Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Christianity, the Gun Lobby, and Peacemakers

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

We’ve all had around a week to process it, but I know many of you are still reeling from the horror of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Two dead teachers. Nineteen dead elementary school children. As I read of how the gunman locked himself in a classroom with those kids and that this was how they all died, I felt my spirit tear inside of me. I could not wait to get home and hug my own child a little more closely. 

I’ve been trying to think about what to say, what to write, about this tragedy and how we, as a society, should respond to it. I’ve written and spoken so many times about gun control by now, that it feels hollow to pull all that out yet again. But I’ll try. I’ll try because I want to say something about the systemic sin inherent in Christianity and its relationship to the gun lobby in our nation.

I mean, we know. We know that 92% of Americans favor mandatory background checks for all gun sales. We know that 75% of Americans support a 30-day waiting period for all gun sales and 70% of Americans support mandatory registration of all privately-owned guns with the police. We know that 77% of Americans support laws that would allow a family member to seek a court order to temporarily take away guns if they feel a gun owner might harm themselves or others. We know that 70% of Americans support police filing that same order. We know that 68% of Americans support raising the legal age at which a person can purchase certain firearms from 18 to 21. We know that 56%, still well over half of Americans, support banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15 which have no purpose other than being a weapon of war and death.

And we know that the majority of Republicans support almost all of these measures.

We know all of these things… and yet we do nothing. We do nothing because our legislative system is broken, particularly when it comes to gun reform. And we know that a good deal of that legislative system is owned by the National Rifle Association, meaning almost no Republicans would vote for the very sensible and bipartisan measures we know people support, measures that would absolutely save lives. 

And the fact that pastors and faith leaders don’t call out this broken system, the fact that churches don’t take to the street to protest the failure of legislators to make our country safer for her residents… to make schools safer for our kids… it boggles the mind. It breaks my heart. And it makes me very angry.

On Thursday, June 9, my parish, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, will be holding a Requiem Vigil and Mass of Advocacy for Victims of Gun Violence. The service will be at 6pm and anyone who is interested is welcome to attend. 

We chose that date because it is the feast day of the great St. Columba. Columba was a monk in the sixth century who was active in both Ireland and Scotland. He had a strong personality and preached forcefully in ways that often stirred up opposition. He wound up exiled to Scotland, but remained active in Irish politics and Scottish politics, always working for peace in his land. In fact, his name is derived from the Latin word for dove, as we worked for a peace that was just and holy, a peace that was inherently political.

Jesus told us in Matthew, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And it is time. It is long past time for all Christians, no matter your political persuasion, to stand up and work to bring peace because our country is being torn apart by gun violence. Children, minorities, and all sorts of people are victims every day. 

We don’t even hear reports on all school shootings because they happen too often. There have been seventy-seven school shootings on campuses just this year. In addition to Uvalde, there have been two others where more than four people were shot. And I bet most of us couldn’t even name those schools. 

We must make peace. Each and every one of us. The church must stop being known as one of the biggest supporters of gun rights in our country, bought, sold, and paid for. Instead, the body of Christ needs to get to work making peace. 

Because the cost of this fantasy of an unrestricted right for every person to own firearms, no matter their lethal capacity… this fantasy must be challenged. It must end. And it won’t, until the church stands up and says, enough.

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.  The views expressed in this column are those of Father Cramer as a private citizen and do not reflect the views of his congregation or church. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Listening to the Unchurched & Dechurched

One of the central aspects of our congregation's Mission, Vision, and Plan for the Future is to try and be more intentional (and curious!) about questions related to evangelism, welcome, and incorporation. 

In April we undertook a survey of our members, divided into groups by how long they'd been a part of our parish life. We learned a lot of interesting points about who our church is, what parts of our shared life people most value, how people felt welcomed and how we could welcome better. We also learned how the answers to those questions shifted somewhat, depending on how long someone has been in our congregation. My own analysis of that data, along with the raw data itself, is online here.

As the Vestry discussed the data from that survey, we kept coming back to one reality: the importance of being attentive to the sample reality. The survey was a sample of those who not only visited SJE, but who chose to come back and be committed. We started wondering about those people who live in our area but are not currently connected to a faith community. What would be important to them? What are they hungering for (if anything!) in their own spiritual life.

