Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Day I Prayed for Bonhoeffer

On All Saint's Day 2008, during my first semester at God School, I attended my seminary's All Saints Day chapel worship service. As a part of a litany in the liturgy (say that ten times fast!), we were asked to name in prayer the saints we saw as our role models. I sat and listened to so many people name in prayer their own personal heroes as well as some of the biggest and greatest names to grace Christendom in the past century: Martin Luther King Jr. Mother Teresa. Oscar Romero.

I named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This was before Eric Metaxas's much-touted (and now disappointing, considering Metaxas's own support of Donald Trump for president) biography on Bonhoeffer that catapulted the German pastor and theologian into the pantheon of saints for many a Christian. As someone a part of a genocide-aided diaspora, I revered Bonhoeffer for his opposition to a genocidal regime already.

So I prayed that day for Bonhoeffer.

And I pray for him today, as the imperative is becoming starkly apparent that Christian clergy are required by dint of the verses in Exodus 22, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy 10, as well as vows we made to Heaven at our ordinations and commissionings to resist the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant actions of the federal government.

Bonhoeffer is a saint for a reason--he gave everything to resist fascism in the name of God. But, in my own small way, I hope and pray that I am honoring his legacy by publicly committing to the following acts of resistance, both to communicate to friends and strangers alike that I am their ally as well as to allow you (and them) to hold me accountable for what I believe that God is calling me to do at present:

1. My social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, and here on Blogger will be devoted when needed to highlighting and advocating for the need for immediate change in the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities by this government.

2. If you live in Clark or Cowlitz counties in Washington state and need (or have a friend/family member who needs) an immigration lawyer as a result of this president's executive orders on immigration, I can refer you/them to local immigration lawyers I've spoken with. I am willing to accompany you/them to the first consultation for spiritual and moral support, and if you/they need money to pay attorney's fees, I will help raise it.

3. I have a very powerful and moving testimony (including photographs) of my own family's experience as refugees fleeing a war zone to come to America as olive-skinned, non-English speaking immigrants, and as a pastor, I am well-versed in the previously Scriptural passages pertaining to the treatment of immigrants. I will give a sermon, lecture, or workshop for free to your church, school, retreat, whatever (travel expenses negotiable and schedule permitting).

4. One of my spiritual disciplines since my seminary days has been to donate all of my credit card rewards points to various charities and nonprofits. My wife has already set us up with a membership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but I will be making donations throughout the year to nonprofits dedicated to justice and security for immigrants and refugees--including a donation today to the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project in Seattle.

5. (This one is inspired by my friend Lauren) Send me your receipt--you can email me through the contact widget on the right-hand side of the screen--for a donation of $30.00 or more to the ACLU, NIRP, or another similar organization doing the good work that needs to be done right now, and I'll let you pick the text and title of a sermon I preach this summer or fall (within the bounds of reason and good taste--I'll still hold veto power). Why $30.00? I did this--giving away the text and title for a sermon==for a silent auction fundraiser for my church a couple of years ago, and I learned there that $30.00 is roughly the going rate for auctioning off a sermon! If you aren't able to hear the sermon in person, I post all of my manuscripts here the day they are preached, so you can still read along.

6. The power of the wallet doesn't stop with donations. I am done with businesses that have capitalized on, or endorsed, this White House and the discord it has sown in the name of white nationalism. Uber is off my phone, and Lyft won't make it on, despite their donation to the ACLU, because both companies broke the New York cabbie strike held in solidarity with the detainees. Yuengling and MillerCoors products (not just Miller Lite and Coors Light, neither of which I'd touch with a yardstick, but also Blue Moon, Leinenkugel's, and yes, Portland hippies, Pabst Blue Ribbon--MillerCoors brews beer for Pabst. Not even the Canadians are off the hook--Molson is also a part of the same company that owns MillerCoors) will never grace our fridge. And I'll be buying our new grill for our outdoor deck from Lowe's or Sears, not the Home Depot.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is simply the start. Much like Trump's ghastly executive orders, I expect the scope of this list to grow as circumstances change and demand.

I will never be Bonhoeffer. I know that now. Really, I always have. He took with him to the grave something that we as pastors who follow him, and King, and Romero quite simply lack. With a precious few exceptions, we clergy today are mere husks compared to heroes such as them.

It is perhaps what I want most for the world--to bring back what our saints took with them when they were martyred. But I know that I cannot. I can simply offer what I can offer.

For when we say to ourselves, "I would have resisted in Germany in the 1930s," well, we're living today in the America of the 2010s, and what we would do now is the tiniest flicker of a shadow of a reflection of what we might do then, considering just how dangerous it was to be in Germany after 1933.

