Category Archives: justice

Is this the fast that I choose?

(This blog was originally published to the New Media Project site as Easter 2012 approached. Found it today – Easter 2013 – and thought it was time to repost.)

Icon panel: St. Anthony Tormented by Demons

Icon panel: St. Anthony Tormented by Demons. The dude was well versed in solitude…

I write this post as the Christian season of Lent is winding down. Just three days until the Hallelujah is proclaimed and Christians everywhere recall the story of Christ’s resurrection.

Lent is the time in the Christian calendar for reflection, repentance, personal sacrifice, and reception of new members into the church. Beginning with Ash Wednesday (or following the bacchanal of Mardi Gras if that’s your thing), Lent spans 40 days until Easter morning.

One of the hallmarks of Lent for many Christians is the idea of fasting or “giving something up.” Modern Catholics are most noted for abstaining from meat, and substituting fish, on Fridays during Lent. Other traditions recommend various forms of fasting – carbon (reducing dependency on oil/coal), coltan (reducing dependency on electronic devices), alcohol, desserts, etc.

Other religions have similar periods or “holy days” for fasting: Yom Kippur for Jews, Ramadan for Muslims, Durga Navami for Hindus, and an extended fast as the first stage of self-realization for Buddhists.

One form of fasting that has been largely lost in the Christian tradition is the fast of solitude. Biblical characters such as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus each spent 40 days alone at one point in their ministries. It was seen as a transformative point of their stories.

A quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh helped inspire this post and may serve to explain the desire for solitude, even in a social-media driven world. It appears as a meditation for the first day of each month in the devotional Celtic Daily Prayer.

“It is a difficult lesson to learn today, to leave one’s friends and family and deliberately practise the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week. For me, the break is most difficult… And yet, once it is done, I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before!”

Tracking down those fasting from social-media via social-media is not as hard as one might think. Fortunately most of them maintain email contact, even when fasting from Facebook and Twitter. The responses I received were varied and intentional.

Will, a pastor in Toledo, Ohio, says fasting from Facebook has freed up time for prayer and meditation and “to focus on real relationships.” The act of discipline – not regularly checking Facebook – has helped him reconsider what are his “daily necessities.”

Will also says he has learned “the real self, the perceived self and the projected self have much in common, but are also worlds apart,” especially in social-media where “the illusion of intimacy” is facilitated by immediacy.

Anne, who was my professor of pastoral care in seminary, says she has taken up to a month off of Facebook at a time, usually because of relational overload. As an introvert, Anne says she doesn’t “take lightly” the personal interactions that seem flippant to others but are recorded for all time on some server.

“I take it all too seriously, and care too much about what I’ve shared. I would rather invest that kind of attention in the fewer intimate relationships I would maintain anyway if Facebook did not exist,” she says.

Finally, Mick, a musician in Florida, says he primarily uses Facebook for entertainment. Leaving it behind to focus on “increased works of charity and service” is a hallmark of Lent for him.

Learning “what is and isn’t important” has made Mick more aware of how he spends his time online. All his Facebook friends are people he’s met and interacts with, so Mick noted that rather than chatting or commenting on Facebook with these friends, his phone call volume went up.

We live in a connected world. Some of our jobs depend on social-media interactions. Many great world-expanding, justice-seeking, and action-taking messages are relayed though social-media channels – for which we are grateful.

But what would your world look like if sought digital solitude for a day, a week, a month, or 40 days? Would life come rushing back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before?


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I have AIDS (and so do you)

You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. – 1 Cor. 12:27

The results of my HIV test at the UCC”s General Synod in 2009: one line – negative; two lines – positive.

I’d first like to clear up that no, I am not HIV positive. I know for sure. I’ve been tested.

But if we take the words of 1 Corinthians 12 seriously, the church – and by that I mean everyone who calls themselves a believer within this Body of Christ – is affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic even if one, as an individual, is not infected.

So what would incite me to make such a radical claim? Why do I believe HIV/AIDS currently carries a different level of importance for people of faith than, say, clean water or malaria?

It is a matter of responsibility.

I’ve recently returned from the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., covering the event as a photographer for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. I’ll be the first to admit that HIV/AIDS has not been my “big issue,” though as a pastor I always involved my congregation in World AIDS Day remembrances, advocated for and supported caregivers, and participated in discussions with my denomination’s HIV/AIDS ministry – UCAN (United Church HIV & AIDS Network.)

I also have a handful of friends living with HIV – all are responding successfully to antiretrorival (ARV) treatments that keep the most damaging symptoms of the virus at bay. They are living long, and relatively healthy, lives. By all appearances, they are no different than me.

And therein is the point of convergence – it’s what finally hit me about the importance of HIV ministries within communities of faith. What is the church to do when those infected look just like me? This question, using the 1 Corinthians 12 text, was posed by Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell of World Evangelical Alliance in Brazil at the closing session of the Faith & AIDS pre-conference to AIDS 2012.

You see, it’s easy to externalize a response to “the sick” – people of faith are fortunately really good at taking care of the sick. It is part of what Jesus commanded the church to do. But as a result, the church’s care for those living with HIV or vulnerable to the virus has largely been seen through the lens of those who are extremely sick with AIDS, ghettoized in sub-cultures, or in remote countries.

Within this context, there are two tales of the church’s reaction to HIV/AIDS and why our current response matters.

The baby of an HIV positive mother smiles as she comforts him with patting. At the time of this photo, the newborn’s HIV status was not yet known.

