Value and Values: Perspectives on Israel and Puerto Rico

How we spend our money shows what we think is important. In the past few years, the U.S. government has struggled to pass a budget, but some fiscal decisions are easier to make than others. With the support of Congress, the Administration has discussed expanding U.S. funds to Israel to further expand Israel’s already excessive military edge. While Israel is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, policymakers have failed to make progress on a more pressing fiscal issue that directly affects U.S. citizens: the debt crisis in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s expansive debt has crippled its economy and forced many citizens to leave the island territory.

What does it say about our country that efforts to bolster Israel’s military receive high praise, while Congressional efforts to offer financial support for Puerto Rico continue to stall? While these two issues are wholly separate in both their justifications and mechanisms for receiving U.S. support, juxtaposing these two cases reveals misplaced priorities in the American agenda relevant to people of faith.

After receiving a widely-supported letter from the U.S. Senate, the Administration has stated that it aims to enhance Israel’s annual $3 billion military aid package to nearly $4 billion. Since Israel became a nation in 1946, U.S. military aid to Israel has exceeded $130 billion, which is nearly half of all military aid sent to the Middle East in that same time period. With such sustained support, Israel clearly meets any arbitrary threshold for defense, making an increase in Israel’s superlative aid excessive and irresponsible.

Israel has proved its military independence in defense expenditures and by its arms manufacturing industry that exports to 130 countries, including the U.S. and U.K. Israel’s arms trade is problematic in itself since many of Israel’s arms exports contribute to conflicts in places such as the Ivory Coast and South Sudan. The question of military support for Israel consequently goes beyond a matter of fiscal responsibility to one of moral responsibility. Does Israel need our support? Does it even deserve it?

The Puerto Rico’s debt crisis poses another moral problem, though one exacerbated by U.S. inaction rather than direct financial endorsement. The Puerto Rican government is currently $72 billion in debt and has a $2 billion debt payment to make by June 1. In addition to irresponsible governing, Puerto Rico’s special designation as a U.S. territory helped create the current crisis. Puerto Rican statehood is debated even among its citizens, but without many state protections, financial loopholes enabled large corporations and hedge funds to lend money to the Puerto Rican government at irresistible rates. In the wake of aggressive lending and borrowing, Puerto Rico’s debt ballooned out of control.

The Puerto Rican government and several members of Congress have pushed legislation to help lessen the impact of Puerto Rico’s debt on its struggling population. The proposed aid to Puerto Rico is frequently couched as a bailout, but unlike financial assistance to Israel, the current debate is not about distributing U.S. taxpayer money. Rather, the current legislation has the modest goal of providing debt relief to Puerto Rico by granting it municipal bankruptcy protection, a privilege held by all U.S. states but not the Puerto Rican territory.

Bankruptcy protection would restructure debt payments to ensure the well-being of the 3.5 million Puerto Rican people, about 45% of whom live in poverty because of this financial crisis. Without this protection, Puerto Rico could be required to further defund essential emergency services and continue to raise taxes in order to meet payment deadlines. Sales taxes in Puerto Rico already sit at a soaring 11.5% and thousands have left the island to escape an economy that leaves many overqualified and unsupported. Efforts to pass helpful legislation to aid Puerto Rico continue to falter, begging the question: Do we have our priorities right?

While military aid to Israel uses taxpayer money to further equip the most militarized nation in the Middle East, debt relief to Puerto Rico addresses the immediate need of struggling U.S. taxpayers. Too frequently it seems our fiscal sense is disconnected from common sense. Our country was founded on the self-evident truths that everyone is created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. In a world filled with money and potential profit, however, these rights often become mere footnotes in discussions about dividends and economic growth. U.S. arms manufacturers receive good business from Israel because of military aid, while Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to have much to offer.

As Brethren, we tout our tagline “Peacefully, Simply, Together” but often forget its implications. We are called to be peaceful, acting from a place of love and support. We are called to live simply, to walk with God rather than join the rat race. Finally, we are called together to be strengthened as a community of faith. These three pillars rest on the recognition that every person is a precious creation made in the image of God. This belief undergirds our work through Global Mission and Service and within our own communities. It is a foundation for witness that gives us a prophetic voice.

Recalling that our political system is founded on the equal rights of everyone to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must use our prophetic voice to remind those with power that such rights cannot be ignored, that each person has inherent value deeper and more beautiful than market value, that military excess works against the pursuit of peace and simplicity. Our elected officials must be reminded that they serve the People, especially the citizens of Puerto Rico.

Today, the Office of Public Witness joined several other faith-based organizations in denouncing U.S. military aid and arms trade in the Middle East, including Israel. The Office also works with Jubilee USA, an organization focused on providing debt relief. Check out their website for more information about Puerto Rico and how you can get involved.

In Christ’s Peace,

Jesse Winter
Peacebuilding and Policy Associate
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC

Caring for Caribou

This sermon was given by Katie Furrow as a way to celebrate Earth Day Sunday at the Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, DC. It is based around Genesis 1:20-31.

“The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” For the Gwich’in people, this place is the coastal plains of Northern Alaska. The coastal plains are home to the breeding grounds of countless migratory bird species, polar bears, and the Porcupine Caribou which plays a significant role in the lives of the Gwich’in as a means of sustenance and spirituality. When one learns of the role of the coastal plains in regard to the breeding and calving grounds for all of these animals, it is hard to dispute that is anything less than divine Creation at work—it is a space that is temperate enough for mothers and newborns to have proper nutrients from vegetation but not so warm to allow breeding of the hoards of mosquitoes that will descend upon the area in warmer months as a nuisance to everything that has blood, and the plains are often safer from predators allowing newborns to grow well. It is truly sacred ground.

