Earth Day

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Book Report: Ayten Gündoğdu, Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants


I was excited to read this text because of a post I saw on Twitter that talked about Gündoğdu locating the ultimate authority for human rights, not merely in the nation-states that allegedly protect them but in human beings themselves who demand those rights by migrating contrary to unjust law.  That definition of what it means to be human realigned all the ethical pieces in my head.  Mythologically, within my faith, those are exactly the stories I know and tell to relate my values.  Pharaoh seeks to do genocide to the Hebrew people.  With God as Deliverer, Moses, Miriam, and the Hebrew people walk out of Egypt to seek out a broad and spacious land for community life and conduct.  (The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary relates that this is literally how the Hebrew Bible defines “salvation.”)  Fleeing Herod’s edict to kill all children under two years of age, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus walk into Egypt for haven and sanctuary. 

To be human is to flee injustice in search of a broad space, haven, and sanctuary.  If you are a faith nerd, like me, you point to Psalm 23 as a way of recognizing that the most dearly beloved Psalm in Christian communities has echoes of this definition.  Maybe it is why we treasure Psalm 23.  Deep down, Psalm 23 tells us what it means to be a human being.  I want to come back to that. 

This book was a critique of the human rights theory of Hannah Arendt.  Coming out of World War II, international declarations were made about human rights.  Arendt, as a Jewish person living in Germany, became increasingly concerned about the antisemitism she saw escalating in her country.  She was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo and escaped to the United States where she became one of the most important political philosophers and theorists of the 20th Century. 

Arendt wrote of a “right to have rights.”  In other words, how do we vest rights in such a way that they cannot be taken away when the political winds change?  When fiat or blame is leveled, how do we make sure that people or peoples become something less than human beings?  For when people are without voice, work, or labor, Arendt wrote, they are something less than human beings.  They are expulsed from humanity.  Arendt did not want the discourse of human rights to be something static or certain because, she believed, despots or governments would always find a way to maneuver around a concept that did not move with contingency. 

Here in the text was a word I had never encountered but now has become part of my lexicon.  Arendt thought the discourse on human rights should be “aporetic.”   If you are a regular reader to my blog (did I just hear an echo?), you know that I used this term in my Exodus/Wilderness sermon series.  Aporetic is a way of saying that we should work with Socratic questioning in ways that recognize some things always end up in perplexity.  If we keep at this process, however, we may find a path or a way where there was no path before.  We reexamine, “think without a bannister,” so that no trite or easy answers carry the day. 

Arendt makes it clear that human rights are not something that have any meaning outside of legal leverage and ongoing practices.  In fact, Arendt contends, that real legal codification and practice must be augmented to be real.  In our present day, this could not be any more clear.  Unless we augment rights around employment, voting, and fair housing, allowing those rights to remain static means they are eroded or taken away.  Gerrymandering seeks to take away the power of the vote.  Voting-by-mail is being regularly denigrated by President Trump.  Even the doubt cast on the electoral process may upend the presidential election process.  Augmentation is necessary as a way of meeting contingencies created by those who would subvert basic human rights. 

For Arendt, the basics of what it means to be human are about “cultivating a trust in the reality and regularity of life, establishing a relatively durable dwelling place, and creating public spaces to appear and act in the company of fellow human beings.” (p. 208)  My belief is that faith needs to actively incorporate such concepts into its teaching, preaching, and dialog.  Talking about God creating human beings without such real political and legal standing is romantic discourse without the everyday grit and substance faith should be about.  We should then challenge those in the halls of power who actively expulse others from humanity as people who have made themselves God’s adversaries.  If God created these people to be human beings, who are you to take away their voice, labor, and work, their dependable and routine life?

Gündoğdu relates the quandary Arendt faces as she struggles with rightlessness in an age of rights.  For if human rights are conferred by the nation-state through citizenship, what happens to human rights when people who are not citizens seek human rights?  Are immigrants and refugees not human beings because they have no path to citizenship?  Also, as citizenship is deflated, does it also mean that human rights are lost as well?  With economic inequality on the rise throughout the world, where do we vest human rights?

She references the sans-papieres movement as a way of establishing a “founding” of human rights by occupying a political space not open before, establishing new questions about equality and freedom (encapsulated in a term she references as “equaliberty”), and demanding their role as political subjects.  I think how young people have similarly done this through their legal and political work around climate change. 

This book was dense and a slog for me even as many of the concepts changed my worldview and had me recognizing I needed a more rigorous theology around what it means to be a human being.  Study is a spiritual practice for me because I experience joy in this kind of learning.  It may be that Gündoğdu is just ten times smarter than I am in a way that requires my whole brain for every sentence. 

In keeping with Arendt and Gündoğdu and their definition of what it means to be a human being, I had an incredible conversation with my daughter just the other day.  We talked about the basics of what it means to be a human being.  While voice, work, labor, the regularity and dependability of life, and the willingness to occupy political space are important characteristics of what we all should know as human beings, I do think some Biblical concepts should be added to the mix. 

Coming out of the Biblical Exile, Jewish prophets recognized that without human rights, they were building houses that they did not themselves live in or growing vineyards that they themselves did not eat the fruit of.  I think an investigation of “shalom” concepts like these are part of the ongoing, aporetic dialog that will lead us to a fuller understanding of human rights.  That sense of being able to weave together a community through construction and the growing of food and being able to enjoy the shelter and fruit of that labor are part of what it means to be a human being. 

