Monday, August 29, 2016

Standing with American Indians to protect our world from destruction

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

When I was a child, like many of my generation, I loved playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I grew up watching old John Wayne movies with my grandfather and reading western novels he passed on to me.

As I grew older, however, I learned that on my father’s side of the family, a love of American Indian culture had a deeper meaning. My grandmother’s grandmother was full-blooded Chippewa. She died long before I was born, but my father met her when he was about 5. At my generation, that means I am only 1/16th Chippewa, but it is the strongest single ethnicity present in my genealogy.

As I continued to mature in my appreciation for the small amount of American Indian in my heritage, I became more aware of the sad history of oppression and violence against the first people to live here in the Americas. Games like “Cowboys and Indians” lost their appeal, and I began to read western novels through a different lens. I developed a love for bow-hunting as a way of connecting with my ancestors and getting closer to my own food sources.

My great-great-grandmother lived on the Indian reservation in Mount Pleasant as a part of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Though the initial reservation for this tribe (the Isabella Indian Reservation) had 130,000 acres of land, this land was slowly swindled away as eager lumber merchants bought land at a fraction of the actual value. This was the only way those living in the reservation could feed their families and, after only 70 years, only a handful of the original tribal member allotments remained.

The reservation my great-great-grandmother lived on was a mere 500 acres. This was all that remained.

I would imagine you share my sadness at this story, knowing it is only a fraction of the great injustices done to American Indians over the nearly 400 years since Europeans first made contact with the first people living here. However, we would all be mistaken if we thought this was the end and injustice and oppression of American Indians is now only a tragic footnote in American history.

In North Dakota, more than a thousand American Indian activists have halted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL). The activists are protesting this pipeline because not only is it a clear example of environmental racism, it also would result in the degradation of sacred sites and burial grounds. The original construction plans ran north of Bismarck but were moved because of potential dangers to the drinking water there — no similar consideration was given to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This is clear environmental racism.

The government has closed the main highway used by the Standing Rock nation, as well, creating a further economic sanction.

I am proud that my church is standing side-by-side with the protestors. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota joined a statement of protest on Aug. 19 from the North Dakota Council of Indian Ministries of the diocese. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has joined his own voice supporting the protest, saying in an Aug. 25 statement, “The people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are calling us now to stand with Native peoples, not only for their sakes, but for the sake of God’s creation, for the sake of the entire human family, and for the children and generations of children yet unborn.”

An Episcopal Church deacon on the Standing Rock reservation said, “It’s not just a native thing. It’s not just an Indian issue. It’s a human issue.”

In our own State of Michigan, on Aug. 21, a group of American Indians in Marquette offered their own protest in solidarity with the North Dakota protestors. That group shares deep concern for danger to water in North Dakota. A saying in Sioux calls all of us to the truth that “mni wiconi,” or “water is life.” Those of us in Michigan, particularly in the Tri-Cities, blessed with an abundance of water, know this truth.

A similar environmental danger lurks close to home in the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline under the Mackinac Bridge. This 50-year old pipeline continues to pose a great risk to the Straits of Mackinac. Eight Michigan counties or municipalities have called for the retirement of this line. Though Enbridge claims it is safe, the company has had numerous other spills in Michigan, the latest in 2010 spilled more than 1 million gallons into Talmadge Creek, going from there into the Kalamazoo River.

The American Indian activists in Marquette will be protesting the continued use of the Line 5 pipeline in Mackinaw later in September.

It is not enough for us to regret the history of European immigrants hundreds of years ago. It is not enough to regret the history of oppression from the United States government or the economic and environmental racism and injustices in the generations since we first signed treaties with American Indian tribes. These tribes call us back to the importance of earth as a sacred creation. They call us back to our duty to care for it wisely.

We must stand with the American Indian activists in North Dakota, seeking to protect their water with the same care that those in authority are apparently happy to provide for the capital of North Dakota. We must stand with them as their sacred sites come under threat of destruction, despite treaties that date from the 19th century. And we must be inspired the activists in North Dakota and be vigilant to protect our own waters close to home.

The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Peace of Islam

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
As we now enter the height of summer in the Tri-Cities, with guests descending upon the city to celebrate the U.S. Coast Guard, I’m having trouble focusing on the celebration at hand.

I’ve been shocked by the debate of the past several days. At the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan spoke powerfully of the great heritage of those who have served this country in the armed forces. Khan’s son, US Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed while serving in Iraq, protecting his own unit through his brave and solitary confrontation of a suspicious vehicle. Khizr Khan criticized Republican nominee Donald Trump’s proposals for a ban of all Muslim immigrants, asking, “Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.”

