Nuns on a Bus, Immigration Reform, and Seeing Our Neighbor

Pullen Church

Recently I was blessed to join my good friend David Anderson and his family for worship at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.   I normally worship on Sunday with the church I am on staff on in Fayetteville, Diversity in Faith a Progressive Christian Alliance congregation.

Due to my work schedule (I serve bi-vocationally as a pastor) I was stuck in Chapel Hill over weekend.   When I arrived at Pullen it was such a blessing.

Pullen is known in Raleigh, NC for being an activist church that opens its doors to all without prejudice, while also speaking out against the many ways the southern culture of North Carolina’s capitol city often puts up barriers to those who are minorities.

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On their website, Pullen beautifully describes their vision:

“You are loved, You are enough.

All people are created in the image of God, an expansive love beyond humanity’s limits. We affirm that there are many paths to God and that no one person or religion holds all the truth. God’s revelation is ongoing, providing relevance and wisdom for society today.

Pullen Memorial Baptist Church is a community of people seeking to be more human knowing that we are created in the image of God. We are seekers with many questions embracing that we can transform and be transformed.

Our community welcomes all: The Certain and the Doubtful; The Excluded and the Included; People who are Able and People who are Challenged; Rich, Poor and In Between; Divorced, Partnered, Single and Widowed; Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Nothing; Heterosexual, Homosexual and Transgendered; African-American, Asian, Latino; Citizens and Guests.”

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They retain their Baptist heritage by embracing the idea of freedom key to the early radical Baptists who were my ancestors: Soul Freedom, the idea that we each stand accountable to God and can neither ride on other’s coat-tails or judge anyone but ourselves; Bible freedom, which means that we each are responsible to study Scriptures for ourselves and thus we need to respect and embrace that other believers will have very unique interpretations of Scripture which may differ from our own; church freedom, which says that the local church should be autonomous with neither government nor denomination dictating its ministry; and finally religious freedom which both means standing against any attempt to enforce one brand of Christianity on all and also cultivating a healthy respect for people of all faiths.

ImageThey also are in the forefront of the fight right now in North Carolina to stem the tide of racism, homophobia, and neglect of the poor and those with disabilities which are currently coming down from the statehouse.  As a part of this ministry, they have helped as sponsors of the Moral Monday movement.  (You might remember David Anderson sharing about his experience being jailed for his participation in that movement).

The Sunday I joined was a beautiful celebration where people from all walks of life, of all skin hues, both gay and straight, joined in worship as one family.  Perhaps most inspiring to me was its ecumenical approach.  The music was organized along the lines of what I would have expected at a mainline Baptist church.  Yet the sermon was a stirring talk by a Catholic nun, associated with nuns on a bus.

If you are not familiar with nuns on the bus, I’d encourage you to look into their work.

Their website provides the following outline of their mission:

There is still much to be done, and we hope you will continue to journey with us as we advocate for justice for immigrants and all people who struggle at the margins.

During this most recent bus trip, we traveled across the United States — 6,500 miles through 15 states — 53 events in 40 cities — and we were deeply touched by the outpouring of support for comprehensive immigration reform everywhere we went. We ask everyone to continue to press Congress to pass legislation that incorporates the values listed below.

We call for commonsense immigration reform that:

  • Ensures family unity
  • Protects the rights of immigrant workers
  • Acknowledges that our borders are already secure, with only minor changes needed
  • Speeds up processing of already-approved immigrants
  • Enhances the present diversity visa program
  • Provides a clear and direct pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are undocumented in the U.S.

Our message is clear: We need commonsense immigration policies that reflect our values, not our fears. Congress must act now!

Sister Simone Campbell gave the message and in it she directly confronts some of the issues of racism, xenophobia, and lack of care for the poor many southern states are facing, including my own state of North Carolina.

You can learn more about Sister Simone and hear her sermon at http://www.pullen.org/2013/07/14/sister-simone-campbell-on-neighborliness/

I would encourage you to examine her work and that of the “nuns on the bus”.  Their work with immigrant families is not reserved to the south, but speaks a powerful message to those of us here in the Dixie-belt.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Psalms from the Psych Floor

Earlier I shared a poem about some of my experiences as a chaplain.   I have also served as a chaplain before in homeless shelters, domestic violence centers, and on psych. floors.  That experience working with the homeless, addicts, the mentally ill, and those who are victims of abuse inspired the following poem.

Hope it blesses you!

And I’m not just whistling Dixie.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Psalms from the Psych Floor

pharoah

“O come, o come, deliver me,”

cried those under Pharoah’s lash.

Their hearts longed to soar free

with eagle-feathers bright and brash.

Staff raised high, Israel did see,

with mighty ocean crash

the flaming light of liberty

their backs freed from burning lash.

