Wednesday, October 2, 2019

New Proposal Would Devastate Mental Health in Michigan

Below is my column for the October 2 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune, published on their website online here.

When my wife was working on her graduate degree in counseling, I remember talking with her just a few weeks into her first semester and saying, “You are already way ahead of the small amount of pastoral counseling I learned in seminary.” Now, several years into her private practice, she makes a profound impact upon the lives of numerous people every day—particularly young people. She’s a Rockstar. And I am very aware as a pastor to refer people out to trained mental health professionals when what they need goes beyond what I, as a priest, can offer.

I say this at the outset to be clear that my own household has skin in the game, that we have a vested interest in a proposal currently working its way through the State of Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). The essence of the proposed change is that it would remove the ability of Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) to diagnose clients or use the techniques of psychotherapy. The result of that is that no one visiting an LPC would be able to be reimbursed by their insurance company—as diagnosis is a requirement for insurance reimbursement. Furthermore, by not being able to diagnose or use the techniques of psychotherapy, LPCs would be put in breach of their own ethical guidelines.

According to LARA’s statement on these proposed changes, they believe the issue is that current statutory law does not actually give LPCs the ability to diagnose and use psychotherapy techniques and previous attempts to update the law to do so have failed in the State of Michigan legislature. State House Rep. Aaron Miller (R - District 59) has introduced a bill, HB 4325, which would preserve the scope of the LPC profession and how they operate, solving the statutory issue so that LARA’s concerns with statutory limitations can be resolved. This should be an easy area of bipartisan cooperation.

It is essential that HB 4325 pass and is signed into law as soon as possible. James Blundo, the executive director of the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association believes that if the scope of practice for LPCs is limited, it would impact 10,000 counselors in our state and leave up to 150,000 clients without access to mental health services. As Blundo noted in an interview with Detroit Fox 2, “We work in hospitals and state government and private practice. All of that would come to a halt. There are going to be a lot of people who will be without a therapist and some of them are in crisis.”

While I appreciate LARA’s concerns about the statutory issues that relate to the scope of practice for LPCs, the way to solve this issue is not to adopt a rule change that explicitly eliminates a profession from the mental health field. No one has claimed that LPCs are not qualified to provide excellent mental health care. No lawsuits—that I know of—have been filed arguing that their practice is outside the bounds of Michigan Statute. For an agency to hold 10,000 counselors and 150,000 clients hostage in order to force the legislature to pass this law is a dangerous move, one that could have profound repercussions upon those struggling with mental health issues. Sarah Lewakowski, executive director of Mosaic Counseling, a nonprofit agency serving Ottawa County, stated, “Approximately one third of the therapists on our panel are LPCs and LLPCs. I cannot imagine the clients that we refer to them not being able to receive the therapy that they desperately need. Many are suicidal. Many are children. The fact that the solution to this issue has come to this is reckless and inhumane. Surely, our political leaders can come up with an alternate resolution that does not displace thousands from the mental health care that they deserve and need.”

A public hearing on this proposed rule change is scheduled for October 4 in Lansing. It will be at 9 am at the G. Mennen Williams Building Auditorium, 525 W. Ottawa Street, Lansing, MI 4889. It is essential that citizens show up at that hearing and demand a delay in the rule change so that legislators can come up with an appropriate statutory remedy. There is no benefit to taking away access to mental health when we already have a shortage of mental healthcare providers in this state.

It is also essential that citizens contact their State Representative and State Senator to urge a swift passage of HB 4325 as well, so that mental health care will never again be held hostage by a regulatory agency in our State.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Our Cruel Immigration System

Below is my column from the August 15 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune, available on their website online here.

The cruelty was the point.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided seven plants, owned by five companies in six different cities, rounding up nearly 700 workers they believe were undocumented immigrants. What captured the attention of our country, though, were the images of children crying, not knowing where their parents were or what had happened to them.