Fortunately, the value and importance of this land as a sacred space that creates new life and helps species and cultures flourish has been known for some time, and in 1960, legislation was passed protecting over 19 million acres of this area, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And even just last January, President Obama proposed to designate over 12 million acres of the refuge as wilderness, further protecting it.

However, some would consider the coastal plains and the refuge sacred for other reasons. You see, this place where life begins is also where United States-owned oil reserves begin.

According to the US Geological Survey, there are approximately “896 million barrels of conventional, undiscovered oil,” located underneath the coastal plains and many individuals, corporations, and members of the government have been clamoring to drill there since the mid-1970s despite the location’s status as a wilderness refuge. While the monetary profits of such drilling are certain, the reality is that the oil that comes from the refuge would provide only 1 to 2 percent of the oil that the United States consumes each day—in that knowledge, one must consider if it is truly worth it.

Drilling in this delicate habitat would irreparably change the landscape of the environment—altering migration patterns and threatening survival rates of newborns animals and entire species, for that matter. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that we have seen too often throughout human history; we are many times willing to forego the protection of Creation and all that is in if for the “betterment” of human society, or so we think.

Scientists are actually calling this period of time the sixth extinction crisis in geological history, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, the current rate of species loss is between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. It is nearly indisputable that there is one species causing this to happen. Who guessed humans? Well, you would be correct.

We find ourselves as the most dangerous predator to other species on the planet; we are superior, and our needs far outweigh the needs of creation. Or so we far too often like to think. This is not the life that we were called to, though, as our scripture today shows us.

The Creation narrative is one of the most familiar books of the Bible, yet it still holds key lessons for us to learn (or relearn) today. It’s where it all started—quite literally “In the beginning…” God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the land, day and night, and every living creature that swims, crawls, slithers, burrows, flies, and walks. God saw what God had created and declared all of it—every last bit of it, in its original and undefiled state, as good.

In the middle of all of that creating and declaring of goodness, humans were given a special role to fill as the keepers of everything that had come before; from the beginning, God made us stewards over all of Creation, and in that moment of divine decision making, once again, God thought that doing so was good. We have been given dominion over creation and all the creatures in it; we have been given this Earth as a source of sustenance, but the Earth has also been given us to tend and care for it.

Our friends from the Gwich’in tribe know the fine balance of this role well. Earlier, I spoke about how important the Porcupine caribou is to this group of people; throughout their history, they have been tied to the caribou through countless ways.

Princess Johnson, a Gwich’in leader, wrote in a recent blog post for Sojourners that “our communities still rely heavily on the Porcupine caribou herd for sustenance, as well as our culture and spiritual wellbeing. Our elders have taught us that our connection is sacred.” Without the caribou, they would lose not only a meal source but also a connection to their culture. It seems safe to say that the caribou, and consequently the coastal plains where they breed, are a lifeline for the Gwich’in.

Yet, in spite of this, or maybe because of it, they have very specific rules about how they will or will not interact with the animals. Even in seasons where caribou are scarce, they will not go into the coastal plains to hunt, despite knowing that the hunting would be easy and the reward would be great. The Gwich’in respect the need for the caribou to have a safe space to breed and raise their calves without fear of predation in order to maintain the herd, and they would rather choose to go without than to threaten the balance of their relationship; they are willing to forego the domination that they could have over the caribou in place of having a right relationship with Creation. They see and understand the sacredness of their relationship with the caribou and the land.

Given that Genesis is only the beginning of our story, it seems fitting that we see reminders of this role we were assigned to play throughout the rest of the Bible–from the Wisdom books in the Old Testament to Paul’s letters. One scripture that reinforces the importance of taking care of what has been given to us comes from Ecclesiates 3:19– “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals.”

It’s made clear in those few sentences that we are tied much more closely to the animal kingdom than many of us would like to think. In God’s infinite wisdom, God made our planet into a finely woven and delicately balanced ecosystem. This connection reminds me of a game that we would often play with the kids at the summer camp where I worked through high school and college. Standing in a circle, one person would throw a ball of yarn across to someone else, holding on to their end of the string. This would continue until everyone in the circle had received and thrown the yarn, always holding on to their piece before throwing it.

In the end, what was created was a web, connecting each of us to the rest. If one person were to pull on their end of the string, it would cause a chain reaction forcing everyone else to lean in or loosen their hold. Or if another person dropped their end, the rest of the group would have to pick up the slack to keep the web together.

In this way, much like the yarn connected our group, we are all connected in Creation with one another. Anything that I can do, will affect Creation around me. Every time I drive a car or water the garden or throw away trash, I’m altering the environment; sometimes that’s a good thing as I watch the baby spinach plants grow right outside, a product of tender care, but sometimes what I do causes pollution or harm–to animals, to the earth, or even to other people. And sometimes I don’t even realize the impact of what I’m doing.

We live in a world where we are fairly far removed from seeing the results of our choices. Driving a car or using a plastic anything requires petroleum, which has to come from somewhere. It’s easy to fill up the gas tank or drink out of a water bottle and not consider the line of production that it took to get to me. Without seeing how the coastal plains will be damaged, and the caribou herds being driven out, and the Gwich’in losing a part of their heritage, it makes it a lot easier to drop the ball on being a good steward to the earth. And God sees what is being done, and knows that it is not good.

