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Dear Washington: Leave the Praying to Me

One of my pet peeves has always been the improper lane change — you know, that everyday driving move where you slide into the next lane without hitting your turn signal — which is a total moving violation and completely worthy of a traffic ticket. Or worse, hogging two lanes by making that sliding move (probably still not using your turn signal) nice and slow, almost as though you’re not fully committing to the new lane or abandoning the old one — perhaps while texting — which is another illegal move.

So I find it almost poetic that the admonishment to “stay in your lane” has entered today’s pithy social-media-powered vernacular as a way of signaling that someone is publicly engaging on a topic where they may not have credibility to speak. The corollary being that when you’re solidly “in your lane”, you’re speaking on something where you have enough credibility not to embarrass yourself.

Some examples of being out of one’s lane: When a white person, no matter how well-meaning, tries to sound off on the experiences of minorities in America. Or when a man, perhaps not so well-meaning, tries to make a pronouncement about women’s lives. Or when cisgender people vocalize their inability to understand how a person can spend every moment of their existence feeling as though their own body is alien to them.

In other words, the motive for the lane-change doesn’t matter; what matters is the credibility gap between the speaker and their chosen topic.

For me, that might look something like walking into Congress, taking the podium and pontificating about what laws our elected politicians should be passing. If I did that I’d be way out of my lane, and widely so — maybe even embarrassingly so. Which is why I’m not in Washington right now. Instead I’m in Georgia, having a day of study and prayer, getting ready for the day we’re about to have in our little church. Today, as with most days, I have plenty going on in my lane as a pastor to keep me more than busy.

Which is why I find it confusing and maybe even a little maddening when our nation’s leaders suddenly start swinging into my lane at critical moments when they seem to have plenty going on in their own lanes. Like when they suddenly believe their role is to act as prayer leaders, not political leaders. They did it again this week, in response to the slaying of 17 people in Parkland, Fla., at the hands of a teenager wielding an assault rifle he’d purchased under his own name.

When something like that happens, I expect to turn on my TV and see our political leaders standing at podiums in front of microphones and cameras, telling us what they’re going to do in their lane of policy and legislation to prevent another tragedy like this. I expect to hear a belief in our nation’s ability to protect its citizens from harm.

But instead I hear a suddenly profound belief in prayer instead of policy, prayer instead of laws. And this confuses me. It confuses me because I expect to hear a call to prayer from an actual prayer leader — you know, like the intercessory prayer leader who just joined our church and is currently leading a Lenten study on the nature of prayer. What she’s doing makes perfect sense to me; she’s in her lane as a churchgoer and a prayer leader.

But as I saw one politician after another express the fervent need for prayer in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, I noticed something: The day after it happened, President Trump managed to speak for seven minutes about the tragedy, without mentioning guns. Not once. Bit of an oversight, right? Until it hit me that maybe he couldn’t see his way to addressing the role of an AR-15 assault rifle in the Parkland shooting because the National Rifle Association’s $30.3 million contribution to his election campaign was blocking his view.

And the president wasn’t alone: According to The Independent, the roster of politicians whose view was similarly blocked includes:

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who received $3.3 million from the NRA and likes to pepper his Twitter feed with Bible verses), who tweeted in the moment:

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner ($3.8 million from the NRA), who said:

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman ($3 million), who said:

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy ($2.8 million), who said:

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis ($4.4 million), who said:

Colorado Rep. Ken Buck ($800,544), who said:

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying politicians must be 100 percent secular or deny their own personal feelings in their response to tragedy. The correct response to tragedy is always sympathy and compassion — and if that includes a notation that the person speaking is holding the victims in their thoughts and prayers, that’s part of the natural human response.

But would you like to guess how many of the Twitter feeds of the politicians above have mentioned our national fetishization of guns in the days since the Parkland tragedy apparently compelled them to become self-anointed national prayer leaders via social media? Go look for yourself. (Spoiler alert: The number of those tweets currently shares the same shape as a goose egg.) Yet many of them have found plenty of time since their prayer-tweets to be vocal on an array of other issues they apparently found more pressing. Seriously, take a look for yourself; it speaks volumes.

