made a decision to wear a hijab, was neither completely negative nor positive. But despite the hundreds of responses that were outright racist or those that suggested that it is okay to hate Muslims, that one kept me wondering for days how someone could say that to me. Continue reading

Jesus and the children on our doorstep

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By Alan Bean

Last week I was in the Mississippi Delta with my wife, Nancy, participating in a couple of civil rights tours. We heard Margaret Block, a retired school teacher from Cleveland, Mississippi who worked with the amazing Fannie Lou Hamer in the early 1960s, address a group of high school students from Albany, New York.  Margaret remembered participating in a voter drive in Meridian, Mississippi, less than a year before three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in nearby Neshoba County.

“There was a bunch of Klansman standing around watching us,” Ms. Block remembers, “and they were singing a little song, over and over, ‘Jesus loves me ’cause I’m white; I kill a nigger every night.’  The worst part of it was that none of them could sing a lick.”

We are appropriately horrified by these despicable sentiments and the language in which they were expressed. But don’t we believe, deep in our hearts, that being born in the United States of America gives us a seat in the lifeboat-of-the-elect and gives us the right to knock the undeserving “illegals” back into the shark-infested waters with the precious oar of citizenship?

And don’t we believe that Jesus signs off on our special status?

What do we do with the unaccompanied children, some say as many as 100,000, who have surrendered to American border officials in the last few months? Continue reading

Mississippi Republican wins by courting black voters

thad

Thad Cochran

By Alan Bean

Thad Cochran wasn’t supposed to win this one.  Had he played by the normal rules of Mississippi politics he would be working on his golf game.  But the senior Senator from the Magnolia State broke the rules.

The calculus leading up to this unlikely electoral victory is complicated.  Moderate Republicans, desperate to deprive Tea Party insurgents of a big symbolic win, poured millions of dollars into this primary contest.  Chamber of Commerce people backed Cochran to the hilt because, unlike the volatile Chris McDaniel, he was a known quantity.

But there is one simple explanation for a traditional conservative walking away with a narrow victory–he got out the black vote.

Mississippi has open primary elections.  That means that if you didn’t vote for a Democrat in the initial primary contest, you can vote in the Republican runoff election. And that’s precisely what tens of thousands of black Mississippians did.  According to a Washington Post analyst Philip Bump,

Runoff turnout in the 24 counties with a black population of 50 percent or more was up almost 40 percent from the primary. In all other counties, turnout was up just 16 percent.

 

“That is an absolutely stunning stat,” The Post’s Chris Cillizza says, “and tells much of the story of the runoff.  Cochran’s ability to convince a strongly Democratic constituency to be for him — despite the fact that every Democratic consultant believed McDaniel gave the party a better chance to win the seat in the fall — is simply remarkable.”

Without these crossover voters, Cochran would have gone down to the kind of stunning defeat that most people (myself included) were predicting.  Black voters were betting that, although McDaniel would have been more vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in the fall, it was highly unlikely that Mississippi was going to elect a blue senator under any circumstances.  In that case, it was best to go with the devil you know.

It is highly significant that Thad Cochran went out of his way to court black Democrats, adopting a distinctly moderate tone in the final weeks of the election.  That has McDaniel and his supporters hopping mad.  It has been a long time since a white Republican candidate courted the black electorate in the great state of Mississippi.  From their perspective (though they can’t say it out loud) Cochran is a race traitor.

The fact that the election results coincided with the American Experience program on Freedom Summer underscored the irony of this development.

Are we witnessing the emergence of a new political coalition comprised of pragmatic black Democrats and moderate Republicans?  Probably not.  But whenever a traditional conservative faces off against a Tea Party politician like McDaniel, strange political bed fellows will crawl under the sheets once again.

Why we need a “third way” on gay rights

Pastor Danny Cortez

Pastor Danny Cortez

By Alan Bean

Danny Cortez is the pastor of a small Southern Baptist Church in La Mirada, CA.  A few weeks ago, he created a stir in Baptistland by calling for a “third way” on gay marriage.

