Category Archives: Life as the church

Jesus Collective is taking us back to the future on the “third way”

Jesus Collective is having a hard time keeping their “third way” idea from sinking into the polarization that dominates North American thinking these days. Here’s a podcast that reveals the struggle.

I think some Christians, likely more “progressive” types,  might bristle when they brush up against Jesus Collective and hear “third way.” They might think we refer to more third way politics, which is an idea common enough to have its own Wikipedia page.

A third way approach to politics is probably why “the squad” is usually frustrated with Joe Biden who practices a kind of centrism which tries to  reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by synthesizing elements of center-right economics with some center-left social policies — a third way between the binaries.  Some elements of the church have been meandering through the minefields of post-modern discourse for some time with this third way political approach. It feels tepid to much of the new generation.  The newest regimes are busy deconstructing entrenched compromises that perpetuate evils like white supremacy and heteronormativity.

At its best, the “third way” Jesus Collective is talking about is older and newer than finally taking a side within the politics of the present era. The best way of Jesus is not one side or another in the endless arguments of the world and not a tepid way of conflict avoidance down the middle. It is a transcendent way of love following Jesus in his death and resurrection.

Click pic for James Emery White post

A new flowering of the third way

There is a new generation of leaders in the church, worldwide, who have taken the Third Way baton from thinkers in the 1970’s, who were experiencing what some people name the “fourth great awakening” in the United States. In his famous book, The Dust of Death (1973), Os Guinness said,

How often in the contemporary discussion a sensitive modern man knows that he cannot accept either of the polarised alternatives offered to him. In Christianity, however, there can be a Third Way, a true middle ground which has a basis, is never compromise and is far from silent.

Jesus Collective is fond of referring to Paul Hiebert and his 1978 application of “bounded” and “fuzzy” sets to human groups and proposing the church as a different, or third, kind of set: a “centered” set. Heibert, the great missionary and practical theologian, suggested that rather than staying stuck in a Western, left-brain-dominated prison, Christianity needed to be released to regain its natural dynamism and allow everyone, as it traditionally had, to be a part of the movement toward Jesus as their definition of belonging rather than a set of superficial and static identity markers.

The new leaders carrying this old baton are running into a difficult world. It is hard to say where the politics of the world is moving right now. It seems hopelessly polarized. No one knows what to do. In some sense, the politics all seem very new, since the world has never been so united by common media, by huge technologies, by a pandemic and by climate change. But something very old is at work, too. An authoritarian spirit has often accompanied social disruption throughout history. It is here again. Leaders are promising troubled people a return to what was, or a reform to what should be — promises of safety sure to disappoint.

I think Gerald L. Sittser in his book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (2019) helps people who only know third way politics to understand third way Christianity — a way that transcends whatever are the most common ways the godless world relies on and presents an alternative way.

Sittser says the Christian alternative,  the new or “third” way, was first identified in a second-century letter written to a Roman official named Diognetus. You can read it, here. In this letter, an anonymous apologist is trying to explain the essence Diognetus has noticed in this new people group expanding across the Roman Empire. Other people were writing similar things at the time but this letter is the first, extant piece that alludes to a “third way:”

You want to know, for instance, what God they believe in and how they worship him, while at the same time they disregard the world and look down on death, and how it is that they do not treat the divinities of the Greeks as gods at all, although on the other hand they do not follow the superstition of the Jews. You would also like to know the source of the loving affection that they have for each other. You wonder, too, why this new race or way of life has appeared on earth now and not earlier.

When the author uses the word “genos” to describe the “new race or way of life” of the Jesus followers, it is a bit hard to translate since the word has some dynamism to it, much like the movement Hiebert sees in his centered sets. Jesus followers are a people defined by how they were born and where they are going. They don’t match the definitions of the present age. They are born and live just as the Apostle John said:

[Jesus] was in the world (a fuzzy set), and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own (a bounded set), and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name (a centered set), he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)

The way of Jesus in the second century was noticeably in contrast to the Roman way (the first way) and the Jewish way (the second way) which Romans respected. Neither of these distinctive features of the church lasted, unfortunately, and the “third way” became a persistent minority in the church at large. At least in Europe, the church became Rome and reinstated the imagery of the sacrificial system of the Jews along with its legalism. But at the time Diognetus received the letter, these things were not true. He was a Roman searching out the way of Jesus which is presented as a new or third way.

What makes the third way an ongoing new way?

Many people are talking about the third way these days, which is why Jesus Collective is being found by people all over the world. In every denomination and nation people are seeing beyond what polarizes them, moving toward Jesus, and travelling with others on the way. Many people are teaching what the third way means. Here is are three of its distinctives I can name for you.

  • The Third Way is about a transcendent destination

Sittser says

Christians believed in the reality of another and greater kingdom over which God ruled. It was a spiritual kingdom—not of this world, but certainly over this world as superior and supreme, for this world’s redemption, and in this world as a force for ultimate and eternal good.

To move with Charles Taylor, Jesus followers have an appreciation for what lies outside the immanent frame of modernity.  In the words of Iain McGilchrist they are not in bondage to the left-brain philosophies and practices associated with scientism and capitalism. Like James (4:4) says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” Having a relationship with Jesus conditioned by the ways of the world is unsustainable.

  • The Third Way is a movement

Like the sun overwhelms the lesser light of the moon and stars, God’s kingdom transcends lesser authorities. This revelation can only be known if one is moving toward the center. One day mercy and justice will be revealed to all. Now is the time to move with the light we have toward that glorious day.

I don’t totally understand this chart, but i feel it.

Heibert struggled for a way to help people out of their static orientation when it came to knowing God.