Moses-parting-red-sea

Like waves I hear this cry still roar

echoing in many deserted hall

lined with cots for the homeless poor

abandoned by those called great and tall

whose money moved to distant shores

when profits began to fall.

homeless in jesus arms

“Deliver” echoes still in whispering call

where others lie, victims of a hidden war.

Their broken bodies writhe in withdrawal

from poisons that trap them like iron doors

and wrap their minds in darkling pall.

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“Deliver” cries children from other homes

whose minds and bodies lie broken by neglect.

Their hearts bear wounds and scars like broken bones

that will not set but must lay wrecked

uncertain for minds what healing comes.

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Oh God, who set old Israel free and yet brightens our sky

what light in such shadows can you bring

what freedom shine in their eyes.

“Deliver, Oh deliver,” their stories sing,

and I cannot help but question why

and what shape will we see rise on morning’s wings

in answer to their ceaseless cry.

sunrise freedom

Life Angel

In addition to being a blogger and a pastor, I recently began working as a chaplain.  I wrote the following poem inspired by my experience, after working a 24 hour shift at the hospital.    I hope it blesses and speaks to you.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

micah pic

 

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Life Angel

Angel

At night I hear your soft feet dancing

hummingbird wings aflutter beneath

the echoes of footfalls on tile floor,

sharp voices crying out “breathe”,

the snip of scissors cutting cord,

and husky words echoing “its a boy”

I feel your wings overshadowing us

as I sit beside the bed-side

of a brown haired man,

tubed, wired, and worn beyond his years.

Your wings fall firm as a hand

joining mine on shoulders wet with tears

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I see you dance O Sister Spirit

a-glitter with florescent hallway lights

twirling like flowers caught in spring wind

swirling in the many-hued patterns shining bright

upon monitors buzzing over patient bed sides

the dances which end where life begins

“Sister Death,” sweet Francis called you,

but I know your true name: Life Angel.

st francis sister death

Beyond Slaving Holding Christianity Part 5: It Is Older than You’d Expect and More Pervasive

Slaveholder Christianity is older than you’d expect and more pervasive

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One of the key issues we explore on the Progressive Redneck Preacher blog is slave-holder Christianity. Slave-holder Christianity is the approach to Scripture which seeks to preserve the acceptance, advancement, and inclusion of one group of people in society and in the church through the marginalizing, dehumanizing, and oppression of another. The classical example here in the southeast United States, of course, is the Christianity observed by most southern Christians in the years leading up to the Civil War. Many of those who owned slaves, who were slave-drivers, and who sold slaves in the south viewed themselves as Bible-believing Christians.

These Christians used very similar arguments to what conservative Christians now use to defend “traditional marriage” as a God-given institution to argue that God approved of and blessed the institution of slavery. It was, they argued, for the good of society, both the good of the freeman and the slave. One could even argue these slave-owning Christians viewed slavery as a means of grace where people they viewed as inferior, barbaric, and backward were introduced to Christianity through the “godly” example of Christian slave-owners. Eventually they even developed an interpretation of Genesis that treated people of color as cursed by God and thus inferior to white people to justify maintaining generations of black people in slavery, and giving other people of color second class status.

Because slave-holder Christianity reached its penultimate form in America during slavery times, it is easy to think that slave-holder Christianity began here in the Dixie-belt and ended with the Confederate States of America’s last defeat to the Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. Slave-holder Christianity has deeper roots than we often admit. This approach to Scripture has popped up in many unique ways throughout the world and throughout history. The logic that undergirds slave-holder Christianity emerges in countless modern ways both in America and even in expressions of faith outside the United States.

Let’s take a look at the history of how slave-holder Christianity developed and how it spread into different forms throughout the Christian world. I think knowing this information will help us determine dangerous trends which can help lead to develop of new oppressive expressions of our faith today, not just here in the south but wherever people are struggling over how to live out the faith in the modern world.

slavery and marriage

The New Testament is somewhat ambivalent about slavery. On the one hand, in the house-lists in Ephesians and in part of 1 Corinthians Paul encourages slaves to respect their masters and not strive to end their slavery. In other places (such as later in 1 Corinthians 7 and also in Philemon) Paul argues for people to embrace freedom from slavery if it becomes possible, and even argues for a particular slave to be freed and in doing so lays the foundation for the anti-slavery argument. But after the New Testament, the earliest records of Christian preachers come out strongly against slavery.

The Religious Tolerance website provides a good summary of the early history of Christianity’s relationship to slavery and other systems of oppression. The earliest Christians in Asia Minor “decried the lawfulness of [slavery], denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection.” They”…declared themselves opposed to the whole relation of slavery as repugnant to the dignity of the image of God in all men.”

