Civic Engagement as Spiritual Practice

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With Alice Butler outside Governor Newsom’s office, using our political power to enact our faith.

It’s election Session, and Super Tuesday is upon us. The air is filled with excitement and hope, fear and ugliness. Mailboxes are full of unwanted appeals. Misleading advertisements abound. Candidate gossip and commentary are overflowing, as are passionate pleas to consider the potential of particular politicians. Excitement and exhaustion are intermingled, and for a brief moment – at least in the circles I run in – engagement is silencing apathy. This is heartening.

Politics has a well-deserved bad rap. Newpapers are daily filled with political leaders misusing their power and abusing their position; corruption and politicians all too often go hand in hand. It is easy to become cynical. And yet, let’s not forget that Lakeshore’s current representatives Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas and Congresswoman Barbara Lee are wielding their political power to the benefit of many underrepresented constituents. Public servants still exist, even when they are too few and too far between. And indeed, it is we the people of this country who are responsible for holding our politicians accountable.

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Holding people accountable is not a fun job – just ask any parent, teacher or boss. And yet, holding our politicians accountable is not only the responsibility of every citizen, it is also how we enact our faith and express our deepest values. We the people is only a lofty ideal unless we the people use our political power and do our part.

Accountability isn’t even the goal, it’s the threshold. Much more than keeping public servants “in line,” voters are empowered to inspire public officials, to equip them to enact systems and policies that reflect the country we long to live in, one that actually embraces all its residents, provides for all its residents, and ensures that all its residents the ability to thrive. As we celebrated African American History this month, I was inspired once again by the great cloud of witnesses who have and continue to lead the way in not just dreaming of a better country, but putting their bodies on the line to demand this country live up to its declaration of freedom and justice for all.

In January, I had the opportunity to speak to my Representatives in Washington D.C. and was reminded again of the power of exercising my political voice. It was shortly after our President announced his so called “Peace” Plan, more aptly named the Steal of the Century, and I was eager to share my outrage. A shout out to Kyle Cristofalo of Churches for Middle East Peace (where I serve on the board representing the Alliance of Baptists) for setting up the meetings and showing me the ropes.

While visiting Congresswoman Barbara Lee, I witnessed her staff joyously celebrating as her bill to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the House. This was a testament to her courageous lone vote almost two decades ago to reject a “blank check” for the President to wage war. It was a powerful reminder of the ever changing political tides and the power of persistence in fighting for your values. While speaking with her staffer, I thanked her for Rep. Lee’s bold actions, like co-sponsoring HR 2407, ensuring that US tax dollars do not support the imprisoning of Palestinian children. I encouraged her to function as a leader to her colleagues in taking clear, strong stands to support freedom, justice and equality for all people.

I also dropped by Congressman Mark DeSaulnier’s office (I reside in his district). His Legislative Director took time to meet with me, telling me she recognized my name from all the emails I’ve submitted (let’s hear it for even simple acts like signing on to pre-written emails!). When I offered my thanks for Rep. DeSaulnier’s cosponsorship of HR 2407, she told me his decision was easy: while some of his constituents had concerns about this legislation, 3 times as many urged him to sign it. I also asked that he sign on to a letter restoring humanitarian aid to Gaza, which I’m happy to report he has since done. This encounter was a powerful reminder of the importance of raising our voices – through emails, calls, visits and showing up for town halls – to ensure our values are reflected in our government and with our tax dollars.

I know that not all congressional visits are so positive, and not all districts are so open to listen, but that is all the more reason to raise our voices and vote our values. I trust you are planning to vote on (or before) Tuesday – or whenever your election is held. I hope even more that you are empowered to exercise your political voice in any number of ways in 2020. There is power in civic engagement – and our country’s future depends on the exercise of our power! In the words of Robert Reich:

Citizenship is not a passive sport.”


A slight adaptation of Matthew 25:37-40, NRSV

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you voted for policies that provided for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you voted for policies that provided for me.’ 