On the sixth day, God created humankind and put us in charge. While we’ve veered off course, often choosing domination over creation instead of serving and tending to it, it is not too late–for us or for the earth. We can take simple steps every day to be stewards, whether that’s just taking the time to learn more about the impacts that our choices make, like where our food comes from or how the things we buy impact the earth, or if it means taking concrete steps like choosing to walk or bike more or even just turning off the water while we brush our teeth. Little steps add up to make big changes.

God saw what God made, and knew that it was good. If we each took a little more time out of our days to see the good in creation, we would probably end up with a greater appreciation and a greater caring for what is around us. By choosing to see the divine spark that all of us–people, animals, and even plants–were created with, we would not so quickly take the easy path of destruction or harm. I know it is a lot harder for me to take the lazy way of unsustainable choices or to want to see the end of certain species (mosquitoes) when I remember that we all belong to God.

Perhaps the best thought comes from one Gwich’in leader. When asked how to say “wilderness” in the Gwich’in language, she responded that there is no word for that, but that the closest phrase is to “leave it the way the Creator made.” Whether we are looking to drill in far away places for nonrenewable oil or to make changes in our own communities that would hurt God’s creation, we should take this lesson with us. Let us work as best we can to leave it as God created. And it will be declared good. Amen.

Currently, the Office is Public Witness is working with an ecumenical coalition to bring attention to the importance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to our leaders in Washington, DC. One way that you can become involved is to sign and share this petition calling on the President and Congress to permanently protect this sacred land, keeping it beautiful and well-preserved for many more generations.

In Christ’s Peace,

Katie Furrow
Food, Hunger, and Gardening Associate
Office of Public Witness & Global Food Crisis Fund
Washington, DC

 

Lifting Every Voice: Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2016

This past weekend the Office of Public Witness participated in Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a conference of people of faith from around the country.  We worshiped and attended workshops together on the theme of “Lift Every Voice! – Racism, Class & Power.”  The weekend began powerfully as Rev. Dr. William Barber implored us to prophesy, to call out injustice in the world, and to demand policies that recognize that God’s image in everyone.  That call to unite as a moral voice for justice continued to frame the weekend as we delved more deeply into the issues of voting rights and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The event concluded on Monday as together we met with our congressional representatives.

OPW’s work sometimes feels isolated, but the expressions of solidarity and love in word, song, and action expressed this weekend left us all feeling revitalized and empowered.  As we stood and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we knew that we were surrounded by a powerful and determined community. Though we returned to our daily work this week, we have EAD powerfully reminds us  that our work represents deep sentiments shared by many throughout the country.

Yet this empowerment brings many challenges.  As all of the speakers reminded us, we are called continually to be perturbed by injustice, to wrestle with our faith, and to not stay silent.  On Saturday night we had the privilege of meeting with the other Brethren, Mennonite, and Friends in attendance.  Members of a Mennonite church in Cleveland, Ohio had many members graciously shared their experiences as a predominately African-American congregation.  As we think about how every voice can be lifted on the national level, they called us to begin by considering whose voices are not being heard in our own congregations.

As we consider the importance of lifting every voice, the personal stories such as the one’s shared by our sisters from Cleveland are essential.  Everyone is created in the image of God and thus any work for justice must necessarily be personal, connected to the realities of all people’s lives.  Perhaps that is the greatest message that we had to bring to our legislators this Monday. Justice is personal; when not all voices can be heard singing its refrains, we are silencing God’s beloved.

Thus,

 “Lift every voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;”

May you too be energized and uplifted for your work and your journey with God.

In Christ’s Peace,

Sara White
Intern
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC

If you are interested in learning more about the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or view additional material from the conference, visit advocacydays.org.

Brethren Collaborate on Nigeria Research

As part of the Church of the Brethren’s work on Nigeria through Global Mission and Service, Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS), the Office of Public Witness, and students at Elizabethtown College have partnered to begin data collection and analysis of Boko Haram violence in northeastern Nigeria. The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN) has a strong presence in the northeast, an area terrorized by Boko Haram. Because of the Brethren presence in northeast Nigeria, the Church is in a unique position to shed light on the impact of Boko Haram’s violence, especially as it targets Christian communities in the northeast. 

IMG_0534

Using data gathered by Dr. Rebecca Dali, Center for Caring, Empowerment, and  Peace Initiative (CCEPI), BVSers John and Pat Krabacher initiated organizing Dr. Rebecca’s raw data last year to display the 9745 killed by Boko Haram in the northeast in a “Wall of Healing” seen at Annual Conference 2015. Pat Krabacher is updating the “Wall” data with the latest data from CCEPI and integrating short stories of victims into new visual data displays with assistance from Justin North (CoB Columbus, OH).  

At Elizabethtown College, a Church of the Brethren institution, Religious Studies and Interfaith Leadership Studies majors will supplement Dr. Dali’s data by gathering a comprehensive collection of existing news reports about Boko Haram. Advised by Assistant Professor Dr. Richard Newton, they are charting the role of geography, demography, and religion in the conflict. By capturing these two data sets, we hope this research can better represent the impact of Boko Haram violence which can be communicated to U.S. and international humanitarian aid organizations .

Nathan Hosler, Director of the Office of Public Witness, and BVS worker Jesse Winter will work to create a report of this data to be shared with church members and potential advocacy partners. Visual representations of preliminary data should be available through Global Mission and Service at Annual Conference in Greensboro, NC. As we look at the persisting crisis in Nigeria, now two years after Chibok and nearly seven years after the beginning of Boko Haram’s insurgency in 2009, we hope this partnership and analysis can help communicate the pain and suffering of our EYN and Muslim neighbors and bring about meaningful peacemaking initiatives.