With these questions in mind, the Vestry asked me to design a new survey that would be targeted out on social media to the unchurched in our geographic area. I used the trend-lines and ideas from a survey the Pew Research Center did in 2018 (see the CNN article online here) as my own baseline, but then edited it to get as well at some of the questions our Vestry had. 

After designing the survey using Google Forms, I boosted it on Facebook among people who are not currently connected to a faith community and who live within 20 or so miles of our parish. As the first line in the boosted ad, I also wrote, "Do you not have a faith community? If you'll fill out this short survey, you'll be entered in a drawing to receive $50 in Dune Dollars!" (Dune Dollars is our local gift certificate system supported by the Chamber of Commerce.

The ad ran for about two weeks. It reached over 7,000 people. Of those, over 200 clicked the link to find out more. And of those 200, 64 individuals took the time to fill out the survey.

That may not seem like a lot, given the reach (unless you understand the difference between ad reach and action with Facebook advertising), but what I want to emphasize is that we had over sixty people who do not go to church and live in our area respond and tell us what would be important in a faith community, from the perspective of someone not currently involved in one. 

The demographic breakdown of the ad from an age perspective was also particularly interesting, with 92% of respondents being under the age of 50 and 70% being under the age of 40. 

We offered a total of fourteen possible items that could be important to someone when choosing a faith community. Of those fourteen, the following were the top five:

  1. Authentic Community (78%)
  2. Progressive Advocacy (66%)
  3. A chance to make a difference in the world (54%)
  4. Preaching that connects with my life (53%)
  5. To become a better person (53%)
The three lowest items that people found important were Contemporary Worship (24%), Conservative Advocacy (12%), and Traditional Worship (5%). 

What this says to me is largely what I've read in other studies on these questions over the years. For people outside the church, the worship wars are largely over. The style of worship will not, for most unchurched people, be what draws them to your congregation. However you worship, whether traditional or contemporary, low or high, do it well with integrity for your tradition and authenticity for your best gifting. Worship style isn't going to move the needle. What people want is a sense of authenticity, advocacy and action when it comes to issues progressives care about, and a message that will connect with their own life and help them to be who God is calling them to be.

This is good news to me, as an Episcopalian and as the priest at St. John's Episcopal Church here in Grand Haven. Because these are things we can do. We can be authentic advocates for change who connect people with a spiritual life that grounds them and empowers them to grow into all the fullness God has for them. 

We also asked those who responded what keeps them away from church. Once more, almost no one spoke about the style of worship. Instead, many of the respondents talked about the hate they hear in supposedly Christian voices, particularly to LGBTQ, BIPOC, and other marginalized individuals. Several also spoke to an experience of a toxic religious environment or traumatic religious upbringing, people who had been deeply wounded by churches and who had trouble believing they could ever find anything healthy and life-giving. 

This underscores the essentiality in being a full-throated advocate for issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. No matter how articulate you are in the pulpit, or in your church newsletter, people who are outside of the church aren't hearing those messages. So it is incumbent upon Episcopal Churches to be explicit about the ways we celebrate all the ways LGBTQIA+ people contribute to our common life and to be very intentional about the work of dismantling racism and engaging in works of reconciliation. 

It also speaks to the essentiality of a spirit and tone of gentleness when you engage someone who is not in a faith community. The odds of them having had a traumatic or abusive religious experience in their past is pretty high—and it skyrockets if they are a woman, a person of color, or from the LGBTQIA+ community. Gentle and authentic affection, a willingness to walk alongside of them—not to try to convince them just to join your church—these are so very important if we are going to bring any healing to those who have had spiritual wounds inflicted upon them. 

Many people also said they find themselves too busy. They would be open to being a part of a church, but carving out that time is difficult—particularly when they fear they will be pressured to get more involved, to volunteer in several activities, to let the church sort of suck them up. This underscores the importance for me in having a church that is invitational in posture and attitude. That is, people are invited to get as involved as they feel called... but they are also told clearly that we are here to be a faith community for them no matter what. If that means they just show up to feed the hungry once every few months, or just come on Christmas and Easter, or if they kind of pop in and out from time to time, our job is to be a welcoming place where people feel invited—not compelled—to explore the rich life of faith in community.

We also asked people what they would say to a church that wanted to be a more meaningful place for people like them to attend. Over and over again, we saw two key points. First, be open to those who doubt and are unsure of their faith or belief in God. Let people know they will not be judged for their struggles. Give them room to explore and question. Second, be a community that truly accepts all people, where people from marginalized groups are not just tolerated but are celebrated. 

