Monthly Archives: February 2008

OPINION: City May Try to Restrict Churches from Serving the Poor

As many of you know, issues around providing care to homeless people in our community are being brought constantly to the city commission. St. Francis House, our local homeless shelter, received flack for years about the “undesirables” that were attracted downtown because they were offered help there. Restrictions were enforced, and SFH began limiting the number of people who were served.  Next, a “one-stop center” was proposed and approved as a way to care for those restricted from SFH, but no one wanted the center near them, and it took a while to find a place (and now to get funding). Churches stepped up to fill the gap (and respond to their calling to be “good news to the poor”) by opening their doors to people in need – offering friendship, food, and sometimes shelter.  And now that is being threatened.  

Currently on the agenda for the city commission is discussion on how to limit, and sometimes restrict, churches from offering food and shelter to the poor and/or homeless. Donna Lawson, director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network - an organization that assists churches in offering food and temporary housing to homeless families – has attended recent commission meetings and gives a synopsis in a letter she wrote (below). She also offers a very compelling analysis of the attitude that allows this to happen (in bold).   

Hello everyone -

The Community Development Committee meeting went quite badly last night. It is obvious that City Staff and Commissioners are intent upon placing additional restrictions on congregations, both as regards to lot size as well as feeding hungry persons and sheltering homeless persons. The meeting ended without Commissioners Henry, Lowe and Donovan voting on all issues raised. Indeed, after four hours of meeting, we didn’t even finish the discussion about shelter provision, nor did we discuss the issue of feeding hungry persons. Here are notes on the discussions, action taken, and direction City Staff are moving Commissioners toward.

1. Lot Size – Commissioners tentatively settled on the following required lot sizes for congregations building in RSF districts:

Building capacity of 100 – 1.0 acre
Building capacity of 150 – 1.5 acres
Building capacity of 200 – 2.0 acres
Building capacity of 250 – 2.5 acres
Increasing by .5 acres for every 50 persons

This is a requirement for larger lot size than is currently in Code. It should be noted that, according to City Staff data, there are currently 21 congregations in the City on lot sizes smaller than 1 acre. All but three of these are in Single Family Districts. All but six of these are on the East side of town. Restrictions as envisioned by Commissioners at this meeting will hurt the ability of small congregations wishing to develop, e.g., those with memberships of less than 100. Though City staff repeatedly assured the audience that the new restrictions would not hurt existing congregations in their ability to renovate their current buildings, there was disagreement among City staff about the process and whether or not congregations would be forced to obtain special permissions/permits for certain renovations.

2. Sheltering Homeless Persons – (Except where noted, sheltering restrictions apply across the City, not just in RSF Districts.) Discussion got bogged down, as Commissioners tried to anticipate all possible problems and issues that could arise and that could be legislated. It appears that Commissioners may place congregations sheltering on a temporary basis – such as IHN-participating congregations – in a separate category than congregations wishing to shelter on a more permanent basis. However discussion ended for the night with no vote on the issues. Commissioners did begin discussing creating additional restrictions for congregations wishing to house people on a “permanent” basis. For example, they discussed the possibility of allowing congregations sheltering on a permanent basis to shelter only 3 families or 3 unrelated persons, rather than the maximum of twenty people currently allowed in the code. City staff recommended that restrictions on hours of operation be removed for congregation-based shelter activities. They also removed from their recommendations the restriction for “compatability with the neighborhood in RSF districts,” because they are recommending to Commissioners that all sheltering taking place inside (i.e., congregations could not allow persons to sleep in tents on congregation property).There was no discussion of the requirement that congregations obtain a permit for sheltering homeless persons. Commissioner Donovan has requested that this issue be addressed before the Ordinance is returned to the Commission.