In Christ’s peace,

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

Drought and Food Security in Haiti

It has been over three years since Haitians have seen an average amount of rainfall in their country. This drought, currently being made worse as a result of El Niño weather patterns, is a prime example of climate related natural disasters which have plagued the country for the last decade and the resulting impacts they have made on poverty and hunger.

Due to the impacts of these natural disasters, such as drought, hurricanes, and earthquakes, Haitian markets have struggled to provide enough food at fair prices. Much of this stems from the markets being inundated with foreign food aid given after crises occur, often from the United States in the form of massive rice subsidies. By flooding Haiti with inexpensive American grains, the market value for Haitian products is severely undercut, making it difficult for Haitian farmers to grow and sell their rice. This destroys the farmers’ livelihoods while also creating a dependence on foreign aid. Soon after the devastating 2010 earthquake, one report noted that the country’s “agricultural production accounted for nearly half of gross domestic product in the 1970s. It now amounts to less than a third”[1]. This drop in domestic production has contributed to financial hardship throughout the country, often making it difficult for both farmers and the overall economy to get back on their feet after a disaster.

Poverty is ubiquitous in Haiti where three-quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 per day[2], and in parts of the country, food insecure households total over 40 percent “even in ‘good years”[3]. Due to the ongoing drought, farmers across the country are losing extensive amounts of their crop yield; some farmers had crop losses of up to 70 percent during the 2015 harvest. This loss, combined with a depreciation of Haitian currency, has led to a price increase for many foods like rice, maize, and beans; for families already struggling with spending most of their income on food, these increases could lead to greater rates of malnutrition as meals become less frequent.

According to Oxfam, “since 2000, climate changes have been observed: increased episodes of cyclones, as well as increased frequency and intensity of localized drought.” These changes have left Haiti vulnerable to the effects of flooding, drought, and destruction caused by storms. Further, such climate changes have led to such irregular weather patterns that planning for crop seasons has become difficult, and yields are often variable depending on the changing weather.

Haitian Brethren have been strongly affected by the ongoing drought, as many farmers experienced crop failures when the rains stopped suddenly last summer. Jeff Boshart, the manager of the Global Food Crisis Fund, recently visited Haiti and remarked on how he and his wife “helped plant some citrus trees over 20 years ago that had been fruiting but were now dead” as a result of the drought. Without the income from these lost crops, there is greater potential for hunger as well as a potential loss for children’s education given a loss of extra income to send them to school.

It is likely that this drought will continue for some time, and Haiti will continue to feel the effects through crop loss and resulting economic struggles. In response to this, the long-term impacts of any incoming foreign aid on Haitian farmers, as well as overall economy, must be considered. Haitian economist Fritz Jean has said “the crisis underscores the need for the country’s future leaders to take a holistic approach to supporting farmers”[4]. By working internally or supporting aid that empowers the Haitian people, a stronger approach to facing hunger can be taken.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/35608836/ns/world_news-americas/t/food-imports-hurt-struggling-haitian-farmers/#.VwPOf_krK00
[2] https://www.wfp.org/countries/haiti
[3] http://politicsofpoverty.oxfamamerica.org/2014/04/haiti-drought-opportunity-build-climate-change-resilience/
[4] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article59399683.html#storylink=cpy

Two Years Since Chibok

The following is a statement from Nathan Hosler, Director of the Office of Public Witness, given at a Congressional briefing entitled, “Nigeria after the Chibok Abductions: An Update on Human Rights and Governance.” The briefing took place on April 13, 2016, the day before the two year anniversary of the Chibok abductions.

Other speakers at the briefing included Omolola Adele-Oso (Co-founder and Executive Director, Act4Accountability), Madeline Rose (Policy and Advocacy Advisor, Mercy Corps), and Lauren Ploch Blanchard (Specialist in African Affairs, Congressional Research Service), with Dr. Carl Levan (Assistant Professor, School of International Service, American University) moderating. Opening Remarks were given by Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

 

Affected communities of northeast Nigeria, religion, and peacebuilding

The Church of the Brethren is a Protestant denomination and is, along with the Mennonites and Quakers, a Historic Peace Church. In 1922 the first workers from the Church of the Brethren in the United States arrived in Nigeria and immediately traveled to the northeastern part of the country. Since we are gathered today with particular focus on the abductions from Chibok two years ago it is also important to note that the Brethren have been present in Chibok since 1937 and established the first school in either 1939 or 1946 (there are different dates recorded). Additionally, not only was the school where the abductions took place founded by Brethren before being a government school, but the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (in Hausa Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria—EYN ) reports that a majority of the girls kidnapped two years ago were Brethren. As we consider the 2nd anniversary of these abductions it is vital that we remember the larger regional context, insecurity, and displacement.

Nigeria Briefing 4-13-16

In January this year I traveled to Nigeria and into the northeastern region. Though I had worked with EYN doing peacebuilding work in northeast from September 2009 to December 2011 (which was about a month after the first Boko Haram attacks until the situation began to get dramatically worse), I had not returned until earlier this year. On my trip at the end of January I traveled by car from Abuja through Jos and Bauchi to Yola, the capital of Adamawa state. We then continued north to Mubi and on to Lassa which is in southern Borno state and not far from what is still said to be a “no-go” zone past Michika. I will make several observations based on this trip and the US Church of the Brethren’s work with EYN to address the ongoing crisis of displacement and insecurity.