We also heard the essentiality of concrete action. Words mean little when they do not have positive action behind them. So, if you care about racial reconciliation, demonstrate that by the actions you take, your hiring decisions, the programs you offer. 

And don't be afraid to say, "We're not that." That is, clearly and boldly separate yourself from the nationalistic, homophobic, heterosexist, ethnocentric, and capitalistic forms of Christianity that have come to dominate the national perception. Be clear that that is not the God you believe in and that you believe following Jesus means not only rejecting that false version of Christianity but being an advocate for those who have been damaged by it. 

Most people who filled out the survey, 55%, said they didn't want to be contacted after filling out their responses. It is important to honor that, and so that is what we did. However, for the other 41% who said they would be open (and the 4% who said please do contact me), I took about two days to read through every individual response. I then wrote an email to each individual, expressing gratitude for them sharing their perspective and engaging with what they specifically wrote. I also offered to get together so I could learn more of their story, as well as answer any questions they might have about the Episcopal Church.

I don't know how many people will respond to that invitation. I'm having coffee on Wednesday with one person who responded, though. She even came to church this past Sunday to check us out. But even if very few people respond, I hope we've been able to plant some seeds, to model an approach to Christianity that is more about listening with curiosity and affection and less about telling people how wrong they are. 

And I'm grateful. I'm grateful for the way all of this information will help our Vestry engage carefully and strategically with efforts of evangelism and welcome. Because what's clear to me is that many of the people who responded would love to hear some good news, and that's really what evangelism is. It's sharing the good news with people. It's our job now to go out and tell them that there is a place like us, a place where they would be welcome, honored, invited to go deeper spiritually and engage in bold advocacy and action. That sounds like good news to me—and I hope it will to them as well.

To see the full report on the data gleaned in the survey, you can click here

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Freedom misunderstood: The perils in our county elections

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

One of the wise points in our local election system here in Grand Haven is that the elections to City Council and for mayor are nonpartisan elections. That is, candidates campaign on the substance of their ideas for our local community instead of upon the platform of a national political party. This makes sense because the larger points of national party platforms don’t always transfer as easily to the issues facing a small city government like ours.

Unfortunately, that changes at the county level in Ottawa County. Those elections are partisan, which means that each party can run a candidate for office. In the 2020 election, nine of the 11 commissioner nominees ran unopposed as candidates from the Republican Party. In District 3 (city of Holland wards 1, 2, 3 and 6, Ward 4 Precinct 3), the Democratic candidate, Doug Zylstra won by a margin of 10.8 percent, or 1,171 votes. In the only other contested district, District 6 (about half of Georgetown Township), the Republican candidate won by a 3-1 margin.

I raise this reality because local politics are shifting in ways that will not only affect the Republican Party in Ottawa County, but will have an impact upon the entire county because those candidates who win the primary race on Aug. 2 will almost certainly win in the general election on Nov. 8.

A local political action committee called Ottawa Impact is running their own candidates in eight of the 11 districts of our county. They are putting money and energy behind candidates who support their ideals.

It’s probably no surprise to most of you that I’m a definite left-leaning progressive when it comes to my own political views. However, I’m deeply concerned about the goals of Ottawa Impact – and I imagine many Republicans would be concerned about their goals as well. On their website, they state that, “The mission of Ottawa Impact is to preserve and protect the individual rights of the people in Ottawa County.”

They enumerate their understanding of the threats to these rights as follows: “We are committed to defending the constitutionally protected rights of parents to make health and education decisions for their own children. We recognize our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage and celebrate America as an exceptional nation blessed by God. We oppose indoctrination of our county’s youth and the politicization of public schools. We believe civic engagement, ground up, is critical to preserve a healthy, moral society. We seek to educate, encourage, and support local leaders who fight to preserve Ottawa’s values and work to eliminate policies which oppose them.”

They then close by insisting their passion is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness!” However, I believe the goals of Ottawa Impact are fundamentally opposed to the ideals of freedom in our country and also to the values of the people of Ottawa County. Let me explain.

There has been a consistent misunderstanding of the nature of freedom on the far right of our country for the past several years. People want freedom to do what they want, without restriction – but also freedom to insist other people follow their own far-right values.

