Category: Peacemaking

Thomas Merton: “the saint is never offended”

 Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who spent his later years at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  Merton’s mature thought combined insights from western and eastern spirituality.

Some men seem to think that a saint cannot possibly take a natural interest in anything created.  They imagine that any form of spontaneity or enjoyment is a sinful gratification of “fallen nature”.  That to be “supernatural” means obstructing all spontaneity with clichés and arbitrary references to God.  The purpose of these clichés is, so to speak, to hold everything at arms length, to frustrate spontaneous reactions, to exorcise feelings of guilt.  Or perhaps to cultivate such feelings!  One wonders sometimes if such morality is not after all a love of guilt!

The drug war in spiritual perspective

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico’s four major drug cartels four years ago, an estimated 28,000 people have died.  In the process, the hand of the cartels has been strengthened. 

Calderon’s drug war has killed or imprisoned an impressive list of prominent drug lords; but this superficial success has created opportunities for new players to fill the void or move up the money ladder.  Most of the violence flows from an intense internecine struggle for influence and control.

A major shift in Mexican policy took place in 2000 when Vicente Fox and his PAN party (National Action Party) ended the long political rule of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional).  Traditionally, the PRI related to Mexico’s drug cartels the way a referee relates to competing prize fighters.  Each cartel was given a protected sphere of influence, the quid pro quo being that politicians from small town mayors to the president would get their allotted cut of the ill-gotten gains. 

Fraud on this massive a  scale partly explains the moral appeal of Mr. Fox and the PAN, but a simple shift in ruling party couldn’t end corruption this endemic.  Four years and 28,000 corpses later, Calderon finds himself in deep political trouble.  His critics are calling Mexico a failed state and, as many Mexicans feel a surprising nostalgia for the bad old days, the PRI is staging a comeback.

Desperate men take desperate actions and President Calderon is no exception.  He recently raised eyebrows around the world by suggesting that drug legalization is worthy of serious consideration.

As a recent article in the Guardian makes clear, Calderon isn’t placing his personal stamp of approval on the legalization idea.  He says it would lead to a spike in drug usage and place generations of Mexican children at risk.  The president’s legalization talk is best interpreted as a dig at the United States.  Were it not for America’s insatiable appetite for marijuana and cocaine, the argument goes, the cartels would never have come into existence. 

Calderon’s comments come on the heels of a call for marijuana legalization from three former presidents of Latin American countries: César Gaviria of Colombia, Fernando Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico.  Since marijuana accounts for between 50 and 70% of illegal drug use (depending on whose figures you accept), cartels would take a major financial hit if the drug was legalized and regulated. 

But it wouldn’t help much if Mexico decided to unilaterally legalize marijuana or any other illegal drug, the huge American market would continue to fuel the Mexican drug trade.  Cartels wield enormous power and enjoy considerable prestige in Mexico because, in a world of poverty, they are bristling with cash.  They make sizable donations to churches; they buy off priests and politicians; they dictate news coverage; and they have little trouble recruiting new employees.  Economically, the cartels are often the only game in town.

Even if Mexico and the United States moved in the direction of full drug legalization, the cartels could survive.  They have invested a large slice of the narco-pie in legitimate business ventures for the purposes of money laundering and have developed extensive international connections.  If they lost the North American trade, they could ramp up their operations in the rest of the world. 

But there is no doubt that drug legalization would suck much of the money out of a burgeoning Mexican drug trade, shifting the fight in the government’s direction.

The legalization debate may be moot.  Barack Obama understands that drug legalization makes sense as public policy, but since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1976, it has been smart politics to pour ever-greater sums  into SWAT teams, interdiction and prisons.  The Obama administration has been talking about enhanced treatment for drug addicts and has been reticent to bang the drug war drum, but increased funding for the Byrne grant program suggests that the president understand the game he has inherited.

As pubic safety policy, the war on drugs makes no sense at all.  By now, most sentient Americans understand that the best way to ensure a lively market is to make a commodity illegal and then declare war on it.  The higher the risks involved in getting the illicit item to the consumer, the higher the potential profits.  Arrest one player and two more rush forward to take his place. 