Finally, one of the primary concepts of “shalom” that is found in Micah 4:4 and in Psalm 23 are key to what it means to be human.  That each of us might be able to sit underneath our own olive tree and find rest and leisure in God’s good creation are considered antidotes to imperial rule.  When there is a widespread sense that we do not have to be hypervigilant about what will happen next to find food or shelter, to avoid being killed by law enforcement, and that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket, we become more fully human.  That the Jewish people celebrate Passover every year, advised to recline in leisure as they eat the meal, is a reminder.  We are reminded that yes, trauma has come and may come, but there are times when our humanity is fully embraced in celebration, Sabbath, and rest. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Seeing the Exodus Story

For several hundred years, Moses knew the plight of the Hebrew people, ground in slavery, unjustly beaten down and forced into heavy labor.     

He, himself, had been kept from genocide by courageous women who hid him from Egyptian law which meant to kill the Hebrew male children and did not see them as human beings, did not know the Hebrew people.

Though he had been granted access to the Egyptian throne, in fact to the Pharaoh's family, he knew who his people were.

One day, while he was on his walkabout, Moses saw an Egyptian police officer beating a Hebrew to death. In defending the Hebrew, he had to necessarily kill the Egyptian officer. He hid this but knew he would have to leave the halls of power and into the wilderness.

While in the wilderness, Moses met the Living God, who knew the pain of the Hebrew people and had long heard their cries due to their slavery, hard labor, genocide, and death. The Living God identified with these people and told Moses to tell the Egyptian government, "Let my people go from their bondage! MY PEOPLE!"

Moses, in his fear and courage, came before the Egyptian government and demanded that the people be treated like equals. "They are human beings!"

Pharaoh, in response, said, "Welcome back to the kingdom. Unfortunately, you know the reality. Egyptian police are under attack. As a people of compassion and justice, we, as Egyptians, know that All Lives Matter."

And the plagues began.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sermon: Exodus/Wilderness Series 2, "Imago Dei," September 20, 2020

A Exodus 2 SJUCC 2020 
Psalm 107:39-43; Exodus 1:15-20; Mark 7:24-30 
September 20, 2020 

           At the press conference held by the family of Jacob Blake, the young African-American man shot seven times at point blank range by an officer of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, Police Department, Jacob Blake, Sr., his father, shouted words that should be self-understood, “He is a human being!”   He is a human being.  That remained etched in my brain because in the last month I have read three books which ask the question of what it means to be a human being.  Each book recognized this question as so critical because what we consider human, we give “the right to have rights.”[1]  Those people we do not consider human, we suggest they have no right to be at the table, not worthy to have voice and vote, not worthy to be treated with equal protection under the law, may her memory become a revolution.[2]

           In the Jewish creation story, human beings are created out of fertile soil (adamah) and Divine breath (ruach)—to be the imago Dei, the image of God, the shadow of God, in relationship with God’s good earth.  This is the truth of our existence.  You are a wondrous creation—made in the image of God.  I am a wondrous creation—made in the image of God.  We are a wondrous creation—made in the image of God.  Do not let any Pharaoh or Caesar or Sovereign tell you any different.  Repeat that until it gets deep within you and lodges within you so that absolutely nobody can tell you any different.  We are a wondrous creation—made in the image of God, God’s shadow in relationship with this good earth.

After Creator breathes human beings to life, Creator says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  When Pharaoh seeks to commit genocide against the Children of Israel in Exodus, Chapter 1, by killing all the male children, he immediately shows himself to be God’s adversary, contrary to God’s command in the creation story. 

Pharaoh calls for all the male children to be killed--presumably because he does not consider the females to be a threat.  It is a huge mistake on his part—evidenced by the strength of the two midwives who break the law in an act of civil disobedience.  They oppose the genocide.  Shiphrah and Puah know that Pharaoh sees the Hebrews as nothing more than beasts of burden, less than human, and so they feed his ethnocentrism to spare lives—in the end, the life of Moses.  They say to him that “when the Hebrew women give birth, they are like lively animals.  The child spits right out before they can arrive on the scene.  What can we possibly do?”

           As the story goes, Pharaoh takes their word for it.  After all, he has already justified in his own mind the slavery of an entire people.  They are not human beings like Egyptians are human beings. 

           We could vest what it means to be a human being with human rights in empires.  But then Pharaoh decides that the Hebrews are too valuable as slaves to let them go out into the wilderness to worship their God.  We could, in an age of rights, let nation-states make decisions about what it means to be a human being with human rights.  But then we need an object of hatred and contempt.  So we sterilize African-American and Native American women, believing them not fully human.  We perform hysterectomies on immigrant and refugee women without their knowledge, tear children from their parents, and lock families in cages.  They are not human beings like we are human beings—right?  We are like Pharaoh—pretending that we can declare who is made of fertile soil and Divine breath. 

Warning.  As a faith leader, I am obligated to tell you.  It never goes well for God’s adversaries.