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Early Christian preachers and monastic orders stood against the practice. An early preacher Maximum preached and wrote against it. Those who entered upon a religious life were required freedom to their slaves. Another early Christian leader, Theodorus Studita, gave particular directions, “not to employ those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves.”

Polycarp [69 – 155 CE] and Ignatius of Antioch [circa 50 – circa 10 CE] manumitted their slaves on realizing the equality of the Christian law.

One of the great Doctors of the church, who argued for what became Nicene Orthodoxy, also argued against slavery. Gregory of Nyssa (circa 335 to after 394) was the Christian bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia — now part of Turkey. In his Commentary on Ecclesiastes he criticized slavery:

“As for the person who appropriates to himself … what belongs to God and attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules? ‘I obtained servants and maidens.’ What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals. Scripture says that man shall rule birds, beasts, fish, four-footed animals and reptiles [Genesis 1.26]. How can you transgress the servitude bestowed upon you and raise yourself against man’s freedom by stripping yourself of the servitude proper to beasts? ‘You have subjected all things to man,’ the psalmist prophetically cries out [Pslams 8.7-8], referring to those subject to reason as ‘sheep, oxen, and cattle’.”

“Do sheep and oxen beget men for you? Irrational beasts have only one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men’ [Psalms 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire to have others serve you. ‘I have obtained servants and maidens.’ What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them? What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has fashioned? God has said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and likeness’ [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God’s likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does not pertain to him at all ‘for the gifts of God are irrevocable’ [Romans 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again. If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his lordship? How does the ruler of the entire earth obtain dominion … since every possession requires payment? How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man’s value who is over them? If you mention the entire world you discover nothing equivalent to man’s honor. He who knows human nature says that the world is not an adequate exchange for man’s soul.”

Yet by the 6th century, already Christianity had begun to widely accept slavery. By the time of the Middle Ages, owning slaves had become an accepted Christian practice, although slavery existed on economic not racial lines. By the time of the forming of the United States, already a racially based slavery system had become firmly rooted on American soil, with many Christian leaders considering it a God-given institution. What changed in the short period between the 300s Ad and the 6th century?

constantine

What changed centered on one name: Constantine. That emperor forever changed the status of Christianity when he chose to become a supporter of the Christian movement and, later a convert, after he wins a definitive military battle after honoring the Christian God in response to a vision of the cross. Before Constantine’s conversion from persecutor to promoter of the Christian faith and the resulting Edict of Milan, Christianity was a minority religion living an alternative lifestyle. To be Christian meant to not be able in most cases to become fully involved in the civic life of the Roman empire. Christians were by and large barred from the Roman military and from government office due to their refusal to worship Caesar as god or share in pagan worship rituals. Often they were not allowed into professional guilds. Because of this they were not invested in the institutions that made the Roman empire run smoothly. The Roman military was one of these institutions but most people fail to realize that slavery was also. Not being allowed to fully invest in Roman culture led Christians to have a freedom to interpret the words of Jesus on their own terms: words that spoke of liberation to the captives, an example that treated Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free as all equally children of one Creator. Taken at face value as the early Christians took them, Jesus’ words called into question the very brutality that the Roman economy, base on military superiority and slavery, was built on.

roman slaves

When Constantine legalized Christianity and began to financially sponsor Christian churches, there was a sudden flood of elite and wealthy leaders in the Roman empire into Christianity. As a religion supported by the state, Christianity began to become invested in its institutions. A crisis of sorts occurred in the church. How can we have such a radical message, that undercuts the Roman way of life, if we are now funded by the Roman government and the Roman elite? This is a part of why Christianity began to accommodate Jesus’ words calling us to love our enemies and avoid violence to make room for Christian participation in the military. It is also why the church began to change its preaching from being against slavery to protecting the institution of slavery. The economy of the Roman Empire, which had moved from being persecutor of Christians to a sponsor of the Christian church, was built upon blood and slavery. To stay in the favor of Rome, the church had to mute its message that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. It had to allow the message of liberation inherent in the Gospel message to become muted and for Christianity to begin to be about the Empire’s version of conservative values.

When I begin to see how acceptance of slavery among Christians grew out of the church accepting the endorsement by the government as its official promoter of cultural values, I began to be hit by some troubling questions about how the church functions today in my culture. And how it has functioned in other times and cultures. How often today and in other settings does the church become less about the message of liberation for all oppressed and reconciliation of all things and all people in Christ, and more about promoting a set of cultural values? How often does it cow-tow to the state and seek to become in bed with government? Whenever and wherever this happens, the church is dangerously close to developing its own slave-holder Christianity and beginning to read into Scripture its own prejudices and bigotries.

We saw a form of such slaver-holder Christianity in medieval Europe where the church often became the instigator of discrimination against women, xenophobia and persecution of Jews and Muslims, reaching its zenith of abuse in the Crusades and the Inquisition.