Unfortunately, the war on drugs has never been about public safety or public health.  Presidents Nixon and Reagan declared war on drugs for strictly political reasons.  In America, illicit drug use had been (falsely) associated with people of color for generations.  From the mid-1960s on, hippies and political radicals were added to the suspect list.  Therefore, by declaring war on drugs, conservative politicians were demonizing poor people of color and young white radicals for political gain.  It was a code language everyone could understand.  Better still, no one could oppose a war on drugs without appearing to side with Lucifer and the hosts of hell.

Then, late in the Jimmy Carter years, America entered the period of “malaise” and “stagflation” that conservatives associate with failed liberal policy.  Inflation had reached unprecedented levels, unions were strong, and corporate profits were dropping like the anvil in a road runner cartoon.  The bi-partisan response was neo-liberal economic policies emphasizing free trade, outsourcing and a variety of similar strategies designed to strengthen the standing of international corporations at the expense of American labor. 

At the same time, the American workplace was going high-tech.  As demand for highly trained technicians rose, the need for unskilled labor plummeted.  The impact of these economic developments in small agricultural communities and in the urban core of major American cities was utterly devastating.

After three decades of post war economic expansion, America found itself with a large pool of surplus labor, disproportionately people of color.  What to do?

The war on drugs dovetailed perfectly with the nation’s economic crisis.  No one in the political world talked about mass incarceration, but that was the new game in town.  From a suburban perspective, the prison boom was largely invisible.  But poor black communities were being gradually ripped apart.  By the time the shift to mass incarceration hit full stride in the mid-1990s, half of the adult males in many neighborhoods had done time or were doing time.  In these communities, life for the average black male was a soul-destroying rotation from prison to the streets and back to prison.  It was virtually impossible for convicted felons to break the cycle.  This was by design. 

In her stunning book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander puts it like this: “We need an effective system of crime prevention and control in our communities, but that is not what the current system is. This system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals.”

Successful “progressive” politicians have lacked the political courage to stand up to a hulking monolith that was devouring more and more citizens every year.  Typically, Democrats have survived a harsh political climate by embracing the cruel logic of drug war and mass incarceration.  The people bearing the brunt of these policies didn’t vote and the rest of the country didn’t care.

If America legalized drugs, the drug war balloon would pop.  For decades now, law enforcement has been richly rewarded for rounding up as many low-status people of color as the prisons could hold.  When we ran out of prison beds we built more.   Texas had 40,000 prisoners in 1980.  Now we have 173,000. 

If drugs were legalized in America, the profit motive driving the street level drug trade would disappear overnight.

But think about it, how would we control poor communities of color with unemployment rates at Great Depression levels if we didn’t have the drug war? 

As more and more attention is paid to the fraudulent mechanics of mass incarceration, conservative politicians have gradually turned their attention to the immigration issue.  If we lose one pretext for demonization, another must be invented. 

But how can you fill 2.4 million prison beds apart from the drug war?  You can’t. 

The jobs of  2.4 million Americans are directly dependent on the criminal justice system?  That’s right: the system requires one criminal justice employee for every prisoner.  If we legalize drugs, at least one million of these folks will be out of work.  Some of them will be prison guards; others will be courthouse bureaucrats, defense attorneys and prosecutors.

Of course, we could divert the money we are currently using to fund the machinery of mass incarceration into job creation programs and elaborate public works projects.  But would an electorate raised on drug war hysteria and racial stereotyping support such a common sense venture?  Not a single American politician is betting on it.

Drug legalization is a policy fraught with moral ambiguity, but the same, in triplicate, can be said of the drug war.  When the problem is a voracious human appetite for mind-altering substances, all the solutions come in dismal shades of gray.

So what do we do?  First, we start telling the truth about the drug war and mass incarceration.  If the politicians can’t summon the courage to address the elephant in the room, let’s address it for them.  Looky there, an elephant!  It’s that simple.

Secondly, we must learn to live without demons.  Or, to put it a bit differently, we should become more concerned about the demons inhabiting the nether regions of our own hearts.  That’s where the problem lies.

Finally, we must realize that neo-liberal economic theory and full employment are antithetical.  America can put everybody to work if we want to badly enough.   Where the private sector falls short, the public sector must find its role.