Recognizing that we need an understanding of human rights not rooted in political whim and opportunity to blame, political scientist, Ayten Gündoğdu, lodges the ultimate authority for human rights not merely in the nation-states that allegedly protect them, but in human beings themselves who demand those rights by migrating contrary to unjust law.[3]  Is Professor Gündoğdu’s definition not our Exodus story?  The Children of Israel know themselves to be created in the image of God by an exodus, migrating contrary to unjust law.  It is the Living God who calls them out.  Is this not the story of the Great Migration in our own country? --African American people who left the South in droves to arrive in places like Jackson, Michigan—human beings who migrated contrary to the unjust law in the South.

Hear the intentional language of the Biblical story.  Earlier in Genesis, the animals are created and become a swarm upon the earth.  The waters swarm with a swarm of living beings and all living beings created upon the land swarmed.[4]  In Exodus, the Children of Israel multiply, with intentional language that tells us they became a swarm upon the earth.  This swarming, almost as if the Children of Israel are animals, causes great fear in the heart of Pharaoh.  But it all begins with a Pharaoh who had no knowledge of the Children of Israel.

           Whether it be in a well-written novel, a movie, or a Biblical story, not having knowledge of a people has led to sometimes well-meaning but heartless mission strategies, city planning, national agendas, or foreign policy.  The late Pat Buchanan used the term “swarm” to refer to the population of undocumented workers or, to use inappropriate language, illegal aliens in our country. 

And I remember the day when I was watching Lou Dobbs, way back when he was still on CNN, he started in and I knew it was coming.  I distinctly remember watching and saying, out loud, “Don’t say it, don’t say it, he said it.”  He referenced an “invasion of illegal aliens” was bringing “highly contagious diseases” to our country in an April 14, 2005, broadcast on CNN.  We were warned, as Pharaoh contemplated in his own heart for Egypt, that these hoards have come to reclaim the land for Mexico.[5]  “Swarms,” “hoards,” and “invasion” all begin to make people sound less than human.  You would not be surprised then to learn that a number of articles written about the children coming across our border described it as “a swarm”—all so that it might get into your head, under your skin, and into your bloodstream that violence can be done to these children because they are less than human.[6]  We used the same language to destroy democratic and human rights movements in the very countries from where these children now are making that exodus. 

In the Biblical story, Pharaoh worries that, as Rev. David Lose puts it, these people who once were allies and honored guests may become terrorists in the land.[7]   This story sounds vaguely familiar.  The Southern Poverty Law Center came out with a report stating that the guest worker policy and practice in our country is “close to slavery.”[8]  Pharaoh begins to understand the Children of Israel as something less than human—without complexity, born for slavery, willing to do the jobs the Egyptians would rather not do.

Beware the people who do not know the plight of another.

But again, two women flip the script, and these two women do what Rev. Lose refers to as the “Butterfly Effect” in justice-making.  Lose writes,  “[The Butterfly Effect] is a courageous act of civil disobedience that changes history, for one of the boys that is spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity.”[9]  Every justice-making movement needs Hebrew midwives who will wisely and resolutely stand against the bullying, flip the script, and help give birth to God’s plans for liberation and freedom.   Pharaohs will forever claim that the world is not ready.  Midwives forever see the world pregnant with God’s promise.  As midwife, Bernice Reagon would sing, “There’s a new day coming.  Everything is going to be turning over.  Everything is going to be changing over.  Where are you going to be standing when it comes?”

The wording used for the Exodus story is critical.  Throughout this prologue, the Hebrew people are not referred to as slaves but as strangers.[10]  The Hebrew people, the Children of Israel are referred to as strangers in the land of Egypt.  Said then 36 times[11], 36 times!, in the Torah, the heart of Jewish morality, as an injunction to Jewish understanding and spiritual practice is how the Jewish people should treat the stranger.  Said over and over again, “Remember you were once strangers in the land of Egypt, so you should treat the stranger in your own land.”   In other words, do not de-humanize, do not minimize, do not trivialize the people . . . the people or beings or things that are not like you, for it is the beginning of violence and will get into your head, under your skin, and into your bloodstream so that you can justify bullying, evil, and contemptible things—as those things were done to you. 

In reality, the stranger is the one who is necessary for our moral and spiritual development as compassionate people.  Our moral and spiritual lives depend on our relationship to the stranger.  As Jesus taught in the Good Samaritan story, it is the stranger who saves our lives.  As the Syro-Phoenician woman changed the heart and mind of Jesus, it is the stranger who broadens and enlarges our table and saves us, makes our hearts more full of compassion. The stranger teaches us things about the breadth and width and length of God’s love that we could not have imagined. 

A colleague of mine in seminary, Samuel Lubongo, a pastor from Kenya, encouraged me to go on international mission trips, “Because,” he said, “because, Mike, if you stay in your own country, you think only your own mother cooks well.”  We learn of the expanse of God’s love through the stranger.  But it is against strangers that we have dug the deepest trenches, built the highest walls, and constructed the largest prisons.[12] 

Over and over again, this Biblical story is told in our wider culture.  We are deciding every day what it means to be “human.”  Corporate lobbyists are humans, afforded full protection of Pharaoh.  Hobby Lobby is considered a “person” afforded protection of religious freedom.  But when prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, invoking the same protection given to Hobby Lobby, asked for religious freedom to pray during the Obama Administration, the Justice Department argued that they should not be afforded these same protections because they are not human beings.  Defense attorney Jon Eisenberg said: "It is truly grotesque for the Obama folks to insist that a for-profit corporation is a person, but a flesh-and-blood human being at Guantánamo Bay is not."[13] 

I relate that story because it is critical to recognize that we know that this betrayal of the imago Dei is not Republican or Democrat, did not begin with Stephen Mitchell or the Trump Administration.  No, it is a disfiguring of the imago Dei within us, a violence and an open wound found within who we are supposed to be as human beings.  We too often look to people who are enemies on the playground, across the aisle, and those who disagree with us at church and see them as less than human beings.  We are prepping ourselves—getting ready to do violence to others.  That violence becomes even more manifest when our fear overtakes us to make city, state, and national policy about who is a human being and who is not. 