Back in Bethlehem

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Wise Women from the West still following Bethlehem’s star

Last December, I traveled to Bethlehem to participate in the Kairos Palestine gathering. This was truly an advent journey of hope and longing as I joined with an international community to hear updates from Palestinian Christians who continue to await (and manifest) God’s redemptive work in their land. Inspired by their witness, representatives of the global Christian community strategized together how we can be Incarnation – God in human form – for one another.IMG_3244 (1)

“Hope where there is no hope” was the theme of our time together, and indeed the situation for Palestinians grows more dire with each passing day as they endure the cruel realities of legalized apartheid, codified in the new Nation-State Law; ongoing attacks aimed at the erasure of their communities and culture; and the devastating feeling of international abandonment. Yet, in the face of these harsh realities, we encountered the deep and abiding power of hope that provides vision, purpose, perseverance and even joy. The kind of hope that defies death and motivates people to plant flowers in the casings of empty tear gas canisters.

“Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves.” (Kairos Palestine, 2009)

This hope, grounded in a faith that has been forged in the harshest of realities, refusing to be extinguished, and embodied in acts of love and resistance, serves as a powerful reminder of what it means to be followers of Jesus. As our own country is embattled in a fight for its soul, its core values and its future, we who have great privilege have much to learn from the Palestinian people who are leading the way in what it means to resist evil through love, to be hope for one another, and to continue to allow God to be born in their very midst.

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As an international community, we drew strength from one another: from South Africa to India, Korea to the Philippines, Europeans, North and South Americans, we took courage from the joint struggles we are engaged in, challenging the many manifestations of racism, militarism, and ethnic cleansing rampant in our world. IMG_3279We affirmed the deep interconnectedness of our struggles and the power of partnering together in our mutual efforts to demand
freedom, justice and equality for all people. We committed to being a global circle of prophets, working in our own local communities, to be the very presence of God in the world.

From the Palestinian Christians, we were asked to manifest hope through participating in boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), being liberative church, rejecting any theology that dehumanizes any of God’s children, leading sacred pilgrimages, and lifting up the profound theology of the Kairos Palestine letter of faith, hope and love (a Palestinian “Letter from Birmingham Jail”).

Inspired by all I witnessed in Bethlehem, and in response to the Palestinian invitation to be manifestations of hope, my congregation spent the month of January educating ourselves on the state-sactioned violence and injustices endured by the Palestinian people, reading carefully the Kairos Palestine letter, and ultimately committing to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality through boycotting Hewlett Packard until they end their complicity with Israel’s occupation and human rights abuses. To learn more about how your congregation can take the HP Free pledge, check out HP Free Church.

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There is still so much to do. Injustice abounds. Inhumanity is rampant. And yet, as the Advent season of hope led to Christmas, the celebration of God with us, and now Epiphany, the season of manifestation and light, we are invited to be manifestations of the God of Justice and Love in our world. May the light of Love and Justice continue to grow brightly within us and through us, and may we be emissaries of God’s light for and with one another.

 

 

Freedom, Justice and the 4th of July

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On the eve of the 4th of July, my heart is heavy with the plight of so many seeking basic freedoms and having these freedoms denied by the actions (and inactions) of the United States government.

I know the crafters of the Declaration of Independence never intended to include all people in its lofty pronouncement that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” yet I refuse to accept that these words are mere propaganda. Over the centuries, Americans have protested, organized, fought, bled and died for the expansion of these ideals – for liberty and justice for all. And while these goals still remain aspirational, they continue to be aspirations worth fighting for, worth demanding of our government, worth birthing ever more fully into existence in our country.

As a child, I daily pledged myself to my country: a republic that promotes liberty and justice for all. I feel it my patriotic duty, this 4thof July, to decry the lack of liberty and justice in my country, and prayerfully commit myself to the work of liberation.

To this end, I have decided to walk around Oakland’s beloved Lake Merritt (roughly three miles) seven times this 4th of July – reminiscent of the ancient Israelites circling Jericho seven times before its walls came tumbling down – prayerfully surrounding this symbolic center of my community, denouncing acts of injustice perpetrated by my country and demanding my country restore basic human rights to all its residents.