In a letter to his congregation, Rev. Cortez said

I recently became gay affirming after a 15-year journey of having multiple people in my congregation come out to me every year. I scoured through your whole website and read everything I could. And it was especially the testimony of my gay friends that helped me to see how they have been marginalized that my eyes became open to the injustice that the church has wrought.

In August of 2013, on a sunny day at the beach, I realized I no longer believed in the traditional teachings regarding homosexuality.

Drew Cortez

Drew Cortez

The real kicker came when the pastor’s fifteen year-old son, Drew, confided that he was gay.

The pastor’s letter was as controversial as you would expect it to be; but rather than calling a hasty vote and sending their preacher down the road, the congregation brought in speakers to address both sides of the issue.  Eventually, the church voted to retain Cortez and become a Third Way church that agrees to disagree on the contentious issues raised by the gay rights revolution.  They have decided to kick that can down the road and just welcome everyone to church.  The church decided to love and minister to LGBT persons without judgment.

Ken-Wilson-author-of-A-Letter-to-My-Congregation-by-Julia-Huttar-Bailey-03

Ken Wilson

The Third Way concept was first advocated by Ken Wilson, the pastor of a large Vineyard church in the Midwest, in his book A Letter to my Congregation.

Baptist ethicist David Gushee, once a staunch opponent of marriage equality, expressed his sympathy for Wilson’s approach in his contribution to Wilson’s book.

Al Mohler, president of my alma mater the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has led the charge against Cortez his congregation. To Mohler’s frustration and sorrow, convention delegates recently refused to address the issue, a sign of how rapidly the traditional evangelical position on marriage equality is eroding.

Dr. Mohler says that when it comes to homosexuality there is no Third Way.  The Southern Baptist Convention has moved to disfellowship gay-friendly congregations in the past (including my home church, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth), and Mohler sees no reason why the famously conservative denomination should shy away from its disciplinary obligation now.  To fail to do so, Mohler says, “will be nothing less than a tragic abdication of responsibility and a violation of theological integrity.”

Al Mohler speaks for the evangelical establishment when he explains why there can be no Third Way:

A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them. Eventually, every congregation in America will make a public declaration of its position on this issue. It is just a matter of time (and for most churches, not much time) before every congregation in the nation faces this test.

It’s hard to argue with that logic.  But logic isn’t driving the debate over homosexuality in American Christianity.  Logically, the churches of the segregated South had to decide whether to accept or reject the civil rights movement.  Instead, denominational officials crafted tepid resolutions affirming Brown v. Board of Education or the Voting Rights Act and calling for racial harmony.  Contrary-minded congregations (and they were legion) were not drummed out of the denomination for refusing to open their churches to African American Christians.  SBC pastors weren’t forced to sign off on racial equality to remain in good standing.

Instead, the SBC, with other evangelical denominations in the South, adopted a Third Way approach in which the subject of race was avoided whenever possible, ostensibly in the interest of keeping the focus where it belonged–on saving souls.

We have handled issues like the death penalty in a similar manner.  Denominations may endorse or reject capital punishment, but no one has ever been expelled from a congregation, Baptist or otherwise, for being out of step with the majority on this issue.

Initially, most Southern Baptist leaders made their peace with Roe v. Wade, but when pro-life orthodoxy came into vogue the denomination didn’t divide into pro-life and pro-choice segments; instead we had a proxy battle over the Bible.  Conservative insurgents knew they could count on the rank and file to fight for the Good Book, but few were willing to go to the wall on the issue of abortion.

When moral issues are hotly contested there will always be three ways (at the very least): traditional, progressive and uncomfortable.

President Obama isn’t the only person who’s opinions on gay marriage are evolving; more than half the nation is evolving right along with him.  If we weren’t, the president would have kept his evolving opinions to himself.

The slavery debate in the 19th century spawned three distinct positions: pro-slavery, anti-slavery and uncommitted.  Now it would be hard to find anyone willing to publicly embrace the pro-slavery position, but it took generations for the nation to turn its back on the peculiar institution.