It is instructive that the first thing Moses asks Pharaoh to do is to let his people go so that they may only make a three day journey in the wilderness to worship and pray to God.[14]  Pharaoh, afraid of the swarm, with no knowledge of God or these people, enjoins the Children of Israel to work harder.  “They are lazy!” he says, “Work harder, work longer, bring your children.”

A whole group of people are seen as beasts of burden, marked as lazy, and the only antidote is for them to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, is to work harder and longer with less resources--Arbeit macht frei, work brings your freedom, that infamous phrase above the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  We de-humanize to justify our bullying, our violent behavior.  Pharaoh’s words and language are being repeated regularly, consistently, and persistently so that words might be forged into action and action might then define who we are and turn our neighbor into a stranger we do not know. 

But, sisters and brothers, siblings and cousins . . . there is good news.  What the Exodus story teaches is that God’s purposes are being worked out by people who flip the script to midwife new life and a new day.  Pharaoh does not carry the day.  Already, from underneath, there are people who transform stranger into neighbor, teach nonviolence, and stand resolutely in that new day.  Pharaoh does not carry the day.  There’s a new day coming.  Everything’s going to be turning over.  Everything’s going to be changing over.  Where you going to be standing when it comes?  A new birth is happening.  Midwives are needed.  Thanks be to God for Shiphrah and Puah.  For you are made in the image of God.  I am made in the image of God.  Glory hallelujah . . . we are made in the image of God.  Amen.  

[1] Coined by Hannah Arendt
[2] An ode to Justice Ginsburg.
[3] Ayten Gündoğdu, Rightlessness in an Age of Rights:  Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015). 
[4] Genesis 1:20-21.
[5]  Eric Pfeiffer, "Buchanan warns of flood of illegals," Washington Times, August 22, 2006, referencing Pat Buchanan’s book, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (New York:  Thomas Dunne Books, 2006).
[6] A quick search immediately brought up:  “Illegal women, kids swarm US via Mexico after home countries report Obama ‘amnesty,’ free legal aid”; “Why they come . . . the children swarming our borders”; “Children swarming southern border prove a test to Obama’s immigration policy”; “Illegal Alien Children ‘Swarm’ School Registration Center Near Atlanta.”  Those were the first five articles that appeared on a google search, all from conservative/Tea Party perspectives.
[8] That, in fact, is the title of their report, “Close to Slavery.”  It can be found here:
[10] Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses
[11] Cf. Exodus 23.9; Rachel Fabiarz, “Treatment of the Stranger:  Our Existential Relationship to Our Ancestors and How We Learn Empathy,” My Jewish Learning.
[12] Rev. Aric Clark, “Make Haste to Be Kind,” Fort Morgan Times,
[13] “Headlines,” Democracy Now!  July 14, 2014,
[14] Exodus 5:1

Friday, September 18, 2020

Sermon: Exodus/Wilderness Series 1, "Making a broad space," September 13, 2020

A Exodus 1 SJUCC 2020 
Exodus 1:8-14; Psalm 105:16-25; Matthew 11:28-30 
September 13, 2020

           Throughout most of the time that I am with you, I will be preaching from the Exodus and Wilderness stories in the Bible.  I do that because it is the birth story for the Jewish people.  As a Jew, the Exodus and Wilderness stories would have been foundational for Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew uses the Exodus and Wilderness stories to point to Jesus and say, “This guy . . . the guy from the backwater town of Nazareth . . . he is the second Moses.”  To know the Exodus/Wilderness story is to know something of Jesus.

           Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Yoke, throughout Scripture, is a word used to talk about the Jewish experience of imperial oppression.  It is characterized by its arrogance and the way that it devours the people and God’s good earth.  The yoke of empire says that you will only gain your salvation by unending work.  That all begins with Egypt.  Jesus acknowledges that Jewish history and counters with a way of being that is wholly different.  His yoke is characterized by gentleness, humility, and rest.  Jesus is different than any Pharaoh, Caesar, or Sovereign who has come before him.  Again, to know the Exodus and Wilderness story is to know something of Jesus.

           I also chose to do an Exodus/Wilderness preaching series because it rhymes with some of the challenges and joys I heard as I listened to your leaders talk about the glory that is St. John’s United Church of Christ in Jackson, Michigan.  We get back to the origin story.  We remember who we are.  We recognize that the difficult circumstance we are in, the mainline church declining, living in this poopy pandemic, and trying to cobble together something new . . . ugh, it can be so hard.  Right?  Church community can be glorious.  Church community can be hard work, damaging, and, at its worst, violent. 