We saw it when Christian missionaries from the British Empire turned from sharing the Gospel in the terms relevant to the people being reached to becoming enforcers of British cultural values and agents of the British empire in places such as India and Australia.

bonhoeffer

We saw it at work when the Church of Germany by and large chose to lay down with the rising NAZI regime in a Reich-church that promoted German cultural values and NAZI ideology in place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, turning a blind eye to the persecution of minorities, Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled by the German government. Those few such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Neimoller who resisted this abuse of the faith in the Confessing Church movement became an example of the power of the Gospel to stand against oppression.

We saw this in South Africa in the wedding of Christianity with the ideals of racism promoted during the apartheid regime. The Dutch Reformed Church used the same arguments used by slave-holders in the southeast US before Civil War times to justify enslaving black people as their argument for keeping the people of color in South Africa in second-class status in their country. They became official promoters of apartheid. The bloody and heartless treatment of non-white people under apartheid was all justified by them through the wedding of cultural prejudice to the Christian message.

What can we learn from looking at where slave-holder Christianity emerges?

1. We need to be careful about wedding Christianity to our cultural norms. The Christian Gospel is intended to be a message of liberation that is counter-cultural. The heart of Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world is a call for us to see our governments, our way of life (even the American way of life), our received values as being called into question. There are so many ways that many of our cultural givens may prop up oppression, bigotry, discrimination of others. In fact, I would say that this is not just true of southern values or conservative values, but also the values of progressives such as myself. All of our cultural value systems need to be called into question by the Gospel message. We need to look at our received values and ask – Does this set free the oppressed, open blind eyes, proclaim to all God’s favor, open us to the work of the Spirit, and bring liberty to the captives? (see Luke 4). Does it lead us to do justice for all, to be more merciful and compassionate, and each walk humbly with the God of our understanding? (Micah 6.8). Does it lead me to live out the reconciliation of all people and all things in Christ, or live as if we are all at odds? (see 2 Corinthians 5). In so far as it can aid in expressing these Gospel values, that cultural value or expression can be a blessing and gift. Yet when and where it stands against this, it can become the roots of a new theology of oppression like slave-holder Christianity.

2. We need to be careful about the church and the government becoming too friendly. It is important to notice that slave-holder Christianity is birthed out of the church and the state being in bed together. That became an illicit affair that corrupted the church, turning it into a voice-piece for the state more than a prophetic voice for justice and compassion in the community. In many parts of the world, including here in my beloved southeast US, many Christians have begun to clamor for a close relationship again between the church and the state. “Let’s get some Christians into office,” they say. We should be nervous about such a drive, even though it’s often well-intentioned. Historically having the church and state in bed together has ended up corrupting both.

Interestingly enough when we look at the history of how the church began again to cry out against slavery, it begins where it had distanced itself from the government and political power. This move did not begin within the churches and denominations that were wedded with the state government. No, those had an interest in keeping things status quo. Instead it began in radical reformation movements that held to a free church theology where church and state needed to be separate. It is among the early Quakers, Anabaptists, and other groups that rejected a co-mingling of church and state that the call to revisit slavery and to oppose it as contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ began to re-emerge on the scene.

quaker worship

Though my ministry is not a part of the Baptist movement, but a part of the Progressive Christian Alliance, I can’t help but be effected by the tradition of my ancestors who were radical Baptists. In their tradition, a theology of four freedoms existed calling for Christians to recognize soul freedom, the fact that each of us stand before God on our own and cannot judge another person’s soul; Bible or faith freedom, the recognition that each of us must interpret the Bible for ourselves and the church must allow for diverse understandings of and expressions of faith within its community; church freedom, that each local church should be free to shape its theology and liturgy to meet its own local needs as led by the Spirit of God without an outside force whether in the church, the government, or the culture imposing itself upon them; and finally religious freedom which states that the church and state need to avoid co-mingling in order that both can serve their proper function. It is this approach of being willing to refuse to simply become agents of the state promoting its cultural values and instead be a people who can call into question the cultural values prevalent in the state at large that the early free church movements like the Quakers and Anabaptists could challenge the status quo and be a voice against violence, slavery, and oppression. Because of this, one of the things I have begun to call for in my ministry as a conference coordinator for the Progressive Christian Alliance, is for my community of churches and for other churches in the south to re-capture the ethos of these early free church movements. This call to resist the attempt to have the government endorse a specific religious vision or have the church become a voice simply supporting the status quo of traditional values is something to which all of our religious communities need to listen carefully. As a church, in order to resist becoming another expression of slave-holder Christianity we must resist the temptation of power that tempts us to go into bed with government or culture, losing our prophetic voice. We must be willing to be those who announce with early progressive Christians like Walter Rauschenbush that the Kingdom is always but coming, and we need to ever be at work questioning and challenging the ways this world is not yet as it is in heaven.

