Redding Pilgrim
Congregational Church, UCC

“July 1, 2018 by Rev. Ann Lougee”

July 2nd, 2018

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­­­Patriotism on the Moral Precipice

Leviticus 19:33-34; Isaiah 10:1-4; Matthew 7:12

The Rev. Ann R. Lougee

July 1, 2018

It’s Fourth of July weekend, a time when patriotism is on parade. I believe I’m a patriotic person from a patriotic family. The day before I was a month old, my dad left to serve as an Army officer in the World War II campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He didn’t return until I was three years old. For many years afterward, my dad would periodically put on his uniform and head off with the Reserves, and I was proud of him. Norm’s and my kids called him The Colonel, a rank of which he was proud, and after he died all that our sons wanted from his possessions were his service medals and mementos.

Growing up in Massachusetts I practically absorbed patriotism by osmosis, being surrounded by sites where so much of the history of the colonies and the Revolutionary War took place. School field trips went to Old North Church, Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, and the homes of important people we read about in our history books, like John and John Quincy Adams.

Besides that, I spent chunks of my summers with relatives in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting an important battle site or a building with a sign that said “George Washington slept here,” or “General Lafayette slept here.”

In my grade school years, I walked downtown to the parade with my dad every Fourth of July and Memorial Day, and he and I both choked up when our flag went past or the National Anthem was played.  I still do. These days, however, having had my consciousness raised in certain ways, though I still revere what those symbols represent and will place my hand over my heart, I’d be likely also to take a knee, if I thought I could get up again.

My early awareness of and pride for those in military service set my intention for life to support the USO and the agencies caring for wounded soldiers and their families. That will not change, so long as we have people in uniform putting themselves in harm’s way.

So I think my family is pretty patriotic, and I am, too.  I think there’s a difference, however, between saying “My country, right or wrong,” and “My country always right.” I think, along with Abraham Lincoln, that rather than making the strange assumption that God is on our country’s side, we ought to be concerned with whether or not our country is on God’s side.  And God, throughout the Old Testament and also in Jesus’ testimony depicted in the gospels, is clearly represented as being on the side of the poor and downtrodden almost all of the time.

I also think there’s a false kind of patriotism that would have any of us assume that this country is superior to all others just because we were born here. This kind of false patriotism leads to a sense that we are, ourselves, superior to people from other countries and cultures, a particularly arrogant and misplaced kind of superiority complex that can result in treating others cruelly and as subhuman. The current situation in our country regarding immigration and the treatment of refugees is a case in point. To me, this is not a partisan issue but a human one, a moral and religious one.

I’ve been in a state of moral anguish about this. I’ve felt inadequate to reconcile my deeply felt patriotism with my deeply felt faith in the God which the New Testament letter of John describes as love, and in the Jesus who is portrayed in Matthew 25 as saying how we treat the least among us is how we treat him.

The more I’ve learned about what’s been going on, the more helpless I’ve been feeling. I want to help, but I don’t know how. The actions I’ve known how to take have felt small and ineffectual, like squirting a water pistol at a roaring inferno. I wonder where, if anywhere, is a fire hose big enough to put it out.

Some of you I saw yesterday at the rally and the march for Keeping Families Together, so I know you, too, are looking for that fire hose, for some ways to be effective in these matters.

I wish you all could have heard the speeches at that rally. If you had heard about the two-year old sobbing uncontrollably for hours while the workers assigned to “take care of her” were forbidden to pick her up or touch her; or about the man whose three-month-old baby was taken from him and is not yet found five months later; or about so many examples like this, you would wonder how a country that started with such different values could sink to this level. It’s not a partisan political issue; it’s a moral, ethical, human, religious issue.