           At the end of this sermon series, you may say to yourself, “This Mike Mulberry guy is really geeky about the Bible, spends way too much time thinking about faith, and maybe needs a real life.”  But I hope when we come to the end of the series, you will recognize that the God of the Exodus and the Wilderness, who seemed so far from the Hebrew people at the time . . . that God has been with us and leading us all along.  I pray that will be true.

           As Christians, we talk quite a bit about the word “salvation” and conservative and evangelical tradition has made that word primarily about the afterlife.  In Hebrew Scripture, however, particularly in the Exodus and Wilderness stories, salvation is rooted in this material world, in the land.  The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary talks about the root meaning of “salvation” having to do with a “’broadening’ or ‘enlarging’ and can connote the creation of space in the community for life and conduct.”[1] 

           That is the salvation the Living God delivered for the Hebrew people, the Children of Israel—a broadening, a space made for community life and conduct.

           Now I want to pause here to help the good people of St. John’s UCC really reflect on that meaning of salvation.  Because as I got a tour of the building and heard you all reflect on the ministries that you do at this church, this meaning sure sounds like the salvation St. John’s UCC offers the Jackson community on an ongoing basis.  You broaden a space for community life and conduct with the people you welcome into your building.  You enlarge and make a space for community life and conduct with ways you share your building with so many people in Jackson.  Literally, St. John’s UCC saves Jackson, Michigan, in an everyday way.

           The definition continues:  “More often than not, this is done with divine help, particularly in circumstances where God’s people face an adversary.”[2]

           As we begin the story, we know immediately who the adversary is—Pharaoh.  We learn that this Pharaoh rises to power not knowing how Joseph, the Hebrew, had saved the Egyptian Empire with his dream interpretations and prognostications.  Pharaoh, in his arrogance, thinks he and his empire are self-made.  We know better.  Joseph, the left-for-dead immigrant, follows the trade routes and ends up in prison only to rise to oversee Egypt’s economic recovery.  Pharaoh considers himself the sun, the moon, and the stars.  In other words, he allots for himself position and power that should only be reserved for the gods or, as the Hebrews know, for God. 

           At most churches I serve, I teach a Bible 101 class.  Either in the first or second session together, I relate to everyone that real study of the Bible begins by asking “power questions.”  We cannot really know Divine truth unless we begin by asking basic questions like:   who holds power; who is on the outside looking in; and where is God’s being and activity placed?  As we read and responded in our Affirmation of Faith, earlier in the service, the ancient world assumed that if you were in power, the gods favored you.  If your people had conquered another people, your gods were stronger than theirs.  The status quo is thus because the gods ordained it to be so. 

           The Exodus and Wilderness stories are a response to this ancient understanding.  Pharaoh believes he is in power because Ra has ordained it to be so.  And Pharaoh is the divine mediator between Ra and the known Egyptian world.  Instead, far outside the pomp and circumstance of the palace, out in the wilderness, opposed to Pharaoh’s State-sponsored slavery and violence, another story is being told.  In keeping with Pharaoh’s theology, later in history the philosopher Aristotle stated, “Some are born to be slaves.  And some are born to be slave masters.”  The God of the Exodus knows that Aristotle’s statement is rubbish and that we are all born to be the Beloved Children of God.

           While Pharaoh believes he has a Divine right to make the Hebrews, the people he doesn’t know, work harder and longer as slaves, the God showing up in the wilderness has come close, knows the suffering of the people, and does not believe their divine destiny is to remain slaves.  Space needs to be made . . . broadened and enlarged for the Hebrew people to experience true community.  In contrast to what Pharaoh believes of the Egyptian god, Ra, the God in the wilderness has not ordained the status quo to be just so.  This God desires, yearns for, is willing to draw close to, the most powerless in the world.  This is the God of the Exodus and the Wilderness. 

           The God of the Exodus and the Wilderness shows up and right away questions absolute power and certainty.  This God cannot be pinned down or enshrined in a particular spot.   This God doesn’t remain in one place.  The God of the Exodus and the Wilderness is on the move, lives in a tent.  To know the activity and movement of God then, we learn that this is not so much a God of answers--but questions not to tear down or destroy but to reveal and disclose the Truth.

In keeping with God’s character then, the Hebrews are delivered from Egypt only to walk out into the wilderness on an aporetic journey.  Aporetic is a word used by Jewish and German-born philosopher and human rights advocate, Hannah Arendt, who helped a number of people find safe passage out of fascist Germany, was herself arrested by the Nazis, and escaped to the United States.  Arendt knew that to carve in stone parameters for human rights would allow any fascist or two-bit dictator to co-opt right and rule to the point where the most vulnerable would eventually have no rights at all.  Better she thought, to challenge power through Socratic questioning and aporetic inquiry.  Aporetic was a way of saying that important questions forever ended up in perplexities but working with that perplexity and those unending questions made us a better people.  Aporetic inquiry does not lead to a path or road on solid ground, but it does point to the possibility of navigating the uncertain world of perplexities to trace a passage, one that was not available before—a critical practice that one takes on when there are “no fixed directions,” no familiar “landmarks,” or “bearings” to rely on.    Aporetic inquiry is “thinking without a bannister” because we recognize we are living in a time or place of uncertainty.  Our willingness to dialogue and question allows for a reexamination of key concepts, principles, and assumptions because we are on a perplexing journey which defies easy resolution.[3] 

What Hannah Arendt describes in aporetic inquiry and Socratic questioning is the journey God puts the Hebrew people on as they walk out into the wilderness.  A space has been opened, broadened, expanded, but there are no fixed directions, no familiar landmarks, or bearings to rely on.  The Hebrew people will have to learn how to forage for food in this new place, how to distill water they can drink in this new place, how to be a community and a people in this new place. 