Centered sets are dynamic sets. Two types of movements are essential parts of their structure. First, it is possible to change direction—to turn from moving away to moving towards the center, from being outside to being inside the set. Second, because all objects are seen in constant motion, they are moving, fast or slowly, towards or away from the center. Something is always happening to an object. It is never static.

Illustrations of centered sets are harder to come by in English, for English sees the world largely in terms of bounded sets. One example is a magnetic field in which particles are in motion. Electrons are those particles which are drawn towards the positive magnetic pole, and protons are those attracted by the negative pole.

Much of Christianity and most of postmodernism is bound by definitions and power struggles about purity. Heibert was struggling to present a deeper picture. I think he is moving with the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Corinthian church:

 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God [here are those three ways again],  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:32-3)

He is not trying to find a secure place in a well-defined and protected territory, he is moving with the mission of Jesus.

  • The Third Way is fueled by a passionate motivation

Love is deeper than righteousness. The Apostle Paul struggles to get this across in his letters. To the first way Romans he writes:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-9).

That is the subversive conviction that undermined the authoritarian Roman Empire.

To the second way Judaizers in Galatia he writes,

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

We always need to keep ourselves reminded that law condemns but love forgives. Law makes for fuzzy or bounded sets, but love is the centering impulse of the Lord.

If love for Jesus and others, love from Jesus and others, does not hold the church together, there is no center, nothing to keep it together and moving together. It is only a fuzzy or bounded set and has rejoined the way of the world at the cost of the Word. The growing, new understanding of the Third Way which was so humbly powerful in the Early Church is still the best way to move with Jesus through this troubled time.

Resources for Understanding and Impacting the Borderlands

Saulo Padilla at the wall.

I am going to use this entry to collect resources I have for understanding and experiencing the tragedy and grace happening at the border in Arizona. The area on both sides is called the “borderlands” since it has a character and government all its own. On the American side the military presence of the U.S. and an array of Christians, mostly, who alleviate its cruelty meets the power of the cartels on the Mexican side, who have taken over immigration and made it human trafficking. The shadow Mexican government is also met, mainly by Christians, who care for people caught in the many crises that bang up against the U.S. wall.

Each of the headings is a link to one of seven blog posts I wrote while on the learning tour. Click the title to go to that page. On each of those posts are more specific resources connected to what we were learning each day. Below are general resources.

1. Fridays for the Future #6 — Phoenix/Tucson the most unsustainable: It’s about water

As far as I can tell, now that I know some, Tucson residents are as in denial about their unsustainable sprawl as my research indicated.

2. Education in Agua Prieta

I later got to know more about David Bonilla. He was an intelligent, kind beginning to our exploration of the borderlands, the first of many amazing people making a difference.

Root Causes

Webpage:
Migration Root Causes – MCC US Video
https://mcc.org/safe-refuge

Article:
Indigenous diaspora: Leaving home and the journey across Mexico

Podcast:
Aviva Chomsky on the Real Root Causes of Migration

3. Twentysomething migrants out in a cruel world

I had dinner with a young family of migrants in a shelter designed for their care. They gave me a personal picture of what is happening.

The Migration Experience/At the Border

Article:

How climate change is fueling the U.S. border (3 part series)
Border Patrol Leaves Migrants In Remote Town As Deaths Rise
https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/landless-mayans-coups-and-death-squads

Podcast:

The Out Crowd I: Goodbye, Stranger (thisamericanlife.org)
On Being: Luis Alberto Urrea-Borders Are Liminal Spaces

Books:
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Rigoberta Menchu – Nobel Peace (Book)

Film:
Harvest of Empire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gW84cAN2Pw

Short Youtube Videos:
Guatemala, the CIA and United Fruit Company
Banana Republic: Guatemala, CIA and UFC

4. The two sides of the border wall

One of the main reasons I went to the borderlands was to see where Jesus was there. This was a good day for sensing the Lord’s presence in one of the wounds of the Earth.

Border Militarization and Deterrence

Website:
 The Birth Of Border Militarization
100- Mile Border Enforcement Zone

Article:
Failing To Bring Back The Dead
La Frontera: Artists Along The U.S. – Mexico Border

Podcast:
Beyond the Wall: Reflections From A Former Border Patrol Agent
The Out Crowd II: Take the Long Way Home (thisamericanlife.org)
NPR: When Migrants Die, Many Bodies Remain Unidentified

Books:
Intercultural Church: A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration: Safwat MarzoukSafwat Marzouk
The Devil’s Highway
The Death And Life of Aida Hernandez

5. The legal razor wire on the other side of the wall

I helped migrants during the 2-5am shift at the immigrant center at the port of entry where people can come after they have been caught and summarily removed from the U.S. Then I learned about the lawyers who are trying to help them as they hold the U.S. accountable.

Border Crossing/Sponsorship/Detention

Video: Locked in a Box
Title 42 video: https://www.facebook.com/jorgeramosnews/videos/175798981046625

Podcast:
 Seeking Asylum: Reality at the US / Mexico Border

Books: Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants

6. Fridays for the Future #7: The Climate Wall

We met Todd Miller who has spent a lot of energy looking at the borderlands. He even wrote a book about how climate change  is creating immigration issues.

7. Death in the harsh desert

On the way to Sasabe we got into the desert ourselves to see and feel the desperation and courage of migrants – and to see how many of them die.

2020 open letter on migration from MCC U.S. executive director J Ron Byler.