1. Though many more people had returned than typically reported, security and food security was still tenuous at best.

I observed that at first look things appeared more normal than I expected, however the security situation remains tenuous with many smaller attacks going unreported. Additionally, reporting, verifying, and predicting the number of persons killed, the relative security of certain villages, and general safety is difficult because the area is difficult to access. Though many people have returned, the legitimate fear of attacks continues to disrupt schools, markets, farming, and life in general in a region that had poor development indicators even before Boko Haram arrived. Despite improved security in many areas and the waning attention to the crisis, it is imperative that the Nigerian government and international community expand relief, education, and peacebuilding efforts.

2. Numbers of killed and displaced are likely higher than official reports.

Many who watch Nigeria, do relief work, or attempt to report on the situation say that the officially reported numbers are doubtful. The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria reports that at least 10,000 of its members have been killed and 1,668, or 70%, of its church buildings have been destroyed or abandoned. Boko Haram largely (but not solely) focused on government structures, churches, and Christian communities early on in the insurgency, but has increasingly become more indiscriminant, targeted mosques, Muslim communities, and public spaces such as markets. The massive scale of abductions and deaths as well as displacement and destruction of homes, infrastructure such as bridges, government buildings, places of worship, and schools demand sustained attention and support.

3. Peacebuilding between religious communities is imperative.

On my trip earlier this year I observed expanding efforts in trauma healing and continued interfaith peacebuilding efforts. While working in Nigeria from 2009-2011 I focused almost solely on peacebuilding efforts, especially in equipping the Nigerian Church of the Brethren to engage in multiple levels of peacebuilding with a strong emphasis on interfaith peace efforts. One of the efforts came to be called CAMPI, Christians and Muslims for Peacebuilding Initiatives. This interfaith effort sought to build stronger inter-community relationships and capacity for peace as interfaith relationships and trust weakened from the ongoing crisis in Jos, political violence around the 2011 federal elections, and the resurgence of Boko Haram after the initial government clamp-down on the group. Upon returning I had hoped that religious divisions and tensions would have decreased since Boko Haram is obviously also targeting Muslims. Instead, I heard of deep distrust. Even if Boko Haram were to be defeated tomorrow and the girls from Chibok returned, support for peacebuilding efforts would remain vital for a sustainable peace.

Critical to this work is trauma healing, trust building, and reintegration of those thought to have aided Boko Haram as well as the imperative to reintegrate and care for women and girls who were abducted and then returned through escape or military intervention.

4. Coordination on humanitarian assistance and longer term development is essential.

Some of the hardest hit areas are in southern Borno and northern Adamawa states along the Cameroonian border. I visited a non-registered school in Lassa in southern Borno State, not far from Chibok and areas still considered “no-go” zones. Lassa had been attacked twice near the end of 2014.  Even before this crisis, which started in 2009, there were millions of children out of school. In many of these areas, kids who were in school have been out for at least 2 years. At the school in Lassa, which is called “Education Must Continue” there were less than 20 teachers over 2000 students. They were meeting in nearly destroyed police barracks only partially covered by roofs and outside the buildings under trees. The teachers were essentially volunteering and working without any books, paper, desks, or chairs. While these efforts are remarkable, they are only the beginning and cannot be sustained long-term. Greater coordination between international NGOs, the UN, international community, and Nigerian government is necessary. While in Lassa I was escorted around town by local vigilantes to witness a destroyed large Church of the Brethren building, a heavily damaged seminary, and a partially destroyed hospital. Though attacked more than a year earlier and though the hospital had been in communication with the government, to date they had received no support.

Nathan Hosler

Director

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

 

Mary’s Room: A Lenten Reflection

Based on John 12:1-8

I remember when our family first moved to Maryland from Kansas. Leaving behind family, friends, and a familiar home felt overwhelming for that distraught 9 year old. I generally like road trips and the adventure that comes with it, but that first drive to Maryland turned me into a puddle in the backseat. I wanted to see my friends. I wanted to play with Legos in my room. I wanted ride my bike through the neighborhood and skid on the dusty streets. Out of this longing grew fear, confusion, anger, helplessness, and I stewed in it for 22 hours in that car.

Once we got to our new home, I explored it with my characteristic shyness, slowly and cautiously entering each room as though I was being introduced to someone for the first time. Quietly considering every fiber and tile and curtain, I moved from room to room until we got to the one my parents promised me. I got to have the bigger room since I was the older brother, but there was one little stipulation: the carpet. As I followed the long hallway to my room, I happily saw that my room had more than enough space for Lego-building, but it all had to happen, for the time being, on the most luminous, voluptuous, striking swath of shaggy pink carpet to grace all of humanity. It was beyond my wildest dreams – and not in a good way.

The best way I can describe this shock is through a thought experiment called Mary’s Room. Mary is a scientist that knows everything about color – about light waves, the architecture of the rods and cones in the human eye, the neural pathways that interpret color in the brain, all of it. The only catch is that she is isolated in a black and white room for her entire life and has thus never experienced color for herself. The thought experiment suggests that when she finally leaves the room, her experience of color for the first time is profound and new, despite supposedly knowing everything about color.