Trump responded by attacking Khan, suggesting that his wife, Ghazala, who stood bravely at her husband’s side, was kept silent by her faith. Ghazala repudiated that suggestion, saying she can barely speak about her deceased son without breaking down. Many Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John McCain, have distanced themselves from Trump, even rebuking the nominee for his attacks on Khan and his family. Several of those leaders have made clear that they do not share Trump’s views on Islam, the military, or Muslim immigrants.

While the presidential candidate of a major political party maligns the second-largest religion in the world, one that has 3,500 member serving faithfully in our armed forces (including, one would expect, the United States Coast Guard), a different story has been playing out on the other side of the Atlantic.

On July 26, two men who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel while he celebrated mass at his parish in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France. Father Hamel was active in interfaith relations, serving on an interfaith committee with local imam Mohammed Karabila for the past year or so. His death was an act of hatred and violence made the more heartbreaking by its setting in a religious worship service.

Yet, one must be clear, the two men who murdered Father Hamel do not represent Islam. The supposed state they claim to support is not an Islamic state, no matter its name. Late last year almost 70,000 Muslim clerics came together to issue a fatwa against global terrorist organizations, including a particular denunciation of the so-called Islamic State. The clerics made it clear that these terror groups are not Islamic organizations.

And as the Republican nominee for president refuses to back down from his attacks on the Khan family or from his radical (and unconstitutional) views on Islam, there is a different response to the martyrdom of Father Hamel. All over France and in many parts of Europe this past weekend, Muslims chose to attend mass as a statement of solidarity. Outside of one church, a group of Muslims unfurled a banner, “Love for all. Hate for none.”

The root of the word “Islam” is the triconsonantal root “shin lamedh mem,” a root used not just in Arabic but in Hebrew as well. In Hebrew we are most familiar with this root’s use in the word shalom. This is a word that is generally translated as peace but means, more accurately, wholeness. In Arabic, that word is salaam, also translated often as “peace.” Islam is usually translated as submission, but it also means much more than that when you consider the triconsonantal root of the word. Islam is about seeing Allah as the source of all wholeness and peace (remembering that Allah is just the Arabic word for God and is, thus, the word Arabic speaking Christians also use.). Islam is about entrusting your peace and wholeness entirely to God.

Now, I naturally do not agree with the tenets of Islam. I am a devoted Christian, under sacred vows as a priest in Christ’s church. Believing that Jesus Christ was more than a prophet, that he was fully God, I seek to live my life as a daily sacrament of Christ’s love for this world. I do this imperfectly, grateful for God’s mercy and the mercy of those who walk this path with me.

But I can be a devoted Christian, being clear about where I disagree with Islam, and still affirm the points of wisdom I see in Islamic teaching. Indeed, I can be inspired by the Islamic understanding of submission to God and seek to submit more fully to Christ in my own life. Most importantly, as a Christian, I can affirm that Islam is not what Donald Trump makes it out to be any more than Islam is what ISIS makes it out to be. Neither of them have it right.

Peace is found in submission to God. Wholeness is achieved when all those who worship God seek the peace and wholeness of their neighbors. True Islam was on full display in the brave actions of Captain Khan when he laid his life on the line for peace. True Islam was on full display in the front pew of those churches across France this past week. Those of us who claim to follow the teachings of Christ should repudiate attacks on Islam. We should be inspired by Islam to submit ourselves further to God’s love as revealed in Christ and to seek the wholeness and peace of all people—regardless of their religion.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We need a broad coalition for responsible gun reform

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

Ever since the tragedy in Orlando, my Facebook news feed has been filled with cries for action. Yet another mass shooting, the epidemic of gun violence seems to be an insurmountable tide threatening to engulf us.

And so, my friends on the left proclaim the need for rigorous gun control laws, while my friends on the right insist that this would not stem the tide of violence. Neither seems to listen much to the other — confident that their views on this question is the correct answer.

But we must break this logjam of political opinions, because the current state of the debate on gun control is doing just as much as anything else to leave open the possibility for greater danger and more loss of life.

I was raised in a family with guns. My father was a member of the National Rifle Association. My stepfather was a licensed gun dealer with a locked room in our home for the many and various firearms he owned. Both of them taught me from an early age to respect guns.

One of the first friends I made when I moved back to West Michigan is a gun enthusiast, his wife certified to teach concealed-carry classes. He helped me get back involved in hunting, as I learned to hunt rabbit, goose, duck, pheasant and deer. The past couple of years, I have not spent nearly as much time in the woods as I would like, the demands of life crowding out the time needed to hunt well, but I still cherish any time I am able to spend hunting.

A big reason I love hunting is that, done well, hunting teaches you the true value of life — a central concept for Christianity. For too many people in our society, food is an industrialized reality, and chicken and beef is something that simply appears pre-packaged in Meijer. Hunting reminds you the cost behind the meat you consume. Indeed, one of the reasons I started hunting was I felt that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I needed to be closer to where at least some of my meat actually came from.