On the one hand, are the silent thousands who have extended care and comfort to AIDS patients when others wouldn’t – churches (and synagogues, mosques, temples) and ecumenical ministries that have been in the long-game of providing services for those infected. They have been involved in critical care, hospice, testing, counseling, education, and family services that have fallen under the grand radar screen of what some people of faith consider “ministry.” Like the Good Samaritan, they have come to the aid of those who have been discarded by those concerned with respectable religion.

On the other hand (if you hadn’t guessed where this was going), are people of faith who have shunned and condemned those infected with HIV. To them, the virus is a well-deserved punishment for wrong choices – mainly unprotected sex, anal sex, multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug use and the sharing of needles. Infection due to these choices has even been described by some as God’s plague – a necessary act of divine justice – that would rid the world of homosexuals and drug users. Having clearly made immoral choices, they say, God has no choice but to punish the infected for wrong behavior.

If, upon reflecting on this second reaction, you aren’t offended and angry that some people of faith continue to think this way, you may not want to read any further. You aren’t going to like the rest of this post.

As with most moral absolutes, the second response to HIV – judgment, stigma-building, ostracizing – runs into snags when people are personally touched by the disease. These moral absolutes are confronted by those who have gotten the virus from blood transfusions, accidental transfer in emergencies and other rare cases. They are challenged when a family member becomes infected. And they are weak smokescreens for  fear in the light of the infection of the innocent – children who contract the virus from their mothers (becoming more rare, thankfully) or unsuspecting husbands/wives/partners who contract the disease after their partner acquires HIV through sexual activity or drug use.

It is here that the discussion gets murky in the church. Many don’t want to talk about sex and sexuality, condoms use, or about respect and dignity within sexual relations. They don’t want to address homophobia or talk about the mechanics of transmission. And they’d definitely prefer not to educate their children and potentially sexually active young adults regarding safe sexual practices and integrated sexual health. They would rather talk about abstinence as the best method to prevent transmission. (It is. But the church’s response must also be realistic…)

Jack MacCalister marches in a protest calling for better access to generic antiretroviral drugs that help those living with HIV live healthy lives. The July 24 march was part of the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.

This conflict in the church – at times extremely generous and compassionate, and also seen as responsible for inciting a climate of fear, hate and isolation – is why people of faith and conscience are uniquely positioned to, and even bear a burden to, love, educate, provide care for and remove the stigma from those who are HIV positive and those who are vulnerable or made vulnerable to the virus.

I had an interesting discussion with a French ACT Up! member at the conference in which he blamed the Christian community for recently dragging HIV/AIDS treatment and education back 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa. I tried to explain that not all faith groups had an abstinence-only or homophobic approach to prevention and that many were doing good and comprehensive work. It was to no avail, he had seen the worst in some Christians and could not be convinced otherwise.

The Christian organization he encountered primarily works to “save” AIDS orphans, prevent mother-to-child transmission and help women infected by their “whoring” husbands. And he is correct in pointing out that some of these same groups refuse to address the vulnerability of sex workers, men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users.

He’s right in calling this group to task – there can be no moralizing the church’s response to those infected with HIV. The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t involve the Samaritan asking how the man was injured, or chastising him for being on a dangerous road, or withholding care until the injured man made a confession of faith. The Good Samaritan simply showed true love – to a foreigner, to someone who didn’t share his religious convictions, to someone unclean – without question.

And if I’m reading 1 Corinthians 12:23a right, it isn’t so easy for us to pick and choose those for whom we will care either – “The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most.”

A protestor wears a shirt advocating condom use as a preventative step in the spread of HIV at a July 24 march during the 2012 International AIDS Confernece in Wahsington, D.C. (Photo Gregg Brekke/EAA)

I was inspired by a Pentecostal pastor from Malawi who told me he actively preached condom use from the pulpit. When I recounted a conversation I had several years ago with a Kenyan pastor who said he could never speak of such things in church, this Malawian pastor replied, “How can I not [tell people to use condoms?] My calling is to preach life, and it abundantly in Christ. I have no choice … I must preach life.”

People of faith are responsible to proclaim life – it isn’t an option.

HIV now looks like me, and I cannot externalize my response.

HIV is a matter of life and death, and I can’t be selective about who is worthy of care, education, treatment or prevention methods.

HIV lives all around me and I among it, not in stigmatized subcultures or remote corners of the world, and I refuse to separate myself from the HIV positive part of humanity to avoid discomfort.

This post is the first of a three part series on the 19th International AIDS Conference. Part 2 – Let’s Talk About Sex. Part 3 – AIDS and the Good News

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Some funny, some not – the case of Troy Lee Davis

Yesterday’s [satirical fake news] post on the UCC being indignant about “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” drew over 700 views in its first 24 hours! The (Rev)ision Gregg blog has been running for almost five years, has hundreds of postings and yesterday’s satire accounts for 1/10 of the traffic it has ever received. Amazing…

The truth of satire is that it can lay bare idiosyncratic positions through the use of humor. The appeal of satire is that it cuts close to the quick for those who are “inside” the joke.

But on another note, I can only hope the case of Troy Lee Davis draws nearly as much attention. The state of Georgia has denied clemency or a retrial in his capital murder case even though several prosecution witnesses have recanted and a majority of the evidence points to his innocence, the execution is still scheduled for tomorrow, Sept. 21, 2011.

Is it because he is black? Because he is accused of killing a cop? Because the DA just wants to have someone – anyone – “come to justice.” I’m not sure, but I pray that our states and the nation can come to a better understanding of innocent until proven guilty and end the practice of capital punishment as other seemingly civilized nations have done.

So far, 400,000 individual letters, appeals from Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, and the NAACP have not changed anyone’s mind to even revisit the case.

Please add your voice at any of the links above.

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