You can’t do criminal justice reform without dreaming of what Martin Luther King called “The Beloved Community”, a place where love supplants hate and what’s good for us trumps what’s good for me, a place where Mexicans, Americans and Canadians work for mutual prosperity.

At the core, our biggest problems are always spiritual.

Loving the World

This sermon was preached at St. John the Apostle United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas on January 10, 2009. 

“There are no good people and bad people. No right people and wrong people.  Just one big lost humanity dying for the glory of God.”


January 10, 2010

Luke 3: 1-22

Let’s face it, John the Baptist is a hard guy to relate to. He was severe, demanding and more than a little scary. Even as a young boy, John was drawn to the desert to the east of the Dead Sea. As he matured, he spent more and more of his time in the wilderness until, finally, it became his home. According to the Bible, locusts and wild honey was his steady diet.

John was the classic abstainer. He didn’t eat rich food, he didn’t drink wine and, it appears, he even refused to live indoors.

But there was a method in all this madness. John was trying to free himself from the corrupting influence of Imperial Rome. God’s Messiah, the Christ, was at hand—John could feel it. The Holy One of Israel would be like a harvester who beats the wheat on the threshing floor, storing the good grain in his barn, and burning the chaff in the fire.

John didn’t suffer from a messiah complex; his marching orders came from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. John was “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the Way of the Lord.”

John’s job was to get God’s people ready for the coming of Messiah when, Isaiah promised, “every valley will be exalted and every mountain and hill made low.”

John knew what that meant. A true and purified Israel would be lifted up and the corrupt forces of Roman power and domination would be cast down . . . and cast out.

And when that happened, John believed, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Considered against this backdrop, John’s lifestyle makes a weird kind of sense. He didn’t drink wine because wine was costly. As Jesus reminded his disciples, John didn’t wear fancy clothes or live in palatial splendor: nice clothes and palaces cost money. And you couldn’t earn money in first century Israel without getting wrapped up in the Roman system.

John didn’t expect his audience to adopt his radical lifestyle in every particular, but he wanted them to live as far from Roman corruption as circumstances allowed. Tax collectors could collect what the law prescribed, but not a shekel more. Soldiers had to stop shaking down the populace and learn to live on their meager wages. If poverty was the price of moral freedom, so be it.

In John’s mind, money and corruption were joined at the hip; purity and poverty were sisters.

People came to John asking how they could prepare themselves for the coming Day of the Lord, and he was ready with an answer: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Was John a subversive, a radical, a weirdo on the fringe?

King Herod certainly thought so. This isn’t the Herod we meet in Matthew—the one who tried to kill the baby Jesus. That was Herod the Great. When that Herod died, his kingdom was divided up between four of his sons, one of whom bore the name of Herod Antipas. This is the Herod we meet in today’s text.

“Antipas” is a short version of the Greek word “Antipatros” which means “Like the father.” Antipas had an older brother, Antipater (a name that means essentially the same thing). But Antipater and another brother named Aristobulus were killed by their paranoid father, Herod the great. As his name Antipas suggests, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Herod Antipas really was “like the father.”

Herod Antipas came to power as an adolescent and had been on his throne for over thirty years by the time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness. In the eyes of Antipas, John was just another weirdo revolutionary who needed to be eliminated.

Do we agree?

Let’s be honest here. When you hear John say, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise,” don’t you get a little uncomfortable? Haven’t we been taught to view people who talk like that as the enemy?

Of course we have.

But if John was a wild-eyed radical, why did Jesus come to Jordan seeking his blessing?

If you are serious about the life of the Spirit (and you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t) you can’t escape John’s dilemma: How can we hang out in Rome without living like the Romans do? How can we honor God while living in a godless world?

Those of you who didn’t grow up Baptist may wonder what I mean by “the world”. Drain the glory of God from creation and you are left with the world. Creation is the coffee; the world is the grounds. We easily assume that we can shuffle through life with one foot in the world and the other foot in the kingdom of God.