 

Death in the harsh desert

On day six of our MCC learning tour of the Borderlands in Arizona, we spent a stirring time with Brian Best, one of the Tucson Samaritans. They are devoted to saving the lives of migrants who are making their way through the treacherous Sonoran desert. We took a dirt track off the two lane highway to Sasabe and were soon off the beaten track. The following video gives you an idea of the terrain a migrant has to get through without getting caught by the border patrol.

Our group was ending a time of prayer and remembrance around a cross placed by artist Alavaro Enciso on the spot closest to a reported death of a migrant. Thousands of deaths have been verified since Pima County started carefully tracking twenty years ago; many more people have never been found.

A baby cholla invaded my shoe

Brian Best gave us three hours to get a taste of what it is like to try to make it into the US. For one thing, almost every plant has stickers. I stepped near a baby cholla and spent the next hour getting spines out of my foot and shoe. It takes days to get through the desert and no one can carry as much water as they need. It might be safer to travel by night but hard to navigate and avoid the dangerous plants. There are rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and other animals you need to avoid. It is very likely you don’t have the best clothes or supplies because you can’t afford them. It is quite cold at night and very hot in the day. It is a miracle anyone gets through.

As soon as we exited our van to walk with Brian, we saw a backpack laying on the ground, and then a pile of camouflage shirts and hats nearby. From the bushes we extracted two little satchels we saw. One had three phones in it. Brian’s best guess was the Border Patrol tracked the migrants with hilltop cameras and drones until they emerged at a convenient place to nab them.

My heart broke for these poor, desperate, invisible young men. Most people do not care about them. But they deserve to be remembered like anyone else. I took comfort that God sees and loves them, just like you. But I suffered over the fact that most Americans don’t see migrants as people and feel obligated, for economic reasons, not to love them.

Further resources

In Sasabe we visited the recently-opened welcome center for migrants, Casa de Esperanza, a project of Salvavision. Sasabe is a sleepy little desert town, but it is still a point of entry for migrants and a place where removed people are set loose. While we were there we were treated to snacks in the Super Coyote convenience store down the street.

Sasabe is the starting point for the annual Migrant Trail experience, which you can join. One of our MCC leaders for our tour, Saulo Padilla, walks the trail every year. He would be glad to tell you all about it. (Read Open Your Arms: An Invitation)

Saulo Padilla 
MCC US Immigration Education Coordinator
saulopadilla@mcc.org
574-304-9196

The next day we had another feast at the Tucson table of compassion and activism. We met John Fife, one of the originators of the Sanctuary Movement, which has spread much further than sanctuary churches. (More history)

Fridays for the Future #7: The Climate Wall

On day five of our learning tour in the borderlands in Arizona we met Todd Miller (toddmillerwriter.com). He has been writing about the borderlands for many years and filled us with useful, if a bit terrifying, info.

Miller wrote Storming the Wall: Climate change, Migration, and Homeland Security in 2017 and co-authored Global Climate Wall last month for the Transnational Institute (tni.org). I was glad to meet him. What follows is a version of what he is trying to get everyone to hear.

Climate change drives migration

Guatemala provides a good example of how the changing climate is impacting immigration and what the wealthy countries are doing about it.

As soon as the floodwaters of Hurricane Eta began to recede in November of 2020 people began to head north. 339,000 Guatemalans were displaced by natural catastrophes in 2020. Many people became desperate. They felt they had to face the walls, armed agents, and surveillance systems deployed by the U.S. — and forced on other countries, starting with the heavily enforced border in southern Mexico, to have a chance to live.

The U.S. Government knows environmental catastrophe and displacement within and migration from Central America are linked, whether caused by flooding or drought. In September 2018, after a year of severe drought in the region, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the press, “Food insecurity, not violence, seems to be a key push factor informing the decision to travel from Guatemala, where we have seen the largest growth in migration this year.”

U.S. climate scientist Chris Castro said Central America is “ground zero” for the impact of global heating impact on the Americas. “It’s a paradigm of the wet gets wetter, the dry gets drier, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Everything gets more extreme.” There is an ever-widening swathe of land populated by subsistence farmers where rain has become less reliable.

Then came 2020. At the end of a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic came two back- to-back category four hurricanes. By January 2021, the World Food Programme calculated that those experiencing hunger nearly quadrupled from 2018 to 8 million, and 15% of people surveyed were making concrete plans to migrate north, twice the 2016 level. In 2020, in Honduras alone, almost a million people were displaced because of climate-related causes. This was only only a glimpse of what was happening worldwide with over 30 million people displaced by such events, three times more than those displaced by conflict or war in the same year.

Mexican police corral migrants after they cross the Suchiate River in January 2020

The response of big polluters? Invest in border security

In response the climate disaster and the migration it causes, wealthy countries are building security walls. I have now seen the incredible investment in border security at the US border with my own eyes. All over the world, the largest greenhouse gas emitters are also the world’s top border enforcers. Besides the US, countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK, as well as the European Union and its 27 member states, are constructing walls, deploying armed agents, erecting sophisticated and expensive surveillance technologies and biometric systems, and unmanned aerial systems, often in collaboration with a burgeoning global border industry. Globally, 63 border walls have been built, with 9 new ones announced, up from six when the Berlin Wall fell and South African apartheid was dismantled in 1989. This wall-building has accelerated since 9/11, and particularly since 2010. The US is funding and forcing Central American countries and Mexico to reinforce the US border by militarizing their own.

It seems that there is no limit to spending on national borders and immigration enforcement. US spending on militarizing its southern border and detention and deportation of immigrants has nearly tripled since 2003 from $9.2 billion to $25 billion today. Yet the world’s richest countries have failed to meet even their inadequate promises of money to tackle the impacts of climate change in the world’s poorest countries. The ratio of U.S. Border spending to climate financing, for example, is 11 to 1, based on the annual average between 2013 and 2018.

