Human Devaluation

Like many people, I am deeply disturbed by recent events. Time after time police officers shoot at or get into confrontations with unarmed black men and grand juries fail to indict them. The response from many is “Black Lives Matter.” And I am as angry as many others that our justice system is failing time after time to produce what its title implies. I do not blame or impugn anyone who is protesting, no matter what form that protest is taking, although I believe that nonviolence will go farther to achieve the goal of correcting what is wrong with our system.

But there is a broader story here, one that indicates that there is even more happening than police brutality and racism and corrupt prosecutors.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

The news media report far too often about children with autism being murdered by their own parents, of people tying them up and putting them in closets or basements, sometimes not feeding them or allowing them outside. Sometimes teachers and assistants have placed these children in cages. And there have been incidents where police officers have reacted inappropriately due to inadequate training when people with disabilities are involved—not prepared for someone who is deaf or has Down Syndrome or autism or mental illness. Some of these people have died at the hands of the police. Public sympathy is often not on the side of the victims.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

Even the increase in news stories about hit-and-run accidents adds to this. People in cars are hitting pedestrians and bicyclists and not stopping to help or call the paramedics. Sometimes the drivers continue on with the victim embedded in the windshield or desperately holding on to the hood. Crosswalks and bike lanes are no protection.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

Racism. Ableism. And what’s the third one? Transportism? People who are driving are worth more than people who walk or bike? I am not sure. But it’s clear that some people are not worth stopping to help.:

Some people are not worth treating with dignity and respect. Some people are not worth working for justice for or spending more time to arrest them uninjured than to just shoot them.

I am just thinking—–

And I am greatly disturbed, actually more and more disturbed.

Because if some people are not worth as much as others, where are we going with this?

Where will it stop? What classification will be safe?

Not poor people. Not black, brown or any other people of color. Not people with any type of disability. Not women. Not people with sexual orientations other than cis-gender. Not unemployed people. Not sick people. Not elderly.

Not anyone.

God weeps.  

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Those Who Live by Violence

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ John 18:10-11

Sometimes it seems as if we in America are truly a violent people. Not too long ago I saw a headline that read “Four Dead in Ohio” and I immediately thought of the Kent State shootings–stuff of legend in my family –but that was not the reference intended by the headline. No there had been another tragedy.  The community was in shock that something so brutal could happen in their community. Lord Hear My Prayer.

Last weekend a man went on a shooting rampage in a movie theater in Auroa, Co–surely you have seen the headlines. It did not take long for some to find artistic portrayals of similar violent acts in comic book art. And this move theater tragedy has reminded many of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado some years ago. The community is in shock, and many are talking about the need for tighter gun regulations as the media reports on the astounding number of munition round the theater shooter was able to legally purchase and possess. All the while, gun sales have been at a record high in Colorado since this shooting. Lord Hear My Prayers.

Last weekend Manuel Diaz (unarmed) and another Latino man were shot and killed, in separate incidents, in Anaheim, CA by police. The headlines have been few. The community is at the end of day four of protests by a community outraged by this violence and the community’s feeling that there have been tensions between the Latino community and the police for sometime that have not been addressed by those in power. Some news outlets have reported these protests as rioting. Lord Hear My Prayers.

At the very lest the juxtaposition of these incidents and the responses to them raise questions. Questions related to gun possession in light of the Second Amendment; who is legally able to wield weapons and what responsibility they have as a result; and how we as a society may, or want, need to monitor and limit ammunitions possessed by private individuals. At the very least these events bring our entire society into a time of mourning and ethical reflections and we ponder how to stop such tragedies from occuring in the future. Lord, hear our confusion and help us to pray through it.

These events raise many questions. Legal questions, questions about bullying, questions about whether or not mental health issues were involved. (Note, although many have speculated, I have heard no confirmed reports yet that the theater gunman has a mental health diagnosis. Let us not equate illness with violence when 1) there is not a link between mental illness and violence and 2) it is unknown if the person in question has a mental health diagnosis.) Lord hear our confusion and our questions and help us pray through them.