So, in addition to my compound bow, I also own a shotgun and a rifle. I use all for hunting. Further, I have enjoyed the sport involved in the time I’ve shot handguns and other rifles with friends and family.

Yet, that does not mean I oppose gun control laws. I do oppose foolish political grandstanding that advocates for laws popular on the left but that will be unlikely to have an effect on gun violence.

Like the majority of Americans, I support sensible gun reform. Guns are a lethal product and so, like any lethal product, they should be regulated and licensed through a common-sense system.

For example, even though our Legislature has failed to act, an overwhelming majority of Americans (85 percent) support expanded background checks for firearms sold in private gun sales and at gun shows. With power of today’s internet-connected world, this system should not be cumbersome or difficult. That system should include people who are reported as a possible danger, either through terrorist watch lists or extreme mental illness. A clearinghouse needs to be created so that this information is centrally located, with a flag delaying the sale of the gun (without stating the reason) and enabling the person denied the sale to contact a central location for the reason their purchase was flagged and delayed and a process to appeal that flag.

While I do not believe a full ban on assault-style weapons would have the effect many seem to think, I do think that guns should be rated in terms of their lethality and that advanced license should be required to purchase the most lethal firearms. Those advanced licenses should involve deeper background checks along with required training. We require advanced training and licensing to drive a semi-truck because of the greater danger posed; we should do the same with any weapons that have a higher lethality.

And while I am comfortable with the idea that all guns should be registered and tracked in a federal database, I know that would be unlikely to gain support needed to occur. At the least, any firearm with advanced lethal capability should be registered and tracked.

The National Rifle Association should be encouraged by its members to return to its original ideals of promoting firearm competency and safety. It has only been involved in direct lobbying for and against legislation since 1975. Anyone who wants to own a gun should be required to go through a class teaching proper firearm use and safety, with the above-noted different classes for different levels of certification. The NRA could be a partner in this process if it would stop its reflexive opposition to any limit on firearms and once more become an advocate for safe and responsible gun ownership.

These ideas are not cumbersome. They do not violate the Constitution. Most are supported by wide margins of the American people. The only thing stopping them is big lobbying money — along with our continued fighting with each other.

Because the longer the left and right fight over the government taking away your guns versus the unlimited right of the individual to own as many and as lethal firearms as desired, more people will continue to die. And the lobbyists on both sides will just keep cashing their paychecks.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Torn feelings in response to death penalty in Charleston

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
Last week, we read in the news that federal prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine black church members in Charleston, S.C.

This grisly act of violence and racial hatred shocked many of us last year, as the suspect, Dylan Roof, entered into a Bible study on June 17, sat with people, listened to them, and then stood up and started shooting them.

It was indeed an act of racial hatred, with the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church serving as a decades-long leader in the struggle for civil rights. Not only did Roof choose the church specifically for racial reasons, but federal prosecutors in their filing have provided evidence that he singled out victims who were elderly and showed no remorse for his actions. One of his friends pleaded guilty last month to concealing his own knowledge that Roof had planned this attack for the previous six months.

The very act of seeking the death penalty in this federal case is abnormal. As Reuters reported, citing information from the Death Penalty Information Center, only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past 50 years, and none since 2003. The most well-known execution was Timothy McVeigh, the man who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

The families of Roof’s victims have a variety of views on whether Roof should be executed for this act of heinous murder. Some oppose the death penalty due to their religious beliefs. At the initial hearing last year, several family members of victims spoke words of forgiveness. Other families of victims, however, are content to support whatever decision our government deems is appropriate.

And, I must admit, I am torn over this emotionally charged case.

I understand the rationale for the death penalty; the arguments I have heard from advocates of capital punishment. I know that momentum has been for support of the death penalty in our country since 1966, with as many as 80 percent of the nation supporting it in 1994. Current numbers indicate that roughly one-third of Americans oppose it and two-third support it. Still, its use has dropped 60 percent since a peak in 1999.

But I remain unsettled by its use — even in this painfully difficult case. As I wrote a couple of years ago, when discussing the possible death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber, we rank fifth in the world for executions — the list, in order of number of citizens executed, being China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Yemen, Sudan and Afghanistan. Those numbers have not shifted much in the past two years.

Decades of research have demonstrated that the death penalty is not a deterrent. The 14 states without it have homicide rates at or below the national rate. It also costs significantly more to execute someone than to hold them in prison for life without the possibility of parole. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called on those countries that still maintain the death penalty to enter a moratorium with a goal of abolishing its use.

What makes me torn about this case is the racial motivation — which is ironic. After all, for decades scholars have demonstrated that the use of the death penalty disproportionately affects people of color. A study conducted by the Yale University School of Law in 2003 concluded that African-Americans receive the death penalty three times as often as white defendants when the victims are white. Further, killers of whites are often penalized much more severely than those who kill minorities.