We are living in a world in which walls, border patrols, Black Hawk helicopters, unmanned aerial systems, motion sensors, and infrared cameras are placed between the world’s highest emitters and the lowest ones (like Guatemala), between the environmentally relatively secure and the environmentally exposed. The U.S. is exporting border protection to Central American countries in an attempt to deter people before they get too close.

This expanding global border regime is increasingly built by private industry. This fuels a lucrative border security industrial complex. Many of the same companies that the US, the EU and Australia have contracted to fortify their borders and detention systems also have been hired by fossil fuel companies in order to protect oil pipelines and other parts of the industry. The company G4S, for example, not only has contracts with the CBP to provide armed and armored transport for migrants arrested near the US–Mexico border, but also provides protection services to Royal Dutch Shell, the seventh largest corporate emitter of green house gas worldwide.

Rhetorically, political leaders from the world’s highest emitting countries are aware that the poor bear the burden of suffering. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for example, says he knows that the “consequences are falling disproportionately on vulnerable and low-income populations. And they’re worsening conditions and human suffering in places already afflicted by conflict, high levels of violence, instability.” With such awareness, one might assume that US national budgets would reflect the will to alleviate the suffering Blinken describes. Instead, the United States – and many of the other high-emitting countries – pour increasing money into border and immigration enforcement.

At the end of the day, budgets speak much louder than rhetoric. In the present status quo, tens of thousands of people from Guatemala and beyond will face the armed guards and gates of the United States, as thousands of others face the rough Mediterranean waters around Fortress Europe.

The Bible consistently tells us that how we treat the stranger is a measure of our right relationship with God. How the rich treat the planet creates strangers on their doorsteps. What would the Lord have us do?

Further Resources

One of the big moments of this day on our learning tour was visiting Casa Alitas. This mission started when someone found an immigrant released from custody and wandering around the bus station in Tucson, where they had been dropped. Women, especially, started inviting these strangers into their homes. They got a house where they convinced the authorities to drop released people. They outgrew it and moved into a soon-to-be-demolished monastery. The country eventually gave them a large, unused part of the youth detention center. I was moved to tears by the generosity and service of these inventive, compassionate people! Over 400 volunteers make their mission effective. One of them became an MCC worker and the leader of our tour. You might like to know her:

Katherine Smith  
Border & Migration Outreach Coordinator
West Coast Mennonite Central Committee
Tucson, AZ
Cell: (520) 600-1764
katherinesmith@mcc.org

Valarie Lee James found a manta buried in the desert sand near Tucson. It is the all-purpose cloth Central American women often embroider and then use to keep tortillas fresh or any other regular purpose.  It was a shockingly personal item to find. She then found another and another. She cleaned them, honored the, and turned them into art installations. One of which is in a permanent museum collection in Sweden. She then encouraged migrant women by engaging them in their art. She then realized their art could support them and other causes. Thus, their is an Etsy shop called Bordando Esperanza (hope embroidering/crafting).

The legal razor wire on the other side of the wall

I actually fell asleep in the back set of the van yesterday and missed my second visit to Bisbee Arizona!

I was sleepy because I volunteered to help with the 2-5am shift at the Migrant Resource Center, which is right at the exit of the border crossing. It is a project that began in the Church and remains a wonderful place of mercy for tired, scared and often bewildered people. We had sandwiches, coffee, blankets, a place to nap and a few supplied for about 80 people by my count. I helped one young man find a new pair of pants since his had been ripped on the razor wire. I also found him some new outerwear since his coat was full of thorns. Most of the mostly men waited to be retrieved by their smuggler and taken to a cartel “safe house.”

I was glad to be awake enough to meet Noah Schram of the Florence Project out of Tucson, now 120 lawyers and trained people advising and defending people in the immigration process. One of us jokingly told him we were on our learning tour trying to make sense of the U.S. Immigration process. He laughed too, because no one can really do that.

Right now Title 42 is still in place. It was one of Trump’s executive orders that effectively closed the border. In the name of public health no one was allowed in when they went the legal route of presenting themselves at the port of entry and there was no means to appeal. All the lawyers note this is against the international agreement on refugees to which the U.S. is a signer.

People still get in, however. They evade capture when they scale the wall or they manage not to die of thirst or exposure when they cross where the wall ends far out into the desert. Many do die and their remains quickly dry up; no one knows how many.

Those who cross and are captured from certain countries can get through an asylum loophole since Mexico will not take anyone back who is not from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. Unaccompanied minors get dropped off and get through the port of entry now under Biden’s rules. If a family with a young child is caught in the desert they usually get through.

Getting through and into the legal process of gaining asylum means going to the detention center part of a prison. There 14% of the migrants will get representation to help make their case to the immigration judge. Imagine being in your twenties, fleeing your impossible or violent situation, making it through the longest trip you’ve ever taken under the thumb of the cartel, making it over the wall or around it and through the desert, being caught by the military presence in the United States, taken to a prison, then getting into a bureaucratic and legal fight which is done mainly by English speakers!

That’s where Noah and his people come in, God bless them. The system is not designed to welcome strangers, just repel them. The judges are rarely impartial, taking the side of the unrepresented; many of them function more as another prosecutor. When I read the Bible these days I see how much of it is written with such injustice and lack of compassion in mind.

Further Resources

Noah Schram in making such good use of his law degree! The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project is on of many such projects along the border. Every immigrant needs an advocate to get through a system designed to trick them, detain them, and thwart them even when they are in line with international and U.S. law.

