Monday, October 15, 2018

Lesson from a Movie

A movie I saw last week has an unforgettable scene - a woman in a bikini sits by the pool of a ritzy hotel, unexpectedly without a room (and no money to get one). As the sun sets, both the sky and her face begin to turn purple. The man who loves her is with someone else, but notices her plight. In the next scene, a waiter brings her an envelope: "This is the key to a room that's been paid for one week. It's yours." 

We should all experience such love: attentive, authentic, timely, practical. It speaks its name without saying a word. 

But of course, there is good news: we all can know that love. Okay -- it's not the romantic kind, with a man willing to risk everything for a woman. But it's better. It truly is. It is God's love.

As human beings, we are all, all of us, that woman by the pool, shivering, with the night approaching. We have no room and no way to get one. We sit there, cowardly and pale. For many of us, this situation is self-made: pride, lust, arrogance, disobedience, negligence, wrong choices. For others, the link is murkier: illness, abuse, accident, loss of relationships or of jobs. No matter. In both scenarios, we are outside, wishing, dreaming, praying, crying. We can't go inside, can't get warm and safe. Such is the condition of men and women on earth.

But God. He sees. He notices. He has resources.  

And who knows, your envelope may be on its way. And with more than a 1-week solution. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Haitian Peace

Haiti is once again in the news, for an achingly familiar reason: political upheaval.  Several media have said the hefty hike in gas prices pushed a long-ignored, long-suffering people to express their discontentment the only way available to them. For others, it was a matter of score settling among very wealthy individuals, based on significant financial interests. Some more radical voices saw the “international hand" behind last week-end’s damaging, criminal acts.

I know not which group is right, but have noted a common reaction from almost every corner of the Protestant community, both Haitian and foreign: prayer for peace.

But Haiti should not continue what it has done for the last 30 years--and certainly not in peace.

First, if we believe every human being is made by God in His image, as we must, it is wrong to watch millions live in trash and darkness, in hunger and smelly water, while 1-2% of the population (national politicians, their ‘posse,’ and very wealthy business owners) live in opulence. Also, as a practical matter, that large underclass, who makes-up the country’s majority, will simply not tolerate it much longer in this time of WhatsApp and Facebook, where information is readily accessible.

Two clarifications. I do not mind the "gap” between the wealthy and the bottom 50%, or 70%, or however many. The Washington Post reported, in December 2016, that the wealthiest 1% Americans were richer than the bottom 90% combined. Yet few people expect poor New-Yorkers to burn down Manhattan. And fewer still would either “understand” or tolerate such action. Second, I do not object to people lawfully making obscene amounts of money in Haiti. The more, the marrier! 

No, my concern is not the gap nor the ceiling. It is, rather, the existence at the floor, or more accurately the sub-floor level.

I often think about a friend, a good friend, who lives in Port-au-Prince. A single mother of two, she works downtown. She rents a home with no wall, no gate, so she must often pay shadowy young men to “watch” her car overnight. 

Last Friday, the citywide rampage forced her to leave that car at work and walk more than four hours, uphill, to get home. When I saw her two days later, she was still limping, in pain.

Some years ago, she was in one of the city’s overly dense open-air markets, when an expensive car literally ran over her left foot. The driver did not stop. Folks helped her onto a bus, and she went home. She was out of work for days. No insurance plan, no Medicaid support. She was left to deal with all the ramifications alone.

Another time, she was the victim of an armed robbery  while walking with her boys. The criminal told her, very calmly, “Ma’am, I will kill you and your children.” She spent months trying to re-obtain her ID card, driver's license, etc. One note of gratitude: she had left her passport home that day. 

A few weeks later, her family was at a park. One of her boys ran to her and said, “Mom, I just saw the man who stole your pocketbook.” She was terrified. She went home quickly, sat her boys down, and explained to them that never, ever, were they to look at that man or identify him if they saw him again.

She is not unusually unlucky. After all, her boys go a Catholic school; she has a paying job; she has a car; she has even traveled to the United States: she is clearly not among the least of these. But her life is hard. Just really, really hard

Why can she not afford safe housing? Why did she have to walk four hours last Friday? Why did she not jot down the license place and report the hit-and-run to the police? Why did she feel obligated to forbid her boys from ever talking about the man who threatened them? 