3. Food Distribution to the Needy – (Except where noted, restrictions on food distribution apply across the City, not just in RSF Districts.) Commissioners did not yet discuss this issue. Back-up documentation provided indicates that City staff have revised their recommendations and are now recommending that hours of operation be restricted to 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Similar to shelter activities, if food distribution takes place indoors there would be no “compatability requirements” in RSF districts. If food distribution takes place outdoors, there would be compatability requirements in RSF districts.Staff have not re-addressed the following issues: limit of 20 meals served/day, quarter-mile separation between congregations providing food, no-feed zone around the University. Back-up documentation indicates that they want time to survey other communities.What was most discouraging about the meeting was its tenor. The meeting began with the discussion of lot size for congregations, which only affects Residential Single Family Districts. Numerous members of several neighborhood groups were present at the CDC meeting to argue in support of restrictions. There seemed to be general consensus – including among Commissioners – that the presence of a congregation in a neighborhood portends problems due to increased traffic, traffic throughout the day as a congregation grows, lighting, and so on. There was also the insinuation from the audience that congregations will withhold information or give false information about congregation size or plans for growth in order to worm their way into a neighborhood or to obtain permits, etc. There was no disavowal of this statement by Commissioners.

Additionally, as the discussion moved toward sheltering and feeding, the discussion shifted to the effect of housing “those people” in a church, with statements that homeless persons come with so many problems that there must laws in place to protect congregations from themselves or the community from congregation efforts to help too many homeless persons at one time.I was ashamed of my community last night, at least the members who think they can and should legislate against all “possible potential problems” that might occur when people of faith show compassion to the poor and needy among us. I brought up the fact that we allow laws already on the books to regulate behavior such as that which occurs downtown each weekend.

Though police officers report that there are shootings and stabbings every weekend in downtown Gainesville, related to the bar activity, we do not shut down bars on weekends to prevent people from shooting or stabbing each other. Additionally, bars and restaurants downtown are allowed to serve hundreds of people, and to serve until late into the evening. Yet in an attempt to prevent whatever behavior they believe will be exhibited at churches by hungry and homeless persons, Commissioners and City staff want to allow only a very few of each to be served by congregations. Though a bar can serve 100 people up until 2:0 0 a.m., the church next door can provide food to only 20 hungry people and must stop doing so by 8:00 p.m. Though several bars in the same block can serve 100 people each, two churches next door to each other cannot both feed hungry people. There’s something really, really wrong with this. Personally I think the issue is money – people who patronize bars and restaurants spend money; people who own bars and restaurants make money. Hungry and homeless people do not have money and therefore do not have influence.

I urge all of you to attend the next meeting of the Community Development Committee. It will be held next Thursday, March 6th, at 6:00 p.m., in room 17 City Hall. Commissioners plan to wrap up their discussion of this issue so they may send the Ordinance back to the City Commission as soon as possible. At the meeting last night, neighborhood defenders outnumbered the few members of congregations who were present to argue for the right – and responsibility – of congregations to engage in ministries without City-imposed constraints. I believe that it is important for congregation members and pastors to speak up, to demonstrate that this is our community as well, and we wish to help our needy brothers and sisters without restriction by unnecessary City rules.
I will be sending out additional information regarding the congregational feeding and sheltering that currently exists – without problems reported – within the next few days. If you wish to express your thoughts to Commissioners via e-mail as well as in attendance at the next meeting, I have included Commissioner e-mail addresses below.
Donna
————-  
(Craig Lowwe), commCL@ci.gainesville.fl.us
(Rick Bryant),
commRB@ci.gainesville.fl.us
(Pegeen Hanrahan),
mayor@ci.gainesville.fl.us
(Scherwin Henry),
henrysl@cityofgainesville.org
(Comm Jack Donovan),
donovanjf@cityofgainesville.org
(Jeanna Mastrodicasa),
mastrodij@cityofgainesville.org
(Ed Braddy),
commEB@ci.gainesville.fl.us

Donna Watson Lawson
Executive Director
Interfaith Hospitality Network
of Greater Gainesville
P.O. Box 880
Gainesville, FL 32602
352-378-2030
352-378-2720 fax
lawsondonna@att.net

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moral Jujitsu – A Strategy for Winning

Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.

The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now. 

 We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time. 

 Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time.  In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct. 

 The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency. 

What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.

 The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.

 The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.  

In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept. 

 Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.

-John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: In the Circle with All the Other Killers and Adulterers

Matthew 5:17-48, part one 

“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us. 

This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.] 

The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.  

Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.  

In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.  

Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions. 

The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.  

The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts. 

Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another. 

Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.

-John

UPDATE: Being Salt, College Students Take Over the Roundtable, Youth Group Takes Over the Cafe, New Living Local Blog

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Hi Folks, 
 

Busy week at the House, please check out the schedule HERE, and join us if you can. 
Highlights include an invigorating scripture study, Lenten Morning Prayer, a Roundtable featuring some of our most active college students, and a Cafe run by high school youth group members. 

