The Shadow Side of the Sunshine State

It has been more than a year since I posted on this site. I wish I had good reasons for this lapse. Laziness is most to blame, but there is also the embarrassment factor. I still live in Tallahasee, Florida, the capital of what Governor Ron DeSantis likes to call “The Free State of Florida.”

It’s one thing to admit that you live in the home of “Florida Man,” the butt of jokes who garners headlines by doing outlandishly stupid things. It’s another to admit that you live a couple of miles from the Governor’s Mansion, where resides a different Florida man who should be a joke, but isn’t.

Make no mistake. Ron DeSantis is no joke. He and his colleagues in the Florida Legislature are a clear and present danger to academic freedom, the freedom of the press, public education, and democracy itself. Backed by a super majority in the Florida House and Senate, Mr. DeSantis is doing his best to turn back the clock — and he is succeeding.

In the “Free State of Florida” public school librarians live in fear that they will lose their jobs should a child take home a book a parent finds offensive. Teachers are forbidden to teach a full range of ideas about American history. Words which used to connote noble aspirations — diversity, equity, inclusion — have suddenly become anathema.

In Governor DeSantis’ lexicon words take on new meaning. Education means compliance, freedom means submission, and to teach history means to maintain a meta-narrative that keeps white folks comfortable.

As for dissent, that is to be kept far away from the ears of lawmakers. I have lived in Florida’s capital for almost 38 years. In that time I have participated in many marches and demonstrations on the grounds of the capitol and in the building itself. I joined farmworkers lobbying for better labor laws, Dream Defenders insisting that black lives matter, and students reeling from the slaughter of their classmates at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School. On February 24 I took part in a memorial service at the “Great Seal of Florida” in the entrance to the capitol. Opponents of the death penalty gathered there to mark the execution of Donald Dillbeck. As we prayed and sang, our voices echoed through the corridors of power. New rules which went into effect on March 1 now prohibit almost all expressions of dissent within and in proximity to the capitol.

Mr. DeSantis says Florida is the place where “woke goes to die.” In emerging practice, it’s where dissent goes to die.

People of faith can’t let that happen. We can’t let the purveyors of toxic resentment, historical denialism and educational imperialism prevail. For the moment, they have the votes, but they cannot claim the moral high ground. There is “a still more excellent way,” a light to shine in the darkness.

The biggest challenge to life in Florida these days is not embarrassment. It’s despair.

Painful Lessons

After graduating from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) and before becoming a “divine” at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I taught high school English and Latin in Leesville, Louisiana. I hadn’t taken a single course in education, and I didn’t have a teaching certificate, but I convinced the School Superintendent of Vernon Parish that my double major in Classics and Philosophy would suffice.  Desperate to fill out his roster, the poor guy took me on as a utility player.  

That was back in 1974.  In its wisdom, the Louisiana Legislature had banned any form of sex education in the public schools.  Teachers were forbidden to mention the “S” word or to allow the topic to be discussed in their classrooms.  

That was OK with me.  I wasn’t much older than the seniors in my Latin class and, as much as they might welcome the diversion, my ninth-grade English students had plenty on their plates learning how to write a solid paragraph.  (My goal had been to teach them how to write a convincing essay, but I lowered my sights when I realized that several of them could barely read.)  Adding sex to the curriculum would have been a bridge too far.  

The principal at Leesville High took full advantage of having a single male teacher on his staff.  He assigned me to take up tickets at sports events, to serve as an umpire for girls’ softball games, and to drive the cheerleaders’ Volkswagen minibus to away games.  In these days of hyper vigilance, it’s hard to imagine assigning a young male teacher to such tasks, but that was Louisiana in the 1970’s.  Laissez les bons temps rouler – at least when it came to athletics. 

Back in the classroom, however, more than one Big Brother was watching. In addition to keeping the topic of sex out of the classroom, we teachers also had to make sure we didn’t offend the many students who belonged to conservative Christian denominations, among them Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ.  Some students were not allowed to celebrate birthdays.  For others it was Christmas.  And depending on the topic, many students were forbidden to attend school assemblies. 

Innocent of any instruction in educational theory or practice that might have made me more cautious, I made it through that year without getting censored or fired.  I didn’t know enough at the time to fear irate parents or lawsuit-leery administrators.  I suppose you could say my naivete kept me safe.