I have long resisted Nazi and Hitler's comparisons due to Godwin's Law and the need to keep the discourse that I facilitate reasonable and pleasing to God, so far as I am able. But it is also pleasing to God to resist the machinations of evil.

And resist it I must.

Here I stand, I can do no other.

If this be against divine will, may God have mercy on me.

Vancouver, Washington
January 31, 2017

Dietrich Bonhoeffer meme courtesy of Pinterest

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How Democracies Behave: Ten Years Without Hrant Dink

Ten years ago today, an Armenian-Turkish journalist named Hrant Dink, who had devoted his career to reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and to championing human rights within Turkey, was assassinated in broad daylight in front of his office by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist.

This assassination did not come out of nowhere: Dink had faced death threats for years from Turkish nationalists and twice had been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for "insulting Turkishness." He was acquitted the first time, given a six-months suspended sentence the second time, and prosecutors were preparing a third round of charges at the time of his murder.

All because he openly acknowledged the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide and called on Turkey to end its own denial of it.

Today, ten years later, Turkey is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and while Article 301 was modestly reformed in the wake of Dink's assassination, it is still a crime in Turkey to insult the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan--a crime punishable by four years in prison.

This is not how democracies behave.

And now, law professors who spoke out against Donald Trump's nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General are being retaliated against. The Senate is being asked by the majority party to confirm an extremely ethically-challenged slate of cabinet nominations in a slapdash, paper-over effort. And all our PEOTUS seems to have the time to do is tweet about Saturday Night Live, Meryl Streep, and Representative John Lewis.

This is not how democracies behave.

While our American exceptionalism tends to dictate that other countries ought to look to us for inspiration, in truth, it is time we in the States took a lesson from Turkey. Democracy does not come at the point of a lance. Freedom and liberty is not enforced by taking it away from the journalists who strive to protect it. And the ultranationalism that has plagued Turkey is now plaguing us, if the spate of hate crimes, slurs, and hate speech after Trump's victory is any indication.

Tomorrow, the keys of power will be turned over to a new administration, and here, the useful comparison between America and Turkey ends. Unlike Turkey, we had an election last year, not a military coup. That election, while faithful to the precepts of the Constitution and its creation of the Electoral College, still was not democratic insofar as it ignored the majority vote to the tune of roughly 2.8 million voters.

That, too, is not how democracies behave.

But the earth spins on, and the peaceful transition of power continues.

I will not be watching that peaceful transition tomorrow. I have no desire to be a witness for this Caesar who now takes the throne.

Instead, I will continue to desire to serve God and God's will, to continue to speak truth into the emptiness, to continue to write words of prophecy and justice, and to advocate for the very same marginalized and oppressed people this Caesar decided to campaign against.

It will not always be work with immediate returns. But it will be work that bears eventual fruit.

The best epilogue there has been for a journalist like Hrant Dink is that after his assassination, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to both protest his murder and to express solidarity with Turkish Armenians. Chanting, "We are all Hrant Dink," their voices created an eternally-documented witness to the innate human desire to live in peace, to live in kindness, and most of all to live in love.

And that is how democracies behave.

Vancouver, Washington
January 19, 2017

Image courtesy of OpenDemocracy. My apologies for not updating here more frequently--my writing time and energy has been devoted lately almost entirely towards my D.Min. thesis. I will continue to write here as I am able, though.

Monday, January 2, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "A Year of Jubilee"

I was unable to give this sermon on Sunday as we made the decision to cancel church on account of inclement weather--only the second time that we have had to do that in the five-plus years I have been here. But because it is a special sermon, written for the kicking off of my sabbatical that officially begins today, I still wanted to post it and share it. Please enjoy. ~E.A.

Leviticus 25:1-13

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: Once you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must celebrate a sabbath rest to the Lord. 3 You will plant your fields for six years, and prune your vineyards and gather their crops for six years. 4 But in the seventh year the land will have a special sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord: You must not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. 5 You must not harvest the secondary growth of your produce or gather the grapes of your freely growing vines. It will be a year of special rest for the land. 6 Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food—for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired laborers and foreign guests who live with you, 7 as well as for your livestock and for the wild animals in your land. All of the land’s produce can be eaten.

8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee. (Common English Bible)

New Year’s Day 2017

One of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had the joy to be a part of was a three-week mission trip to sub-Saharan Africa under the auspices of our denomination’s global mission arm, Global Ministries. There, we got to visit mission sites in South Africa, Angola, and Kenya to minister to children, hear from HIV/AIDS activists right in the epicenter of the disease’s epidemic, and, in Kenya, visit a seminary where so many students were dedicating themselves to education and to serving God.