Also, we started a spin-off “blog” for any of you who mght be interested in learning along with us to live more locally here in Gainesville: What We Need is Here: Learning to Be Local.  As many of you know, a primary goal of the GCW has been to support local farms and businesses with what we do at the house.  We’ve learned some things and have a lot more to learn in how to live more deeply here in Gainesville, using and appreciating the resources available to us and being more conscientious about how our decisions affect others.  We would love to hear your insights and ideas as well, so jump in and add a comment.  
 

And we are still waiting to get the new listserv set up.  Hopefully you’ll get an email soon asking if you want to remain on it. 
 Have a good week.  Hope to see you!  

Gainesville Catholic Worker
218 NW 2nd Avenue
Gainesville, Florida 32601
352.271.6941
www.gainesvillecw.org
 

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Worthless Witness – Christianity Without Contrast

There is a short—but incredibly rich—passage which immediately follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 5:13-16 holds several familiar sayings of Jesus, using the metaphors of salt, light and a city set on a mountain. The essence of the passage, which really sets up the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, is that following Jesus is about offering a contrast to the dominant culture or society in which we live. It is the assertion that Jesus’ followers—the Church—are to be a “contrast” society. 

The Beatitudes already are leading us in that direction, but it is in Matthew 5:13-16 that this becomes really straightforward. What is most striking about the Beatitudes is how they go against conventional wisdom and basic religious assumptions, both of Jesus’ time and of our own. Now Jesus directs his words to those closest to him, using the second person “you” for emphasis: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to thrown out and trampled underfoot.” 

What is salt? What does salt do? Salt adds flavor; its primary property relates to taste. That which is bland can be spiced up with a little salt. We add salt to give flavor to something. In essence, we use salt because it provides a contrast; it adds flavor. The implication for those who follow Jesus is that we are here on earth to provide a contrast to the world in which we live. And if we, as those who call themselves Christians, don’t provide that contrast? Then Jesus states clearly that we are no good to his mission, we are useless to him. Individually and communally, if our witness and way of life in the world fails to offer a contrast to the ways things are in the larger society, then what does our Christianity matter? The Church’s purpose here is to provide a contrast to the larger culture; if it does not, that it has no value at all.  

If we think about this for a second we know that it is deeply, profoundly true. We live in a culture that celebrates rugged individualism, an individualism that states “me first,” “I’m number one,” “it’s all about taking care of me and mine.” But the gospels tell us over and over again that we are to care for others, even at a sacrifice to ourselves, that the common good and especially the rights of the most vulnerable (the widow, the stranger, and the orphan) are to be preeminent in our society. The gospel tells us that we are to love our enemies, but our society says bomb our enemies. Our society encourages us to worship and long for power, status, and privilege – and to find our security in money; the gospels tell us to seek to be the least ones, the ones who serve, the ones who find their security in God and each other, in relationships. The Church is supposed to be that society of people who are living these things out—in contrast to the larger society that surrounds us. 

Two other things stand out in this passage. We need to remember that this passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they will be persecuted, that they will stand in the line of those prophets who took to task the kings of Israel and Judah and suffered for it. So when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden,” the disciples must have had mixed feelings. Any thoughts that they had about hanging low, trying to do their thing under the radar have just been addressed. Jesus first tells them they’re salt, now they’re light (another metaphor for contrast) and finally that they are a city of a mountain, nice and high where everyone can see them. Through the values of the Beatitudes and the promise of persecution, he has assured them that if they follow him, they will find that they will not “fit in” in this world. But not only will they not “fit in”—they also are being told that they must “stand out.” Their contrast is not just for themselves; it is for the world. So essentially he tells them: “You won’t fit in, and you’re going to have to stand out.” Any hopes of quietly following Jesus and muting or avoiding the persecution part have just gone out the window. The Church will be that city on the mountain, exposed for all to see, for both good and bad. Verses 15 and 16 echo too that the Church’s witness is not for itself, but for others, for all.  