anabaptist baptizin

Finally we need to watch the money. Where does it flow in and out of the church? And how does it influence our preaching? Our practice? The need to justify the economy of the Roman Empire is a large part of why the Constantinian church begin to move from opposing to supporting slavery. There is a definite connection between previous expressions of oppressive “slave-holder” Christianities and the economic systems of the day. In America at least right now in many situations the church has wedded itself to our capitalistic system, at times embracing a “big business” mentality. In fact in many churches it is the money-making business model of corporate America that is their model. Many churches in many ways resemble more a supermarket or fitness center than a worshiping servant community. With how slave-holder Christianities tend to flow from a desire to justify and prop up the economic system which has come to support the church, this should trouble us deeply. Very easily such a wedding of Christianity to our way of doing business can cause us to muffle its call to be an alternate community, and the church’s need to call out against abusive business practices in our day. It also can make us feel the need to stop crying out against popular practices in our culture which demean, marginalize, and oppress groups in our community because of fearing losing “the bottom line”.

money-worship

Where do you see slave-holder Christianity at work? What are ways you feel today’s church may be getting in bed with government? Be simply promoting cultural norms instead of calling into questions ones that may be unjust? Be propping up our economic practices, and selling out to the almighty dollar?

Let’s be the people standing with Jesus for freedom, justice, and reconciliation.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie.

You progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Kudzu Christian: Chuck Fager — A Voice Crying out in the Wilderness

 

This week we have our first “Kudzu” feature.

“Kudzu” features are based on the image of the kudzu plant. If you ever get a chance to drive up and down the country roads all over the south you will see tree upon tree covered with the leafy greenness of this plant. Not only are trees covered with it but its winding vines have been known to be on fences, on walls, on roadsigns, and on streetlamps.

This plant has become such a fixture of the southern landscape many tend to think it is a plant original to the southeast of the United States. In actual fact this plant’s origins go back to Asia. It came to the United States through trade, but after being transplanted on southern soil became such a prominent and beautiful addition to our fields and hills that we adopted it as our own. The “Kudzu” features highlight someone who likewise has been transplanted into the south but have become a fixture in the landscape of southern life. Though not born here they have come to call the south their home, and by the way they bring new progressive ideas and perspectives into the south, they are adding to the beauty of our community like the kudzu plant beautifies our landscape.

One such person is Chuck Fager.

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Born in Kansas, Chuck became involved with the south during the time of the Civil Rights movement. A true Kudzu, Chuck has become a transplant to the south who is working to make it a more beautiful place by his presence. As Chuck shares about in his book Eating Dr. King’s Dinner, Chuck began his career as a peace and civil rights advocate joining in the work for racial equality with Dr. Martin Luther King. This work led him to eventually attend Harvard University and become a leader in the Quaker peace movement.

Eventually this work led Chuck back to the south, where he served for ten years as the director of the Quaker House, a ministry in Fayetteville, NC focused on curbing the violence that has at times been very prevalent in that military town. While serving there, Chuck helped the Quaker House continue its peace witness, crying out against the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Chuck also led the Quaker House to continue the work of fighting for civil rights, spear-heading work toward racial reconciliation and acting as a host for the work of women’s rights organizations in town. Under Chuck’s leadership the Quaker House addressed issues of domestic violence, continued to run a hotline for soldiers whose consciences lead them to question involvement in war, and also to speak out during the time the military Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy held sway against the many abuses that policy created.

It is in the midst of the debate about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that the congregation where I serve, Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church For All People, was formed as a new church plant of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and in that debate that I got to know Chuck Fager. Our church was focused on speaking up against the discrimination gay soldiers, many of whom were a part of our congregation, were experiencing. Chuck was a big help in that fight. And since then while he was in the Quaker House he was a constant partner in the work of speaking up against discrimination against people based on race, sexual orientation, disability, and gender.

Here is a video from that period, in which members of my church and of the Quaker House joined in speaking up against discrimination against GLBT people:

Since entering retirement from the Quaker House, Chuck has not stopped. He continues to be a voice for equal rights, for peace, and for God’s love who is changing the conversation in the south.

Below I include an article Chuck has written about a recent action Chuck has been involved in. Thank you, Chuck, for continuing to fight the good fight! You are changing the south for the better.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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My Moral Monday — July 22 2013

by Chuck Fager

Which Monday Is Best For Getting Arrested in Carolina? How About THIS Monday??

Why? A New Round of Racist Voter Suppression, for Starters. . .