Ignoring the philosophical headache that comes from analyzing this thought experiment too closely, let’s return to the headaches I inevitably got from staring at that neon monstrosity for too long. Nothing could prepare me for that carpet. I knew it was going to be there, pink and shaggy, but there is no way that words could fully capture the essence of that mutated Muppet pelt of a floor. It was like seeing pink for the first time, and I couldn’t fathom why people would do that to their room, to their eyes. Let’s just say I felt very motivated to unload the moving truck and cover the floor as quickly as possible.

The season of Lent is largely about expectation. The Lenten season follows Jesus’ march towards the cross. We know the importance of death in his story, but even more recognize the renewing resurrection that follows. All of this is expected. As much as we expect and know the outcome of this Gospel story, the more we need to recognize the ways it defies expectations. Jesus’ ministry, his death, his resurrection challenged Roman authority and even the most pious Jews. In defying expectations, this story becomes transformative and creates a new way of looking at the world that cannot be unseen. Was Mary the scientist forever changed when she saw color for the first time? Could you go back to that dark room knowing that reds and greens and blues lay right outside your door? The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection causes a similar, though more profound, transformation that challenges the way things were before.

Our passage today looks at another Mary, the sister of Martha, whose timeliness, humility, and vulnerability reveals Christ’s radical love. We expect to hear this story during Lent, but just as I expected pink shag carpet and still managed to be surprised and more than a little unsettled, maybe we can still be surprised and unsettled by this familiar story. Mary takes a costly perfume worth a years’ salary and anoints Jesus’ feet. Taken aback, Judas criticizes Mary for not spending the 300 denarii spent for the perfume on the poor, at which point Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

To be fair to Judas, this scene is rather odd. Commentators argue that the scene symbolically prepares Jesus for death, but that alone does not justify Mary’s actions in the context of the story. This story seems to emphasize the value of timeliness. Jesus has been in hiding because of a plot to kill him, making this a tense time Jesus and his followers. Despair is setting in for many of those close to Jesus, but Mary, in an grand display expresses love and appreciation for the one who is about to die. Jesus’ statement about the poor is not meant to discount their value or needs, but rather respects and affirms the timely response to immediate opportunities for discipleship. The notion of witness is closely tied to this call for timely action.

Last fall, the news headlines almost always involved Syrian refugees and that ISIS was going to invade our country through the US refugee program. The terrorist attacks in Paris inflamed this debate further and spawned anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric that caused many of the DC faith-based organizations to mobilize and counter unwarranted hate speech and misinformation. Representing the Office of Public Witness, I joined several of these coalitions, which aimed at fighting discriminatory legislation, attending Congressional hearings, and educating lawmakers about the importance of refugee resettlement. When thinking of refugees, I think about how jarring my own experience was when I moved away from Kansas. That these persons feel compelled to leave their home country, spend years in refugee camps, and then maybe get settled somewhere else speaks to the desperateness of the situation in Syria and Iraq, to the great need of these persons, and to the power of human resiliency and courage. When I came to Maryland, I left behind a house and some friends. Refugees leave everything behind with no guarantee for a better future. And like 9 year old me, they want nothing more than to go back home. Though Islamophobia and demonization of refugees still scores political points in some circles, the witness of these coalitions offers inspiration for those pursuing the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus’ defense of Mary arises from this emphasis on timeliness and witness, but also from the humility she learned from him. In a sermon entitled, “Putting Ourselves in Question: The Triumphal Entry and the Renunciation of Triumphalism,” Mennonite scholar Chris Huebner reminds us “that Jesus emptied himself, became humble, and took the form of a servant. Unlike other rulers, he does not rule by forceful imposition. He rules, not by wielding power, but as a servant.” Jesus spends much of his life avoiding glorification and challenges traditional conceptions of Messiah that anticipate a powerful Jewish warlord tossing off the yolk of Roman rule. Instead they got a tektōn laborer, born in a manger, from the backwater of Galilee, home of thieves and simpletons. Jesus’ embraced this humble past and made it a core part of his ministry. In the Gospel of Mark, he even does all he can to hide his Messianic identity. Considering the rest of his ministry, it is doubtful that Jesus’ defense of Mary springs from a need to be lauded or worshiped or imply that his value is intrinsically greater than the poor who suffer.

This humility is central to the love Jesus calls us to, and he sees this type of love as Mary anoints him. Because her actions are so extravagant, she embodies a love that defies reason, challenges our expectations, and centralizes the humility Jesus himself exhibited. Mary humbly gives of herself both monetarily and physically as she kneels to anoint Jesus’ feet. Exposed to the judging gaze of those present, Mary’s actions recalls the vulnerability necessary to heed Jesus’ call to love our neighbor, the stranger, and even our enemies. When we consider that Jesus soon would wash his disciple’s feet, the collusion of humility and love in this scene is all the more poignant.

Much like the Mary of the thought experiment, the biblical Mary transforms as abstract knowledge becomes a lived experience. Jesus’ anointing is Mary’s instantiation of a learned, Christ-like way of living and reveals the hallmark of discipleship. Jesus ultimately supports Mary because of her actions for her actions, not out of a sense of entitlement or need to be worshiped. She has learned that Jesus calls for love based on vulnerability and intimate connection, flowing from a witness that is sincere, timely, and humble. She is able to see the color that Judas can’t.

We are not to avoid vulnerability, but rather defy reason and embrace it. I received a lot of critical emails about the refugee Action Alerts the Office put out last fall and was told, very bluntly, that because I supported policies that kept doors open to refugees, I would be morally responsible for the Americans killed by members of ISIS infiltrating our country. I didn’t challenge the point directly, but mentioned that the lengthy 1 to 2 year vetting process by the UN and US that makes malicious infiltration impractical and infeasible. Besides that point, there is a more important question: Wouldn’t we be equally responsible for the harm caused to the people we turn away?