If I were teaching these days, naivete wouldn’t cut it.  I’d have to avoid causing my students discomfort by discussing “divisive” concepts, such as slavery, racial discrimination, and the persistent influence of white supremacy.  A bill before the Florida Legislature (SB 148) declares that a student “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”  

God forbid that white students should feel “discomfort” hearing about slave-holding founding fathers or that black students should feel “anguish” when they view newsreels of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

I used to feel a twinge of “psychological distress” every time I mounted the pulpit at First Presbyterian and looked up at the galleries where enslaved human beings looked down on their “owners.”  

I certainly don’t want the children of any race to be paralyzed by “guilt” or “anguish” for what their forebears did or suffered, but I can’t imagine how anyone can become educated without experiencing at least some discomfort.  

Without pain there can be no enlightenment.   

Still Not Acclimated

The surest way to make God laugh is to tell God your plans. After seminary, I served a wonderful small church in Virginia.  After five and half happy years in Altavista, Andra and I decided it might be time for a move.  In Presbyterian-speak, we were “open to a call.”  We duly informed the Almighty that we would go anywhere the Spirit should call – anywhere but Florida.  

That was thirty-six years ago.  We’ve lived in Tallahassee ever since.  

When you live in Florida you get used to those “Florida man” headlines in the newspaper.  You know the ones I mean:


Or my favorite:


Bizarre, right?  Well, as I learned in seminary, you must consider the Sitz im Leben.  When you live in Florida, you learn to recalibrate your bizarre-o-meter.  

Florida’s governor and legislature are a case in point.  The lawmakers down the street at the Capitol have declared all-out war not on Covid 19, the virus that has sickened over 5 million and killed more than 63,000 Floridians, but on health officials, business owners, and school board members who are trying to keep the folks in their circle safe.  They began by outlawing mask and vaccination mandates, and when our local School Board and Superintendent pushed back, they cancelled their salaries.  Even after the Supreme Court ruled that the Feds can require the vaccinations of most healthcare workers, Ron DeSantis, Florida Man in the Governor’s mansion, announced that Florida won’t be enforcing the federal requirement.  

This week the high hied yins in the State Health Department suspended Dr. Raul Pino, the health officer in Orange County, for the unspeakable crime of suggesting to his colleagues in Orange County that they have a moral and professional obligation to be vaccinated.  

Dr. Pino wrote an e-mail to health department staff that read, in part, “I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it . . . I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated.”

You probably think Dr. Pino makes perfect sense.  

Clearly, you don’t live in Florida.  

The last time I checked, Christians, no matter where they live, are called to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves.  

But this is Florida.

The rules are different here.

From First Drafts to Second Thoughts

On All Saints’ Day, 2020, I retired as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida. Polity, protocol and common sense require a former pastor to say well clear of the congregation he or she used to serve. Apart from bumping into folks from my former flock in the grocery store, that’s what I have endeavored to do.

However, I’m not quite out to pasture. I’m still a minister of Word and Sacrament and (so far, at least) a member in good standing of the Presbytery of Florida. I’m not ready to hang up my dog collar and sit out the remainder of my days awaiting entry into the Church Triumphant.

It turns out that I still have something to offer the church and community. In addition to serving on several boards of directors, I am getting the hang of driving the tractor at Dogwood Acres, our presbytery’s outdoor ministry, where Christina, the cook, allows me to chop veggies and wash dishes for retreats and conferences. (I leave the actual cooking to her, of course.) I’ve also been leading worship from time to time at churches that find themselves without benefit of clergy due to vacations, pastoral vacancies, and of course, Covid.

With some trepidation I have decided to re-boot this blog, which used to be titled “First Drafts.” As was the case with the previous blog, nothing I write here is intended to represent the views of any congregation. Those familiar with Presbyterian polity know that no pastor or council of the church — not even a session — can speak for a congregation. Presbyterians speak for themselves, and when they elect fellow Presbyterians to serve on councils, those councils speak for themselves.

Accordingly, I write as a Christian in the Reformed Tradition, a member of the Tallahassee community, and a citizen of the Republic. That should be more than enough to get me into trouble.

