Proclaiming the Gospel and following Jesus in America, 2018: On Muslim bans, indefinite detention, and the separation of families

As the days and months go by, I barely recognize the nation in which I was born and where I’ve lived for 58 of my 60 years. Perhaps it would be better to say that the shiny polish of civility, justice, and inclusion that dominated my understanding has been removed so that the ugly image underneath is on full display.

With the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the “muslim ban,” the continued assault on the rule of law, the inhumane and unjust treatment of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, it would seem that there is no check on the forces of racism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism. Even worse, as we have seen in recent weeks, Administration officials appeal to Christian scripture to support the legality and morality of their actions.

As a preacher of the Gospel, it remains my solemn duty to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to call for justice and peace, to remind myself and my fellow Christians of our  duty to love God and neighbor, to welcome the stranger and the alien, to respect the dignity of every human being.

Over the last week, I and other members of the Unity and Relations Commission of the Wisconsin Council of Churches worked on a statement entitled “On the misuse of scripture to justify injustice.” It was approved by the Board of Directors and published yesterday. The full document is available here: On the Misuse of Scripture to Justify Injustice – Wisconsin Council of Churches – final.

I would also call attention to a personal statement I wrote on February 1, 2017, as the “muslim ban” was originally announced. It’s available here.

In addition, the Wardens and Vestry of Grace Episcopal Church published this statement in  2017: Renewing Our Covenant

Church Shootings and the peace of Christ

This past week, I facilitated a workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Council of Churches on the topic of gun violence. Members of the Council’s Peace and Justice Commission had put the workshop together hoping to provide resources for clergy and lay leaders to help them talk with their congregations about the constellations around gun violence: domestic violence, mental illness, toxic masculinity, suicide, etc, Our goal was to begin to educate ourselves and others about ways to talk about gun violence in our congregations that get beyond the current polarized debates and see gun violence as a pastoral issue as well as a public health concern.

We included a few items about how churches might respond to the possibility of an active shooter. In fact, participants in the workshop were most concerned about that issue and we spent a lot of time exploring questions around preparedness for an active shooter and balancing our values of openness and welcome with the need for security.

In the workshop, I provided some information about the rise in shootings at houses of worship as well as results of studies examining past incidents.

There have been a number of articles in recent weeks that take a closer look at the dynamics behind church shootings most are not random. The largest number of shootings are related to robberies. Other significant factors include the shooter’s feeling unwelcome or rejected by the church (17% in one study) and mental illness (11% in that same study, cited by CNN)

A recent CNN piece published after the Texas shooting included results from two recent studies:

Drake counts 147 church shootings from 2006-2016. Looking more broadly at all violence at allhouses of worship, Chinn has tallied more than 250 incidents each in 2015 and 2016. Through August, there had already been 173 this year, according to Chinn.”


Among the shooters’ motives cited in those studies:

  • Over 25% robberies
  • 17% shooter felt unwelcome at church, or had been rejected
  • 16% domestic violence
  • 14% personal conflict (not family related)
  • 10% mental illness
  • 9% religious bias

The set of resources we offered is available at the Wisconsin Council of Churches website:  It is a work in progress and will be updated.

Two recent articles by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today explore important aspects of the issue. On domestic violence: Kate Shellnut, “A Top Reason for Church Shootings: Domestic Abuse” Christianity Today, November 7, 2017

Among the statistics she cites:

And on the relationship between “God and Guns” in the minds of many conservative Christians: Kate Shellnut, “Packing in the Pews: The Connection Between God and Guns” Christianity Today, November 8, 2017

As I said in the interview, balancing openness and welcome with the need for safety is an important issue. More important, however, is that we remain true to our call to follow Jesus Christ and to share the love of Christ with the world. In a nation awash with guns, where violence seems to be the first recourse in any conflict, our faith in God must overcome whatever fear we might have, and our witness to Christ’s love must include being agents of reconciliation and models of other ways of resolving conflict and building community.


Can Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics come together on poverty issues?