That’s what Herod was trying to do. Like his daddy, Herod Antipas wanted to be known as “King of the Jews” and he worked hard to protect Jewish religious sensibilities. When Pontius Pilate displayed the Roman eagle in the temple in Jerusalem, Herod Antipas backed him down.

On the other hand, Antipas was a close friend of the great Tiberius, the man who, by this time, had reigned as Roman emperor for as long as anyone could remember. Paranoid and half crazy, Tiberius lived on the Mediterranean fortress island of Capri. Herod Antipas checked in on his emperor friend every now and then—it was good for business. Herod built a Roman town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and named it “Tiberius”. Then, fearing that this might not be enough to cement his position in the Roman world, Antipas transformed the Sea of Galilee into the Sea of Tiberius. The mad emperor liked that sort of thing.

When John came preaching repentance in the wilderness, Herod Antipas was pushing fifty, teetering on the verge of the most disastrous midlife crisis in recorded history. The moment Herod saw Herodias, he had to have her.

But there were problems. For one thing, Herodias was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip and the sister of Herod’s step-brother Agrippa. When Philip was forced to divorce Herodias he was a little miffed. Agrippa was seething.

And then there was the fact that Herod was married to the daughter of a king, Aretas, the Arabian ruler of Nabataea. When his daughter fled home in tears, Aretas readied his army for war.

Herod was undeterred. Having spent much of his life in Rome, Antipas knew how to live as the Romans do. If Herod could convince the emperor that marrying Herodias was a good idea, it didn’t matter what anybody else thought.

In the Roman world, might made right. The Emperor Caligula once had his horse sworn in as a Roman senator to make precisely this point. No one dared challenge this bizarre move because Caligula had cornered the market on power.

Herod’s marriage to Herodias didn’t just enrage Herod’s brother Philip, his step-brother Agrippa and Aretas, his father-in-law; it earned the enmity of John the Baptist. Herod had John arrested and carted off to the lonely castle of Machaerus east of the Dead Sea.

Unlike John, King Aretas had a powerful army and was willing to use it. Herod was vanquished in battle (God only knows how many innocent men died in the process) and Herod and Herodias fled in terror to their good friend Tiberius. Predictably, Tiberius took Herod’s side, but before the imperial armies reached King Aretas, Tiberius was dead.

Now the power equation shifted dramatically. If might makes right, and you lose your might, right becomes wrong in a heartbeat. Herod’s step-brother Agrippa was a good friend of the new Emperor, a madman named Caligula. Herod Antipas soon found himself living in lonely exile in Gaul, modern France. (Pontius Pilate soon suffered the same fate.) Meanwhile, with the backing of his good friend Caligula, Agrippa claimed the mantel, King of the Jews.

John the Baptist never claimed to be the last word. “I baptize with water,” he told the people, “but the Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

By all accounts, Jesus embraced John’s view of the world. As soon as Jesus was baptized by John, he retreated to the wilderness for forty days and forty nights to hammer out the shape of his ministry. Then we see him moving from town to town, calling disciples and preaching a gospel remarkably like John’s. Like John, Jesus was inspired by Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to be alone with God . . . but, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus returned to a world dominated by the likes of Herod Antipas. Jesus didn’t wait for the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the soldiers to come to him—Jesus invaded their world with a holy enthusiasm that shocked his contemporaries.

Jesus didn’t condemn the world, like John, and he wasn’t conformed to the world, like Antipas; he embraced the world in the love of God and the power of the Spirit.

How could it have been any different? “God so loved the world,” the Bible says, “that he gave his only Son.” Far more than Herod Antipas, Jesus was truly “like the father”. Jesus found God’s glory in the wilderness and released that glory back into the world. As followers of the Son, we share this mission.

I told you the sad story of Herod Antipas for a reason. Remember, drain the glory of God from creation and you are left with the world. And as Herod Antipas learned to his sorrow, when you embrace the world, you make yourself and everyone you touch miserable. How can we live in Rome without living like the Romans do?

In the wilderness, Jesus drank in the glory of God. Returning to the world, Jesus poured out God’s glory. Drink in; pour out. Retreat; advance. Breathe in; breathe out.

This sanctuary is our wilderness. We enter this place as strangers to the glory of God. That’s why we bristle when John tells us to share what we have with those who have nothing. That’s why we flinch when Jesus squanders his good news on the poor.