It is exactly what we should hope to see happen in impoverished parts of the world—the setting up of an infrastructure that can give people a means out of extreme poverty while also maintaining their own dignity and autonomy. I cannot stress the importance of that enough: it is one thing to try or want to help another people; it is entirely another to do so in a way that preserves their innate dignity and need for personal decision-making that we all have.

In that vein, I came across this story about a young woman in Kenya named Joice, who was a part of a census performed by a nonprofit charity called GiveDirectly that specialized in providing targeted cash infusions to households to lift those households out of poverty, and trusting those households to use the cash in the best way possible, because they knew more of what they needed than outsiders running a charity. The story goes like this:

The fact (Joice) was receiving a number meant her entire life would change: She’d receive free sums of money and would be required to do nothing in exchange. She could use the money however she wanted; all GiveDirectly wanted was to help people become less impoverished.

Over one year, Joice received three transfers totaling 87,000KSE, or roughly $1,000…The three transfers came in different amounts: one for $80 and two for $460 each.

“What surprised me most was the unconditionality of the money,” (Joice says). “I felt so dignified to be recognized as capable of setting my own priorities in addressing my own needs.”

Joice and her husband used about half of the first sum to buy a goat. The rest they spent on food. As this was happening, Joice was going to school, but knew she couldn’t pay for the education. The fees were mounting. When her larger transfer came through, those debts quickly disappeared.

“In our country, it is very difficult to be recognized as qualified without evidence of education,” Joice says. “This was an opportunity that allowed me to clear the fee arrears from my University and allowed me to be free to compete in the job market.”

I am beginning my sabbatical by trying to see it a little like how the $1,000 affected Joice and her family. Three months is a lot of time, just like $1,000 is a lot of money, but for someone in desperate need of such a resource, a little bit is able to go an awfully long way. To erase student loan debt here in the States often takes tens of thousands of dollars, not several hundred dollars. Goats don’t go for two Andrew Jacksons. And three months of sabbatical, studies have begun to show, can do great wonders in preventing burnout from ministry and losing out on much more than just three months of serving Christ’s church.

Because believe it or not, many pastors live in circumstances of spiritual poverty, even as we are called to be spiritual giants. We end up emotionally and spiritually exhausted and we minister not out of abundance, but out of famine. That is simply no way for us to beuseful  able to do our work.

One of the ways the Israelites had to try to stave off famines was the Sabbath year—in order to let the soil replenish itself, every seventh year the Israelites were commanded to not plant anything and to simply live off of what was grown naturally. It had to be so very hard for them to do, especially when ancient farmers often eked out subsistence-level incomes even in the best of times.

But the alternative, of them completely using the land up, of taking out all of its nutrients and all of its life-giving capacity, was a far worse scenario for them to contemplate. Hence the Sabbath year.

The Sabbath year was not enough to ensure sustainability, though, and so God called for a year of Jubilee as well. After every seventh seven years—so, on every fiftieth year, all families were to return to their original land, which is to say that the land would return to being the property of that family.

The purpose of the year of Jubilee, then, is twofold: one is to prevent the establishment of a small, landed aristocracy that controlled all of the arable or useful land in ancient Israel. The other was to provide every household, every family, a fresh start every so often regardless of poverty or indebtedness. It was to do for the ancient Israelites what an organization like GiveDirectly did for Joice and her husband, or, spiritually, what this congregation is doing for its pastor with a sabbatical.

Not just for me, though, but also for you. You’ve got New Year’s Resolutions to either make, break, or try to keep until, say, President’s Day or, if you’re really on a roll, Easter. So why not seek newness that is a bit more enduring, and far more hopeful, for the Jubilee comes not from us, but from God, a God who sees our own need for a Jubilee because God Himself once needed one too.

Our need for renewal and revitalization comes not simply from exhaustion or fatigue, it comes from God. It is Godlike. On the seventh day, God rested. It wasn’t until the third day that Jesus rose.

And from their examples, we are given the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee. Not just for ourselves, but for our entire communities. So while our community will look and function differently for the next three months—I will not be here leading worship on Sunday mornings or in my office during the week—my hope and prayer is that this will indeed be a year of Jubilee for us, of us finding Sabbath rest from the many labors that we have undertaken joyfully together for the past five years to revitalize both our church and our wider community.

Those soul-sized labors do not cease. So it falls to us to ensure that we rest so that such labors continue to inspire us, not burn us out. Truthfully, burnout is the simple way that such labor ends.

But the far better way for our labor to end is to still have the heart for it when the Lord comes again.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 1, 2017