Anyone who could use a calendar would know that these raids were planned on the first day of school in Mississippi, when kids were going back to class with excitement to meet new friends and learn new things. However, doing this raid on the first day of school to emotionally traumatize families and further discourage illegal immigration was precisely the goal. To wit, the cruelty was the point.

Our President has already been clear that he views practices like family separation as a deterrent to undocumented immigration—the immense emotional pain is precisely the point. The Acting Director of ICE, Matthew Albence, defended his agency’s raids, saying, “The parents or the individuals that are breaking the law are ultimately the ones that are responsible for placing their children in this situation.”

Wrong, Director Albence. Your choice, and the choice of your administration, to enforce our broken immigration laws in this way is what placed children in this situation.

First off, let’s be clear, illegal immigration is a crime—but it’s either a civil violation or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. Even the higher-level crime of misdemeanor is not a serious crime in our country’s statutes. It is on the same level as public intoxication, vandalism, or shoplifting. To respond to a crime like a misdemeanor by taking a child’s parents away is cruel and unusual punishment.

Interestingly enough, hiring an undocumented immigrant is a felony—a much more serious crime. However, to date, no one from any of the companies raided has been charged with a felony. None of them have had their children taken away. In the past year, more than 120,000 people have been prosecuted for illegal entry into our country. How many employers were prosecuted? Eleven. How many were sentenced to prison time? Three.

Let’s be clear. Our entire enforcement of immigration law is predicated upon punishing those who have no power—they are easy targets. Those who benefit from undocumented labor—and often taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the undocumented—are rarely held to account. And so those who commit misdemeanors are carted off to jail while their children come home crying to empty houses while those who commit felonies not only don’t face any significant penalty but continue to profit from our broken immigration system and the way it enables the oppression of those who are desperate for a better life for their kids and their families.

This is why the United Food and Commercial Workers union which represents workers at plants which were raided has condemned the raids. Rather than fixing our immigration system so that it is easier for those who are looking for jobs to safely and legally come to our country, our current administration has increased the failures (yes, the failures) of the Obama administration when it comes to addressing issues with immigration law. One of the few penalties any of these plants has seen actually was a $3.75 million dollar settlement between Koch Foods and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue wasn’t the hiring of undocumented workers, but was charges of sexual harassment, racial and national origin discrimination, sexual comments and touching of Hispanic workers, and retaliation against Hispanic workers who spoke up.

Our current immigration system is cruelly and brutally hurting our fellow human beings, people who—just like many of us—are trying to build a better life. People who have fled violence and poverty in the hope of their kids growing up hungry and not winding up dead in the street—choices I hope no person ever has to make. Increasing the failed deportation policies of the Obama administration, and making it even worse through practices of family separation, is not the answer to this moral stain upon our country.

The answer is to finally have an entirely reworked immigration system where people can safely and legally come to our country and do what immigrants have always done—make America a better place to life. And the answer is to hold to account those companies, governmental agencies, and other societal powers which continue to oppress and dehumanize immigrants.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

What Makes America Great

Below is my column for the July 3 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune, available at their website online here

Tomorrow, people across our country will gather to celebrate Independence Day. Or, as my step-father who lives in England calls it, Treason Day.

One must have some bit of a sense of humor about these things, when maintaining family connections across the pond.

A meaningful activity on this holiday is to reflect upon the Declaration of Independence that was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. This declaration was, of course, our declaration of war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, but it was also much more than that. It was our declaration of our sense of identity as a new nation, the values which drew us together and impelled us to pursue the path to freedom for those thirteen original states.

The document is not perfect, of course. In many ways, that is because the framers did not believe in the true extent of their words. The most obvious example is the beloved clause near the beginning, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was not until another 87 years and a civil war that resulted in 620,000 dead American soldiers—nearly 2% of the total population of the country at the time—that most African-Americans gained the rights that were inalienably theirs. It took another 100 years after that, years of violence and protest and oppression, before those rights were fully recognized and enforced. And even now, as we have seen the resurgence of white supremacy and the continued systematic oppression of African-American people, you cannot say that a black person has the same access to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that a white person does.