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has sponsored a series of poverty forums across the state. The intent is to bring Christians (and other people of faith traditions) together to look for areas of common ground on issues of poverty. Madison’s first forum was held this past Sunday at High Point Church. Ken Taylor of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families led off the evening by presenting national, state, and local statistics on poverty. Following that, Pastor Nic Gibson of High Point, Bishop Harold Rayford of Faith, Hope, and Love Family Church, and I offered theological perspectives on the issue of poverty and responsibility. (While no Catholic speaker participated, a number of Catholics were in attendance). Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches worked hard to bring this program together and will be convening those of us who were on the program to discuss next steps.

It was a remarkable opportunity for coming together across confessional lines. Madison is a deeply polarized city in a deeply polarized state and nation. That’s true politically, but it’s even more true of Christianity in this city. There are few structures in place for Christians from different denominations to meet or connect. Although we live in the same city, we inhabit different cultural and religious worlds. It is my hope and prayer that this initial conversation will build relationships that cross our partisan political divisions and our theological disagreements.

After the jump, the text of what I presented (video of the evening will be available very soon) Continue reading

Visiting the day center for the first time

Today, I made the long journey around Capitol Square to the new day center that’s been open for two weeks. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had been given a task.

I attended the Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Council of Churches today in Waunakee. The keynote speaker was Palker Palmer and I will write about what he said in the next couple of days. This post is about something else.

We had lunch–sandwich fixings, soup, and dessert. There was a lot of bread and coldcuts left over and as we were finishing lunch one of the WCC staff members came over to me and asked if we could use the leftovers.

There’s a backstory here. People are bringing food, donations of clothing, and the like to us all of the time. These donations are intended for the men’s shelter that is housed at Grace and operated by Porchlight. Often the donations come when there is no Porchlight staff on the premises and our staff have to deliberate about what to do with the items. We have limited storage space and a lot of groups that use our kitchen and other facilities, so we can’t really accommodate large quantities of donations. But we also don’t want to turn people away when they bring things to us, or tell them to go somewhere else. So when I was asked about the food, I immediately began thinking about all of the issues related to receiving a donation of this sort. After a lengthy pause, I agreed to take the food.

By the time I moved my car to make it easier to move the donated food, I had lit on a solution. The Day Center on E. Washington needs food for the people who use its facility during the day. I knew there would be staff on hand who would tell me immediately if they could use what I brought. And it also gave me a reason to drop in and see how things were going.

So I made my way over to E. Washington Ave. this afternoon with several pounds of turkey, roast beef, and cheese, as well as lots of bread. It’s amazing. There are people in the courtyard, smoking and chatting and when you go in the door, you’re overwhelmed by the number of people in the space, talking, visiting, hanging out. The check-in desk is manned by two volunteers, who this afternoon were probably homeless people. I found Sarah Gillmore in a backroom talking with someone. I asked her about the food, and she immediately accepted it, saying “that’ll be lunch, tomorrow.” She asked if I needed help. I saw someone I knew, called him by name, and asked him to come out to the car to help me. We brought the food into the kitchen, where another volunteer, another guest, was clearly running the kitchen.

Sarah and I chatted briefly. I asked how things were going. It’s obvious that the shelter is filling an important need. I hope that politicians, media, and others will drop by and check it out. I’m sure there will be problems–any time you get that many people in a confined space for a long period of time, there will be conflict. But what struck me was the conviviality, the community that was developing. People greeted me as I came in, engaged me in conversation. They were talking together as well. Sarah seems to have things under control. One of the great things she’s doing is involving guests in the operation of the facility.

Oh, and about those donations? We’ll be directing them to the Day Center and to Feeding the State Street Family. And I hope you will send items that way, too.

Salt is Salt: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 21, Year B

This week’s readings are here.

When I was a kid, salt was salt. It came in a blue cylindrical container with a whimsical picture of a girl holding an umbrella in one hand and the motto, “When it rains, it pours. “Nowadays salt is a matter for connoisseurs. There’s sea salt, gray salt, pink salt. Salt from Brittany, the Himalayas, or Hawaii. But what Jesus says still rings true. If it’s lost its savor, it’s no good. Salt preserves; adds flavor and zest. It can make food tastier but it can also do damage.