The answer is the same each time: because of powerful people and of the public structures they created and maintain.

To assess Haiti's reality, even cursorily, here’s the basic, existential question that must be answered, thoughtfully, morally: does that woman have a right to wake up one morning and say, “hell, no”?

The related questions loom: what good would that do, or won’t that make it worse? Good questions, but first things first: does she have the right, nay the duty, to say, one glorious day, “Alright then, it’s show time.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Doria and the Limits of Alone-ness

She has gone “viral.” The Internet, they say, adores her. She radiates poise and pride. She more than held her own in the presence of the Queen of England. She, of course, is Doria Hagland, the mother of the first ever, newly minted Duchess of Sussex, née Meghan Markle.

Her image is etched in history: the single, stoic black mom of an unlikely princess, an older divorcee who had tamed a rebel prince’s heart, reducing him to a hapless lover cooing that he had “missed” her though they had been together just the day before!
But back to Doria.

In a glowing article, The New Yorker, declared that she, in her aloneness in that pew, had done what black (read: single black) mothers had always done, “straighten the mess up” of people around them. In her case, an ex-husband both morally and physically too weak for the regal affair, while she personified “self-effacing altruism.”

That analysis, for the all the world to see, is true.

In the cascade of praises, one is tempted to forget that Doria was, in what must have been the most surreal moment of her life, forced to bow her head inward, towards her chin, towards the floor, instead of a gentle outward tilt, onto a waiting, familiar, comforting shoulder. There was no human echoing, even in a whisper or a wink or a caress, “yes, I know; I got you; it’s all perfectly wonderful and always will be; well done.” No one there to say to her, “you look amazing.”

Shall we all agree that, truly, truly, nothing on earth feels quite as … flattering as romantic attention?

Prince Harry and Meghan basked in that mutual adulation. I half expected them to start crooning, “somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”

But Doria was alone. Looking at her daughter or at the floor. I don’t believe she looked at anything else that day. Not the magnificent art or architecture that surrounded her. Not the guests who were surely analyzing her. She just sat there, a bit like Rosa Parks must have done in that Alabama bus.

The New Yorker described it as a “profound presence.” Of course. But she also reflected a profound absence. There she was, a wad of emotions, rolls of history, contradictions, fears, gratitude, memories, worries, pride, love. And no one was there, at that precise moment, to help unpack and sort and share them.

Am I the only to think that picture--and the reality behind it--tragic?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Bible and governments

In light of Mr. Trump’s nascent presidency and the discussions it has unleashed about immigrants, I have sought to know what the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob requires of human governments.

The most complete example of God’s ideal for human governments is found, of course, in His instructions to the young nation of Israel.

Arguably, God created Israel for two reasons: so that the Israelites may worship him (he said to the Pharaoh: “Let my people go so that they may go and worship me”) and make Him known to all other nations.

Following the exodus, God gave, among others, three key orders to Jewish leaders: obey and worship Yahweh alone; do justice, and show generosity to the poor (and by extension, the vulnerable or powerless) and treat the foreigners among you very well. These commandments are repeated again and again.

God seems to apply those rules even to pagan nations.

For example, Ezekiel 16 explains why Sodom was destroyed: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned: they did not help the poor and needy ... Therefore I did away with them." v. 49-50. Ouch.

But most modern day governments are not theocracies. They do not exist to worship God and to make Him known. So what does God require of them?

Arguably not very much.

Romans 13 says a governmental leader  “is God's servant for your good ... he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”

A government, therefore, exists to punish those who would do harm, presumably to fellow human beings. And it is free to use force to achieve that objective. So I don't believe the New Testament requires human governments to be merciful. 

And the American government is just that: a human, secular institution, like those of Uganda, or Australia, or China.

There is of course a second question: what kind of governmental leaders should Christians support?  This is where the dissonance happens. One may well have expected Christians to choose leaders who demonstrate Christ-like characteristics, including a near obsession with loving the poor and powerless. Mr. Trump does little of that. Very, very little.

Most American Christians know that they, as individuals, must love their neighbor as themselves, and pay particular attention to vulnerable populations. I imagine many supporters of Mr. Trump try to do that. 

It is, however, undeniable that those supporters have absolved the President of any duty to live by that law. They seem to say, in essence: "President Trump, you can hate--or sound like it. You just do the protecting and leave the loving to us."