Presbyterians have a quaint term for old dogs like me: “Honorably Retired.” This honorably retired parson can’t promise frequent contributions to this blog, but every now and then he will have a bone to pick.

Memorial on Valentine’s Day


This afternoon I will take part in a memorial service at the Florida State Capitol for the 17 students slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School one year ago.  Here, more or less, is what I plan to say:

There was at time when February 14 meant fun, intrigue, and romance, especially a among the young.  For thousands of Americans, and particularly for the survivors of the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, the meaning of the this day has been forever changed.

Jaclyn Corin, now a senior at MSD High, wrote in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times,

There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of the shooting. When I hear the sound of sirens or fireworks, I’m taken back to that horrific afternoon. For me, Valentine’s Day will now forever be a reminder of loss.

We gather tonight to remember the 17 lives stolen from their loved ones one year ago, the 17 people who bear physical scars from that day, and the hundreds more whose scars, though invisible, are no less real.

Experts in trauma tell us that “the body keeps the score.”  For the rest of their lives, the people affected by that bloody Valentine’s Day will be haunted by the violence inflicted by a single person armed with a weapon meant to be used on the battlefield, not in the hallways of a public school.

The memories of most Americans tend to be short.  By now, if you were not directly connected with the victims of that massacre, you might already have moved on, as did so many after a similar massacre of little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School just before the Christmas of 2012.

Indeed, if it were not for the determined activism of the students of MSD High, we might not even be gathered here on this grim anniversary.

Standing on the steps of the Old Capitol last year, those students pointed their fingers as us, the generations that preceded them, and cried “Shame.”  And they were so right do to so.  Too many of us had given up hope of any success in bringing some measure of sanity to the gun madness that has infected our culture.

Those young people “called BS” upon their parents and grandparents.  They pulled the curtain away from the unholy of holies and exposed the gods our culture worships –the gods of violence, guns, and hate.  They showed us that we had bent the knee to these idols, and sacrificed our own children on their altars.

As we pray tonight for healing and wholeness for those deep, invisible wounds borne by the victims of last Valentine’s Day, let us also repent of the idolatry that set the stage for that terrible loss.  Let us turn in a new direction and work ever harder to change not only the laws, but also the culture, that spawned the shooting at MSD High.

Let us forever banish the pernicious slogan that put “God” and “Guns” on a par with one another, for the two never did, and never will, belong together.

And, as we seek healing, from the God of love and grace, let us also repent.  Embraced by that God, let us also seek the moral courage to do what is right for our children and our children’s children.

Stand up for Jesus, not Donald Trump

Screenshot 2019-07-31 19.25.11

Like many of my clerical colleagues, I do not enjoy conflict.  Whether it’s an argument over the color of the carpet in the church parlor or a parking-lot debate about same-sex marriage, my instinct is to remain “pastoral,” keeping myself above the fray.

That was the approach taken by white clergy in Birmingham when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the struggle for racial justice.  They told Dr. King that, while they agreed with his noble aspirations, he should be patient so as not to provoke conflict.  Dr. King’s reply: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

I am particularly wary of conflict with my fellow Christians.  The way I see it, we Christians already convey a mixed message to folks outside our churches.  We disagree about a number of important issues and airing our dirty laundry in public just adds to the perception that the Christian faith has nothing to offer but intolerance, judgment, and condemnation.  We American Christians have an embarrassingly poor record of communicating God’s love for this hurting world – as our Lord would have us do.

So, as much as I hate to bring it up, I feel compelled to ask my brothers and sisters in Christ – and especially those who are proud to call themselves “evangelicals” — how, in God’s name, they can continue to sanction the words and actions of President Donald Trump.

In recent days the President has called for four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries.  He has demeaned a black congressman from Baltimore and, with vitriol unbecoming an ordinary citizen, much less the President of the United States, has insulted the entire population of an American city.  According to our President, anyone who chooses to live in Baltimore is less than human, for “no human being would want to live there.”

The President’s ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with him, laced with racist memes and demeaning nicknames, contradict a bedrock principle of Christianity – that all human beings are created in the image of God.  The President’s insults go beyond political hyperbole.  They are a stunning contradiction of the faith all Christians share.

There comes a point where silence becomes complicity.  Christians of all stripes should condemn with vigor the President’s racist, dehumanizing rhetoric.

