"He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water." Isaiah 49:10

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wedge Issues

By Rev. Romal Tune

During the summer of 2003, my cousin and his girlfriend celebrated the birth of their son Glenn Molex, III. I remember getting the call from his father and hearing the pride in his voice when he told me about the birth. My cousin and his girlfriend live in the inner city and by social definitions, they are poor. But in spite of their financial situation, when they found out that they were going to become parents, they decided to go through with the pregnancy and keep the baby. They do not attend church, and I'm not sure if they have ever been inside a church for anything other than funerals for friends lost to street violence.

Two weeks after my grandmother died I received a call from my mother, who is also now deceased, telling me that there was a drive-by shooting on my cousin's house. He, friends, and other family members were sitting on the porch that night when a car drove up and shots were fired. My cousin's girlfriend was in the house with the baby. She laid him on the couch and ran to see if everyone was okay. When she returned to get the baby, he was dead -- a stray bullet hit him in the head. What's my point in sharing this tragedy?

These were two young people living in poverty who decided to have their child, not because they are Christians, not because of their understanding of the Bible, or not because of any change in legislation related to abortion, but simply because they wanted to raise and love their child. However, that dream was taken away from them because of a drive-by shooting.

Here is where I find myself getting angry with the right-to-life argument. I don't like the idea of abortion. I know women who have made that choice, and they have told me it was the hardest thing for them to do. Some regret it, some don't, but all of them agree that it has stayed with them all of their lives. What I would like to see from those who champion the right-to-life argument is that they spend just as much energy fighting for children to have the right to a better life once they are born. I do not condemn their perspective; I just believe they should go much further and fight for a child's future once he or she is born. In other words, fight for better public schools, for tougher gun laws, mentoring programs, after-school programs to give kids options so that they don't choose gangs, and adopt children who need a loving family.

Similarly, rather than condemning women who choose to have abortions, the question we have to answer is this: Will the church minister to women in the pain of making that decision and help them find healing through a God who still loves them -- a God who is forgiving and who reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and because of him even in our brokenness we can be made whole? God does not hate people; God hates sin, which is why God sent Jesus, so that sin no longer has the power to separate us from God.

When it comes to abortion and homosexuality, maybe we should look at how our words can hurt people emotionally and distance them spiritually. Is it possible that we can do what a wise man once told me:

When you are doing the work of ministering to people, it is not your job to change anyone, only God can do that, your job is to be a connector. You introduce them to God and let them get to know each other. Our assignment is simply to hold God's people with our hands open, with all of their hopes, dreams, faults, fears, pain, and doubts. You hold them with your hands open, and the moment you try to close your hands and mold them into what you think they should be, you are going too far.

I think he was right. Had I allowed myself to be molded into the image of what others thought I should be, I would not be "becoming" the person that God wants me to be. I would have become what others chose to create, a proverbial golden calf created by those who were too impatient to wait on God.

Rev. Romal Tune is the CEO of Clergy Strategic Alliances, a graduate of Howard University and Duke University School of Divinity
Monday, August 11, 2008

Wedge Issues (Part 1, by Romal Tune)

As we draw closer to the candidate forum at Saddleback Church, I've had several conversations with clergy on the West Coast. Many are wondering if candidates will be asked about abortion and gay marriage. In California there is a ballot initiative on gay marriage, and I'm also hearing that this issue is on the ballot in Florida. No matter how much some people don't want to talk about it, these issues are not going away and they cannot be ignored. I am also among those who have attempted to avoid discussing these two issues, fearing the backlash or getting people off track from talking about other issues on which I work. But perhaps we can engage in a far more healthy discussion about them than we have in the past.

These are the two most divisive issues in the Christian community. I have friends on both sides, and whenever we talk about them I hear a lot of anger toward people on the opposing side. When my liberal friends talk about abortion and gay rights, they talk about ways we can decrease the abortion rate and make it uncommon and rare. When my conservative friends talk about abortion, they talk about sin and the right to life. When my liberal friends talk about gay marriage, they talk about fairness and equality. When my conservative friends talk about gay marriage, they talk about sin.

Homosexuality is not an issue that I fully understand, nor is it one that I have spent time working on with congregations engaged in social justice. But whenever it comes up in discussions around politics, I have given up on engaging in conversations that use the sin argument. I have seen the tears of parents, family members, and friends of people who are gay when they tell the story of how their loved one was treated by the church or heard a sermon condemning them to hell and expressing hatred, including stories of suicide because people felt they had nowhere to turn.

But when I read the Bible and even more so, the Epistles, what I find missing from the conversation is the fact that these are letters to churches. The writers were telling Christians how they should behave in contrast to how those in the world were behaving. Simply put, it's difficult for us to demand that the world conform to biblical standards because they would fail. The only way we are able to live by biblical principles is because we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. The other issue with condemning people for their sins is the reality that God is not done with them (or us) yet. Yes, I believe that we should address sin, but we should do it out of love -- so that people give their lives to Christ -- and not out of judgment or to evoke fear. I find that some of my friends spend more energy talking about sin than they do about love or the fruit of the Spirit.