The 1951 Refugee Agreement is still in place.

The United States has long guaranteed the right to seek asylum to individuals who arrive at our southern border and ask for protection. But since March 20, 2020, that fundamental right has been largely suspended. Since that date, both migrants seeking a better life in the United States and those seeking to apply for asylum have been turned away and “expelled” back to Mexico or their home countries. These border expulsions are carried out under a little-known provision of U.S. health law, section 265 of Title 42, which the former Trump administration invoked to achieve its long-desired goal of shutting the border. The Biden administration has continued using this provision, and over 1.2 million expulsions have been carried out since the pandemic began, even though ports of entry remain open with nearly 11 million people crossing the southern border every month and thousands flying into the United States every day. (full article from the American Immigration Council)

The Department of Justice contributes to non-profits like FIRRP through its Legal Orientation Program. Only 14% of people seeking asylum are represented however. We spoke to one of them who somehow connected with people from a Tucson church visiting  Eloy. It took TWO YEARS for her unjust detention to be ended, but she made it. Now she has started a business.

Why do the authorities release people without their shoelaces? What in the impact of the Migrant Protection Policy (MPP)? (Anchorage Daily News)

Immigration court judges are not impartial. The system in broken. (NYTimes)

On this day we also visited the brick-making neighborhood of Agua Prieta, Sonora, to see DouglaPrieta. It is a project begun by women seeking more dignity to make their own way in the world. It is a mutual teaching center for backyard farming, sewing, carpentry and other skills. What we witnessed was how good a training center it was for disempowered women to become leaders and builders. They even made their own adobe bricks to make one of their buildings! I bought some of their work to take home.

The two sides of the border wall

One of my friends on our pilgrimage to the borderland in Arizona said, “I feel more life on the Mexican side of the wall.” Now that I have spent all day on the American side, I agree.

The mural above is on the Mexican side of the border wall in Agua Prieta. The quetzal bird is the national bird of Guatemala. It is known for not being able to live in captivity. The southern side of the wall is filled with inventive, positive art. The city put a park-like path along it and made it into a place to exercise. When we walked along it yesterday, we met people and said good morning.

Today we spent much of our time tracing the U.S. side of the wall for fifteen miles along the road only the border patrol uses. I can’t see it as anything but a blight. There is no life on the American side, only a vacant buffer zone. Patrol cars are parked at regular intervals, engines idling ready for action. Light poles, sometimes moats, sometimes two fences. Cameras are everywhere, some stationed on hills the distance. A helicopter tracked us for a while. It feels dangerous and overwhelming.

I can’t imagine how the U.S. could roll back such a commitment, now that the country has made such a huge investment in this presence. The wall itself cost $3-12 million a mile. Then you have the thousands of employees and equipment to maintain it, patrol it, surveil it and extend it.

Before we started our adventure along the wall, we prayed over it. Our guide noted that the ground it was built on is sacred because God created that earth for goodness out of love. Migrant and patrolman, cartel member and church member, south and north all live under God’s grace. They can all hear the blood of the unjustly killed, those dying alone in the desert, calling out for justice, just like Cain’s blood if they listen.

I stood praying with my hands on the second fence in the first section on the American side, feeling a lot of death after hearing the truth about what is happening on the border in the war between the U.S. and the cartels. A song from a funeral I led long ago came to my mind. I just got through the first line, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” I felt the fence begin to lightly vibrate under my fingers. I was so surprised I lifted them off like my hand was on a hot stovetop. I put them back and the fence was calm. But my heart was glad to have another sense that Jesus was with us all on the border. Even in this violent, desperate place, surely the Lord is with us.

Further resources

Jack and Linda Knox are legends in the minds of many who visit them in Douglas AZ (check out a video by them). They retired with service in mind and devote themselves to hospitality, volunteering and rabble rousing. Jack led us to the wall to pray and then took us on a wild ride on the border wall road to get a look at the miles of investment the U.S. has made to keep people out of the U.S.

This night we joined the Healing Our Borders prayer vigil on the road leading to the Douglas port of entry.  This memorial for people who have died in the desert and prayer for  just and loving  relationships with “the strangers” has been happening every Tuesday for over 20 years!

Twentysomething migrants out in a cruel world

One of my travel companions looked at my concerned face today and said, “But people are doing good things everywhere!” I had to agree, since I met them all day. But they are certainly not doing good things without opposition.

Let me concentrate on one of the several organizations we learned from today south of the border in Sonora, Mexico.

A memorial at the migrant welcome center in honor of people who died crossing the border.

I won’t tell you the name of the migrant shelter we visited. They are scared of the “criminal organization” that threatens them. Any undo publicity could prove dangerous. The director was recently threatened with death after a new security chief took over that spot in local gang by killing his rival. The director’s crime? He went to pick up refugees from India who strangely ended up on the train to Agua Prieta.

The “mafia’s” business is drugs and human trafficking. The shelter does not fit its business model, which is based on deception and control. If shelter volunteers help a migrant retrieve money from Western Union that deprives the gang of its tax. If they pick people up they can’t be wandering around confused and easier to kidnap for ransom. If they help people file police reports that’s obviously inhibiting business.

The director leads a ministry that was born in his Catholic Church 21 years ago. A small group took over a part of the church to care for men trying to get into the U.S. to work. They could house 16 people. They found money to expand to 44. The new building they just finished added 88 spots. It also includes new rooms for families. During the pandemic and under the ongoing Title 42 rule in the U.S., most refugees and asylum seekers from Central America are not even processed, just returned to Mexico. Those are the main people leaving their homes and the main group who wanders, confused and destitute, into the shelter. New realities mean some people have been in a waiting pattern in the shelter for a long time when the shelter’s idea was to provide a short term stay.