We should also remember our divine calling to be “leaven in the lump.”  We can be agents of reconciliation, helping to pull the national conversation out of the cesspit and into a respectful public square.


The Idolatry of Nationalism

John Witherspoon Satue

Statue of John Witherspoon in Paisley, Scotland

The New York Times reports that at a ceremony in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, President Emmanuel Macron of France rebuked the nationalist impulses that are reshaping the world today.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Mr. Macron told world leaders at the ceremony. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying: ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’”

I couldn’t agree more.  Love for God and neighbor is the heart of any Biblical ethic.  The prophets said this over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus teaches the same in the New Testament.

The command to love God includes the prohibition of idolatry:

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1-5)

The Reformed Tradition is particularly sensitive to the allure of idolatry.  The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lists as one of the tenets of reformed theology:

The recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word God.

In short, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and out of idolatry flows tyranny.  When we put nation before God, it’s not long before we find ourselves bowing at the feet of tyrants. Presbyterians, of all people, should know this.

It is precisely this “recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny” that prompted the framers to build checks and balances into the U. S. Constitution.  We can thank Presbyterian John Witherspoon of Princeton for teaching this to his student James Madison.

Merci beaucoup to the President of France for prompting the theological memory of the folks in my branch of the Christian family tree.

First Things First: A Sermon For All Saints’ Day and Election Day

All Saints

I don’t often post sermons, but this week is an exception.  Our congregation observed All Saints’ Day last Sunday as we were reeling from the news of a shooting a few blocks away at a yoga studio. The victims are known by many in the congregation. That was Friday.  Tuesday is Election Day.

The Gospel reading in the Consensus Lectionary for November 4, 2018 is Mark 12:28-34:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question. (New Revised Standard)

 The passage I just read from Mark’s Gospel could not have come at a more opportune time in the life of our nation or of this congregation.  On this first Sunday of November, the line of people and topics crying out for attention runs from this pulpit, out the door front door, and halfway round the block.

The Stewardship Committee is first in line, anxious to read what is written on the pledge cards you are about to place in the offering plate, and hoping that, in response to this sermon, you will cross out the pledge you had written at home and increase the figure before the plate comes by.

The victims of Hurricane Michael are next, wanting to make sure I mention their plight so that we do not forget them.

The mourners from the Tree of Life synagogue are here, wearing their prayer shawls and kippahs, having come straight from the funerals of eleven of their fellow Jews, wanting to know what we Christians have to say about that massacre in their house of worship.  As I was writing this sermon, more mourners – these from Tallahassee – joined the queue.

The candidates for elective office are next, pamphlets and stump speeches at the ready.  Some of them have come with appeals to make, and some with buckets of mud to sling before the election on Tuesday.

And, surrounding us on every side are the saints of ages past, the members of the Church Triumphant.  This is their day, too, and their presence cries out to be acknowledged and celebrated.

That’s a lot of fish to fry in one sermon, and it all has to be served up in time for the folks who ride the Westminster bus to get home for lunch.  It’s just too much, isn’t it?  Too much important stuff, too many hurting souls, too many broken hearts, too many voices crying out for a gospel word.

So, as I say, the Gospel reading appointed for today is a Godsend.  It puts everything into perspective.  It calls to mind the essence of the faith.  It puts first things first.

As we come to the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and is shaking the city to its core.  He’s performing miracles of healing, yes, but he’s doing more than that.  He’s taking on the religious authorities – the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Herodians – and he’s dazzling them with his knowledge of scripture and his intellectual acuity.  His opponents have thrown everything they can at him – every trick question, every horny dilemma, every theological trap laid over the quicksand, and Jesus has met every challenge.

Not only that, he has disrupted business as usual at the temple, driving out the buyers and sellers of sanctioned sacrifices and overturning the tables of the money-changers.  Quoting scripture, he has called for the temple to be a house of prayer for the people of all the nations, as God intended. His opponents are now united in their determination to kill him.

That’s the context in which a scribe approaches Jesus and asks him – with sincerity I think – “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answers as any Jew – of his day or of ours – would answer.  He answers with the Shema: Sh’ma Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

“Hear, O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. . . (and to that Jesus adds “with all your mind.”)