Similarly, those first words did not apply to women for the majority of the life of our country. It wasn’t until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution in 1920 that women were given the right to vote. Many people assume that is when women were given the equal rights enshrined in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—but that is not the case. The Equal Pay Act, aimed at ending wage disparity based on sex, was not passed until 1963—and the ideals of that law are still to be realized in our society. It wasn’t until 1972 that the first version of Title IX passed, guaranteeing equal access to education. It wasn’t until 1991 that our Title VII protections were changed to enable women to sue and collect compensatory and punitive damages for sexual harassment. I mean, it wasn’t until 2010 that employers were required to give women time to breastfeed an infant. The law that changed that? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

We clearly have been on a long journey when it comes to women having equal rights in our country. And we are still not there.

Indeed, our country has still been unable to successfully pass the Equal Rights Amendment, first drafted in 1921 and approved by the legislature in 1972—sent on to the states for ratification. As advocates argue, this proposed amendment is “designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex; it seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and other matters.” However, the deadline for ratification passed in 1979 and as recently as this very year, 2019, legislators have been unable to pass a bill that remove the ratification deadline and enable the amendment to move forward to full ratification and inclusion in the Bill of Rights. That’s correct—we are nearly one hundred years after the drafting of this amendment and we still have been unable, as a country, to state unequivocally in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution that all American citizens, regardless of sex, should have equal legal rights.

Let’s not forget as well that gay and lesbian Americans did not have a right to the pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness through being able to marry the person they loved until June 26, 2015. And even that expanded understanding of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—and understanding which has the support of two-thirds of all Americans—continues to be under fire in some quarters.

And right now an entire system of immigration enforcement is at work that is predicated upon the concept that those who unlawfully enter are country have absolutely no rights, a system which is creating tremendous human rights abuses that are a stain upon our nation.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that tomorrow is a day worth celebrating. It is a day to celebrate what truly makes America a great nation. But what makes America great is not hearkening to the success of the Declaration of Independence. It’s not looking back to any day in the past when our country was right.

What makes America great, what makes the Declaration of Independence great, is the persistence of the American people in insisting that we live up to the dream imagined in that stunning piece of prose. What makes us great are the people who fought tirelessly to expand freedom to more people, to get us closer to a place where our society—and our laws—insist that every single human being—no matter your race or language, no matter your sex or gender, no matter who you love, no matter your citizenship status—does indeed have inalienable rights, the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The day we get back to work on that goal… that will be the day our country gets back on the path to American greatness.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Resistance of the Holy City

Given the increasingly disturbing news about what our sisters and brothers in Latin America are facing at our borders right now, I have come back to and am reposting the text of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, just a few weeks ago. The video of the sermon is also available online.


A Reading from the Revelation to John (21:10, 22-22:5) 
In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In moments of grief or pain, there are some scriptural texts that always seem to come to mind. Texts from the Bible, for example, that you hear most often at funerals. This is why people love the 23rd Psalm with its image of a shepherd who leads us even when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Or Isaiah 25, where we hear the promise that, in the end, God will prepare a feast for all people and destroy death forever, wiping the tears from all faces. In John's Gospel, there is the story of Jesus telling a grieving Martha who is struggling with the death of her brother Lazarus that he—Jesus—is the resurrection and the life. And in the Revelation to John, we see promises of our eternal home where we are reunited with those who have gone before, where the God who sometimes seems distant or hard-to-find dwells right here in the midst of us. These are powerful and comforting texts.

And though it is true that the Revelation to John, with its hopeful vision of the end of our existence, is indeed a comforting text when you are struggling with the painful reality of death, the truth is that this book was written to be a very different sort of comfort in the late first century. For a long time, people thought this book was written to comfort Christians who were suffering under the despotic reign of Emperor Domitian. In this line of thinking, the book of Revelation was written to give hope to Christians who were being imprisoned and killed because of their beliefs. It envisioned a picture of an empire-wide persecution of the Christian faith.