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The “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina’s capital have focused on various issues on succeeding Mondays: cuts in unemployment compensation & Medicaid; assaults on women’s reproductive rights; damage to schools — the list of depredations by the extremist legislature is so long that the protests could go on for months without repeating a topic. And on each Monday, those with special concern have entered the legislative building and submitted to arrest. The civil disobedience so far has been a model of discipline and decorum. The national media is starting to notice what’s been going on here for three months running.

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Today (July 22) the focus is to be the legislature’s blatantly racist efforts at vote suppression. It’s a multi-faceted assault, which I won’t try to describe in detail here; google to learn more. Suffice it to say that after attending several of these protests, today is my day to put on the plastic handcuffs.

Why? Nobody is trying to stop me from voting: I have all the IDs they want, and I’m white to boot. But struggling to end racist vote suppression is where I came in: 48 years ago, marching with Dr. King in 1965, I was arrested three times in the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign which produced the Voting Rights Act and changed America.

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For 48 years, I thought that story had a happy ending. But a month ago the Supreme Court cut the guts out of the Act, opening the door to the current NC legislative assault, and many more like in other states.

Thus, if for nothing more than a kind of stubborn loyalty — to the memories of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels and others who paid the big price for the cause–plus of course Dr. King, and the nameless hundreds more who endured jail, beatings, and other quieter forms of violence there — today will be my day. Or maybe it’s just a reluctance to let go of one of the few public acts of my adult life that I can still look back on and say: that–that accomplished something worthwhile.

The arrests are symbolic, of course; on our side, carefully choreographed and extensively prayed over; on the other, the cops have been on good behavior, so I’m unlikely to come home with bruises or broken bones. Nor do I expect our symbolic blowing of Joshua horns to bring the walls of this Jericho tumbling down: to speak plainly, the NC legislature has blithely ignored all the protests so far, and stuck to its agenda of dismantling almost all the institutions, laws, and safeguards that made this state at least in part a more humane place than, say, Mississippi.

(That’s my proposed slogan for the campaign of 2014 here: “Reclaim Carolina: Because One Mississippi Is enough.”)

All the same, I’m going to do it, so wish me luck. And if you’re here in NC, maybe next week it can be your turn. And if you’re not here, maybe it’s time to start something in your state . . . .

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Jarrod Cochran & the Founding of a Southern Progressive Movement

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I had a recent dialogue with someone online about my blog. It went something like this:

“Progressive Redneck Preacher? You have got to be kidding.”

“I kind of am kidding, but why do you say that?”

“Well, you know, there aren’t any progressives down south.”

“Actually, there are several. I am one, after all. Let me tell you about some others.”

And then I began to share about some of the people I now am posting about in my Country Fried Chicken feature.

“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They were born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.

One of the points I raised to this person that didn’t know there were southern progressives was that, not only do we have individual southerners raising their voice, but we also have movements for progressive values that have begun in the south and continue to spread like wildfire throughout our country. The Country Fried Chicken for today is the chair and co-founder of just such an organization, Rev. Jarrod Cochran. Cochran is a Georgia minister who helped co-found the Progressive Christian Alliance.

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The Progressive Christian Alliance began through conversations between Jarrod Cochran of Georgia, Roger and Melissa Mclellan of Alabama, and Terry McGuire of Florida. These southern ministers looked around and saw how the Christian faith in which they had encountered the living and liberating Jesus had become high-jacked by individuals using it to push extreme political agendas. They also so how many had begun to feel that the Christian faith was irrelevant in their day to day lives, joining the late Mahatma Gandhi in saying We love your Jesus, but not your Christianity.

Jarrod also wrote the book Finding Jesus Outside the Box, in which he writes a sort of manifesto for the progressive Christian, outlining key principles for progressive Christian ministry.  These principles become foundational in the work and vision of not just the Progressive Christian Alliance, but many progressive Christian movements.

Beginning in the southeast of the United States, the Progressive Christian Alliance burst forth, and now helps sponsor ministries the world over. Its website calls the Progressive Christian Alliance “post-denominational in that while we actively seek to build bridges between clergy and laity of existing churches and ministries regardless of denominational affiliation; we also seek to, as a community, affirm God’s calling on the lives of God’s children and establish new ministries.” As such it acts as both a network for progressive Christians in all denominational settings, and as an association that sponsors new church plants, new ministries, and new clergy that are committed to progressive expressions of the Christian faith.

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Pastor Heather Marie Janes, pastor of Loving Hands Fellowship, a Progressive Christian Alliance church-plant in Rochester, NY. Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the transgendered community.

Today you can see its work present in churches such as Loving Hands Fellowship of Rochester, New York, which has a thriving ministry and whose pastor Heather Marie Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the rights of transgendered persons in her community. You can see it in my congregation Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church for All People, which serve the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg area of NC, and is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation that includes singles, straight couples, and same-gender couples. Diversity has been active in speaking out for the rights of GLBT people, those with disabilities, and the homeless in our community.