That command comes first, Jesus says, and from it flows everything else.  That command directs our response to God’s love for us, which precedes our love for God.  “We love,” says John’s epistle, “because God first loved us.”  Aware of how much God loves us, we naturally want to love God back with our prayers, our hymns and songs, our sacrifice of praise, and even our checkbooks.

To love God – to love God back – is the first and greatest commandment.  But prayers and songs and checks in the offering plate are not enough, are they?  Sunday love has to find expression in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday love, and that calls for us to put our love for God to work.

Therefore, the second commandment, Jesus tells the scribe, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Teacher,” replies to scribe, “you are right.”  To love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself is much more important that everything that happens here in this temple we’re standing in right now.  More important that the burnt offerings, more important than the sacrifices, more important than the finer points of the law.

More important, we could add, than the pledge cards.  More important than the budget.  More important than maintaining this old sanctuary.

To love God with your whole self and your neighbor as yourself – that is the heart of the Jewish law, and also the heart of the Christian ethic.

“When Jesus saw that scribe had answered so wisely,” says Mark, “he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

Two realities flow from this bedrock teaching of Jesus.  The first is, we can’t love God without loving our neighbors.  The second is, my neighbor’s welfare is just as important as my welfare.

The love of God for the world puts me and my neighbor on level ground.  It makes my neighbor my equal.  It tears down what Paul calls in his letter to the Ephesians “the dividing wall of hostility” between me and my neighbor.  To love my neighbor as myself is to realize that I cannot love God or self unless I love my neighbor as well.

Beyond our personal and most intimate relationships, love for neighbors must manifest itself in the pursuit of justice for those neighbors.  Justice is how love puts its boots on.  Without justice, love becomes mere sentimentality or wishful thinking.

Love without justice is lighting a candle at a vigil for the slain in Pittsburgh, without banning the weapon of war the shooter used to carry out his rampage.

Love without justice is praying for the relief of those refugees from Central America headed toward our southern border without calling out those political leaders who lie about who those refugees really are, the leaders who exploit their suffering in order to increase our fear and to garner our votes on Tuesday.

Love without justice is tweeting without acting, offering “thoughts and prayers” without asking why those folks are risking their lives in the first place.  Love without justice is venting on Facebook without voting for change.

Taken together, the commands to love God and neighbor form the lens through which you and I are called to view our lives as Christians and as citizens of this nation.

What do you see when you look at those folks from Central America?  Do you see invading hordes or neighbors seeking safety just as we sought safety when Hurricane Michael was headed our way?

When you look at those families, do you see terrorists or neighbors fleeing from terror?  Do you see brown-skinned invaders, or do you see Joseph and Mary and their newborn child Jesus, crossing from Judea into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous gangs?

The dual command to love God and neighbor puts everything in a different perspective.  It prompts us to look through the lens of love which leads to justice, and to reject those other lenses so common today – the lenses of fear, and hate, and division – the lenses that distort reality and obscure our view of God’s kingdom.

After all, the purpose of the church is, to use the old-fashioned language of our Reformed Tradition, to be “a provisional representation of the kingdom of God.”  Our job is to draw the world closer to God’s kingdom by loving God and neighbor.

So many of the saints who have gone before us have shown us how to do to that.  Today we thank God for their example and their presence with us now, as we are surrounded with that great cloud of witnesses that transcends time and space – saints like Vern, Helen, Bud, Audrey, Bob, Art, and Ray.

They showed us how to point toward the kingdom.  They showed us how to love God and neighbor.  And they still do.

First things first, beloved.  First things first.






National Refugee Shabbat

ShabbatHere is a slightly edited version of the sermon I preached on October 19 at Temple Israel, a neighboring synagogue led by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jack Romberg.  The occasion is National Refugee Shabbat. 

Shabbat Shalom

As-salamu alaykum

Pax Vobiscum

Peace, Y’all

Thank you for the kind invitation to stand on this bema and attempt to preach the Word of God. I grateful for your hospitality and your partnership through the years.

Tonight, I invite all of us to exercise our faithful imagination and to remember who we are as people whose faith is informed by the scriptures.  For most of you, that means the Hebrew scriptures, and for us Christians, that means the Hebrew scriptures as well as what we tend to call the New Testament.