I will walk a lap for each of the following groups who continue to be denied freedom and justice in significant ways:

  • for migrants seeking safety, security and a better life
  • for Black and Brown lives suffering from systemic racism and police brutality
  • for Palestinians, Central Americans and all in the international community seeking justice, equality and freedom
  • for indigenous people seeking to protect and honor their sacred lands
  • for the poor who seek shelter, food and good education
  • for women everywhere seeking equality for themselves, freedom for their bodies, and opportunities for their families
  • for the earth, which cries out from exploitation

I invite you to join me in your own way, connected to your own traditions of prayer and protest, to demand more from our country, to commit yourself to stand for and work for more from our country, and to do you part to reclaim for our beloved country all that we long for it to become.

May we who believe in freedom (and justice) not rest until it comes.

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Support for Palestine

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graffiti from Bethlehem’s wall

Pain and suffering are abundant these days – in Palestine, in the U.S., and in communities that have been displaced, dispossessed and disenfranchised everywhere. Yet just as pain and suffering abound, so, too, abound communities of strength and communities of support, as well as opportunities to stand in solidarity, to share in the struggle for justice and to help sustain those who are enduring injustice.

For those of you who want to offer more than thoughts or prayers to Palestinians struggling for freedom, justice and equality – for those of you who want to respond to the massacres in Gaza, the embassy move in Jerusalem, Trump’s relentless affirmation of Israel despite its war crimes, violence, and the ongoing inhumane treatment of people in the West Bank, here’s one tangible, meaningful way you can offer your support: make a donation to Stop The Wall, a grass roots network of organizations in the West Bank working hard at the local level to support those who have been harmed, displaced or endured damage to their property or livelihood.

Your support not only helps those who are enduring injustice – it also lets Palestinians know there are lots of folks in the U.S. who care deeply about what is happening, who are outraged by the actions of the U.S. and Israeli governments, and who are willing to do something to challenge the inhumanity and injustice taking place. Even donating $5 to replant an olive tree is an act of resistance, solidarity, hope and healing. Please consider supporting this amazing organization and their important work.

Here’s the link to offer your support: https://donate.stopthewall.org/allisontanner

And here’s the appeal from Jamal Juma’, Head of Stop The Wall:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jwORfygcG8dD_NzMJMNCM33PZfxGGVuV/view

*A word about donations – in light of the difficulties of sending money to Palestine (another layer of Occupation’s injustice) your funds will be processed in Spain. This may cause your credit card company to issue a potential fraud alert. I assure you this group, and the donation process, is legitimate – and your dollars will go directly to meeting the needs of Palestinians.

Thank you for your support!

Resistance and Re-sisters

Last January I linked arms across the Golden Gate Bridge with friends, church members, and a community of thousands to let our new president know that the people surrounding the western entrance to our country demand inclusion for all who enter into and live within our land. Last weekend, I joined with millions locally, nationally and internationally to say that we resist any and all attempts to diminish, disenfranchise or displace people in our communities. While these events were both inspiring and grounding, they point to a much greater need for regular and repeated forms of resistance to ensure that all people – especially women who often bear the brunt of injustices’ many forms – are treated humanely, fairly, and justly.

As I consider what it means to engage in ongoing, meaningful resistance, I want to lift up lessons learned from female activists in Palestine, whose courage and strength in the face of multiple intersections of injustice are inspirational and insightful. My delegation met with women who served in government, women who have been imprisoned because of their activism, and women in all stages of life who are creatively finding ways to engage in resistance as well as support their families.

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Do What You Can With What You Have. When the women we met shared their stories, I was struck by their refusal to dwell on hardship or play the victim. Living under Occupation creates incredible economic barriers and educational obstacles, yet, despite these, women are finding ways to creatively utilize the resources available to them to take care of their families and educate themselves. Take education – what is taught is controlled, access to movement is blocked, and education is costly. But this didn’t stop one young woman from staying at home, educating herself, and finding a way to travel for her exams. Not only is her story inspiring, but the way it was told revealed a determination that many, myself included, could learn from. In the words of one woman, “[Occupation creates severe] economic obstacles, but you can find a way. [Occupation creates severe] educational obstacles, but you can educate yourself.”