Responding directly to people’s concerns sometimes made them more sympathetic. Their concerns for safety mirror the concerns of those fleeing violence in Iraq, Syria, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. For the ones I could not persuade, I really wish that I emphasized the vulnerability inherent in a deep theological expression of love. Isn’t love greatest when there is risk, when we are vulnerable? We see Christ’s death on the cross as an act of untamed love, but isn’t that only so because Christ became vulnerable? The trust we extend in that vulnerability reveals a genuine desire for connection and honesty that can’t be replicated otherwise and reaches deep into a person. As uncomfortable as it is, this is the challenge before us.

As I close this reflection on Mary’s story, let me go back to the beginning and offer one more thought. Because the scene occurs in Lazarus’ home in Bethany, the scene begins with the acknowledgement that death has been conquered. Inasmuch as this scene foreshadows Jesus impeding death and resurrection, it is situated in liminal space that sits at the threshold of both life and death. This tension and instability is central to Jesus’ ministry. The love that he offers disrupts traditional ways of thinking, disrupts what is comfortable and asks us to witness with humble vulnerability. Inasmuch as we strive to live, to be triumphant, the meaning of resurrection means that we must first accept death and embrace its destabilizing power for transformation. Though some commentators emphasize that Mary prepares Jesus’ body for death, I think we should go a step further and say that Mary is preparing Jesus for resurrection, ushering in new life and a new way of seeing that challenges expectations. How can we be that catalyst for renewal? Sometimes it involves returning to something familiar. Sometimes it’s in embracing something or someone new. Either way, we can end up surprised.

The Office of Public Witness offers many chances to be engaged in this kind of transformation, and I encourage you to sign up for our Action Alerts to stay connected with us. The Office plans help organize events for World Refugee Day in June to show support for refugees across the world. If you are interested in helping with one of these events individually or as a congregation, sign up for Action Alerts and contact me directly at jwinter@brethren.org. May we walk together, unsettled and empowered by this radical vision of love that hinges on humility and vulnerability. May our actions be timely as we pursue God’s work.

In Christ’s Peace,

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

 

Advocating for Change Through a Soup Kitchen

On an average day, I spend my time in an office—sending emails, reading updates about relevant hunger-focused legislation, and planning the future of Going to the Garden, but some days give me the opportunity to have firsthand experiences that overlap with my work. The Office of Public Witness is based out of the Washington City Church of the Brethren, and the Brethren Nutrition Program soup kitchen is also located in the church, and that means that I am sometimes called on to help in the kitchen on busy days or if the kitchen needs more  on volunteers.

Earlier this week, the kitchen was in short supply on volunteers, so I was asked to help cook, serve, and clean up lunch. In my work, it’s easy to get caught up on the statistics surrounding hunger. I know that 1 in 6 Americans face hunger and that nearly 46 million people receive SNAP benefits, and I know that low-income communities of color are more likely to face food insecurity than any other population in the United States. However, knowing all of these facts is still not enough to get the full picture of how hunger affects our society. Volunteering in the soup kitchen gives me the opportunity to see the faces of hunger.

By serving and eating with the guests, I’m able to hear people’s stories of how they’ve come to be at the soup kitchen. I met the older adult couple who eat their lunch at the kitchen in order to save money to pay their other expenses. I met the guest-turned-volunteer who still eats at the kitchen but who also regularly helps with meal preparation and cleanup as a way to give back. I met some who are just temporarily down on their luck and others who are facing insurmountable odds that are keeping them in systemic poverty.

Often, it is easy to think that going on visits to Capitol Hill to share our faith values with lawmakers does enough by asking for their support for legislation that bolsters hunger programs like SNAP. This work certainly is invaluable, but being able to put our faith and beliefs into service is an equally important part of the equation. By working in a soup kitchen, even for a day, it is possible to become more connected to our cause.

In Christ’s Peace,

Katie Furrow
Food, Hunger, and Gardening Associate
Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness and
Global Food Crisis Fund

 

Justice in a Pizza Shop

Stepping off Pennsylvania Avenue for lunch, we opened the door as the smell of tomato sauce and bubbly cheese streamed out into the December cold. It was my first time eating at We the Pizza, one of the many aptly-named DC eateries, and while the rich ricotta on my slice of Greek pizza did not disappoint, my new pastor friends from Philadelphia truly made the experience memorable. After ordering two hearty slices of pepperoni, Pastor Keith from the Church of the Overcomer led our merry band of advocates to a booth protected by a six-foot-tall picture of Jimi Hendrix.

Though they just met the day before, Pastor Keith, Pastor Billy, and Ph.D. candidate Drew Hart carried on like old friends. Laughter erupted between greasy bites of pizza as the three of them shared stories about their work and ministry. Invited by the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, of which the Office of Public Witness is a member, Pastor Keith, Pastor Billy, and Drew were in DC for a national lobby day advocating for sentencing reform in the criminal justice system. Faith leaders from over 20 states attended, and I had the privilege of escorting the Pennsylvania delegation. After visiting with Representatives Fattah and Meehan and Senator Casey, the chance for fellowship and good food was more than welcome.