One of the reasons these candidates are running is Ottawa Impact’s opposition to the fact that the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners did not fire the leadership of the Ottawa County Department of Public Health or change the health department’s guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it would have been illegal for the Board of Commissioners to interfere with the health department.

Furthermore, under the “freedom” this group believes in, people should be allowed to drive drunk, ignore seatbelt laws, and the health department should not require cooks in kitchens do things like wash their hands after touching raw chicken. The reason people do not have freedom to do those things is because that sort of an exercise of freedom would put the safety of others at risk.

You absolutely have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – until your exercise of that right takes it from someone else. So, you do not have the right to drive drunk or ignore seatbelt laws. You do not have the right to say you will simply follow dietary guidelines in the Bible and ignore health department rules. The reason you do not have those rights is because following them would pose a threat of harm to others.

Furthermore, for more than two years, people associated with Ottawa Impact have been harassing our school board, demanding the banning of books they deem inappropriate, or at least the restriction of those books and insisting they require parental consent. Once more, this is not about the freedom to make education decisions for your children, because they can already do that. Parents already have the ability to see what their kids check out. No, these parents want their values to control what all kids have access to. That’s not freedom – that’s religious activism seeking to control the parental rights of all families, no matter whether or not you agree with them.

They say that they recognize the Judeo-Christian heritage of our nation, mistaking the reality that the majority of our Founding Fathers were actually religious rationalists, deists, or unitarians – none of which would be recognized as Christians by modern evangelicals. They say they opposed “indoctrination,” but if you read the flier from the candidate they are running here in the district of which Grand Haven is a part, that means they are opposed to: “Marxist teachings of CRT/DEI.” I’m guessing that means she wants the writings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. removed from our schools.

And the idea that believing in “diversity, equity and inclusion” makes you a Marxist is flabbergasting. I always thought believing in diversity, equity and inclusion just made you a good human being.

Ottawa County is one of the best counties in the entire state of Michigan. If you look at our statistics, we are going by a healthy clip, our county departments function well, and most other county boards of commissioners consistently hold up our county as one of the best-run. As much as I might disagree with many of the Republican commissioners on national partisan questions, there is no denying the excellent job they do for our county.

Every citizen of Ottawa County, no matter your party affiliation, should look very carefully at the candidates who are seeking to control the place we live. Our county motto is “Where you belong,” and I hope our county can continue to be a place where everyone can thrive, where we try to cast down barriers to equity and inclusion to have a truly diverse community, where we support public servants who work to serve the common good – not just the views of a fringe minority.

Pay attention in these next few months and get involved. The future of our county is at stake. And make no mistake: Their next target will be the school board, too.

About the writer: 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. The views expressed in this column are those of Father Cramer as a private citizen and do not reflect the views of his congregation or church.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

A New Thing on the Cusp of Holy Week

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

You and I live in an age and in a time when bodies of water are admired and enjoyed. Very rarely are they feared or seen as uncrossable boundaries. Of course, this does not apply for those of us who live in the Grand Haven area and have tried to cross the bridge from the north, with all that construction traffic. At times this has made the Grand River seem like an uncrossable boundary.

In the Hebrew Bible reading our church read this past Sunday, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

For the Israelite people, when they hear a prophet remind them that their God is a God who makes a way in the seas and a path in the mighty waters, they know from a very visceral place what that means. 

Their minds go back, back to the stories their ancestors had told them about when the Hebrew people fled slavery in Egypt and arrived at the beaches of the Red Sea. There was no way to turn, no other path of escape from Egypt, and the armies of Pharaoh were advancing rapidly. But then the power of God pushed to the waters aside and made a pathway through the sea so that the children of Israel could walk to their freedom on dry land. 

They remembered as well, the stories how, decades later, when the descendants of those escaped slaves arrived at the Jordan River, on the eastern boundary of the Promised Land, their priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the water and the waters parted once more, creating a pathway into the land of promise, the land of God’s long-awaited blessing for God’s people. 

The prophet speaking in the 43rd chapter of Isaiah is trying to invoke those powerful memories for God's people. For decades they have lived in exile, with no sense of how they could ever break free of Babylonian imperial power and return to the land God had given their ancestors so long ago. They were afraid, afraid that their sin, their failure to be the just society God had called them to be, that all of this had forever broken the covenant. 

But Isaiah is trying to remind them in this reading that every time it seems like the end for God's people, God has always made a way. Their God is the God who can make a path in the Red Sea, who can turn the waves of the sea into a chariot and horse to protect God’s people.