If we support legislation solely on the premise that certain behaviors are sin, doing so will not do anything to affect a person's relationship with God. My understanding is that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. God has not given us the power to change anyone; it's hard enough trying to change ourselves. The power is in God's hands. Perhaps our assignment is to be connectors, introducing people to God and then letting them have their own conversation.

Poverty and Personal Responsibility (Part 1, by Romal Tune)

During this election cycle, we have heard candidates talk about ways in which we can work to end poverty. John Edwards has a new initiative to cut poverty in half in 10 years. These and other initiatives are certainly admirable ideas and much-needed programs that could help millions of men, women, and children.

In additions to programs and needed policy changes from our elected officials, we are also hearing about personal responsibility. And yes, inasmuch as we should look to our elected officials to address the needs of a growing “underclass,” those in need must also do something to change their circumstances. However, as we work to address the needs of the poor through policy, programs, and personal responsibility, we must also take into account that something is missing from this dialogue.

As someone who grew up poor in a single-parent household, I went without dinner more nights that I can even count. At times having to choose between using my bus fare for lunch and walking home, sometimes the decision to eat forced me to humble myself and stand on the corner asking strangers for change so that I could get home. I know from experience that there is more to the task of eliminating poverty than programs, policy, and personal responsibility.

For those of us who either grew up poor or work in poor communities, you have likely come to realize that the psychological impact of poverty is just as damaging as the circumstance itself. Perhaps the most difficult task, when trying to get people to engage in the work of their own liberation, is convincing them to believe that they are worthy of a better life. Yes, there are those in poor communities who, given a fair chance, will rise above their circumstances and pursue a better life. But we cannot ignore the reality that there are others whose spirits have been broken and feel like the darkness of poverty is their destiny. There are those who have been told so many times that they will never amount to anything, will never achieve anything, and even deserve to be where they are, that they now believe it is true. These are the men, women, and children for whom it will take more than good policy to get them out of poverty. These are the men, women, and children who can no longer be inspired by words that seem foreign to them, because it has been words that have done them the most harm.

There is a saying that "hurt people, hurt people." In other words, many living in poverty are simply doing what they were taught by their parents. They are using the skills and words handed down to them by people who were hurting, and they are now instilling the same beliefs in their children. They have not seen examples of how to do things in a different way, they do not know how to encourage their children because they were not encouraged as a child, and they do not know how to live as a community or family where people meet the needs of others so that everyone can succeed, because from early in their lives they have been left alone and had to fend for themselves.

[to be continued...]

Rev. Romal Tune is the CEO of Clergy Strategic Alliances, a graduate of Howard University and Duke University School of Divinity, and a member of the Red Letter Christians.

Poverty and Personal Responsibility (Part 2, by Romal Tune)

So how do we help people who have been hurt so much psychologically and emotionally that they don't believe in themselves and don't believe they deserve better? How do we help children who have never heard a parent say, "I love you, you are special, talented, and will do great things one day"? Or those who watched their parents harm themselves through substance abuse or alcoholism? Is there hope for these men, women, and children? If we believe in God and the power of God to give us beauty for ashes, then the answer is yes!

For many people living in poverty, their change will not come through programs and policies, but it will come through personal responsibility. What I mean is that it will come through our personal responsibility to walk alongside them and show them through our actions that we are not going to give up on them. It will require that those of us who no longer live in poverty or have never known poverty develop substantive relationships with people who are poor. We must go out and meet people where they are and show them how we got out, show them through our interaction with them that they are loved. Invite them into our homes so that they can be exposed to a better life, see what healthy relationships look like, and hear us talk to our children using words of empowerment. When people see living, breathing examples of what God can do, that's when they believe God can do it.

And yes, I understand that this notion of stepping out of our comfort zones to have deeper personal relationships with people whom we don't know and perhaps don't understand, is not very appealing or makes us uncomfortable. But is this not what Jesus did? Every person he encountered was a stranger before that moment. In fact, we were strangers when he found us. But as it was when Jesus walked the earth, reaching out to those in need of change, touching people who had never felt a compassionate hand, so it is today.

Yes, in our own power and limited ability we cannot do this, and I would daresay that some may not want to do it, but with God all things are possible. If we humble ourselves and say, "God, I cannot move this mountain, I need you to move it for me, increase my faith," then and only then can we truly eliminate poverty by liberating the poor from the psychological bondage of their circumstances.

I know this is possible because it is my story. Had it not been for men and women who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, people who refused to leave when I tried to force them out of my life, had it not been for them I would either still be living in poverty, selling drugs, in a gang, or dead. But thanks be to God for those men and women who refused to give up on me simply because they realized that in their own lives, God refused to give up on them. Yes, we need better policy, new programs, and personal responsibility, but perhaps what we need most is to stand alongside the people who need us most.

Rev. Romal Tune is the CEO of Clergy Strategic Alliances, a graduate of Howard University and Duke University School of Divinity

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