I ask you to do this – to imagine and to recall – because people of faith in our nation are facing a crisis regarding refugees and immigrants – a crisis of both moral and theological dimensions.  At the root of that crisis, I have come to believe, is a failure of both sacred imagination and sacred memory.

To begin, I invite you to picture your home.  (Not your home right now.  Your home before Hurricane Michael.  No trees on your roof.) You are sitting on the porch or patio, it’s a nice spring day, and your kids are playing in the yard with their neighborhood friends.  As you enjoy your favorite craft beer or sweet ice tea or whatever it is you drink on a lovely spring day, you notice an odd humming in the air.  The sound grows louder, and you’re curious, but not alarmed.  You look up and see some eerie white planes in the distant sky.

In the next instant your world stops.  There is no sound but a ringing in your ears.  As you look around. Everything is in slow motion; your street has been transformed into a scene out of a post-apocalyptic horror film.  Disoriented, you look for your young children and spot them on the road, staring down at a pool of red.  As you run over, the closer you get, the more you can make out the figure on the ground; it’s the neighbor boy.  His leg is severed, blood is everywhere, but he is still conscious.

He holds out his small arms. You see the fear in his eyes as you run over.  You pick him up, but there is nothing you can do.  Your children stand in shock as their friend bleeds out.  You look for a safe place to turn, someone to help you, but your world is now vacant, there is no one, as his small body goes limp in your hands.

This is only the beginning. This scene becomes your norm, and there is nothing you can do but flee from everything you have ever known.  But where will you go?  There many outside your own nation who have the means to help, but they withhold their aid.  They think helping you and your people would cost too much or hurt their party’s chances in the next election.

There are places you can go to find some sort of refuge, but you’d be confined in a tent camp, and you have heard the horror stories of the sex traffickers who flock to those camps.  It could be incredibly dangerous, especially for your children, who have already lost their childhood.  You could try to find safety in a neighboring country, bypassing the refugee camps, but then you would not be allowed to work – how would you survive?

Your reality is now darkness as far as you can see.[1]

Can you see yourself in that scenario?  Can you see yourself as a modern refugee?  If you can’t, try looking through the lens of your faith.  Exercise your sacred imagination.

Or imagine this.  Your skin is black, and you come from a country that the CIA describes as a hotbed for human trafficking and slavery of its black minority residents.  Slavery wasn’t made illegal in your country until 1981, but the practice lives on.  Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt of which the holy scriptures speak, you are subject to a tradition of enslavement that goes back many generations.  You and your children are forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants.  You are treated as less than human.  You have no rights.  No dignity.  No freedom.

Somehow you have managed to escape and come to the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The agency called ICE is fully aware of what you would face should you be forced to return to your country – so aware that from 2014 to 2017, an average of only 7 of your countrymen were deported back to your home country.

But a new leader has arisen in the land to which you have fled, in much the same way that a new leader arose in biblical Egypt – a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph.

At a White House gathering just last week, this leader pledged to do everything in the federal government’s power to stop human trafficking and modern-day slavery.  “Our country will not rest until we have put these vile organizations out of business and rescued every last victim,” the leader told officials.

And yet, under that same leader’s administration, in fiscal 2018, seventy-nine of your fellow Mauritanians have been deported back to Mauritania, and twenty-two are in custody awaiting deportation. Four of them were to be deported this week.

That leader is, of course, President Trump, the darling of self-proclaimed evangelical Christians, that great lover of scripture – especially “Two Corinthians.”

Can you imagine yourself as a black Mauritanian awaiting deportation?  If not, try looking through the lens of your faith, and if that doesn’t work, check out Wednesday’s edition of USA Today.

Here is the existential crisis you and I face: We “People of the Book” have allowed our fear of the other and our political allegiances to anesthetize us, to dull our sacred imagination.  We are losing the capacity for compassion and empathy.  Led by a narcissistic xenophobe who holds the highest office in the land, we are slipping into an unholy solipsism.  We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, and we are fast forgetting who we are.

Over the clamor of the partisan rallies and the chants of “Build that Wall,” scripture still speaks, if only we had ears to hear:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien… (Deut 26:5).

