Expendable / Exceptional
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people. Isaiah 64:8-9
We are in the midst of a very active political season. Some churches shy away from acknowledging this, but Presbyterians have a history of recognizing God’s call in social action and political leadership. John Calvin had great political power in Geneva. John Knox fought the English crown and its claims of authority over Scotland. John Witherspoon was the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence. The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has been and continues to be a major proponent of national sovereignty for Taiwan. And we have not shied away from having our Stated Clerk comment on subjects including gun violence, immigrants’ rights, and Palestine, among other things.
Two weeks ago, I found myself with about ten representatives from various faith-based organizations meeting with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. I ended up at this face-to-face because Ralph Su was not able (or did not want) to attend. I was told the meeting was to discuss violence against religious groups; Ralph was invited because of his work with FEMA after the shooting at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.
It turns out that the main focus of the meeting was to repair broken relationships from DHS’ past actions in Los Angeles, when their attempts to address international terrorism resulted in active harassment of members of some LA-based Muslim mosques. The discussion started with ways for DHS to repent of the ways they mistook religion for terrorism, then moved to the need for better mental health resources and culturally-competent first responders, and whether there was any way to reduce the easy availability of guns.
The main question I raised to Secretary Mayorkas was, “Who is expendable in this society?” So many victims of gun violence are people of color or people struggling with mental illness such as depression. For instance, 60% of US people dying of gun violence die by suicide. Disturbing reports from Uvalde seem to confirm that first responders chose their own safety over the children being shot at, even though, as one parent stated, they had shields and weapons and training while the children had none. One has to wonder if government officials would continue to be so reluctant to enact more stringent controls over access to guns if the victims were more influential than people of color, religious minorities, people struggling with mental illness, or children.
In the last week, the Supreme Court has rejected New York state’s century-old statute that requires confirmation of the need for a concealed weapon, and then the same body affirmed the right of states to limit or eliminate a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Now I can imagine that the people who have waited and prayed and planned for the elimination of Roe v. Wade would ask the same question, who is expendable? Would a fetus be expendable, and at what point along a pregnancy? And if a fetus is not expendable, what about the mother? The maternal mortality rate in the US is higher than over 50 other nations, including Russia, Iran, and Turkey. African-American women die in childbirth at a rate that is over three times that of White American women; their rate would put them below 85 other nations. And how do we support the children as they are growing up, ensuring that US children have adequate nutrition, health care, and education throughout their young lives?
Next week is the 4th of July. That is the date when we give thanks for the blessings of American exceptionalism, as we are unique in the freedoms, wealth and natural resources, and power with which we lead the world’s nations. Lately, however, we are confronted with the irony of the negative exceptions we also deal with, such as the high rates of gun violence, gun ownership, and maternal mortality. My guess is that these are not contradictory, however. One of our most fundamental American myths is what I’d call rugged individualism, the belief that our success as a nation comes from the freedom for any individual American to make your own wealth, defend yourself, and look out for yourself (and not necessarily others, who should be doing for themselves as well).
The result of this mindset is that people who are poor or marginalized or in need of special assistance are seen as failures—and, therefore, expendable. But this is not the way of Jesus. Jesus did not gather his followers and say, “You’re on your own. Go, make all you can for yourself, and don’t bother with the others.” Nope. There is no mistaking that we are called by God to trust in God, and care for each other, especially the weak, the needy, and the marginalized.
We are truly blessed as a nation, and we have shown ourselves to be capable of generosity among the nations. There is more we can do, through the government but also in our ministries. May our faith lead us to give even more of ourselves, trusting that God will provide for us and through us, even to those who may not seem to deserve it. Let us see every individual not as expendable, but exceptional, because every person is created and loved by God, and every individual has gifts of their own.
That giftedness is not always obvious at first sight. I remember my church in the Bay Area, when we started a Sunday evening service. They wanted to have a praise group to lead the worship. The Sunday School superintendent thought it might be nice to help out with the music, even though she never did music—ever. But the group leader was open to anyone who was willing to help. As they began to rehearse, it became clear that Gina did not understand even the basics of intonation in her singing. I was deeply troubled, as she was the lead singer since she also did not play any instruments. I suggested—strongly—that she be replaced. Well, good thing they did not listen to me. By the time the evening service started, Gina learned how to sing closer to in tune. Then she bought a djembe drum and started to play it, quite well. As her singing blossomed, she began to write music. Within a year, this totally untrained, out-of-tune novice became an excellent songleader, drummer, and songwriter! I know that if it were up to me, these gifts would never have been allowed to emerge.
Again, let us see every individual not as expendable, but exceptional. And let us trust enough in the creative genius of God to try new things, invite newcomers into leadership, and share our own gifts generously, knowing that God will continue to bless us—sometimes with the very folks we are helping!
In Christ’s Peace,