This is the primary reason I decided we should embark on this sermon series.  In the changing landscape of the church, in the midst of a global pandemic, one of the last things we have is certainty.  All that we find around us is perplexity.  How shall we be on this new and sometimes frightening journey?  The rules have all changed.  We don’t know where to go to get our most basic needs met as a people.  And there has been conflict as we all try to figure out who we shall be on this perplexing, aporetic journey. 

But this is where our Biblical stories are a gift to us.  We learn from the Exodus and the Wilderness story that living in a perplexing wilderness does not mean God has deserted us.  On the contrary, God is on the move.  As the people of God, sisters and brothers, siblings and cousins, we are not necessarily called to resolution and certainty but to affirm the presence of God, ask the questions (some that may have no real answers), and learn what it means to be on this new journey.  We trace a passage that was not available before.  Just because this journey is different, does not mean it is without the blessing of God. 

God is on the move.  So we, as the people of God, should be too.   Where we were in the not-so-distant past, it may have been safe and certain and known.  But the Biblical story seems to teach us that our God is not found in the safe and the certain and the known.  I invite you, to walk with me in the wilderness, with a God who would never look upon you and say anything less than, “You are my Beloved Children, created in my image, just for this uncertain, perplexing journey.  Do not think for a second that your lowly estate in this moment means I approve of the status quo.  Rather, I am working through you to transform the slavery, violence, and oppression of every Pharaoh and Caesar until all of Jackson, all of Michigan, might experience a broad and expansive place, and know salvation.”  Amen. 

[1] “salvation,” Powell, Mark Allan, ed. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Abridged Edition. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ayten Gündoğu, Rightlessness in an age of rights:  Hannah Arendt and the contemporary struggles of migrants (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 22ff


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Book Report: Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions


    Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.

Which goes more or less as follows:  Children leave their homes with a coyote.  They cross Mexico in the hands of this coyote, riding La Bestia.  They try not to fall into the hands of rapists, corrupt policemen, murderous solders, and drug gangs who might enslave them in poppy or marijuana fields, if they don't shoot them in the head and mass-bury them.  If something goes wrong, and something happens to a child, the coyote is not held accountable.  In fact, no one is ever held accountable. The children who make it all the way to the U.S. border turn themselves in to Border Patrol officers and are formally detained.  (Often by officers who say things like "Speak English!  Now you're in America!")  They are then placed in the icebox.  And, later, in a temporary shelter.  There they must start looking for their parents--if they have parents--or for relatives who will sponsor them.  Later, they are sent to wherever their sponsor lives.  And finally, they have to appear in court, where they can defend themselves against deportation--if they have a lawyer.

I began reading this text as a part of the No Longer a Stranger working group that is part of Interfaith Action in Southwest Michigan.  The discussion of the text will happen tonight at 6:00 p.m.  If you want the info to be a part of that discussion, please contact me,  I will get you the critical Zoom information.   Below the information I am providing for the discussion is my book report.  

I look forward to this discussion with Professor Reinoza leading us.

On September 15th at 6pm, Interfaith Action of SW Michigan will host a community discussion via Zoom on Valeria Luiselli’s book "Tell Me How It Ends”.   The book discussion is part of the organization’s six month series on migration. 

The book “Tell Me How It Ends” is available through local county libraries and is the winner of a 2018 American Book Award and was a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.  The book is structured around the forty questions Luiselli asks undocumented Latin American children facing deportation. Tell Me How It Ends humanizes these young migrants and highlights the contradiction between the idea of America as a fiction for immigrants and the reality of racism and fear—both here and back home.
The book discussion will be led by Tatiana Reinoza, a resident of Stevensville. She  is an assistant professor of Latinx art in the Department of Art, Art History & Design at the University of Notre Dame. She specializes in the history of printmaking in Latinx communities in the United States with an emphasis on the themes of immigration, race, and histories of colonialism. Her own journey as an immigrant from El Salvador and interdisciplinary training in the fields of ethnic studies and art history have shaped her intellectual formation. 
Reinoza earned her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, and subsequently joined the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College for a postdoctoral fellowship prior to joining the faculty at Notre Dame. Professor Reinoza is a member of the Board of Directors of Interfaith Action and is active in the No Longer a Stranger Working Group of Interfaith Action.

Although this is a short text, its autobiographical nature makes it powerful.  Luiselli relates her work as an interpreter in New York City's interviewing children.   Her template is the questionnaire that begins with, "Why did you come to the United States?"  It ends with the question posed by one of her children, "Tell me how it ends?"  

Both questions have a painful irony that have no easy answers.  How do you tell your own children the twisted evil of a system requires children to fit into a box to remain in our country and remain safe from the danger they just fled.   How do we share with our children the pain, angst, and torture so many of these immigrant children have already been through? 

