Tuesday, February 15, 2005

numb...

Jenni, whom I don't know, commented on the Blood:Water posting, referring me to a book called 'Good News About Injustice' which, I do know.

I went with author Gary Haugen (who's the founder and president of International Justice Mission) to India to see if there could possibly be any good news about injustice. There is. The result of that trip is something called The Justice Mission.

Jen Howver at Youth Specialties asked what it was like to work on the Justice Mission. Which took me back to the beginning…

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Numb is what I was. Overwhelmed by 24-hour news about precision bombing + corporate corruption + genocide + suicide killers, evil empires, broken promises, dead children, stolen dreams + working Americans slipping into poverty. Just numb.

So, being numb and all, I wasn’t sure how I was going to engage youth groups in the fight against global oppression. Because that’s the assignment I was asked to take on in The Justice Mission.

I think I know something about constructing appeals that get a knee jerk emotional response. I just don’t think that translates to sustainable engagement. Besides which, manipulating 15 year-olds feels a little sleazy to me.

That said, if the mere facts of the matter were enough to generate committed action we would live in a very different world wouldn’t we.

What to do…what to do?

The solution was finding a way to see the world through the eyes of someone who wasn’t so numb to pain and hope. That turned out to be four American kids who were alert and articulate (and possessed a significant emotional vocabulary). We took them to South Asia for ten days—to look over their shoulders and into their eyes as they became eyewitnesses to oppression.

Ben was few weeks out of Christian high school and on his way to a state university. Charissa was a high school junior. Lindsay had just completed her sophomore year in college. Trever was entering his senior year in high school (some people recognize Trever from his work in television and the movies but that wasn’t why he was on the trip). Trever and Lindsay and Ben and Charissa all went to Asia because they love Jesus and they love people and they are not afraid to see what they’re seeing—however shocking—and describe it clearly and directly.

Our hosts were the International Justice Mission who are heroes as far as I’m concerned. They are law enforcement professionals and government relations experts and attorneys (the sort who become protagonists in John Grisham novels) who have figured out how to extract children from forced labor, how to release girls and women from involuntary prostitution, how to bring corrupt cops and soldiers to justice and how to restore stolen land to poor farmers—all in the name of Jesus and by lawful means. This is very impressive to me, and a heckuva good story.

IJM introduced the American kids to dozens of people their age and younger who were trapped in hideous circumstances—little kids rolling beedi cigarettes instead of going to school; a girl forced into prostitution when she should have been in seventh grade; a boy whose 10th grade year was interrupted when he had to go to work for a loan shark; a woman who had been breaking rocks by hand in a stone quarry for 40 years (40YEARS!) while getting further in debt every year.

The Americans took case histories from more than two-dozen children in bonded slavery—they were working to pay the interest on family debts structured so they could never, in two or three lifetimes pay them off (which explains the woman at the rock quarry). Typical story: My brother was sick. My father borrowed $25 from a man in the village to pay the hospital. I’ve been working ten hours a day for the last six years to pay off the $25. I don’t know how much longer I will have to work. I feel a little sick from remembering. Maybe I’m not as numb as I thought.

Those case histories, including x-marks on little human-shaped outlines to show where some children were beaten by the “businessmen” who held them captive, became part of the evidence against the moneylenders. This was not busy work. In the months following our visit, IJM mounted legal proceedings against those men, leading to jail time and hefty fines for the bad guys and emancipation for the children.

This is what IJM does. They leverage the simple, painstaking work of law enforcement for the benefit of people who have no one else to defend them. The Americans watched as dozens of children waved their papers in the air—the documentation declaring their release from bonded slavery and threatening prosecution against anyone who dares to steal their freedom.

Every night the Americans reflected on what they saw and heard that day and how they felt and what they thought it meant and what they wanted to do about it. All this was dutifully recorded tape after tape by the very tall and talented Jay Delp and me.

The five sessions in The Justice Mission are as good as I know how to write. But what youth workers talk about when they describe The Justice Mission experience in their groups is the moral authority of those four American kids facing up to their responsibility through tears and determination—conspiring to make the world safe for children.

Who has what it takes to look at global oppression without flinching? Not many. Not me. It’s too big; I feel too small. Joseph Stalin, who ordered the murder of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens, is supposed to have said that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of thousands is only a statistic. That’s why The Justice Mission couldn’t be about numbers. It had to be the story of four American kids who saw and heard and felt certain things when they looked oppression right in the kisser and decided what to do about it.

From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. Psalm 8:2

From the lips of children…

I’ve spent a good chunk of my life trying to represent the voices to people who are mainly overlooked (or ignored, or misrepresented) by people in power. The Justice Mission takes that effort two layers deep: It’s a vehicle for the passion of four young storytellers who would be easy to ignore except that they are eyewitnesses to things most adults have only read about (if that). And these four speak on behalf of millions of children victimized by adults who certainly know better (but do it anyway).

The Justice Mission may be as good as I can hope to produce—I’m still learning so we’ll see. In the meantime, if it engages people like you in groups like yours to make a tiny dent in the universe of pain, it will be enough.

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Good people doing a difficult job: International Justice Mission. Gary Haugen has a newer book called 'Terrify No More.'

Friday, February 11, 2005

blood:water

The guys in Jars of Clay are doing a good thing called the Blood:Water Mission. Jars' frontman, poet, singer, activist, Dan Haseltine, asked me how I would answer the question, "Why should a Christian be involved in social justice?" My answer…

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I come from a long line of people who think we’re supposed to care more than we do about justice and other guilt-inducing ideals.