Peering through the border wall

We ate dinner with the people staying in the shelter. The couple with us at our table were from Honduras. They and their 1 1/2 year old had lived in a farm village in the mountains where there were no jobs except farming, no schooling and no hope. Plus they feared the increasing violence from rival gangs and threats from the long arms of various criminal organizations looking for people to lure into migration for $10-15K a person. The smugglers told them people with children were getting asylum and once in the U.S. a family would not be returned. That is not so.

They asked for asylum in Reynosa TX. They thought they were being taken for processing. Instead they were bussed to the airport and put on a plane for Tucson where they were transported to the border at Agua Prieta. To get another of the three tries for entry their smuggler promised, they need to get back to Reynosa, 18 hours away by car. Mexico has put a check point not far from Monterrey where they can catch migrants on the bus and stop their progress. I looked at that sweet couple and their son and could not imagine what awaited them in this cruel world.

The government will fly people across the country to discourage them from trying to enter it again? The “mafia” can walk into your shelter and tell you what you can’t do that might inhibit their illegal trade? Kamala Harris goes to Guatemala to tell people our border is closed to almost everyone and expects people poor enough to intend to walk to Reynosa to hear her?

Lord have mercy.

Further resources

I hope you will order your coffee Christmas presents from Cafe Justo. We heard a presentation about coffee growers in Chiapas eliminating the middleman and creating their own cooperative to roast and distribute the work of their hands.  It raised their standard of living, sent children to school and stabilized their valley. (also Facebook)

It is hard to decide how much to say about C.A.M. E. (Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus). They feel threatened. But they do have a Facebook page to garner support.

There is a technique under Biden for discouraging repeated attempts at illegal entry we ran into as we met migrants. The CBP (Customs and Border Protection) has been flying people from one port of entry to another to release them. Most of them think they are being taken to detention to work out asylum processes, but they find themselves in an unfamiliar new town in Mexico. (article)

Education in Agua Prieta

I am in Mexico. I hope to share some of what I am learning about the border each day this week. Here’s the first story.

David Bonilla wanted to stop talking about the cartel members who protect the educational services the Frontera mission supplies to poorly-served elementary kids on the Mexican side of the border at Douglas, Arizona. He would rather talk about the souls he snatched from that devil. They don’t ask to be protected. But the cartel considers “places of peace” valuable.

He was being translated so I could have missed some meaning. But I know he recalled a young boy said he wanted to be a hit man when he grew up when he first arrived for the enrichment their program supplies. That profession is the kind he could see around him. The leaders of the cartel are like a huge business (perhaps like UPenn) which provides services to whole sections of a town. The kids aspire to work for their elaborate trade indrugs and migrants. In Agua Prieta the city government and the cartel have somewhat equal power. It is more peaceful to have just one trafficking business rather than a war for your town. Many kids would like to see themselves riding around in the fancy Jeep that sometimes pulls up outside the after school program to make their presence felt.

Here the school day is 8-12. It is not enough to make progress in overcrowded classrooms. MCC had a worker for several years creating this additional free opportunity for further learning. Education provides more imagination to young minds deciding who the are in the shadow of the wall under the threat of violence.

I am happy David gives his life to the cause. He was a pastor in Bogota in a section of the city so marginal the authorities would not provide it electricity and water. They expected it to slide down the mountain. Before it did, David and his wife applied to work with MCC in Mexico as they had helped in Colombia.

Further resources

While everyone seems to have a website these days the main resources I discovered in the borderlands were PEOPLE! There are MANY wonderful people caring for the helpless and hopeless crashing into the American wall. Many of them are associated with MCC.

David Bonilla is doing a good job of whipping Frontera de Cristo into shape with his administrative skills. He got connected via MCC in Colombia.

You might want to look up my new friend Emily Miller whose home base is Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso. She is the Coordinator of projects and relationships for  Northern Mexico as part of MCC Mexico. emilymiller@mcc.org

Parker Palmer and the trouble with autonomy

The psychological work of exercising healthy autonomy is challenging when it is seated in individualism and seeded with identity politics.

Part of a “heritage ride”

According to the Richmond Co Daily Journal, Jacob Mumford decided to hold a “Heritage Ride” after seeing news reports about calls to ban the Confederate flag. He said about the demonstration, “It don’t represent racism. It just represents my heritage, being raised in the South, Southern pride. That’s all it means to me.” He was trying to be someone, the newspaper was reporting it, the country was protecting it.

Mumford was reacting to the great cleansing that began after Dylan Roof murdered nine loving people in an historic Black church in Charleston. In 2015 the National Park Service ordered all Confederate flags and merchandise to be removed from all parks under the agency’s direction, including Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. By 2021 the massive Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was removed, symbolizing the ongoing deconstruction of white supremacy intertwined with everything American.

The untwining is far from over and the pickups still parade. Alongside the Confederate flag a driver often has the yellow Gadsen flag, as in the picture above. It is the flag with “Don’t read on me” on it. “Don’t tread on me” has been an assertion of national autonomy for over 200 years, and now personal, pickup autonomy. I saw the same display in Lansdale the other day.

Christopher Gadsen designed his anti-British flag in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The timber rattlesnake on it was something of a Colonial-era meme, evidently created by Benjamin Franklin. The snake is unique to the Eastern U.S. and came to symbolize a new country ready to bite anyone who stepped on it. The symbol stuck around. You can get a specialty license plate with the Gadsen flag on it in nine states. You can say your license plate is about “heritage,” but Gadsden was a slave owner and trader, who built Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina. As many as 40% of enslaved Africans who were brought to the U.S. first arrived there. You can say it is about southern pride, but don’t leave out the white supremacy and dread people feel when the pickups parade. I felt some fear when I saw one on the Turnpike!