Know Your Identity. Our Palestinian translator is a lively, feisty, joyful, wise woman who spent the week sharing her spirit, her culture and her courage. At one point, I asked her about the great hope she exudes, curious to know it’s source. She explained, “It’s not hope, it’s internal truth. You feel inside it’s your right to exist. To be here. If someone steals something from you, you know inside what really belongs to you.” She gave the illustration of someone stealing a bike. You can spend the rest of your life watching that person ride the bike, but deep inside you, you will know it still belongs to you. This deep knowledge of who she is and what has happened to her people provides a confidence that grounds her fight for freedom, self-determination, and the right to exist, which was mirrored by so many Palestinians we learned from.

Intersectionality. My witness trip to Palestine was built around the idea of intersectionality. We were not just sent to witness the injustices endured by the Palestinian people, but, more importantly, to make connections between the global injustices that affect so many. We were invited to learn more about the ways in which tools of oppression are already deeply interconnected – on a global level – in hopes of building stronger – global – connections among communities of resistance. This theme was repeated throughout Women’s Marches last weekend with the slogan, “If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.” To be a people of resistance is to recognize the truth that Dr. King proclaimed so eloquently, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

IMG_1469I was glad to encounter the face of Ahed Tamimi on Saturday as I marched for equality in Oakland. Ahed is a 16-year-old Palestinian who has been in prison for over a month for slapping an Israeli solider. Her action came during an overnight raid of her home, shortly after soldiers shot her cousin in the head. Video of the incident can be found all over the internet. Her photographic presence throughout women’s marches internationally affirms that our struggles are indeed linked, and the struggle for freedom, justice and equality is one we must stand together in, for the sake of all women, all men, and indeed, for all humanity.

Below is a brief interview with another woman from the Tamimi clan, Manal Tamimi. This video, subtitled How to be a Palestinian Supermom, illustrates the courage, strength and conviction it takes to engage in resistance as a mother raising children under Occupation.

I am grateful for Palestinian women – activists, freedom fighters, politicians, workers and mothers – who have much to teach us all about the power of resistance, and what it means to be re-sisters.

Hope and Resistance

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Resistance entails being a strong presence in the face of those who would seek to silence or eliminate you.

It was during our orientation tele-conference that I first heard the theme. Our Palestinian host and guide invited us to come and witness their over 100-year struggle against oppression and occupation, a struggle for human dignity and freedom. “Come,” he said, “find out why we are still standing, why we are hopeful, in spite of the catastrophe. As we live with apartheid, racism, discrimination and walls, discover why we are still smiling. This is our strength.”

resistanceIt didn’t take long for me to encounter the hope he bragged about. On the very first day, I was awed by the power of resistance I encountered at every turn – individual and communal resistance, structural resistance, physical, mental and emotional resistance – and an overall refusal to accept injustice or inhumanity of any kind. Grass roots networks of resistance abounded, and in journaling my experiences that day, I reflected upon what it means for resistance to be a way of life.

Here again, I encountered a theme that wasn’t new to me – in fact, I’ve spent countless hours reading, researching, writing, teaching, and even preaching about resistance. And yet, the power of resistance took on a whole new dimension as I witnessed a palpable spirit of communal resistance among so many who shared their stories. When I encountered the popular slogan to exist is to resist, I began to understand the depth of meaning of resistance for a people who have endured the attempts of both physical and cultural genocide. I knew I had much to learn about what it means to not just engage in resistance, but to embody resistance at the core of your identity.

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As I attempted to articulate the spirit of resistance I was encountering, I journaled,

Resistance is enacting what limited freedom you have available to you. Claiming what dignity you can salvage. Living as fully as you can despite living under the thumb of the oppressor – and refusing to let the current powers that be fully control your behavior, your thoughts, your identity, your life….

Resistance is not without consequences. Many we met have served years in prison. Many have been further denied access to precious resources. Whole towns and communities have been punished for the resistance of one of their own. And yet, people resist. Individuals resist, communities resist, and networks of resistance appear and enact what they can for the sake of themselves, their people, those who they’ve lost in the struggle, those they love who are kept from them, and the young people who know only the lies they’ve been told.