At the end of the day I am a clergy woman, bound by ordination vows to preach and teach the gospel. And as I look at these events I see two things. I see a society in which no matter where you look you see some form of violence–be it real or a fictional/artistic portrayal of violence. Perhaps this is not a new thing in the history of humanity. But, I also see a scriptural teaching of Jesus. A teaching in which even Jesus would not condone violence to save himself from arrest and death, not even to continue his teaching among us. And I wonder when we, individually, let alone as a society, will not only take up the task of doing what seems so contrary to our natures but will also be willing to sacrifice our own betrothal to violence, to follow the teachings of Jesus. Lord Hear My Prayer.

I Used To Be A Murderer

Yes, that’s right: I used to be a murderer. That probably comes as a shock to most of you. I mean, this is Pastor Mary Jo, champion of non-violence and believer in the holiness of all life–Pastor Mary Jo, who doesn’t even eat meat, for crying out loud! Besides, how can someone who was a murderer stop being one? Once a murderer, always a murderer, right?

Let me tell you a story. It could be a parable or a fairy tale… but it isn’t. It really happened, but because it involves people who probably don’t want their personal business bandied all over the internet, and because the details aren’t important, I’m only going to tell you that I was convinced that someone was such a threat to my family that I designed a detailed plan to commit murder if I thought it necessary.

I knew that even contemplating murder was sinful. I knew that it would cause God sorrow, that it would tear my family apart and cause them even more hurt. I knew that I would either be killed myself or go to prison for a very long time; I was willing to pay the price–even though I knew how evil it was.

Fortunately, that “someone” disappeared from the picture and I came to my senses in pretty short order… although I can’t say for certain which came first, his departure or my repentance.

The point is I am not the same person I was when I plotted to take a human life, the life of someone who had value as a child of God and who had people who loved him every bit as passionately as I loved my family. I am not even the same person I was when I felt angry at my spouse earlier this week.

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.
(Matthew 5:21-22, RSV)

People who physically commit murder have a possibility of being rehabilitated. In the years that follow sentencing an individual may come to realize the wrongness of what they’ve done, to repent, to “find God, ” to become a better person, to grow. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. ” (1 Corinthians 13:11, RSV) When the switch is pulled or the poison injected all of that potential for positive change is destroyed.

Troy Davis may or may not have killed a police officer in 1989. Lawrence Russell Brewer was unquestionably involved in the brutal and racially motivated murder of a black man ten years later. What they have in common is that both were executed on September 21, 2011–one in Georgia, the other in Texas. Their deaths did not serve to resurrect the men who were murdered–Mark MacPhail and James Byrd, Jr. Their executions were not acts of justice; they were acts of retribution.

Thank God, I didn’t act on my sin of the heart. I had a chance to change, to grow, to contribute to the world in a positive way. With just a few different choices… it could have been me. I used to be a murderer.

Feeding the Beast

Yellowstone Wolf Collaring

Later this month the United States will observe the anniversary of the tragic September 11, 2001 attack that killed almost 3,000 people in New York , Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. in a single day, a horror that continues ten years later because of the resulting PTSD, suicides, wars. It probably isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, but we sure do like to celebrate violence – Independence Day; Memorial Day, which began as Decoration Day; Veterans’ Day, which was originally known as Armistice Day; and most recently, Patriot Day.

Oh, sure, some people will argue that it isn’t war and violence we’re celebrating: we’re commemorating the end of war, honoring the bravery and sacrifice of our troops, remembering the victims, celebrating our hard-earned freedom as Americans. I recognize some legitimacy in those claims, but I’m not so sure that we’re really doing anything more than feeding the beast when we observe national holidays with fireworks, flags, and parades of people in military uniforms. Of course, it isn’t just holidays that contribute to our culture of violence.

Media violence is frequently cited as the source of the problem. Really? Is it the case that life is imitating art or are movies, television, and music just the mirror that illuminates the ugliness that surrounds us? I don’t have an answer; I’m just asking the question.

War, rape, murder, torture – those are impossible to ignore, but smaller acts of violence swirl around us like a swarm of dust devils and are so common that they frequently go unnoticed, sometimes even by the target. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said:

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. [1]

It may be a cliché but it’s true nonetheless: words hurt. Rage, gossip, constant criticism, and name-calling are all acts of psychic and spiritual violence. In his 1996 book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “Words said about us define our place in the world.” [2] Anything – anything –that degrades or devalues any part of Creation is violence, and any act of violence is sin because it creates (or at the very least widens) a separation between creature and Creator.