We trace our roots back to Moses whose Law, while not exactly concise was certainly thorough. Moses took five books, more or less, to get his arms around how people who say they know something about God had better behave in order to make their claim credible to neighbors, hirelings, relatives and farm animals. His writings remain relevant to this day. A (air quotes) Christian publishing house recently sent me a contract so hostile I suggested they should get themselves a good Jewish lawyer, by which I meant someone familiar enough with the Pentateuch to know there are some things one simply does not do in business dealings.

The Decalogue—I like to think of it as The Big Ten—rendered the commands in a manner suitable for framing (or chiseling in stone and hauling up the interstate on a flatbed). There is also, I believe, a collegiate athletic conference named to honor The Big Ten, though I don’t profess to understand the sports connection.

Some time around the 8th century B.C.E. the prophet Micah laid down the law with such precision it made those who came before him look like they were paid by the word. Micah distilled the substance of pretty much everything that matters into a tiny catechism with one question and three responses.

Q: What does the LORD require of you?
A: To act justly
A: To love mercy
A: To walk humbly with my God

I find Micah’s concision the tiniest bit menacing, like Do the right thing. This is almost no help at all for people used to being told what is the right thing and how to get forgiven for having failed to do it. It’s the sort of simplicity that creates way more problems than it solves. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. These are hard sayings.

But, speaking as a word guy, I certainly admire his elegance.

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If you don’t count the Sermon on the Mount—and I know hardly any Christians who do—Jesus refined the Law to two directives:

1. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”
and
2. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is, if anything, worse than Micah. I was just beginning to sway with the whole water to wine vibe and now he comes out with this? Not the least of my problems is the ringing clarity of the thing. I don’t need a priest or professor to tell me what all means.

Where does my energy go? What about my money?
When do I feel most alive? What do I crave?
What is it I can’t get enough of?
Love God with all that.

…and my neighbor as myself…

I feel I have had no choice but to pursue my lifelong interest in loopholes; exclusions that might justify loving God with some of my heart, some of my soul, mind and strength—and, of course, keeping lists to document why loving my neighbor is entirely out of the question.

Between us, I am not proud of my record on this. I take no comfort from knowing I am not alone. And, of course, I’m not.

From the top of my little hill, it appears the people who claim they know something about God have found a comfort zone where saying the right things substitutes for doing…anything, really. Orthopraxy—doing the right thing—means nothing, give or take. Orthodoxy—believing the right stuff from some sort of biblical framework—is presently all that matters, as long as we get to skip the Minor Prophets, the letter from James, all but chapter one of First John and much of what we call the four Gospels—other than that and maybe a couple of other things, we take the Bible to be authoritative in sum and substance.

How else to explain a drug addled talk radio celebrity who gets to keep his position of honor with people who believe drug addicts are criminals—unless they say the right things.

How else to explain sex junkies of various proclivities who are quickly restored to honor by people who believe sex junkies are perverts—unless they say the right things.

How else to explain the free pass for a candidate who called a New York Times reporter an asshole extended by people who believe that kind of language is a sin—unless it’s used by someone who says the right things (in which case it’s a sign of…what?).

And how else to explain myriad unkept promises to the poor and powerless by church and state, willingly excused by people who believe yes should mean yes, no should mean no (and anything else is sin)—unless…you know.

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All that to say this: I think people like me, who say we may know something about God, ought to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God because the gospel Jesus preached—don’t listen to your hometown evangelist, go read it for yourself—was the gospel of the kingdom of heaven where justice, mercy and humility are the rules. And because Jesus, if he can be trusted, represented that God intends to have everything his way—on earth as it is in heaven. And because the only people Jesus was hard on were self-important fools (like me)—to whom he said, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” And because there is no shalom for anyone unless there is shalom for everyone.

Why care about social justice? Well geez…what other kind is there? Loving God and loving my neighbor have inevitably public consequences—unless I’m content to just keep saying the right things. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to live that way any longer.

I hope that’s not just me.

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Of course it's not just me. Visit Blood:Water Mission.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

of values and budgets

Here's the letter I sent my Congressman, Randy Cunningham, earlier this week. I was prodded into action by a note on the proposed U.S. budge from the good folks at Sojourners.

Mr. Cunningham:

As a voter and a person of faith, I call on you to look carefully at the effects President Bush's budget will have on Americans living in poverty—especially those who have fallen into poverty in this new century.

This budget proposes to cut programs that are lifelines for low-income people while raising discretionary military spending and normalizing tax cuts that benefit people whose wealth makes them immune to all the most hideous illnesses and dangers. With over 30 million of my countrymen—and yours—living below the poverty line, these budget priorities are an outrage to the values I learned to love in this country.

I'm afraid this budget is anti-family and anti-values. What kind of Poverty Impact Statement would objective leaders give a budget that serves the rich and hurts the poor? This is your moment to stand for a broader, deeper America, Mr. Cunningham. I urge you to step up.

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I wonder if things like this make any difference…

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Thing One...

The introduction and first chapter of Ten Things We Should Never Say To Kids are available for free download.

Assuming I don't get hit by a bus, I'll post a new chapter each week for next ten weeks. Please help yourself and feel free to pass the chapters along to friends and enemies alike. The sordid tale that leads to the giving away of Ten Things We Should Never Say To Kids is posted here under the title "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Book Store."

THING ONE
Adults say lots of things to kids that don’t really help either of them. OK, that’s not exactly true—some things help adults get things done right now; but the near-term benefit quickly turns to a long-term liability. Thing One: Do You Have Your Jacket-Homework-Gym-Bag-Back-Pack-Ticket-Keys? is such a thing. The first release in this series also includes the introduction to Ten Things We Should Never Say To Kids.

DOWNLOAD THING ONE NOW


Lemme know what you think...

— RANTS + REFLECTIONS ON THE COMMON GOOD —

[mostly]