That’s the way social change happens, slowly, awkwardly, and by degrees.

So why should it be any different with the debate over gay rights and marriage equality?

Church’s agree to disagree whenever the consequences of disagreement are perceived to be deadly.  Most of pastor Cortez’s parishioners will eventually embrace marriage equality, and they know it; but they aren’t quite there yet and they don’t want anyone pushing from behind.

Compromise is neither elegant nor inspiring, but sometimes it’s the best we can do, as individuals and as congregations.  Had they really wanted to, the messengers (delegates) at the most recent Southern Baptist Convention would have drummed pastor Cortez and his congregation out of the denomination, but they didn’t.  If asked, a solid majority of SBC messengers would have come down on the traditional side of the gay rights debate, but that doesn’t mean they were as comfortable with their position as Dr. Mohler would like.

It took a lot more courage for Danny Cortez to embrace a third way stance than it took for Al Mohler to reinforce the traditional view.  Dr. Mohler ascendancy to the presidency of Southern Seminary in Louisville came with the proviso that he would uphold the party line on every conceivable subject.  He is very good at drawing lines in the theological sand because he never has to worry about blow-back.

But the vast majority of Southern Baptists are neither paid nor applauded for holding conservative views.  They are Christians first and conservatives second, and many are beginning to fear that, on this issue at least, their conservatism and their Christianity are in logical tension.  They want to believe the Bible, but, as true disciples of Jesus, they don’t want to be be unloving or cruel.

Forced into a vote, the vast majority would side with Dr. Mohler; but if they can sidestep a vote they will . . . and they did.

Christians on the conservative side of the gay rights debate see homosexuality as a species of sin, a chosen “lifestyle” that can be tamed by repentance and “reparative therapy”.

Alan Chambers

But this view is no longer tenable. Alan Chambers, the former leader of Exodus International, once believed that reparative therapy could “cure” same-sex attraction. But Chambers was forced to admit that his organization’s methods were ineffective and frequently damaging.  After apologizing to the gay community, Chambers created an organization called Speak.Love with a mission to “serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about faith, gender, and sexuality; and partnering with others to establish trust, reduce fear, and inspire hope.”

Chambers is now a Third Way Christian.  He isn’t ready to say that homosexuality is an expression of God creative intention; but he is no longer willing to offer a robust defense of the old consensus.  Like Rev. Cortez, Chambers prefers loving conversation to culture war demagoguery.

The gay rights debate has been co-opted by the culture war.  As a consequence, only congregations solidly entrenched on one side of the ideological divide have the luxury to pick a side and staunchly defend it.  But culture war boundaries run straight through the heart of most American congregations.  It doesn’t matter if 70% or 30% of the people in the pews are ready to welcome the GLBT community into fellowship; so long as the congregation is divided on the issue most pastors will refuse to address it.

The upside of our silence is institutional harmony; the downside is that we relinquish our prophetic voice.  Moderate Christians can rarely be found in the vanguard of social change.  When the shooting starts, we head for the bunkers and wait to see which side will prevail.  If no winner emerges, we stay in the bunker.  Many pastors can’t imagine life outside the bunker.  They are people without opinions, skilled at navigating around the elephants in the room.

Tragically, our world is now so full of elephants that avoidance is no longer an option.  So we adopt a Third Way stance that allows the church to move beyond stalemate.

Eventually, we will confront the obvious.  God isn’t going to condemn people for being the way he made them.  Therefore, whether you are gay or straight, the sexual rules are the same.  We believe that committed relationships grounded in covenant love are superior to a life of random promiscuity driven by a need to make it through the night. When people find a loving partner, we celebrate.

Most congregations aren’t there yet.  Some are pretty close, but fear keeps us from giving voice to new commitments.  Some churches will remain stuck in the traditional perspective, but, unable to use opposition to gay rights as a effective wedge issue, will gradually drop the subject.

Some day we will all declare ourselves, just as Al Mohler insists we must.  It will probably happen in my lifetime (I am sixty-one).  But we’re not there yet; so we need a Third Way.