But modern scholarship would actually urge us to tone down that understanding of the first century, this idea of widespread persecution of Christians at that time. Because, truth be told, there simply is not any strong evidence of any empire-wide persecution which singled out Christians for imprisonment in the late first century. Don't get me wrong, there were indeed martyrs in this time and place. There was persecution. There were Christians who died because of their belief in Jesus Christ. But these were exceptions in the imperial life. They were not the norm. Persecution, when it occurred, was sporadic and limited to specific localities under Domitian’s reign.

Modern scholars, instead, believe that this book was written in the context of a significant conflict among Christians themselves in Asia minor. The key question in the book of Revelation is whether you participate and remain complicit in the Empire of Rome, symbolized by Babylon in Revelation, or whether you resist imperial power. Because there were Christians who did not view the Empire as a dangerous force, one that advanced the aims of darkness and the devil. For these Christians it didn't matter if you sacrificed incense to the image of the Emperor or called him Lord, you could do all of that still believe that Jesus was the supreme Lord.

The book of Revelation was written as a polemic against that view, insisting throughout that you cannot call Jesus and Caesar Lord at the same time. There can be only one Lord. Those Christians who thought that you could compromise with the Empire are criticized in Revelation for being lukewarm in their faith, for not fully committed to the new reality which has been brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And it may be easy for us in the 21st century to look back 2,000 years at all of this and find it somewhat interesting, but probably foreign to our existence. But that is, I think, a misunderstanding a well. Because I think Revelation raises some very interesting questions for Christians today, particularly those of us who live in the United States. Because there are significant arguments to be made that the power of United States in our own time far surpasses whatever power Rome had at the height of its imperial rule. We don't talk about the American Empire, generally, but if you look at the amount of territory which is under the control of our country, if you consider how many armed forces we have stationed in continents and countries all over the world, and if you think how other countries respond to what our country does or doesn't do… (when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, right?) If you think of all of this, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the United States is a country that wields significant power in this world, almost an imperial level of power, perhaps.

And so I think that when we read the book of Revelation we must ask ourselves some very hard questions about our allegiances, our citizenship, and our patriotism. We must ask ourselves whether our citizenship and patriotism has ever crossed a line somewhere or sometime, whether our love for our country has ever risen above our love for the risen Christ—and the Body of Christ for whom he died

Today’s reading from the 21st chapter of Revelation helps frame this question in a very helpful way, I think. Because one of the most significant realities of the Roman Empire was that the whole world existed in two separate groups. There were Roman citizens who were treated a very specific way and there was everyone else. Paul even took advantage of this when he was arrested and brought before the courts, saying, “Hey, I’m a Roman citizen. You can’t do this to me!” By the late first century, the early Christian church, though, was a tremendously mixed community. The church began as a sect within Judaism but quickly grew to include Gentiles. The church included those who were rich and those who were poor, those who were slave and those who were free, and people from many nations and ethnicities and citizenships. And in the Christian church all of those people were placed on equal footing around the Eucharistic table.

The problem with getting very comfortable with the Empire in the late first century was that not everyone could do that. Members of the church who were Roman citizens could indeed enjoy their much greater freedom, but they could only do that while also acknowledging that other people—other people right in their church—did not have the freedom they had. And that is why the author of Revelation urges resistance instead of complicity, insisting that the power of the Empire is always a diabolical power precisely because of the way that the Empire (no matter the era in which it exists) seeks to carve up and divide humanity so that the power of the Empire may grow, so that the wealth of the State may increase. And that power is absolutely contrary to the power of love which raised Jesus from the dead, the power that seeks to reconcile a divided humanity.

And so, when John of Patmos sees the New Jerusalem in today’s epistle reading, he says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” In saying this, what he is doing is painting a picture which is a stark contrast to the picture of Rome—the other city where, supposedly, the other nations will come, but only in order to be subservient to the power of the State.

No, the power of the New Jerusalem is very different, and the nations don’t come to be slaves, they come to be set free. The only thing kept out of this city, according to John, is that which refuses to be made clean by the blood of the slain Lamb and to those who practice abomination—which defined in Revelation as those were willing to sacrifice much at the altar of the state, no matter the cost to their fellow Christians. That is the abomination.