Around the Time the Philadelphia Union was using the flag in 2006, the “Tea Party,” anti-tax Republicans began using it. They used it to communicate the U.S. government had become the oppressor threatening the liberties (I would say the unhealthy sense of autonomy) of its own citizens. By the time it was prominently displayed at the January attack on the U.S. Capitol, white men were flying it on their pickups to communicate they would not be replaced, not be tread on – especially by Blacks and not by immigrants “flooding the borders.”

Fighting for freedom

In the United States, liberty is life. Like the slave-capitalism that dominates it, the powerful dole out freedom to their tribe. But even the lowliest feel a taste for “freedom,”  for individual rights, to be one’s unencumbered self able to make as much money as they can. Even Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, whose great wealth and power make them free, echoed this urge in the title their recent book Renegades: Born in the USA. As he was selling the book via NPR, Obama said,

So the truth is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans, or we have conflict and clash, and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that at its best, America’s been able – with a pretty major exception in the Civil War – to try to make progress and perfect the union without resort solely to violence, solely to power.

I keep wondering if the authors were riffing on Taylor Swift’s “Renegade” in which she sings, “You wouldn’t be the first renegade to need somebody.” They might have subtitled their book, “Meditations on our recovery from ‘Don’t tread on me.'”

I connect the search for freedom in all its perverse and noble forms as part of our drive to achieve the healthy autonomy we need as humans to become our true selves. It is the natural movement Paul describes as leaving the old self behind and taking on the new self restored in God’s image. We all need to have an experience of I AM in relation to God just like Jesus demonstrates His place in the community of the Trinity. The Gadsen flag states “I am an expression of power” the Jesus-follower insists “I am an expression of right relationship with Love.”

Nurturing good autonomy

How we do psychotherapy and relate in other ways requires many choices about how to handle everyone’s need for autonomy and our perverse lust for power.

I think “good autonomy” is when a person gets a sense of their true self operating freely. It is like the experience of getting the training wheels off the bike, feeling your own balance, moved by your own power, and even pedaling out of your parents sight and control. It is the freedom Paul writes about in Galatians: a life not defined by law, but confident in one’s reality as a person made in God’s image, the beloved of God whose life is eternal in Christ. I think of that autonomy as “I am-ness.”

There is a dangerous autonomy, however, lurking in the word. Nomos is Greek for “law”. Auto-nomos mean “makes its own laws.”  It would be great if Palestinians had this political right. It is not so great when individuals assume they are a law unto themselves and must be. One of my grandsons calls his brother the “dictator from the second grade” because he does think he should make all the rules. I think that is an example of what dangerous autonomy can do to community. When we, as therapists, parents or leaders protect someone’s autonomy to be themselves and make their own rules  as if their freedom should be inviolable, we do them a disservice. We may condemn them to be alone, going their own way according to their undisturbed thinking and feeling. We can hope God is disturbing them, which is usually the case, but the weaker among us could get the impression they are on their own and should be, even though they are connected to various communities and are part of creation.

Protecting a person’s personal freedom as a primary goal might be like giving them a bike so they can figure out how to ride it on their own. Personally, I was a bike-stealer as a child. I stole the neighbor’s bike and rode to kindergarten (which was illegal). I parked it in the rack right in front of the principal’s glass-paneled door. I stole my brother’s big bike when I was not tall enough to reach the pedals and crashed it into the curb. My father liked my gall but had to punish me anyway. My parents often left me alone to figure stuff out — and I did. But I also felt alone, which is worse than not figuring things out. And their neglect/appreciation for my independent spirit may have made me a little thief. It is in mutuality we thrive. Subject to a spirit of individualism in the U.S. and painfully alone, a lot of people can’t even give a full body hug because it feels like a violation or improper. What they need more than autonomy is to attach to God and others.

The best autonomy is mutual

The dialogue in the Bible about autonomy is all about having a relationship with God, first of all, then loving others. Jesus followers teach each other to accept every person and love them as they are right now. Such teaching includes freedom but also includes mutuality. My deepest freedom comes from right relationship. In love, my present limitations and boundaries are accepted and maybe even admired. In love, none of us are a law to another; we are all gifts who should be respected.

One of my psychotherapy clients wondered out loud if I knew a lot of thirtysomethings the other day (which I do). He doubted people could connect like I described healthy attachment. But I persist. Parker Palmer helps me persist. He is a gift from the Quaker homeland in Philadelphia. He added to the spirit of what I am trying to say in his well-known essay A Place Called Community. When he wrote his piece in 1977 I was in seminary and about to experiment in autonomy-defying intentional community – which was an irreplaceable education in love, truth and growth in the Spirit.

In his essay, Palmer says:

  1. If we promote autonomy in the individualist, psychotherapeutic and political sense we set up a society of dissociated individuals most suited to authoritarian government
  2. Mental and spiritual health is never just about oneself. It happens in our common suffering in the web of humanity. We build community to encourage health.
  3. Connection always breeds problems. Not connecting and leaving people alone in their autonomy creates even deeper problems.

When you fly the Gadsen flag or react to the flag as if it has power, you might be surrendering your healthy autonomy. Like Obama worries, we could get stuck in a perpetual fight for individual freedom. True renegades end up in friendship and mutual creativity, they appreciate one another’s true selves, and so undermine the endless power struggles of the world.

Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel?