There are some who may feel this case will, at the least, tip the scales a bit on the side of justice — putting the same value upon the black church members murdered as we would if the victims were all white.

But I cannot find myself in that place. I want to be clear, I cannot say that the families should forgive Roof; I cannot even say that they should oppose his execution. I cannot imagine the horror they have experienced and would not dare to tell them how to feel or what to desire in response to their grief.

And yet, as a priest, I believe that the death penalty will not bring healing. This is precisely why we, as a society, must continue to work to eliminate the death penalty. In a just society, people who are wracked with grief cannot be asked to determine appropriate punishment.

Dylan Roof — no matter how despicable I find his actions — is a child of God, one whose sense of humanity has been cruelly twisted through a combination of racism present in our culture and his own choices to participate in that racism. But I desire him to come to repentance — something he cannot do in this world if his life is taken from him.

So, I will try hard, very hard, not to preach to the families of the victims. Forgiveness is not mine to give, not even mine to encourage. But I will say to the rest of us, still reeling from the effects of this killing — let’s not answer death with more death. In particular, for those of us who are people of faith, let us find how to answer death with life and opportunity for change.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

In defense of Trump (and Sanders and Clinton)

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
This past week, I was in Toledo, Ohio, being trained in mediation skills by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. As I got ready for each day, I listened to CNN in my room. It wasn’t a terribly intentional decision (though maybe listening to a 24-hour news channel is good motivation to want to learn more about mediation!).

One morning, I watched an interview with the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Trump was complaining that the interviewer, Chris Cuomo, was mischaracterizing his speech by only asking about his remarks about Clinton and not dealing with the many other substantive points he made. He also argued that Cuomo was being disrespectful (or poorly mannered, perhaps) by not first congratulating him on having become the Republican Party presumptive nominee.

At first, I was tempted to block it out. Trump has consistently played the victim card with the news media, often quite skillfully and in a way that increases his support.

But the more I thought about it, the more unsettled I became — though I could not put my finger on it.

The next day, Trump was at the top of the news again, this time for a report that, 25 years ago, he had a habit of pretending to be a publicist when calling news agencies. Trump denied the allegations, but also pointed out how going back to something like this 25 years ago seemed pretty ridiculous and low.

Now I would like to write five words I thought I would never write in print: I agree with Donald Trump.

Let me be clear, I have significant and substantive policy disagreements with the presumptive Republican Party nominee. I have these disagreements as someone who was literally a card-carrying Republican only a decade ago and who, since then, would consider myself an independent with both Democratic and Republican leanings on different issues.

And I do think Trump has played the victim card — something many candidates have done over recent years whenever they have received negative press.

All that said, I agree with Trump that the way the media is engaging with his campaign is ridiculous and wrong-headed. I don’t care if he pretended to be a publicist 25 years ago. Honestly, I do not. Likewise, though I find his remarks about Clinton often off-putting, they are not at the heart of my disagreement with many of his positions.

This campaign has been the worst example of how a 24-hour news cycle can focus on the latest and most arcane tidbit of information, gossip or sound bite and then analyze it all to death — all the while declining to address the actual substance of the positions of the various candidates.

I think candidates being mean or condescending or offensive is unfortunate. It is not reflective of the posture I would hope a presidential candidate would have. But what the media needs to focus on are the actual positions candidates have. Trump spoke for several hours and outlined several general policy positions — that is what CNN should report on. That is what our country needs to hear.

These next several months of presidential election politics will, I believe, be some of the strongest, fiercest and most contested we have seen for a while. And it is tempting for those on all sides of the current political spectrum to resort to ad hominem attacks or silly rumor-mongering that has nothing to do with the substance of the actual campaigns.

Whether you love or hate Donald Trump (or Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton), I urge you as my fellow citizens to resist the media’s attempt to reduce each one to an easily identified caricature. Do your homework. Listen to what each candidate actually says. Make use of the many non-partisan websites out there that list the positions of candidates. One of the best tools to get started is “I Side With” — a quiz that you can do either at a simple level or at a very detailed level to find out which candidates actually share your values and vision for our country.

This is a much more responsible approach than voting for who is nice or mean, who you’d like to have a beer with, or who seems more presidential when she or he talks.

It’s good practice, particularly for us Christians. Just like everyone else, we tend to reduce people to caricatures that can be dismissed. But as those who believe the image of God rests in every person —  no matter how distorted by sin — we cannot discard people. We cannot vilify them.

We may be called to disagree with someone, when we consider the core tenets of our faith. But let our disagreement be substantive and only chosen after a truly intentional desire to listen to what the candidate actually believes — not just the media’s picture of the candidate.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.