Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Cross at the Border: Reflections on the House of Bishops meeting

I am bringing a cross back with me from Arizona. It is made of wood, about 18” high and painted white. Written in Sharpie pen across the front is the name Jorge Cruz Becerril. His birth date is written on the top of the cross; and January 23, 2003 is written at the bottom, which is the day he died in the desert from a combination of heat and dehydration as he tried to make the crossing from Mexico to the United States. Jorge’s name was among 300 or so read aloud at a weekly prayer vigil held at the border between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Pierta, Mexico – each name represented with their own cross. We were told that nearly 2000 people have died in the last three years along the “Douglas section,” which is just 41 miles of border marked by an eight foot high fence. A cross has been made for each person who has died – and the vigil is a weekly witness to one of the horrendous costs of our broken immigration policy.

I am also bringing back copies of a bishops’ pastoral letter on immigration (with corresponding theological resources), and a resolution which commits the Episcopal Church to raise $10 million dollars by Easter to help begin the reconstruction of the Diocese of Haiti (which is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church). I have a copy of a “Mind of the House” resolution, requesting the Bishop of Pennsylvania to resign his office immediately and unconditionally, because the relationship between Bishop Bennison and his diocese is “irretrievably damaged” – after an ecclesiastical trial which found the bishop guilty of overlooking sexual misconduct thirty years ago but was overturned by an ecclesiastical court of review because the statute of limitations had expired. Our request to Bishop Bennison was a painful step to take – but it was taken as a witness to our holding one another accountable as bishops; and our commitment to “unequivocal solidarity with anyone who has been sexually abused or mistreated by a member of our clergy or by any member of our church.”

So I am bringing back a lot of paper – which is the fruit of good and hard work, and – to borrow from our own mission statement, is a reflection of a deeper commitment to engage the world.

Which is what 29 bishops did at the Mexican/Arizona border. In addition to the vigil, we visited a migrant shelter, which has provided support, food and water to some 17,000 people (in the last two years) who have been sent back to Mexico by the Border Patrol. We went to the Border Patrol facility – and heard first-hand from agents who have the daunting task of going into the desert to sort out drug smugglers from those who are just trying to get into America to find a job. We heard from a rancher whose patience has been tested by people trespassing and trashing his land. We heard from a woman who had recently been sent back to Mexico after having lived in Los Angeles with her husband for 20 years; where she worked as a quality control technician for all that time; where she gave birth to three children (all American citizens), and paid thousands of dollars over several years to lawyers who turned out not to be lawyers – not to mention the thousands of dollars she paid in social security taxes for a benefit she cannot legally receive.

We went to a water station in the desert, on the Mexican side about fifty yards from the fence. The desert sand burned through the soles of my shoes. The driver of the water truck was a Mexican man who had been volunteering for this ministry for over seven years. He is well known in the community, which is a good thing because he got word out to the drug traffickers that he was bringing a group of bishops into the desert, and that they should leave us alone. Which, thank God, they did.

Many of us expressed the hope that our trip to the border would yield greater clarity on the issue of immigration. In some ways it did. Our experience exposed the complexity of the issue. Our conversations and reflections revealed that while it is tempting to cast blame, there are no easy answers. The new Arizona law is an attempt for a quick fix – but from what I saw and heard, it has only made things worse. It has produced greater polarization and has generated toxic levels of fear.

The Presbyterian minister who has organized the weekly vigils and who has carried out a border ministry for twelve years, told a story about a rather heated exchange he had with a local parent who was trying to decide whether or not to allow her daughter to go on a half-day mission trip to Mexico. “Do you support illegal immigration?” she asked the pastor. “I suppose I do”, the pastor replied. “Every time I buy lettuce, stay in a hotel or play golf, I am supporting illegal immigration.” He then asked the mother if she supported illegal immigration.

There are so many feelings, opinions, postures and positions that separate us from one another. Sometimes it seems that we are all scattered across a desert of acrimony. As I bring the cross of Jorge Cruz Becerril home with me, the whole experience has brought home to me the importance and power of the cross. The cross holds us together – the living and the dead, the isolationists and the accommodators. It is the paradoxical symbol of an incredible human cost as well as the gateway to freedom. As the cross holds us together, we need to hold on to the cross – and carry its power into a fragmented world that needs our witness. Our commitment to the cross can reframe the conversation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Challenging the violence of scapegoating

As our cultural temperature rises to higher thresholds, fed by the anxiety over money, safety and religion; there have been a number of reckless, if not dangerous, attempts to bring the fever down. It has been ever thus. Virtually every ancient culture has had some practice of ritual sacrifice. In the early Jewish tradition, a goat was selected on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The sins of the community were written on the goat, and with all the insults people could muster, it was sent into the wilderness -- where it would die.

It was the scapegoat. The high priest would then go into the Holy of Holies, and since the sins of the community had symbolically been removed, he would pray for atonement -- that God's mercy would provide people with new life for the New Year.

Ritual sacrifice is no longer practiced much in the modern world, but scapegoating is alive and well. Because it works -- in an insidious way. When an individual or group is identified -- usually because of some perceived or projected difference -- and is cast down or thrown out of the community with accompanying insults and degradation, the fever of anxiety for the rest of the community goes down. For a time.

The Salem witch trials were an exercise in scapegoating. As was the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As is the near epidemic levels of bullying in high schools across the country. Over the centuries the dominant white culture has demonstrated a devastating capacity to identify racial minorities as scapegoats. And while different religions have long been ruthlessly effective at scapegoating one another, a new and disturbing trend seems to be emerging: the scapegoating of Muslims.

Our rituals may no longer support scapegoating, but some theologies do. Violence is identified as a disease that needs curing, and violence (be it physical or verbal) is presented as the cure. This runs the risk of making violence sacred. The biblical prophets argued -- with great passion and considerable risk to themselves, that the practice of violence in order to bring peace is wrong.

There are some theologies which hold that Jesus' death was an atoning sacrifice; that by giving in to cultural violence Jesus was providing space for it. For many, this then gives sanction to a belief that ideologies and religions can continue to wreak violence as a means of keeping the community temperature down.

I don't see it that way. Jesus stepped in between violence given and scapegoating violence received -- and he has been a haunting presence ever since. His was a witness -- and an instruction. God chose his son to stand non-violently in the face of violence, in the hope -- indeed the expectation, that the fury for scapegoating would be exposed as cruel and inhuman -- and ultimately destructive to the development of community.

We are called to stand up, speak up and act up in the face of scapegoating violence. Even when we don't want to. Even -- and especially, when we may have a very human, but nevertheless insidious desire to build ourselves up by putting someone else down.

The world needs our witness.