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 24:22)

I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . .  (Matt. 25: 31-46)

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:22)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt. 22:40)

The sacred scriptures of the faiths of Jews and Christians are a compendium of migration stories. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, their homeland. Noah and family become boat people adrift without a destination. Sarah and Abraham are mandated to migrate and, for generations upon generations, God’s people are nomads. The meta-narrative we share is one of exodus, migration, and settlement into a promised land.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary fled with their newborn son Jesus from Judea into Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of King Herod.  Jesus himself was a refugee – a dark-skinned refugee from the region of Palestine.  If Jesus were to apply for admission to the United States today, he’d be turned down flat.

As a Christian, I ask myself, when did our sacred memory begin to atrophy?  When did Bible-believing Christians lose track of what the Bible actually says?

Was it in the fourth century when we cast our lot with Emperor Constantine and bowed in homage to the Holy Roman Empire?  Was it when we arrived on the shores of America and christened ourselves “A City on a Hill?”

Was it when we became so focused on a vacancy on the Supreme Court that vices suddenly became virtues?  Lying, avarice, adultery, braggadocio, misogyny, ripping children from their mother’s arms and putting them in cages hundreds of miles away – somewhere along the line, righteousness has acquired a new definition.  Greed is good.  Dark-skinned people are bad. Truth is an matter of personal whim.  Facts no longer matter.

No matter that crime tends to be lower in immigrant communities than in the broader culture.  No matter that the vast majority of immigrants – documented or not — work hard and pay billions in taxes.  No matter that America can never be great so long as we ignore the voices of what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.”

So, tonight, I urge you to exercise your sacred imagination.  Imagine yourself packing up your possessions with Abraham and Sarah and leaving home for Canaan.  Imagine yourself wandering with Moses in the wilderness, on your way to the land of promise.  Imagine yourself leaving your home in Somalia, or Burundi, or Rwanda to come to live in Tallahassee.

Exercise your sacred imagination, and then listen to scripture.  Heed the Torah.  Embrace the Gospel.  Remember who you are.  Remember who created you.  Remember who taught you how to walk.  Remember who brought you with a great and mighty arm into the land of milk and honey.  Remember who promised never to let you go.

And then, heeding the call your better angels, live out the faith you have been given.


[1] Adapted from Sheri Faye Rosendahl, Not Your White Jesus: Following the Radical, Refugee Messiah, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) 31-33.

Words Matter

Screenshot 2018-09-04 14.06.35Last week I participated in a press conference called by the Rev. Mr. R. B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.  At that conference, Mr. Holmes called upon Congressman Ron DeSantis to apologize for saying, in response to Andrew Gillum’s nomination for Governor, that the people of Florida should not “monkey this up” by supporting Mr. Gillum’s economic policies.

Rev. Holmes acknowledged that Rep. DeSantis did not call Mr. Gillum a monkey. However, he pointed out that “The term ‘monkey,’ from our Afro-centric, psychological, theological perspective, is highly offensive, and has historically been used in a very derogatory context.”

Rev. Holmes was being kind.  The association of the word “monkey” as a derogatory reference to people who come from Africa has a long history in Western cultures, reaching all the way back to Plato and Heraclitus.

Christians in the Middle Ages considered apes devilish figures who represented lustful and sinful behavior, and often equated people who lived in Africa with simians.  Some of the drawings accompanying the 1935 trail of the Scottsboro Boys – nine black teenagers accused of having raped two young white women – depicted a monstrous black simian figure baring its teeth and dragging off a helpless white girl.  (If you’re thinking that’s an image right out of the film “King Kong,” you’re right.)

After the press conference, one of the African-American pastors told about serving in Viet Nam.  He said he was asked by Vietnamese villagers to show them his tail.  Even today, black athletes report that they have had bananas thrown at them as a racist gesture of contempt.

How Mr. DeSantis could earn degrees from Harvard and Yale without becoming aware of the racist associations of that word “monkey,” I do not know.  I will take him at his word that he meant no harm.  However, having been educated about the hurt that word causes, he most certainly should have apologized for using it in reference to a black man.

Words matter.  When I returned from the press conference, my land line answering machine coughed up a disgusting racist robocall put out by a Neo-Nazi group.  You can bet that that group had no trouble picking up on Mr. DeSantis’ “monkey” comment.  Even if he didn’t “get it,” they certainly did.

We could all benefit from Proverbs 12:18:  There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.