Isaiah is telling the exiles that the God who had made paths through uncrossable water was going to bring them home, it was just that God was bringing them home by a new and different way. So, they needed to remember those past memories of God’s salvation, but also needed to let go of them just a bit so they would be able to see the new liberation God was bringing about in their own time. 

This time they wouldn’t be coming home through water. Instead, God was going to sustain them through the middle-easter desert. God was going to create a new path, a new way home.

I wonder, at the end of Lent, with Holy Week and Easter almost here… I wonder what new things God is trying to do in your life, in the churches of our community, in the Tri-Cities area, and in the world. 

The prophet is right, if you only ever look for God where you have found God in the past, you will miss the new things, the new salvation God wants to bring you. And sometimes, like those ancient exiles, you need to pull your eyes from the place where God has always saved you and look instead to what might seem like a desert. Because it could be that your salvation now lies in an entirely different direction. 

Know this, beloved child of God, throughout all of the paths behind you, all of the things that shaped you—for good or for ill—God’s hand has been at work, redeeming that which was wrong and never should have happened and giving strength to that which was good. 

So, wherever you find yourself at this end of Lent, don’t give up. Remember the past, but turn into the new thing God is bringing about in your life. Let it be OK that you don’t have it all figured out, that you don’t know the answers, that you still struggle with sin and doubt. Don’t let that weigh you down. Because the goodness God has for you is there, just ahead in the distance, if you can but make room in your life to accept and receive it. 

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, March 2, 2022

A Lenten Fast from Pseudo-American Freedom

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

I believe one of the most profound challenges facing Christianity, facing our society in America right now, is a misunderstanding of the fundamental ideals that should guide us. I see this particularly in the ideal and virtue of freedom.

Of course, in one sense our country was founded on the ideal of freedom, of liberty for every human being. And yet, at our founding, what that actually meant was the freedom of every white, land-owning man in the country. There has also been this persistent idea, particularly on display during the pandemic, that freedom means I get to do whatever I want, without regard to the impact it will have upon my neighbor.

One of the Scripture readings for today, Ash Wednesday, comes from Isaiah 58. In that reading, the people are trying to rebuild their nation following the destruction of the Babylonian exile. They are fasting and worshipping God but are perplexed because their worship, their piety, does not seem to be producing any response from God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they cry out to God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” It feels almost as though God doesn’t care, like God isn’t even listening when they pray.

The prophetic word, though, makes it clear that the problem is not with their ritual actions. The problem is with the way they live their lives outside of worship. They do not practice righteousness, only focused on themselves on the days they fast. They come out of their times of fasting and repentance but persist to oppress their workers and engage in quarrelsome behavior. And so, the prophet declares that the fast God wants is not to lie yourself down in humility but instead “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

True freedom is not doing whatever you want. True freedom for the Christian is living in line with God’s call in your life, focused not on getting what you want but on how you can lift the burdens and break the yokes that hold others down.

When the eminent 20th-century theologian Karl Barth sought to describe human freedom, he said that human freedom is God’s gift that enables us to obey God.

The great theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, said it differently. You can only be truly free, Augustine believed, when God has healed all of creation and all of you, when you are no longer able to sin. He drew a distinction between liberum arbitrium (free choice) and libertas (freedom). If we keep the end of God’s desire for us and the world in mind, we will eventually, through God’s grace, reach a point when we can only ever choose what is right and good. Think of it as the perfection of an athlete who is not worried about getting to hit the ball however she wants, but who is incapable of hitting the ball poorly. That is freedom.

If you are a Christian who practices Lent, or perhaps has been thinking about taking it up, today is a good day to ask what kind of Lent you want to practice. After all, the danger of Lenten rituals, just like any other religious ritual, is that you can enter this season concerned only for your own relationship with God. This creates a ritual that is not only inauthentic to the call of God in your life, but it also creates a sort of blindness where your ritual has made your neighbor invisible to you.

Engaging or participating in economic oppression, quarreling with others for the sole purpose of proving you are right, speaking evil things about your sibling who is created in the image of God, all of these are individual pursuits. But the fast that God chooses is one that helps to bring about the new humanity inaugurated in Jesus Christ, one where you aren’t interested in freedom of choice or your own spiritual fulfillment but are instead deeply concerned with how you can love God and your neighbor more faithfully.