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In every town, village and city we visited we encountered memorial walls honoring those martyred in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

The resistance we encountered was a resistance to inhumanity – a refusal to allow anyone, or anything, to lessen your identity as a human being. Our translator articulated this well when I asked her who/what she understood to be her enemy. She explained, “my enemy is anyone who doesn’t see me as equal. Anything that is unjust to me – not just people, walls. All that represents inequality. I demand a simple life with dignity.” She went on to clarify that she didn’t ask for much in the world. She didn’t need cars, or lots of material wealth. But she did demand dignity. She deserved to be treated with the basic respect any human being is entitled to. Resistance isn’t merely an act of survival, it is an act of proclaiming one’s humanity, despite anyone, or anything, that would seek to deny this.

In addition to the resistance we encountered among the Palestinians, there was great hope, and deep connection, in participating in an international delegation of people committed to the work of resistance in our own communities. Sharing stories and songs, laughter and learnings, we celebrated the power of resistance across our lands, and were deeply encouraged to know that our struggles are not isolated, and we are not alone in our efforts of resistance.

As I enter into a new year, I carry with me the lessons of hope and resistance I learned in Palestine. I resolve to do what I can to participate in resistance in the year ahead – in my community, in my country, and in the world. Even more, I resolve to be a part of an ever-expanding community of resistance. It is this larger community that I will continue to learn from and draw strength from as the need for resistance grows ever greater.

Join me in the way of resistance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bethlehem

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Having seen the wall in Bethlehem, my understanding of the reality Jesus was born into – and the realities so many still endure – will never be the same.

O little town of Bethlehem, your existence has shaped my faith. How fitting, then, that is was visiting your streets where God came to me anew, showing me what it means to encounter incarnation in the midst of a world of pain.

Below is my journal entry (slightly edited) from the day I spent in Bethlehem. It captures glimpses of what it meant for me to visit this sacred town, and how my understanding of the Christmas story, and my faith, will be forever changed.

October 15, 2017. Today I felt the struggle deep in my soul. Maybe it was hearing our group leader talk about his experience as a political prisoner, and his witnessing of the ongoing torture of a teenage inmate. Maybe it was touring a Bethlehem refugee camp, constructed with concrete slabs generously donated (hear the sarcasm) by the United States, or seeing the graphics of U.S. missiles that killed hundreds of Palestinian children. Maybe it was seeing the Bethlehem Wall with the United States president hugging it, kissing it, and promising to build it a brother – or seeing how this imprisoning barrier had become a symbol of powerful artistic resistance, creative protests and stories of the people, peppered with the occasional capitalistic invitation to tourists. Maybe it was the knowledge that this was the last day of the tour, and not only would I be saying good bye to the land, my new comrades in the struggle, the history lessons and the visible reality of what was happening, but that I was returning to my own comfortable life built from Occupation, to a people who benefit from the system and live in ignorance of their explicit and complicit lifestyles of excess and luxury.

What I knew, touring Bethlehem, was that this was indeed the town where a pregnant, Palestinian teen and her betrothed were forced to travel, to register and pay taxes, and the place was so full of people enduring Occupation that there was no room for them in an inn (or so the story goes). They ended up finding shelter in a cave. Into this community, so long ago, sprang another generation of resistance, with a leader whose teachings of dignity, humanity, equality, justice and restoration are still being followed. This Palestinian Jew’s message has shaped my life, opened my eyes to the struggle for freedom and the power of resistance, hope and healing – and seeking to follow in his footsteps has allowed me to identify with this historic little town.

I took great comfort in knowing that the incarnation is alive and well among my comrades in the resistance, and even as I return home, I have new allies in the struggle and accountability partners on the journey to end Occupation everywhere.

 

 

 

Bethlehem’s wall was built to contain and confine, but resistance beckons at every turn.

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Reminiscent of Tupac Shakur’s rose growing from concrete, this grape vine refused to be contained by the concrete wall of Aida Refugee Camp.