This idea of the Church as a contrast society seems to me to be at the heart of the crisis we find with our Church today. We longer look or act differently. We are just like our neighbors. There is little about being a Christian that seems to separate us out today from the society around us. There is little to no contrast between the Church and the larger culture in which we live. This is certainly not how it was for the early Church, and we find that it certainly is not how it is for those segments of the Church throughout history which have taken Jesus most seriously, and therefore conflicted with the societies in which they found themselves: from anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1700s and 1800s, to the black churches of the civil rights movements; from St. Francis and his movement which eschewed the trappings of power and wealth which gripped the church of his day to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany which resisted Hitler’s rule; to the churches of Latin America that speak out for the poor and suffer martyrdom to the U.S. churches today shielding and protecting undocumented workers.  

But for the the majority of Christians in our nation today, the contrast is simply not there.  

As the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in the 1800s, critiquing the Church of his time for the very same thing: “There was a time when one could almost be afraid to call oneself a disciple of Christ, because it meant so much. Now one can do it with complete ease, because it means nothing at all.”

-John

UPDATE: Lent with the GCW, Gainesville’s African American History, Living Locally

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The season of Lent, a time for reflection, repentance, prayer, and almsgiving, begins on Wednesday.   Over the past seven years, some folks who have made it part of their Lenten discipline to become more involved in some of the activities here at the House.  If you’re interested, here are some ways to plug in.  See the WEEKLY CALENDAR for details:

Pray with us at Wednesday Morning Prayer – 7:00 – 7:30 am at the House.

Sponsor or help out at a Breakfast Brigade – Tuesdays and Fridays, 4:15am – 7am; Serve a healthy, tasty breakfast to hungry folks at the day labor pools. Or buy breakfast – we serve up to 200 people/week for about $200.

Volunteer at a Café – First three Sundays of the month; Make the soup, learn to bake the bread, serve, eat, and/or clean up.

Participate in Scripture Study – Tuesday nights 6-7:30 (or so); join us for a simple meal and a provocative look at the Sermon on the Mount.  To catch up on last week’s study, click here.

Join us at the Roundtable – Thursdays, 6-7:30pm; each week we share a potluck dinner while a guest speaker leads us in a discussion on a current economic, political, religious, or cultural issue.  This week,Joel Buchanan, one of the three students who integrated Gainesville High in 1964 and a prominent voice in Gainesville’s African-American community, will talk about Gainesville’s African-American History and his own own recollections. Future roundtable guests and topics will be posted here

Get a copy of the Pax Christi Lent Booklet: Johnny is one of a handful of authors featured in a Lenten reflection booklet from Pax Christi USA, Invited to Transformation: Reflections for Lent 2008. We have about 30 copies available at the GCW House for anyone who is interested in using it as a resource for reflection and prayer during the Lenten season. You can email Johnny (johnnypcusa@yahoo.com) or pick up a copy at the house anytime for free or feel free to make a donation which will go back into supporting the GCW house.

Take Part in the Good Friday “Way of the Cross” – Friday, March 21.  The Way of the Cross is an ancient tradition. Join us as we make our way through downtown Gainesville and reflect on how Christ continues to be crucified among us in the poor and marginalized in our community. 

Commit to Learning to Live More Locally – Since the beginning, we’ve considered it a main mission of the Gainesville Catholic Worker to “live locally.”  We try to buy the food we use and serve directly from local farmers or – when impossible –  from Ward’s, a local grocery store that often buys directly from local growers.  And we try to be conscious of how what we consume – food, entertainment, energy, clothing, etc. – affects our brothers and sisters.   During Lent, we are going to try to be more intentional and invite you to struggle along with us, and weigh in when you can, on how to live locally in Gainesville.  We’ll write about our family’s attempts, failures, education – and hopefully progress – HERE.    

SCRIPTURE STUDY: The Beatitudes, part II

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Lost to us, who encounter these passages 2000 years after they were first spoken, is the incredibly subversive nature of what Jesus is espousing in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ society, like ours today, took certain things for granted. People consider themselves “blessed” if they have wealth, status, and power. How often have we heard, or said ourselves, “God has really blessed me,” in some reference to our good fortune, good luck, good health, success, etc? And by extension, those who have experienced misfortune, tragedy, hardship, and suffering, many of us privately pass judgment on—thinking that perhaps it is their fault, or they deserve it, or they’re just not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to make it. We even go so far as to chalk it up to God’s punishment or karmic justice. In Jesus’ time, we know that those who were broken, physically deformed, mentally unstable, and sick or those who suffered loss and tragedy were literally considered to be cursed, as in the story of Job. It is a vicious circle and blatant attempt to justify by God the success of a few at the expense of the many. Those who succeed must be blessed by God; and those who don’t…well you can put two and two together. 