Just ask yourself this simple question: How is what you are doing for Lent, what you are taking on or what you are giving up – how is what you are doing going to help you love God and your neighbor with more faithfulness? God is not interested with convenient offerings, offerings that fall short of the moral challenges posed by violence, poverty and injustice. That is what the people were willing to offer in the time of Isaiah. No, God is interested in the sort of sacrifice and discipline you can offer, a sacrifice and discipline that will heal the world.

The prophet Isaiah says that if you choose this sort of fast, this sort of approach to Lent, you will be called “the repairer of the breach.” In Judaism, this is the concept of Tikkun Olam, or “repairer of the world.” In the Siddur Sim Shalom prayer book of conservative Judaism, it is reflected in a prayer that asks, “May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry.” This is the concept which undergirded the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he sought to build beloved community and undo systems of racial injustice.

This Lent, remember that you are dust. Repent of a religiosity only concerned about your own pleasure, your own ability to do and have what you want. Walk a pathway that will heal that which is broken in you so that you can be one who will be at work repairing and healing that which is broken in the church, in our community and in the world we inhabit. This is the fast God chooses – and it is the fast God invites you to begin on this sacred day.

About the writer: 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, February 16, 2022

Christianity and Fascism right here in Grand Haven

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

One of the unfortunate difficulties of the past couple of years is that language has become increasingly polarized and manipulated, with people claiming certain words and concepts mean things that are absolutely divorced from reality. It’s like Humpty Dumpty talking to Alice in Wonderland. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

One of those words that has been increasingly misunderstood is the concept of fascism. And fascism is increasingly a problem in our own time. So, let’s talk about it. 

Fascism comes from the far-right of the traditional political spectrum and is characterized by authoritarian ultranationalism, a preference for dictatorial power, and a forceful and often violent suppression of any opposition. Fascists want the nation to be entirely self-sufficient and so are often protectionist in policy. Many forms of fascism also include some form of white nationalism or other discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, or religion—anything that will enable the fascist to scapegoat the problems of society and place the fault upon the other. 

Many of the actions of former President Donald Trump resembled fascist leaders from the twentieth century. He was clearly prone to dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies, regularly having to be told by his own administration that things he wanted to do were not legal. His support of violence against non-violent opposition, his protectionist economic policies, and his continued scapegoating of minorities all were indicators of fascism. 

Interestingly enough, after the insurrection and attacks on the United States Capitol on January 6, several conservative historians and legal scholars who had earlier resisted using the word fascism to describe Trump changed their mind and affirmed that he clearly had fascist tendencies, if not describing him as a fascist. These conservative scholars include Michael Gerson and Steven Calabresi, along with a historian of fascism, Robert Paxton. 

Right here in Grand Haven, we have our own home-grown fascist tendencies increasingly taking root. We have parents who continue to rail against the school board, trying to get them to ban any books that include LGBTQIA+ kids. They insist that they know better than trained librarians as to what sort of literature is appropriate in a library and, most unsettling, they think their own homophobic and transphobic views should determine what sort of literature is available to kids in our community. To be clear, they already can control what their own kids check out, but that is not enough for them. They want to control everyone else’s kids. That, my friends, is authoritarianism.  

These parents are also resisting any sort of curricula that teaches our children the ugly history and current reality of race relations in our country. Using the boogey-man phrase of “Critical Race Theory,” what they oppose is actually any curriculum that might make white students uncomfortable. In a time when we can clearly see that there are still profound issues with race in our country, they believe they should be able to dictate a white-washed curriculum for all kids in our schools. 

Ironically enough, they have also harassed government officials regarding public health measures like wearing masks in public in the middle of a pandemic, claiming mask mandates are authoritarianism. The fact that we have gotten to a point that laws with regard to public safety are claimed to be authoritarian over-reach shows just how far fascists have gone in changing the very meaning of words. If these fascists who oppose mask mandates were correct, then seat-belt law, rules against sending your kid to school with chicken-pox, and requirements that kitchens don’t serve food that could kill you would all be authoritarian. 

There is a difference between authoritarianism and reasonable laws and policies that protect public health, even the if the fascists refused to see it that way. But the fascist is only concerned with forcing those in power to obey his own views. 

So, what is a Christian to do in the midst of these threats? 