There is a Cherokee legend about two wolves, one good and one evil, that battle within each person. Which wolf wins? “The one you feed.” [3] I believe that the only people who want to do harm and those who have, themselves, been harmed in some way. We will only end the cycle of violence and abuse that afflicts the world when we stop feeding the beast.
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[1] Matt. 5:22 Common English Bible.
[2] Telushkin, Joseph. Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 4.
[3] Two versions of this tale can be found on the website First People, http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TwoWolves-Cherokee.html.

Presence and Praying for Peace

Two nights ago I attended a candlelight vigil, I had received a text message about it earlier in the day and knew only that a man had been beaten. The text cam from my husband who had heard about this through his volunteer/community ties. From the context of the message I received I suspected hate of some form had to with the beating. I did not have much to go on, but I was moved enough to go to the vigil, and to wear my vestments, although no one had asked me to.

When I arrived at the vigil it was a small gathering and this surprised me, but not for long. I soon found the “organizer” of the event and spoke with him. It turns out that the man who had been beaten, Jason, had been living in a local canyon and someone had beaten him in the head with a rock. No words were said at the vigil no statements made or prayers pronounced. Rather people stood around and talked quietly with others that they knew as they held candles, while Jason fought for his life in the hospital. Many the people gathered knew Jason, some were from the local GLBT community. It was simply a gathering of solidarity.

Shortly after I arrived I was approached by a man in a collar. Turns out this man who spoke with me was a gay Independent American Catholic priest who had left the Roman Catholic Church disheartened by what appeared to be the Catholic Church’s refusal or inability to protect victims of the sexual abuse scandal. The priest reported to me that he was there because he knew Jason; the priest explained that he had met Jason while teaching in the local community. Both the priest and I were there simply to show our solidarity with the victim of this senseless crime and his chosen family, as Jason lay in a hospital bed, reportedly, with a very poor prognosis. We were there to provide presence to those who had gathered; all those who had gathered had gathered to be present.

Later in the evening a group of people came out of the hospital and physically leaned on some of those who had gathered for the vigil. They were Jason’s chosen family. One of the women in this group spoke with me and thanked me for being there. I did not do anything, but I was there. It was a reminder for me of how powerful our simple presence can be for others in time of crises.

So what about the vestments? I thought about this, particularly as the media came in and took pictures of the gathering. It may seem presumptuous, and perhaps it could be seen as such. At moments I felt a bit odd standing there, holding a candle in my clergy robe. But it was not presumptuous. It was not presumptuous because in many ways this event was the parable of the good Samaritan made real in the contemporary context. Here was a man and his extended community in crises and of course it was the role of the clergy to stop and bear witness to the pain of the other in crises. I was not there to fix anything I could not do that. But I could bear witness.

That is not the only reason I was there, though. We live in a society of great violence and marginalization of the poor, the GLBT community, the disability community, those who live with mental illness, those who struggle with addiction or propensity toward violence, and anyone else who steps beyond our norms. The truth is I do not know if Jason belonged to any of these categories expect being poor–he was living in the canyon. I do know, however, that we can not continue to accept senseless and extreme violence toward others within our community and continue to consider our society civilized, period. So I wore my vestments to show that God is with all who suffer, and that the marginalized are noticed by the communities who seek to bring God into the world. I wore my vestments, and I was there silently witnessing the suffering senseless violence perpetrates on its victims and on the community around the victims of violence. I did not offer to pray and I was not asked to pray; Jason’s family told the reporter who covered the “story” they were praying for his recovery. It was a gathering of presence and silent prayer. My prayer was one of peace not only for Jason, but for the community immediately around him, and our larger community that has become so fractured that such violence can occur without community uproar but rather be noted on the evening news before we all tuck into bed for a brief night’s sleep. God help us all.
A photo of  Jason, a homeless man who was beaten in the head with a rock, a candlelight vigil held in his honor.