But the seriousness of the day was not lost on them as we ate. Drew, who has written and spoken passionately about the problems of racism in Christian theology and mass incarceration, often punctuated the conversation with thoughtful insights about power and privilege. Pastor Billy, whose ministry involves helping persons overcome drug addiction, spoke about a member of his church who was recently released. “He went to prison for nearly half of his adult life just for doing drugs,” he said. “After his ‘long vacation,’ as he calls it, he put a lot of effort into staying clean and tried to spend time with his father.

“He was doing really great,” Pastor Billy said with a smile. “But then just like that, his father got cancer and died. He couldn’t cope and started hanging around with a crack addict. He’s back in there now.” All of them have heard too many stories like that one. Two members of Drew’s family have spent time in prison, and Pastor Keith runs a community house to help reintegrate ex-prisoners.

“It’s just hard,” Pastor Billy says. “He really is a good man. He had the keys to the church and could have gone in and been like, ‘All of that’s worth about $3000 right there.’ But he didn’t. And now he’s back in prison and they are trying to decide if this is his third strike. It’s crazy. The real problem is drugs, but it’s hard because the resources aren’t there to help him.”

Pastor Billy Thompson, Jesse Winter (OPW), Drew Hart, and Pastor Keith Collins visiting the Office of Public Witness

Pastor Billy Thompson, Jesse Winter (OPW), Drew Hart, and Pastor Keith Collins visiting the Office of Public Witness

I have written about mass incarceration and the racial disparity in our prison system, but stories like these really show the need for sentencing reform. Because of long mandatory sentences and unfair three strike laws, drug use has been over-criminalized to the point that half of all prisoners in US prisons are nonviolent drug offenders. These persons are not dangerous threats to society, but rather are victims of drug addiction. The US spent $60 billion on prisoners in 2012, but the way this money is being used is wasteful and single-mindedly punitive. If more of that money was used on drug rehabilitation and not on incarcerating so many nonviolent offenders, we could curb the problem of growing prison populations while doing a better job at preserving human dignity.

These were the big goals for the four of us in that pizza shop. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that we lobbied for on Thursday makes strides in the right direction. It reduces enhanced mandatory minimums for drug felons and gives judges more discretion when sentencing low level drug offenders. It also makes the reduced mandatory minimums of Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Significant to Pastor Billy’s story, the SRCA offers anti-recidivism programming to inmates to help them qualify for early release. While many of the previsions in this bill are good, there are many steps left to take for a true overhaul of our criminal justice system.

Jimi Hendrix famously said, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” With Brother Jimi watching over the table, these three advocates found wisdom by listening to each others’ stories, forming bonds worthy of their City of Brotherly Love. With our pizza finished, we left the now-hallowed halls of We the Pizza, braved the breezy afternoon chill, and ventured towards our final Hill visit, hoping one more soul could find wisdom in their words.

In Christ’s Peace,

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

A Word from the Experts: OPW Moderates Panel on Drones

The attacks in Paris on November 13 have further inflamed public conversation about the United States’ role in counterterrorism, but the efficacy of drone warfare as a tool in this endeavor is still largely ignored. On Monday November 16, the National Council of Churches and the Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare hosted a congressional briefing on drone warfare in order to spur much needed debate about the moral and practical challenges surrounding the United States’ burgeoning drone warfare program. Over 70 congressional staffers, faith leaders, and concerned citizens attended. Nathan Hosler, Director of the Office of Public Witness, moderated the panel and led a discussion with faith leaders about the use of drones after the event.

As a historic peace church, the Church of the Brethren recognizes that following Jesus’ path requires a radical denial of violence. The Annual Conference of 1988 reaffirmed “the belief and practice of the church in renouncing all war” and raised concerns about covert operations and covert war. Calling them “destructive” to truth, national security, and our relationships with other nations, the Annual Conference urged members of the church and the federal government to abstain from covert operations and covert war. In 2013, the Mission and Ministry Board specifically challenged the use of drones in covert operations.

The panelists on Monday echoed many of the church’s concerns. Panelists Wendy Patten from Open Society Foundations and Naureen Shah from Amnesty International USA highlighted the need for increased transparency and accountability. While the United States’ first targeted drone killing took place in 2002, information about the targets of and justifications for particular drone strikes is largely unavailable, obstructing public debate and limiting government accountability.

Particularly disturbing is that while the “precision” of drones is often touted, civilian death and unintentional structural damage is commonplace. At another drones hearing in 2013, Zubair, a 13-year-old Pakistani boy, said “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.” His family were unintended victims in a drone strike. Drones have become a reminder of terrorism – not because they stop it, but because they cause it. The few reports that the United States releases about drone strikes misleadingly categorizes any military-age men as militants rather than civilian, covering up stories like Zubair’s.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis challenged that the primary assertion that the CIA has the right to use drones at all. Citing that drone strikes are preemptive measures against potential threats, Davis challenges the underlying assumption that targets are automatically presumed guilty, even with very little evidence. While he calls this immoral and un-American, he further says this injustice is compounded by the fact that any perceived threat (real or not) is handled with total lethality. Coerced messengers or carriers receive the same end as a violent mastermind – death by drone missiles – often with little evidence and certainly no due process.

Yasmine Taeb, Legislative Representative for Human Rights and Civil Liberties, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) followed up by describing legislative options available to dismantle the United States’ covert drone program and promote accountability. Yasmine also stayed to discuss with members of the faith community about tackling the issue of drone warfare in relation to promoting just peace. The faith community is committed to changing drone policies, and the Church of the Brethren should be proud for its leadership in this effort.

In Christ’s Peace,

Jesse Winter
Peacebuilding and Policy Associate
Office of Public Witness
Washington, DC