And you and I, we live in a world which is also divided into two groups, those are American citizens and to those who are not. And I think we are meant to feel uncomfortable when we read this text. We should feel uncomfortable at the reality that some of our sisters and brothers in Christ have markedly different freedoms than we have—and not only our sisters and brothers in other countries of the world, but our sisters and brothers right here in the United States who don’t have all the same benefits we have because they are not citizens of the State.

I talked a couple weeks ago when I was preaching on Revelation about how sometimes we are willing to sacrifice relationships with friends and fellow Christians at the altar of our preferred political party, that we will angrily insist that our party is right—right no matter what—even if it burns a friendship to the ground, and how that is a form of idolatry to the State.

But there are all kinds of idolatry out there, all kinds of ways of sacrificing to the State at the expense of your fellow Christian. And if we truly believe that the vision of the end of human existence described in Revelation 21 is a city that quite literally leaves its doors open all the time, that in the end of human existence there are no checkpoints, but everyone is welcome to come in, everyone is treated as a person, then we have to ask whether or not those of us who are citizens are complicit in another sacrifice, one that is willing two let the State place the personhood and humanity of our fellow Christians to the side, one that that refuses to allow the gates to be open but insists they must be closed, one that that sends people back to countries filled with poverty and violence and a death, all in the name of keeping us supposedly more secure and wealthy.

Because, God forbid we lose our jobs or our comfort.

There are all kinds of sacrifices the State invites us to make every single day to the power of our empire. And there is cost which is mammoth.

Because, believe it or not, the Revelation to John was written not to comfort people like you and me. The Revelation to John was written to comfort people who don't have the right citizenship, people who have been told they do not have the same rights for reasons that were very legitimate and legal in Rome. The Revelation to John was written, instead, to provoke those who do have power, to provoke those who are comfortable, to say that if you are comfortable you are complicit. To provoke people like you and me, and to force us to ask, “At what cost does our desire power and comfort come?” Revelation invites us to ask which citizenship matters most to us, citizenship in this country or citizenship in the new Jerusalem that Jesus Christ is trying to bring about… the new Jerusalem that the State killed Jesus for trying to bring about.

And Revelation urges us to resist the Empire anytime the Empire seeks to oppress or exclude any person, particularly people who stand at the closed gates of our own country, people who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, people who are wondering why… wondering why their sisters and brothers who live on the other side of those gates have not spoken up and demanded change. Amen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

D-Day reflections, both inspired and unsettled

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Tomorrow, June 6, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day — the largest seaborne invasion in history when Allied forces landed on the beach of Normandy during World War II. Together with British and Canadian troops, the invasion covered 50 miles of the French shoreline.

This operation was the beginning of the liberation of France from the control of the Nazi regime, and is generally seen when the tide of the war turned toward the eventual Allied victory on the Western Front.

The leaders of the Allied forces knew that the invasion would come at tremendous cost of human life. As the American troops prepared, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower told them, “The eyes of the world are upon you. You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny.”

By the end of the day, 2,501 American soldiers had been killed in action. It is estimated that 4,414 in total died that day.

As the sun went down on June 6, it was not clear that victory was coming. The Allied forces had not achieved any of their primary goals. The beach landings had been tremendously deadly, with ramps dropping men into chest-deep water in places, resulting in their drowning when the weight of their equipment carried them down. Many of those who did make it off the ramps were quickly killed by German forces. It wasn’t until June 12 that the five beachheads were finally connected, and the Allies secured the front.

I remember watching accounts of this invasion in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” when I was a student at Grand Haven High School. It was the first time I had seen a war movie that truly sought to capture the carnage and horror of battle. Later, I watched the 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” and was likewise struck by the massive loss of life on that day, the tremendous courage of young men climbing into cold water and heading in the direction of machine-gun fire, knowing their sacrifice was essential to victory over the Nazi regime.