I thought I could do no better this morning than to share what our United Church of Christ’s national leaders have to say, and the suggestions that they offer on the way to becoming a fire hose. Condemning the unconscionable assertion that migrant children should be separated from their parents because of ‘orderly and lawful processes that protect the weak and lawful,’ — a Biblical statement that was misused to justify U.S. immigration policies — the United Church of Christ National Leadership issued the following pastoral letter, urging the people of our denomination’s almost 5,000 congregations to take action, first by contacting their Congressional representatives, and then by providing funds to help keep families together and reunite those already torn apart.

The letter begins with a rendering of Psalm 106:44-47 by our former Conference Minister Mary Susan Gast: “Still, when God saw the trouble they were in and heard their cries for help, God remembered God’s Covenant with them, and, immense with love, took them by the hand. God poured out God’s mercy on them while their captors looked on, amazed.” And here is the pastoral letter:

Friends, once again we stand at the brink of a moral precipice in our society and the question before us is will we choose to act in covenant with God on behalf of God’s people or will we sacrifice our soul. The United Church of Christ has long been a supporter of migrant families seeking refuge within our borders from intolerable and unsafe living conditions in their homelands. As people of God committed to the sacredness of all creation and the sanctity of every life, we are compelled to heed the cries of families now being violently torn apart at our borders for political expediency and profitability.

Such violent acts are unnecessarily punitive and place at risk the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and developmental stability of hundreds of families who now find themselves separated, caged, and commodified in a strange land. All sacred texts, no matter the faith, identify disregard of the humanity of the vulnerable as sin. And God hears the cries of God’s people.

The plight of black and brown migrant families whose children are ripped from their care cannot be the policy of a civilized land. But we’ve been here before.

Our nation’s history bears witness to a legacy of lost love. We separated the children of Native people from their families. (Winemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk talked yesterday about how she and other children in their tribe would literally run for the hills if anyone approached their dwelling, to avoid being taken away and put into boarding schools where their language and traditions would be forcibly expunged.)

We separated the children of kidnapped, enslaved Africans from their families. We separated the children of interned Japanese people from their families. Many of these families were never made whole again. This legacy of white supremacist ideology is idolatrous and leaves an indelible mark of evil that can only be redeemed by a conscious act of spiritual repentance and repair.

We must resist the evil of dehumanization enacted upon the most vulnerable among us. The United Church of Christ strongly condemns the dismantling of families, the criminalization of the quest for freedom, and the caging of those whose only crime is to seek shelter from harm.

How we treat those who seek shelter in our midst is a direct reflection of how we treat God. We call upon our 5,000 member churches to write letters to your representatives in Congress as an act of worship this month. Remind Congress there is a law that supersedes partisanship and political bantering, and that is the sanctity of all people of God.

Faithfully yours,
The National Officers of the United Church of Christ: The Rev. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President; The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries;
The Rev. James Moos, Executive Minister, Wider Church Ministries; The Council of Conference Ministers of the United Church of Christ

Since that issuing that letter, the national leadership of our denomination has put forth another one, this time responding to the Supreme Court ruling on travelers from Muslim countries, upholding the so-called Muslim ban. Again, this is not properly regarded as a partisan political issue, but as a moral, ethical, religious one: “As people of faith, we understand that God has no ‘other’ and the immorality of such acts are not made righteous by the legalization of them. In such matters, we stand with our kindred in the Abrahamic faith. We stand with the teachings of our sacred text. We stand with the God who is God of all.”

As you know, since the first pastoral letter, the President has rescinded the policy of automatically separating families applying for asylum. But so much damage has already been done, and it continues, and repair of that damage is very, very far from being done.

The Rev. Bill Lyons, Conference Minister of the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ shared a report from the frontlines of our southern border on June 15th. He writes: The Rev. Randy Mayer made the familiar trip to the Comedor near the Mexico/US border last week.

The pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd, UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., he and his congregants are among church volunteers at the Comedor, a small hillside compound where Jesuits, Sisters of the Holy Eucharist, Samaritans from Green Valley, Sahuarita and Tucson, and helpers from both sides of the border provide migrants with morning and evening meals, clothing, medical care, phone calls, legal advice, and psychological services…

That morning Mayer was assigned to do intake interviews.”In my 20 years here being engaged in frontline immigration work, this was probably my most difficult and hopeless day,” he wrote to me. “There were probably 120 migrants looking for support. Most were coming from Guatemala and Honduras, wanting to seek asylum. There were a lot of women with children who were fleeing horrible domestic violence situations where their ex-husbands are trying to kill them.

They had no idea that Attorney General Sessions has changed the laws so that domestic violence is no longer grounds for asylum so that they can’t even apply or if they do they will be separated from their kids. It was so painful to see them process this, and they are so far from home.”

There is no deterrence in what people don’t know. People with nothing to lose can’t be deterred. These migrants have nowhere to go.

“They can’t go back home because the cartels and gangs are waiting for them,” explained Mayer. Undocumented detainees learned gang life in U.S. prisons and took it with them when they were deported. Today those American-born gangs in Latin America demand payments from families in exchange for loved ones’ lives.

Mayer and his congregation at Church of the Good Shepherd UCC now care for two asylum-seeking families who entered the U.S. before the current administration changed the rules. A gang demanded payment in exchange for one of their teenager’s lives; relatives who couldn’t pay had already been murdered. So the family fled.

“But now they would be turned away and most likely wouldn’t be able to qualify for asylum,” said Mayer. “A beautiful caring family that is experiencing pure evil. Even now they fear being hunted down by the gangs.” And if Mayer is right they face deportation and certain death.

The border situation is overwhelming available humanitarian resources. Mayer and the team from Good Shepherd UCC also went to the DeConcini Port of Entry, in Nogales, Ariz., to support the families waiting in line. “There are so many now that there is a list of over 90 families on the wall so they won’t lose their place in line,” Mayer wrote. “It used to be that Border Patrol could process these asylum claims pretty quickly, 20 or more a day at the Nogales port of entry. Now they are doing only 3 to 5 a day. Just so that people can suffer.”

For the past three years the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ has helped more than ten families present themselves at the border and make their way into the asylum process. Four Southwest Conference congregations offer hospitality to sanctuary guests. All of them go to church with us, and this summer, in the hope of healing and with a prayer for protection we are taking their kids to camp with us.

“But, said Mayer, “the current crisis at the border with parents and families being separated and the tragic changes in the asylum laws are beating our spirits down as we watch the most vulnerable migrants barely clinging to life. It is difficult being in the eye of the storm, bringing Jesus’ compassion to an evil situation in which our current administration is purposely seeking to inflict pain and cruelly destroy people’s lives.”

Conference Minister Bill Lyons continues: The work is too big for one church or one UCC conference. We need financial support to Keep Families Together. We need help to continue assistance to asylum families who are prohibited by law from working. They need to rent apartments. We need to distribute toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, razors, towels, wash cloths, sleeping mats, coloring books and crayons.

Send your notes of encouragement to these families to the Southwest Conference, 917 E. Sheridan, Phoenix, AZ 85006, and we will pass them along to families camped on the border. Please demand policy change with your congressional representatives. All of us thank you.

So ends the letter from Bill Lyons, Conference Minister of our Southwest Conference, except that he adds a list, which is in your bulletin, so that we may know how to begin to help. I’m grateful for this list from one who’s on the scene and knows what’s needed and what agencies are reputable and effective. It makes me feel a little less helpless. I’m grateful for the pastoral letter from our national leadership who state the matter clearly and give me hope that the 5000 UCC congregations that they address might together be a fire hose on this conflagration.

So the questions I’m still pondering are: How does our faith inform our patriotism, and vice versa? How do we reconcile our patriotism with biblical mandates for justice and compassion? What actions may we legally and must we morally take as citizens?

As our UCC national leaders have said, we stand on the brink of a moral precipice. I pray that we, and our church, and our nation, will take steps in the right direction. Amen.