I believe Christians must resist these growing fascist tendencies in our country and our local communities. We must repudiate political movements that, under the guise of Christianity, move in authoritarian directions. We have been failing at this for years, currently allowing corporations to control their employees’ reproductive health, for instance. We must turn from this and once more embrace the tenets of liberty and the dignity of each person on which America was truly founded, not the fascist false narrative.

Christians also, believing in the dignity of every human being, must repudiate the ways in which these groups deal with race along with sexual and gender identity. The fascists want to scapegoat these people, calling Black Lives Matter protestors thugs and trying to pull books about queer kids from libraries. Christians must turn from those fascist tendencies and stand up on the side of minorities who are created in God’s image, just as much as anyone else. 

It's kind of a scary time in America right now. We must wake up to the threat posed by these growing fascist ideologies and join together, conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, and resist these attempts to remake our country in the image of far-right fascism. In particular, as Christians, we must stand up and be advocates, otherwise those who have too small of a voice today may have no voice tomorrow.    

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, February 9, 2022

Just war and violence in Ukraine

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

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the escalating events in Ukraine and Russia with a fair amount of anxiety. Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding several things, including a promise for NATO never to expand eastward to countries like Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed on Ukraine’s borders, ignoring calls from the U.S. and NATO allies to remove them. And, since it was only a few years ago that Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the threat of a new invasion seems very real.

As a Christian, it is difficult to look at the possibility of war and know what the best outcome is, the best choice in a world of violence and danger. For much of her history, the church has used the theory of “Just War” to determine when the violence of war is an appropriate choice for a nation to make.

Though Just War theory goes back to Greco-Roman philosophy, it was best laid out in a Christian understanding by Augustine of Hippo, and then later by Thomas Aquinas. In “Just War” theory, there is a hesitance regarding the inherent violence of war while also recognizing that sometimes it is the lesser of two evils.

In the view of Aquinas, a just war must be waged by a lawful government, for a just cause due to a wrong done to those being attacked. The waging of a just war must also have a just intent to promote good and avoid evil. Aquinas was also clear that war should always be the last resort, done in the pursuit of justice. And later developments have also made it clear that there must be a probability of success and that noncombatants must be protected.

When Putin invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, he sent unmarked troops into the region and fomented a civil war that cost over 14,000 lives. Russia was slapped with economic sanctions, but little else. The Minsk protocol effectively gave half of the Crimean region to Russia as reward for his belligerence.

Now Putin wants the rest of the territory, the regions that were given back to Ukraine in 2014. As I said, he demands a promise that Ukraine never enter the NATO alliance and is further demanding that NATO withdraw all forces from Romania and Bulgaria, both NATO member countries.

Under Just War theory, wars of conquest are illegal war, with Russia’s desire to control the entire Crimean region being an example of just such an attempted conquest. Ukraine is a victim of this aggression, and her allies are justified under Christian just war theory to use force to protect her, if negotiations fail and Russia does invade.

In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Ukraine gave up all of her nuclear weapons from her Soviet days to Russia, in exchange for a promise from Russia that Ukraine’s borders and territorial independence would be protected. Russia has clearly broken those promises.

As John Davenport, professor of philosophy at Fordham University, argued in a recent essay, the United States cannot betray and abandon Ukraine. We must demand the immediate removal of forces that threaten this country and be clear that if these forces are not removed by a hard timeline, Ukraine will immediately be invited into the NATO alliance. We must be clear that if Ukraine is invaded again, that the U.S. and NATO will send in forces to protect the innocent citizens of that country. As Davenport says near the end of his essay, “Peace, as the aim of just wars, should not be the false peace of life under tyranny.”

As a Christian, like many of you, I have lived through a good number of wars at this point, a good number of conflicts that, in the end, many Christian leaders have regarded as unjust. Both the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan were deeply problematic from a just war standpoint. It has seemed at times that our country is not really concerned about protecting noncombatants and citizens. And so, Christians have spoken up and have urged an end to violence. I have joined them in those calls.

But protecting the weak and the vulnerable is central to Christian teaching, and our siblings in Christ in Ukraine are hoping their western neighbors will stand up and defend them, that we will not fall back in a fear of war that would enable the tyranny of Putin to expand.

We must never forget that it was the hesitancy of many Christians toward war against Hitler that enabled his aggression to go unchecked until it was almost too late. Putin has demonstrated he will not stop on his own. We must force him to stop, or the peace under which we live will be a false peace caused by massive injustice and oppression.

About the writer: 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.