Like many in my generation who grew up in an age after the draft, in a time where there was no massive conflict on the scale of the world wars which called so many to battle, I didn’t serve in the armed forces. My focus in my younger years was on studying to serve in ministry in the church. But I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt over the sense that I did not do my part like some of my friends and my peers who serve.

As I studied theology and Scripture throughout undergraduate and graduate school, my own views on war shifted and developed. In my upbringing, war was a necessary part of our world — something essential to defend the innocent against the violent and aggressor nations. I remember arguing with some theology professors when our country was preparing for the second Iraq war in 2003. They articulated the perspective of Christian non-violence, but I could not understand how that view squared with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the prophetic literature, those who stand idly by while the innocent are oppressed and killed are condemned for a lack of faithfulness. How could we, as a country, stand by while atrocities were happening in Iraq?

Of course, as the conflict in Iraq persisted into one of the longest-running conflicts in our nation’s history, I began to question my initial views. Particularly as civilian deaths continued to rise, my Christianity begin poking at my conscience, wondering if we truly were protecting the innocent — or complicit in killing them. As of right now, it is estimated by the Iraq Body Count Project that nearly 200,000 civilians have died in that war — but that organization’s methodology is often criticized by scholars for likely underestimating.

For a time, I moved to the viewpoint of Christian non-violence, particularly as I was convinced by the arguments of scholars like John Howard Yoder, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauwerwas. But I never fully was convinced of this position because it seemed only tenable when Christianity is a small minority within the State. In my first years of priestly ministry, I served in the Washington, D.C., area at Historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I became friends with parishioners who served in the Pentagon. My overly academic views on war and violence began to clash with my experience of faithful Christians doing their best to protect their country.

When I’m honest, I’m not sure where I stand on all these questions now. However, as I look back on the carnage of D-Day, I cannot help but be inspired by these young men, many of whom were certainly motivated by Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I do believe that our world would be a darker and scarier place were the advance of fascism through the Axis powers not stopped — and I doubt anything other than violent resistance could have stopped that kind of power.

But I remain unsettled. I remain unsettled because, though there will be several commemorations and memorials of this 75th anniversary tomorrow, there remains massively insufficient passion when it comes to the question of caring for veterans in our country. The most recent “point in time” count found there were nearly 40,000 veterans who are homeless. Nearly one-third of all veterans who served since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have at least one service-connected disability. Our care for those who have served is woefully inadequate — and it is a problem that has plagued our country since the Revolution.

And I am unsettled because it seems those in power are willing to send our brave young women and men to die for causes that are questionable —even from the perspective of a Christian just war theorist. There is a carelessness to civilian casualties that should feel obscene to any human — let alone any Christian. And this is not a partisan issue — both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have an ugly track record with the use of military force. In recent times, the attacks upon brave LGBT Americans who put their lives on the line to defend our country have been particularly heinous.

Mostly, though, I am unsettled because 75 years after D-Day, fascist ideologies are once again on the rise throughout the world and right in our own country. Racial violence from white supremacists has seen a disturbing increase. Alarmingly large percentages of people seem to be adopting clearly neo-fascist views on questions like ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and opposition to immigration. An insistence upon supporting the State — no matter what — is increasingly the marker for those in power.

So, I honor those brave men who climbed onto the beaches of Normandy for the cause of freedom, hoping their certain sacrifices could overcome the evil that threatened to envelop Europe and the world. But I think we must also be alert — because there are always forces willing to use the story of veterans to advance interests that are contrary to the foundations of our county. And we must be willing, like those soldiers 75 years ago, to stand up and resist the totalitarian and fascist tendencies in our own world right now, even in our own country.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

New anti-abortion laws are contrary to the sanctity of life

Below is my column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Last week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a near-total ban on abortion. Under Alabama’s new law, abortion will be a felony punishable by life or 10-99 years in prison. The only exceptions in the law are if the life of the woman is at stake or if there were circumstances that would already result in the death of the unborn child. There are no exceptions for sexual assault or incest.