In this passage from Mark’s gospel, we see one of the central dilemmas facing our communities of faith, our society, and the world. On the one hand, there are Jesus’ words that seem to downplay differences between communities, interest groups, even nation states: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” On the other hand, there is Jesus’ repeated condemnation of those who would mislead or cause harm. Those who are stumbling blocks (literally, scandal) are destined for hell and damnation.

Jesus invites us to see those outside our communities as fellow travelers and friends. He tells us we need not worry too much about them; their support and encouragement of us, that they offer us a cup of water when we are thirsty, is proof enough of their good intentions and ultimate reward.

But the warning to those who would be stumbling blocks, while clearly directed inwardly at relations within the community of Jesus’ followers, is also a caution to us today, not only to ponder our relationships within our closest communities, but in the larger one as well. When have our actions or statements marginalized others? When have we caused others to stumble? How can we be salt to the communities in which we live, deepening and preserving their flavor, helping disparate ingredients come together to make a marvelous stew?

(I wrote this reflection for a series put together by the Wisconsin Council of Churches that center around the “Seasons of Civility” campaign. More about that here).

civility, incivility, and the common good

I’ve posted before about the “Season of Civility” efforts of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. There’s more about that available here. Press coverage here.

It’s not just an issue being raised in Wisconsin. There’s concern across the country.

Joe Klein is on the road again:

I traveled through North Carolina and Virginia, both in areas of deep blue and crimson red, and it was clear neither side trusted the other very much. For the conservatives, the country had changed beyond their imagining; not just civil rights but gay rights (a contentious referendum recently banned gay marriage in North Carolina), and new ethnic groups that seemed foreign–the South Asians who all of a sudden seemed to run half the convenience stores, the Latinos who didn’t seem to want to speak English. Why, even the President of the United States was something strange, neither black nor white. For liberals, it was all about intolerance. You couldn’t have a half-decent conversation with these Tea Party people, they said.

Pamela Haag writes about uncivility in America. She echoes Klein’s observations about the narrowing of our common life:

Incivility seems to me like collateral damage of our deeply niched lives, which make other Americans more unknown and unknowable to us. Sometimes it can feel as if we’re an ensemble of sub-cultures today, and no culture—no shared epistemology or point of view.

There are fewer spaces of social crossing and interaction that “humanize” the other and make them less available targets for our incivility. During the recall, Wisconsin residents reported that tensions were so high and implacable that the only safe topics of social kinship were the Packers and the weather.

Incivility thrives when social life is niched and anonymous. Online comments sections are the most depressing and extreme example of America’s collective hair-trigger temper (it’s as if the nation is suffering from a wicked, mood-destroying hangover that drives them to lash out). In the most basic sense, incivility is a social practice exercised against people whom we do not know, understand, care about, regard, or respect. These people simply aren’t accorded the same rich humanity—they don’t seem as “real” to us—as those who live in our particular niche, or share our ever more sequestered, cabalistic worldview.
Haag also points out that the increase in incivility has occurred simultaneous with the rise of women in the workplace and in prominence across culture.

A Season of Civility

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has issued this statement:

Wisconsin Council of Churches Calls For a
Season of Civility

Thirty six religious leaders from throughout Wisconsin called upon our state to enter into a “Season of Civility” amidst the partisan rancor of the current recall campaigns and the anticipated divisiveness of the fall election cycle.
Read the statement here
The “Call for a Season of Civility” statement draws a parallel between the religious values embodied in “the Golden Rule,” to treat others as we would like to be treated, with the idea of democracy, which is based on regard for the value of each and every individual.
In the statement, our religious leaders commit to model and support respectful and honest conversations on public issues within our congregations, assemblies and forums.
We also call upon candidates to adhere to high standards of civility, integrity and truthfulness in their advertising, including those of “third parties.” We invite all of our citizens to be critical consumers of media and advertising.

We now invite pastors and other local religious leaders to sign the “Call To a Season of Civility” statement.  If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, send an email with complete contact information to  We will post the list to our web site with weekly updates as signatures are added.