This is a great book for relating some of the ever-present pain found along one part of the immigration system.  Contrary to what some political officials and media personalities put forward, the book also relates that the United States is not the "open door" to immigrants and refugees they make it out to be.  Luiselli makes that clear with process she knows about the system and by relating the tragic narratives she experienced.   If we are serious about the pain found deep in the heart of God, we know change is required. 

Where the book falls short, and it doesn't pretend to be a thoroughgoing discussion, is not detailing the reasons behind racist, oppressive immigration system we have.  Our system is not broken.  It is intentionally punishing the people we consider less than human.  Would that our country not have violent solutions in other areas of our law enforcement, we might say that the system is broken.  We cannot.  

This is the third book I have read recently that asks the question what it means to be a human being or human.  In a nation that has declared corporations to be human beings (with a right to have rights), we have consistently supported a system that gives over our lives to profits, greed, and violence that corporate America regularly pours into our ecosystems.  What we need is an augmentation of "human beings" that reaches out into the biosphere that provides life for humans.

My prayer is that a book like this moves us to go deeper to root out an intentionally evil, racist, and violent system intended to extract labor and wealth from Latin America while then doubly punishing the people for declaring themselves to be human beings by fleeing unjust laws, systems, and practices.  We are often at the root of the push-pull dynamic that creates immigrants and refugees.  We then punish those very same immigrants and refugees for responding in ways to seek out something beyond the violence.

Tell me how it ends?  For these children, the story too often ends with their abuse, torture, and death.  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Book Report: Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

 In the New York Times series, "1619," Matthew Desmond makes it clear just how important slavery was to the United States economy.  "[A]t the height of slavery," Desmond says, "the combined value of enslaved workers exceeded that of all the railroads and all the factories in the nation." (Episode 2:  The Economy that Slavery Built, 1619, The New York Times, August 30, 2019, Slavery moved the United States economy from a fledgling nation to a money-making powerhouse.  

Our country's prosperity was built on a brutal economy that was too big to fail.  When cotton farmers experienced a crippling economic downturn, banks were right there to loan them money and prop up the system of slavery.  This is the point Dr. Kendi makes in his incredible book.  Slavery and racism were intentional choices made to increase profits and promote a whole system that constructed and maintained "race."  In turn, United States policy and practice made Black people non human beings.  Taught, codified, mythologized, and even celebrated, some huge African-American pillars of Black history "housed" this oppression and death by suggesting that African culture and Black people  were "less than" and would need to evolve before their total freedom could be given.

My family knows me to be the most unnerving movie critic to relate how movies are the storytellers and myth makers for our age.  Not so much I guess.  One after another, Kendi shared plainly how movies that became iconic for our nation were a retelling of our racist narrative.  How could I not see "King Kong" or "Planet of the Apes" as part of that narrative?  Under Kendi's pen, I saw it clearly.

Kendi states that racism was borne out of self-interest.  It must come to an end out of self-interest.  I know that reality all too well.  My racism with the Native community was transformed and continues to be transformed as I realized the goodness that flowed to me as Native people, with all of their vices and virtues, moved on me.  That so many Native people consider me a friend when I know the history . . . I break into tears.  I cannot comprehend that.  My personal racism is broken recognizing how bringing an end to it benefits me as a whole.  I wish I could say I was more courageous.  

This text is so daunting that it took me several days to even contemplate writing this book report.  Kendi is relentless in maintaining focus so that we cannot avert our eyes from our country's long history of maintaining Black people as non humans.  I certainly knew of the critique of one of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln.  Kendi makes it clear that Lincoln certainly did not see Black people as equals.  

He also, however, takes on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   Kendi devoted a whole section to W. E. B. Du Bois, recognizing that as one of the wisdom-givers of Black people in the United States, he really was not an anti-racist until much later in his life.   I found myself blinking at the critical eye he leveled at Du Bois.  At the same time, that unflinching criticism (for good or ill) gave Kendi's prose an integrity that was in keeping with one of his main categories.

He was not telling us the story of "the extraordinary Negro."  He did not want us to think that racism will disappear if we just show any number of African American people who were beyond reproach.  The primary drive of anti-racism is to give African-American people a space where they might be known as full human beings--capable of great virtue and great vice.  He also related the intersectionality of gender and its interplay with racism.  He praised Ida B. Wells as an anti-racist who did not get the platform she deserved.  He also lifted up Zora Neale Hurston and my favorite novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Kendi praised the book because it showed Black people as human beings--making mistakes, seeing beauty, and, I would say, finding love, sensuality, and heartache along the way.  

Though his categories may not be original to him, he has now lifted those categories in a way that will make them primary in the lexicon of racial discourse.  My only negative critique of the text was that although things like "moral suasion" have not created and will not create the necessary transformation around race, I believe we need to bring everything to the table to create the transformation.  I do think moral suasion has had some effect.  

Kendi is right though.  Race is defined by power.  So we will need, as he asserts, anti-racist people in power over a long period of time to create ongoing policy and practice that are anti-racist.  We have too long had virtue signaling toward race while keeping policy and practice in place.  Or leaders who seek to reach "middle ground" when one of the positions is that Black people are human beings.  There is no other side.  Black people are human beings.  Black lives matter.  

Kendi wants us to end racial discrimination in policy and practice.  We have the power to make that transformation.  Much like Abraham Lincoln ended slavery to save the Union, Kendi writes, we must now end racism out of our own self-interest.  I pray we are ready.  