The resistance to these exceptions rested upon the arguments of the bill’s proponents that the personhood of the unborn child is paramount.

Not to be left behind, the GOP-led Legislature of our own state has passed legislation that criminalizes an abortion procedure performed in the second trimester called dilation and evacuation. Democrats fought against this legislation because this procedure is often the safest option for women who are faced with this tremendously difficult situation. This legislation also provides no exceptions for rape or incest. Our own governor will likely veto the bill (if she hasn’t already by the time this column is published).

What we are seeing in these legislations is the increasing success of the so-called Right to Life movement, a movement which claims to be predicated upon Christian teaching about the sanctity of life. However, this legislation — and much of the Right to Life movement — rests upon modern political and philosophical arguments and not upon the actual biblical witness.

I want to be clear; abortion is a massively tragic choice that women face. My own denomination, The Episcopal Church, spoke clearly in a 1994 resolution that “all human life is sacred from its inception until death.” The resolution continued with two important points. First, it was clear that abortion should only be used in extreme situations and certainly not as a means of birth control. At the same time, the resolution was clear that legislation will not address the root cause of abortions. Our church expressed “its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”

This position rests upon an acknowledgement that the biblical witness on the question of abortion acknowledges the nuance of personhood and the sanctity of life. Those who claim that a fetus is the equivalent to a human being from a moral and ethical standpoint cannot make that claim based upon Scripture. Exodus 21:22–25 is clear that if violence causes a miscarriage, the penalty is different than if you murder someone. Numbers 5:11–31 describes a ritual a woman must go through if she is accused of adultery, where the priest gives her something called “the water of bitterness.” If she has indeed committed adultery, the water will “make your uterus drop, your womb discharge.”

Both of these texts absolutely reflect the patriarchy of the time (in the Exodus text, the husband determines the punishment for the loss of the fetus, and there is not any corresponding violent ritual a for a man accused of adultery). Thankfully, given the fulfillment of the law through Jesus Christ, we are no longer bound by these commandments. Instead, Jesus told us that love of God and love of neighbor is the principle upon which all laws must rest.

So, the question for the Christian is what does love of God and love of neighbor require? What does a true respect for the sanctity of life require?

First, it requires respecting the sanctity and personhood of the life of a woman. That means that when a woman is faced with tragic and difficult circumstances, the church should support her and help her make her own informed decision about what is best. And then, after she makes that decision, the church should walk alongside of her.

The church should also advocate vigorously for maternal health care and for social programs that help women and small children. The continued GOP attempts to dismantle programs that help women in poverty who make the brave choice to bear children — alongside the legislation on abortion currently being passed — is an evil hypocrisy.

Though abortion rates have declined for years, research by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that nearly one-in-four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. That means it is likely that there are many women sitting in the pews of churches right here in Grand Haven who have been told over and over again that they are murderers. This is not only contrary to scripture — which nowhere refers to abortion as murder — but it is a cruel and evil message to send to women who are hurting. It does not respect their sanctity.

The second thing a Christian should do is advocate for policies that reduce the number of abortions in society. We must be clear, countries with the most restrictive laws on abortion also have the highest rates of abortion. A 2016 analysis found in the Lancet found that the average abortion rate in countries where abortion is illegal is 3.7 percent — but it is 3.4 percent in countries where abortion is legal. Furthermore, when there are highly restrictive abortion laws, women are also far more likely to have serious health problems and die as a result of an abortion.

However, comprehensive sex education reduces teen pregnancy rates (and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases) far more than religiously based abstinence-only education. Providing free birth control also results in far fewer abortions. A Contraceptive C.H.O.I.C.E. project in St. Louis gave women free contraceptive counseling and the contraception of their choice and the average annual abortion rate was 0.97 percent — compared with the 4.2 percent rate of sexually active teens. This reality also makes GOP and conservative Christian attempts to limit access to contraception massively hypocritical.