A few leaders of my church were afraid this post tries say something to them without naming them.  Not so. The entry is directed at me as much as anyone; I lead things, too. My point is that all of us are tempted to be cruel in the post-Covid age of Trump and act the four ways I list. I need to watch it, and if you think you need to watch it, you are probably right. 

Some questions beg for an answer, even though the answer is not easy or even welcome. But I have been asking the title to this piece all week: Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel? Here is some of what I hear.

Donald Trump is one big reason everyone is more cruel. Trump may be forever pre-Covid – since he may think the virus is fake news, his recovery from it notwithstanding. But he has greatly influenced what is taking root in the world and may bloom. You run into his disciples all the time. They are cruel.

For instance, Trump’s response to the death of Colin Powell last week was very cruel. I was going to say “breathtakingly” cruel, but he, of all of today’s wicked actors, has done so much to normalize cruelty we all feel a new license to take someone out, to maliciously undermine someone, to build walls against enemies, and to make exclusionary laws. It is all normal. His wickedness no longer takes our breath away. You probably saw Trump’s response, since he is the king of “all publicity is good publicity” and he horned his way into the national honors afforded Powell. I don’t want to repeat it, but you can see it here. It was cruel.

Infamous border patrol picture

Trump is not alone. The country is filled with policies and practices that require people to be cruel. For instance, in a couple of weeks I will be at the southern border with MCC folks. I know I will meet people full of love there. But that love will be more evident because it contrasts with the visible and relentless cruelty of the government.

I am asking the question because of Donald Trump and the border. As a country we are attacked from within and hemmed in from without by a siege of cruelty that is affecting how we think and treat each other. Just witness the incredible popularity of Squid Game.

But more, I am asking the question that needs to be asked because I am seeing the cruel impact of new, post-Covid regimes, inside the church and out, which impact people I know and love: my clients, fellow church members and friends around the world.

Somehow the upheaval of Covid has loosened a new need among a new generation to reform (hopefully, but at least deconstruct) any culture or organization that does not meet a new set of standards. Their passion is often cruel in its application. In so many organizations I hear about, relationships are frayed, leaders are strangely authoritarian, and dialogue is unusually vicious. Here are four stories remembered during a sleepless night that illustrate some of the characteristics of the new cruelty.

Cut off, don’t reconcile

A pastor I know was trying to talk a church member into listening to the struggle of someone reeling from new, “progressive” language about race. She told her pastor, “The hell with’em. Let’m go.” Somehow the new regime has lost Howard Thurman’s way to love, like I said last week, and has decided to perfect the hate. It seems that even Christians, with their “ministry of reconciliation” have perfected the cut off.

Be secret, not transparent

I was in a small group and a pastor told us about the “parking lot meeting” his board had about him last week. In his polity, he is on the board. Outside the church, it is common for accusations to go to HR or to campus committees. The accusations may or may not be true, but sometimes before guilt is established, the accused is hounded out. The spirit of due process is going out of fashion. It is not unusual for someone to get an email notifying them in some oblique way about what happened to them behind closed doors.

Stay safe, not antifragile

In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind,  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how the new regimes of the new generation have expanded the idea of safety in ways that undermine community and cripple their own development.  They insist that we will be happier, healthier and stronger if we

  • Seek out challenges rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”
  • Free ourselves from cognitive distortion rather than always trusting our initial feelings
  • Take a generous view of others and look for nuance rather than assuming the worst about people with a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

An over-emphasis on safety makes us fragile and so in need of more safety. A realistic approach to resilience makes us antifragile, more adaptable, more immune to things that might truly harm us. A hallmark of the “be safe” mentality that took on steam in the 2010’s is a preoccupation with words that make people feel uncomfortable. The new regime protects abstract people from abstract issues, but doesn’t have enough relationship to achieve immunity from the everyday wounds of love. People end up needing to protect themselves from love.

Enact law, not grace

One of my pastor friends in the Jesus Collective ended up on the other side of a pandemic-long, zoom-based fine-tooth-combing of his church’s by-laws. That choice, in itself, is a bit breath-taking. During the hardest thing most of us have ever experienced, the leaders decided to take a hard, virus-ridden look at themselves! They re-oriented the church so much he was, effectively, eliminated and could only see a door out as the way ahead.

There is a new focus on law, and especially laws that protect identity. It is true that such protections are a must in our “slave economy,” as two of my Black clients called it last week. But it is not unusual for everything to be seen through a lens of identity and the power struggle to get a just piece of the American pie. If someone promotes the generosity of God, the rain and sun lavished on the good and bad, they might get called out as giving in to oppression. Jesus could end up looking like some sort of supremacist because he chooses to die for others while others have no choice but to die, and atonement sometimes becomes an endless repentance for collaborating with oppressive systems. One of my newest favorites, Karith Foster, suggests a better way to undo white supremacy with C.A.R.E.ing not coerceing.

Fra Angelico – Paradise

I blame Covid for much of the cruelty happening, right now. In 2023, when we have all had a year of face time, those of us who have begun again might come up with something as breathtakingly beautiful as Donald Trump is breathtakingly cruel. It is a common thought that the Bubonic Plague in Europe caused so many social, economic and religious changes it led to the emergence of the Renaissance, an amazing era for art, architecture, literature and invention. I’m holding out for that kind of movement and hoping the present regimes are precursors to it.

We are not there yet. And you may be suffering under a new regime flexing its muscles and imposing its ill-considered philosophy or theology. I wish I knew what to tell you to do. My own solution leans toward creatively suffering . I am curious about what is coming. I am going to give my gifts to build it. I want to be the presence of love in it. I am going to trust Jesus to be with us through what could be the worst and best of times.