I have just finished three different texts that discuss what it means to be a human being.  We need an incredible intersectional movement that seats people in power and demands of people in power that there is no compromise on that definition.  Jacob Blake's father kept repeating to us, "He's a human being!  He's a human being!"  He knows what so much State violence against the Black community means.  That it happens and we either ignore or sanction that violence means we do not understand Black people as human beings.  

Faith communities must make that a singular focus as they make meaning, critique power, and seek to do justice.  We must come to grips with that necessarily political endeavor.  And then rights must be extended to creation--animals, rivers, land--as subjects (acting on us) who are in relationship with us.  The Supreme Court made corporations human beings.   All they were doing was ratifying policies and practices we have long held in this country over and against peoples and planet.

Some of you know how angry I was at RBG for not affording asylum seekers equal protection under the law (in other words, they are not human beings).

Kendi keeps us focused in a text that is over 500 pages.  That is the power of this book.  My greatest prayer is that white folk will use this text to hold their own focus and work toward Kendi's counsel.

There are more poetic and certainly will be better histories told of race in our country.  Kendi's plain prose, however, has cultivated categories that will be the standards for time forward.  He has a lens that doesn't try to be groundbreaking so much as straightforward, truth-telling, and insistent.  As I read, I could almost recognize the voice of Dr. Kendi behind me, saying, "See?  Is it plain to you now?  This is inescapable."

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Book Report: Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes" charts what happens when you leave " the front door" open | NCPR News

I bought this book at my local, independent bookstore  (shout out to Forever Books in St. Joseph) because, I thought, if I am going to drink from and frolic around Lake Michigan, it was time I learned something about it.  Dan Egan states the case well and makes the reader aware just how high the stakes are.

97 percent of the globe's water is saltwater.  Of the 3 percent or so that is freshwater, most is locked up in the polar ice caps or trapped so far underground it is inaccessible.  And of the sliver left over that exists at surface freshwater readily available for human use, about 20 percent of that--one out of every five gallons available on the planet--can be found in the Great Lakes.  p. xiii

Egan does an impressive job of sharing the history of the Great Lakes from the time the colonialists arrived on Turtle Island to the present.  He shares how the want for greater trade and commerce led to substantive, human-made geographical changes in the Great Lakes so that ships could make their way from all over the globe, into the Atlantic Ocean and then further south into these surface freshwater resources.  

Here is what led to one of the major threats to the Great Lakes.  As these ships made their way, the ballast water they had taken on to balance their ships while at home port, would then be dumped in the Great Lakes.  A diverse, biological bonanza was dumped into an ecosystem that had developed an ecological harmony and balance over thousands of years.  In particular, zebra and quagga mussels threatened to kill the lakes with the way they destroyed ecosystem infrastructure without any real predators.  

Though the Clean Water Act had brought the Great Lakes back from filth, fire (remember when Lake Erie was set on fire) death, and extinction, the exceptions for ballast water had left the door open for these intruders.  Efforts to stem this invasion have been half-hearted and lacked enforcement.  Stewards of the Great Lakes have also been concerned about advancing carp populations and how they might wipe out lake life and take with them the Native whitefish, trout, and walleye that were staple fish which used to be so plentiful in the Great Lakes.  

One of the other major contributors to lake pollution and die-off has been agricultural run-off.  Those of you who know me must wonder if all I do is blame our food system for any number of troubles in the world.  Climate change, immigration, and now the death of the Great Lakes!  C'mon, MIke!  Find a new story!

We continue to use fertilizers and pesticides at alarming rates which then run off into our water systems.  I'm not sure we can have any other system but chemical agriculture as long as capitalism is what we turn to deliver goods and services.  Capitalism requires more and more and more--consuming beyond what it means to be engorged.  Farmers look for higher yields and are blitzed with advertising to go bigger, grow more, and extract what they can.  

Egan ends his book with hope for the courageous decisions necessary to reverse the death-giving we give and allow for in the Great Lakes.  He is not romantic without a critical analysis for multivalent solutions needed to meet these challenges.  Yes, courageous decisions will need to be made but some of the native fish within the Great Lakes have already made some evolutionary changes to begin thriving.  Science may contribute a way to end carp reproduction and therefore stem the threat they pose.  

Threaded throughout his book are personal stories each person (scientist, fisherfolk, professor) has in their history of enjoying the relationship they had fishing or swimming or just being in relationship with their family at the Great Lakes.  Not unlike Bill McKibben, who believes we must develop relationships with the particular to really build our muscle for climate change, Egan believes the will for balance and health in the ecosystem of the Great Lakes must be found with those relationships.  He ends his book with a photo of his son having caught his first fish.  

I wish Egan's book was required reading for every local church found along the Great Lakes.  We need people with that relationship to incorporate this critical analysis into their love relationship with a resource that will become more and more necessary as climate change becomes more severe.  We should also remember, as Nick Estes reminded me, when the day comes that climate change comes close to the point of no return, we must not blame Mother Earth.  We are sewing violence into Mother Earth with our economic systems (like food) every day.  I pray that we are not too late to reap only violence.

Book Report: Ayten Gündoğdu, Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants

  I was excited to read this text because of a post I saw on Twitter that talked about Gündoğdu locating the ultimate authority for human ri...