It is time for Christians to refuse to support anti-abortion legislation that results in danger to women. It is time for Christians to insist that our faith requires us to demand instead better access to health care for all women, stronger social programs for those who struggle. And it is time for Christians to repent of language that has cruelly and painfully wounded the hearts of women who have been faced with this tragic reality. A true value of the sanctity of all life — including the lives of women — demands no less.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Looking for light in the dark places of the Church

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune

These are dark days for American Christianity.

The divisions in our country that are painfully evident are also manifest in our congregations. Of course, churches have always found themselves divided among more conservative and more progressive approaches. But the divide seems to be so much deeper these days. In conversations with my colleagues, I know that we have all found it difficult at times to hold together communities where the political and social forces at our time seem to be pulling people further and further apart.

Beyond the struggle within the church, though, it is also outside. With larger and larger segments of the American population no longer attending church, and belief in God decreasing, the increasing polarization of our country has increasingly impacted the way people view church. As those without faith watch American Christians continue to support policies that are anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant, policies that hurt the poor that Jesus told us to care for, their distaste for Christianity only seems to increase.

I try to spend time letting non-Christians know that not all Christians agree on these questions. Though the religious right sought to craft a narrative of what Christian politics looks like, Christians are actually much more diverse than the media would let you know. Indeed, the most recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that white evangelicals are the only major religious group where a majority support President Trump. (Interestingly, Trump has the highest poll ratings among evangelicals who don’t actually go to church.)

For many Christians, these next few weeks mark some of the holiest of the year. As Lent draws to a close, Holy Week will begin on Palm Sunday, April 14. During this week, Christians will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. We will remember his last supper with his disciples on Holy Thursday. We will commemorate his death on Good Friday. We will wait in prayer on Holy Saturday until we celebrate his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As we journey through these days, it’s probably worth remembering that Jesus was not killed by non-religious people, by those who didn’t believe in God. Rather, Jesus was killed by the drawing together of the fears of the religious with the anxieties of the State. Jesus was killed because his massively inappropriate love offended the religious.

Jesus had a distasteful tendency to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. He castigated moralists who had strict views of purity laws, views that led them to be cruel to those who ran afoul of their beliefs. And while he did not come to overthrow the Roman government — much to the dismay of some of his followers — the government took the fears of the religious seriously enough to put him to death.

And yet, as we walk through this story during the coming Holy Week, we will also be greeted anew with a love that overcomes death and the grave. At the empty tomb, we will discover the emptiness of our own narrow understandings of what God can and cannot do. We will see love embrace those who sought to kill God’s own son. We will see love embrace even us, in our fear and anger, inviting us to relax our grip on our own perspectives and instead to let ourselves be loved. And letting ourselves be loved, we will perhaps learn anew what love actually requires.

Jesus said the world would know the people who follow him by their love. I find it unsurprising — and heartbreaking — that a certain picture of Christianity, one that is devoid of love and only knows how to demand its own way, continues to play across the media. I wish religious leaders didn’t bless some of the morally abject policies of the current administration — putting migrant children in cages, slashing assistance to the poor, enabling rampant corruption, to name a few. Because that’s not the Christianity I know. That’s not the Jesus I know.

If you’re sitting there, watching this all play out in the news and on social media, and saying this is precisely why you don’t want to bother with church or organized religion, I want you to know that there are a lot of Christians who don’t believe this is what Jesus calls us to. Jesus calls us to live lives of profound sacrificial love.

And I want you to know during this Holy Week, I’m trying to learn that love better, too. I’m trying to learn from the Good Teacher how to love even those I might imagine as my enemies, even if red hats and old southern flags make me flinch.

Because all of us, including this liberal priest, need to learn how to love better. Sure, we need to stand up for what God’s love and justice demands, but we need to do that like Jesus, not like the mob that clamored for his death.

These are pretty dark days for Christianity, but the light of resurrection glimmers on the horizon. The invitation to love — and live — anew is extended to every Christian. We can change the story told about the church. We just have to be willing to repent.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish, including their Holy Week services, can be found at www.sjegh.com.