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Pastor Jowancka Mintz of Diversity in Faith joining her Progressive Christian Alliance church in reaching out at NC Gay Pride.

You can see it in Open Doors Community Church, pastored by Rev. Daniel Payne, the first English-speaking church in Seoul, Korea to be focused on affirming same-gender couples with the love of Christ. These three churches are examples of church-planting work of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and they consider the Progressive Christian Alliance their “home”.

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Rev. Daniel Payne, who planted Open Doors Community church in Korea.

Yet also the Progressive Christian Alliance acts as a network for leaders in existing denominations. In this role it has partnered with individuals such as Mark Sandlin of the God Article, a Presbyterian minister, and Roger Wolsey of Kissing Fish, a United Methodist minister.

In a previous interview with Patheos, Rev. Cochran summarizes the vision of the Progressive Christian Alliance well, saying “As I and my fellow brothers and sisters in the Progressive Christian Alliance have always advocated, the Church is not a four-walled institution, but but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere we go. Church does not begin only when there is a pulpit or when the message of Jesus is conveyed through spoken word; it extends to all places and is conveyed by our actions.”

In this interview, Rev. Cochran shares his thoughts as he ends his term of service as Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and prepares for new leadership to be elected for the organization in its upcoming general conference in mid-July.

I think the story of Jarrod Cochran and the Progressive Christian Alliance is a powerful story of what we southern progressives can do when we move forward in faith, following the example and calling of Jesus.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Where do you live? Where does your ministry or progressive work happen?

I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My ministry is focused in “MetroAtlanta”, but I travel throughout the Southeast, occasionally, to guest preach.

Tell us a little about your ministry/work.

I wear several hats. I work at a food and clothing ministry for the needy in my community, I am starting a fledgling church/community in my neighborhood that feeds the homeless, I contribute to several religious publications, and I am currently the Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, an interdenominational organization I co-founded with Rev’s. Roger and Melissa McClellan, and Rev. Terry McGuire.

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What would you say is the focus of the ministry you do?

Attempting to live up to the lessons learned in the Sermon on the Mount.

How did you begin this ministry?

It started in talks over coffee, phone discussions, emails, and a desire in my heart to create something that would reach out to those in church who felt they were left in the margins.

How does your work promote progressive values?

We’re inclusive, so everyone has a seat at the table and no one is left behind. We stand up for justice, in private matters and in the public square.

What are some key lessons you’ve learned through this work?

When you attempt to truly live out the radical teachings and example of Jesus, you’re going to make people angry on both sides of the fence as well as receive the ire of fellow ministers and political leaders. But I’ve also found that to reach out and love radically, as Jesus did, is completely worth the price.

What are some key concerns progressives need to be aware of which your work has brought up?

We must be mindful and ever vigilant to never create a leftist version of the Religious Right. I’ve been a part of a few groups that eventually became just that, and as a result, they are either now defunct or irrelevant.

One of the things I focus on in Progressive Redneck Preacher is the relationship between Southern culture and progressive values.

Did you grow up in the South? If so, what are some of you most positive experiences of “the South”? What are parts of it that you struggle with or struggle against? Do you see in any particular connections with your work and southern culture?

The generosity of those in South has always been in the forefront anywhere I go. The struggles I have experienced in the South is the mindset of many people. Most appear to be extremely conservative in thinking and believe that the American flag and the Republican Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus. Linking God with any particular political faction disturbs me.

One thing I discuss a lot on the Progressive Redneck Preacher is the influence of what I call “slaveholder Christianity”, methods of interpreting Scripture bound up in prejudice which aim to exclude people. How have you experienced that legacy?

I was “run out” of my first Church for preaching a message of inclusion and active peacemaking.  This was my childhood church, too. My father was the minister and he had passed away. I felt  the call to be a minister and I imagine that the elders of that church thought they had a minister they could “mold”. Boy were they wrong. After preaching about social justice, poverty, and violence, I was told they didn’t want to hear me preach about those things ever again. I ignored this warning and continued until they eventually kicked me out.

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What are ways your ministry confronts this?

We attempt to focus on the message of Jesus, how his message and example echoes that of the prophets that came before him, and how we can display that radical love and grace to others today. We are also a public advocacy group for inclusion.

In addition to the influence of “slaveholder Christianity”, we discuss how positive movements that grew out of the South, such as the Civil Rights Movement, influence us today. Can you see ways this or another movement has shaped the work you do?

The Civil Rights Movement had a huge impact here in the MetroAtlanta Community. The King/Gandhian doctrine of nonviolence is one we attempt to embody when we are confronted with hostility.

Do you have any advice you’d give to young people sensing a call to do progressive work like yours?

Patience, compassion, and grace. We are not against people; we’re against mindsets. The only way we can truly change the world is through love.