We long for the Spirit. We long for the glory of God. We long for Jesus. But you can’t get to Jesus without going through John. Baptism in water, the baptism of repentance, comes first—then we’re ready for the good stuff. This is where we get the glory back. Confessing that we have fallen into the rhythm of the world, we enter the rhythm of the Spirit.

We enter this wilderness sanctuary feeling beat-up and betrayed, angry with the world. We hear the gospel, but it has an alien ring—like words in a foreign tongue. Then we remember the baptism that washes the world away. We remember the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Suddenly, the world is ablaze with the glory of God.

Now, there are no good people and bad people. No right people and wrong people. Just one big lost humanity dying for the glory of God. The Love of God ignites a love for the world, in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, Amen.

Alan Bean

A bold stride down a good road

I know this sort of bipartisan gesture stimulates a lot of eye-rolling and longsuffering sighs in progressive quarters, but Barack Obama’s willingness to honor John McCain on the eve of his own big day is a refreshing sign of hope.  We can’t sacrifice everything for unity, but we must sacrifice much if we are serious about dragging America out of the culture war quicksand.   Years will pass before we see the end of our current economic woes.  Our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan will bring great sorrow and no glory at all.  We are spending trillions of dollars we don’t have on self-indulgent addicts to instant gratification.  No one understands the military and economic challenges before us.  Mr. Obama has no simple solutions and he knows it.

We no longer have the luxury of a culture war; the challenges we face are too grave.  And so I thank God for a president with the grace and wisdom to reach out to the people who didn’t vote for him.  By embracing John McCain, Barack Obama is making himself America’s president.  The good will soon dissipate, but moments like this come rarely and will live in memory when the petty squabbling is mercifully forgotten. (more…)

Obama opens the door


Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint have been barnstorming the country ever since they released their diatribe against the Hip Hop generation, “Come on, People!”  They were on a panel at Howard University a week or two after the massive march on Jena.  Howard students were polite and defenential toward Cosby and Poussaint, but they were much more enthusiastic a few hours later when I joined several Jena 6 parents on stage.

This all started back in 2004 when Cosby addressed a Washington gala on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.  Instead of honoring the ground-breaking world of Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund, Cosby lit into “the lower income folk” in the black community.  Black people needed to stop blaming white folks for all their problems, Cosby said.  The time had come to move beyond the victim mentality. 

Ted Shaw, the newly minted lead counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, followed the Coz to the podium.  Scrapping the polite speech he had prepared for the occasion, Shaw launched into an impromptu call for a modern civil rights movement.  As a case in point, he cited Tulia, Texas, where, he told the audience, 47 innocent black people were arrested on the word of a racist white police officer.  In other words, some poor black people really are victims.

When I ran into Ted Shaw in Jena last year, I reminded him of his run-in with Bill Cosby.  I could see the pain in his eyes.  No one enjoys mixing it up with a cultural icon.

That hasn’t protected Cosby from the wrath of the black intelligentsia, however.  He has been accused of selling out the civil rights movement, for blaming the victim, and for aiding and abetting white conservatives.  Michael Eric Dyson’s “Is Bill Cosby Right?  Or has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind” may have offered the most scorching critique. (more…)

Overcome evil with good

from Lydia:

I was just reading this passage from Romans 12 this morning, and I was reminded of the Saddleback Civil Forum.  Rick Warren asked both candidates if there was evil in the world, and if so, what should we do about it.

Both candidates gave lame answers–which reveal the weaknesses of each political party.  McCain said that evil existed, and we should “defeat it!”  The crowd ate it up.  Republicans pride themselves on recognizing the need to defeat evil.

Obama gave a long rambling answer, that only fed into popular stereotypes about Democrats–conservatives often accuse liberals of refusing to name evil.  (I don’t think that’s fair, but it’s true that many of the liberals I know are generally uncomfortable with good-and-evil rhetoric.)

Later, Tony Campolo told us what both candidates SHOULD have said.  They should have quoted Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  This morning, I found a great speech by John Paul II on this passage–I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.

And here’s the full passage from Romans 12:

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d]says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e] 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.