Think, for a minute, just how twisted Jesus’ words are: The meek or the lowly ones didn’t inherit land; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness experience disappointment, not satisfaction; those who mourned dead fathers and sons, the loss of their ancestral lands and other manifestations of the oppression of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee did not find comfort, no matter where they looked, including to their own corrupt religious and political leaders; what did it matter to have a “clean heart” to the leper whose physical “uncleanness” marked him as a sinner and put him outside of the bonds of community; and to extol an ethic of mercy when justice, better understood as vengeance, was foremost in people’s hearts toward those who had wronged them? 

The Beatitudes undermine the dominant cultural and even religious values of Jesus’ time and our own. They subvert our warped theologies that serve to justify economic, political and religious systems that elevate some of us while placing the blame for other’s lack of success on their sinfulness, their moral weakness, their laziness, or their obviously inherent unworthiness.  

In verse 7 of the Beatitudes, Jesus promises that those who show mercy will be shown mercy. It is an ethic of reciprocity that Jesus will come to again and again in the Sermon on the Mount (most pointedly in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors;” and the Golden Rule). The practice of mercy is not nearly as common as we might think. Mercy involves entering into a situation, a relationship really with someone, going past the rules and the easy, stock answers which protect us from taking responsibility for the harsh pain such decisions cause. We are more concerned about what is fair, what is just even, rather than showing mercy. And yet, the second part of verse 6 implies that we all shall need mercy someday, and that those who practice mercy, will be shown mercy when their time comes. 

As we have already alluded to above, Jesus asserting that those with a “clean heart” will see God subverts every law and disposition which judges people based on outer appearances. Jesus lived in a society of purity codes, where someone’s purity or cleanness was based on physical manifestations of sinfulness—sickness, rashes, deformities, disabilities. This brings up a good question for us, one which we wrestled with on several occasions during our two week study of the Beatitudes—namely, who is Jesus talking to? Who is the audience for the Beatitudes? Is it aimed at the poor and broken and downtrodden? Thedisciples? Those curious folks somewhat invested in the status quo but still intrigued by Jesus enough to come out to hear him speak? The Pharisees? And so on. And maybe the ears Jesus speaks to change from Beatitude to Beatitude… Anyway, in the case of verse 8, imagine being one of the lepers, lunatics, paralytics, diseased ones who have not the standing or money to be made clean again through the proper channels (priests of the Temple system reserved the right to name someone clean or unclean and the ability to make payment to the priest thru sacrificial offerings often played a part in the transaction). Imagine being told that it is the interior, what is inside of a person, that determines whether one may see God? How liberating for the leper! And how threatening to the priest whose livelihood is based on the people’s willingness to cede control to him! 

Someone at the study also pointed out the connection between the Beatitude in verse 3 and verse 10. Both the poor in spirit and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness are promised the same thing: the kingdom of heaven. And the tense is different than the verses between these two—no “they will be satisfied,” et al; but rather “theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Right now, right here. And in trying to define that fuzzy term “poor in spirit,” we have a little insight into who those might be—perhaps they are also the ones who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of justice? A friend of mine, a longtime priest in Mexico, once told me that persecution is the sign of the true church; the church that is really being faithful to Christ and the proclamation of the kingdom of God is bound to be persecuted by the powers invested in the status quo, the way things are. 

In the final Beatitude, verses 11-12, Jesus changes the object of the Beatitude from the third person to the second person, aiming what he now says directly at the disciples, those who followed him up the mountain and whom he began to teach. The Beatitude states, “Blessed are you WHEN they insult you and persecute you…” No “ifs,” but a resounding “when.” The implication is not to be missed: If you follow this Jesus, if you choose to align yourself with him, “they” will insult you, persecute, slander you, etc. “They” is defined by the next statement: “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus places those who will follow him in the line of the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah. And the “they” who persecuted those prophets were the political and religious powers of their time. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet is set up against either the king or the priest, as well as the systems they represent. This is to be the task of Jesus’ disciples, of the church. To stand with those who are named “blessed” in the Beatitudes, to prophetically speak the truth of Jesus to those in power, and to suffer the persecution that flows from such actions.

-John

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