Would you be willing to say a little about where you see your ministry going after the end of your work as chair? And what some of your hopes are personally, and for the Progressive Christian Alliance?

Sure thing! I see myself focusing on starting up “The Progressive Christian Worker”. A movement/church/communion where progressive Christians of all stripes can come and join in worship and advocacy in the style of Dorothy Day and Amon Hennacy’s Catholic Worker Movement. My personal hopes are to continue to grow in my faith, receive my phD in Theology by the end of the year, and maybe eventually be the pastor of a church. My hopes for the Progressive Christian Alliance are what they have always been: to continue to grow into a powerful force for change and goodness, to continue to listen to the Spirit, and to never forget the roots from which we came.

“Because I Love My Country…”

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Growing up in Fayetteville, NC, the southern town that supports one of the largest military bases in the country – Fort Bragg – the Fourth of July has always been an important time for me. Just thinking of it I can taste sweet watermelon in my mouth and smell the barbecue grilling thing up. My toes are already imagining being wet and wrinkly, since often times we would go down to a man-made lake in town to swim. One year I remember my dad being in a contest where folks swam into the lake, trying to compete to win holiday watermelons.

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I remember my excitement laying down by the car, watching the fireworks by Fort Bragg exploding with light and fury.

Without a doubt, nearly every year since I was child I heard the following every fourth of July:

Some of you, like me, begin to hum along and sit up straighter as those notes begin to play.

This year as I join family and friends for fourth of July celebrations, I have an odd mix of feelings.

As I mentioned earlier, this past year my wife Kat and I were blessed to host an international exchange student from Kenya. As the one of the two of us who reads history books for fun (yes, I am that much of a nerd, believe it or not), I ended up being the one who got to help her study her US history class. That, together with watching together this year’s US election and also following the news for the election in her home country of Kenya put things in perspective.

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On the one hand I can say, with Lee Greenwood, that I am very proud to be an American. Our exchange student who, like my wife, has spina bifida and thus gets around in a wheelchair, told us many times how nice it was to be staying this year in a place where, although discrimination against people with disabilities happens, it is against the law. She told us that the US was the first real place she’d been to where every business and institution had to put in wheelchair ramps and other features to make sure people like her were not excluded. Her dream, she said, is to become a human rights lawyer like the one who works with my wife Kat when she encounters barriers. “I want my country to become a place where people don’t have these barriers to get around too”.

Also when the election came – and she was an Obama supporter (“His family is from Kenya, after all”) – I heard questions like this: What if the election is contested? Will there be violence in the streets? She was reassured to be told, no, we have not had that happen in a long time over an election. She told me how in Kenya that had happened in the recent past, and how often concerns about corruption happened. For the first time in my life I told the tale of George Bush, Al Gore, and the hanging chads not while hanging my head down low, but proudly. Whatever can be said about that incident, it didn’t end in violence. Instead the rule of law prevailed.

This year there are many reasons to be proud to be an American. We have in around 200 years or so gone from enslaving black people, to having the first president of color. We have just ended two laws that have been very harmful to GLBT people – Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act.

For many, many reasons I am proud to be an American.

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Yet talking to her this past year, also got me realizing that there are many things I don’t think I would stand up next to you and defend America about still today. One moment in particular that made me think about this was when she asked me, “So, you all are not Europeans?”

“Um… not exactly.”

“So you are like my people in Kenya – your ancestors are from here.”

“No, my ancestors are from Europe”.

“What happened to the people who lived here before you?”

This led into a discussion of how my ancestors took the land of Native American tribes, of the Trail of Tears, and of centuries of systemic discrimination.

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This reminded me that we need to be careful of thinking loving our country means agreeing with all it does.

Reverend Jarrod Cochran, who helped found the association I serve in and is its current chair, once said that too many “believe that the American flag and [their favorite political] Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus”.  Too often, especially here in the south, we identify American culture and government with Christianity, as if the American way is the same thing as the Gospel.

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Philippians 3 tells us, on the other hand, that “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Our Lord himself encourages us in Luke 20 “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This means that, yes, we do need to give some honor, respect, and appreciation to our country, but we can’t make it take the place of God and God’s kingdom. Instead loving our country should challenge us to sometimes. A part of loving our country is helping let it know when it is not living up to the prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. It is being able about certain issues to say as Dr. King said in his sermon opposing the Vietnam War,

“I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.”

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In reality, this side of glory there will always be areas where any nation or community will fall short of making things on earth as they are in heaven. Our call, if we are to truly love our country is, in those moments, to show our love by speaking out against how we fail to live up to our best ideals and calling us back.

How do you live out that tension? About what things can you say proudly you would stand up next to me and defend our country for today? About what things would need to say “I oppose” this “because I love America?”

And I’m not just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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