And here’s why: The just-add-water cyber-call for prayer is a distraction tactic, and one they’ve all mastered: Hide behind Twitter, with one’s head digitally bowed in prayer. It buys time, because they know how the news cycle works. They know that if they can buy themselves 24 hours, the heat is effectively off at the end of it. So they do it with prayer-shaming. They say the equivalent of “Now’s not the time to talk about gun legislation; people are mourning.” But then the right time never seems to come.

And while the politicians may be smart enough not to overtly name this as the game, their fandom isn’t always; here’s a tweet from conservative Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren that makes it plain:

Alternatively, here’s a list of policy areas where our fearless leaders in Washington apparently didn’t need the help of prayer warriors. Instead, they stayed in their lane and acted:

  • Slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent
  • Repealing the individual mandate on Obamacare
  • Cutting 22 regulations in 2017 for every new one enacted
  • Enacting a ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries
  • Declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel
  • Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord
  • Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • Rolling back some of President Obama’s Cuba policies
  • Moving to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules

I mean, when was the last time you heard a politician call for us to pray over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear saber rattling? Or over the problem of illegal immigration? (I’ll save you some time: Never.) Instead, the condemnation and the subsequent prescription for action come swiftly: We’ll unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea. We’ll build a wall between us and Mexico. No need to let a moment of prayer slow us down.

Or how about this: When was the last time you heard of someone calling to report a burglary in progress, or a house on fire, or a massive car accident, only to be told by the government we all pay taxes to: “We’re praying for you, and we ask that your neighbors do the same.”

But wait, why is a pastor appearing to get pretty darn political while admonishing politicians for over-invoking religion? Well in a nutshell, it’s because those very same politicians have forced us into the Upside Down: Because they’re using prayer as a shield, they’re forcing pastors like me to call foul. Once they stop throwing prayer-grenades at a constituency that is sincerely waiting for answers, we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming — and I for one can return to being a street pastor focused every day on what’s in my lane: Helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. Because trust me, that’s really how I’d rather spend a day. I don’t need my turn signal to do that.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that day will ever come. And the way I think I know that is because the idea of pastors veering into the political is nothing new: My idol and inspiration for pursuing ministry, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was preaching five decades ago something called a “social gospel” — a venerated church tradition made necessary by the fact that the political powers-that-be of the time shirked their responsibility to avert the grinding oppression and stark brutality that were regularly visited upon the flock sitting in the pews.

Yet here we are, a half-century later, finding that our political leaders still fall well short, and people still suffer — and all too often, they still needlessly die.

And why is that? Because our political leadership, while professing to be beholden to God, are actually too beholden to the almighty dollar — in this case, millions of them — to do what is right. To stay in their lane and use the tools we elected them to use — policy and law — to make our lives better. And if not better, at least safer. And if not safer, at least not outright dangerous.

So yes, I’m out of my lane. It’s not where I’d like to be. But until our politicians realize that we elected them to enact laws and policies — not to be prayer leaders acting naive about their role in making tomorrow different from today, the answers will continue to “blow in the wind” — which is to say they’ll stay right in front of us, tantalizingly in plain sight, but also tragically just outside our collective grasp.

Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

But I can see what’s in the wind. As a sworn protector of souls, I’m issuing a pastoral admonishment, a clarion call to all the mealy-mouthed, disingenuous dollar-worshipping politicians who would cloak themselves in religion to distract us while they vacuum up cash from the protectors of those who heartily profit while the blood of innocents is spilled. Stop pretending you can’t see what we all see.

Stay in your lane. Use the tools we reserved for you. Do the job you were sent to do. Protect the people who elected you.

I’m praying mightily for it to be so.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Easter Sunrise Service Caps 2018 Holy Week and Lenten Observance

The Easter Sunrise Service at the Church Without Walls in Atlanta’s Candler Park at 7:25am on Sunday, April 1st caps the 2018 Holy Week and Lenten observance for Gentle Spirit Christian Church, which includes:

If Only This Were Fake News, But It’s Not Even Alternative Facts

You’ve probably heard some variation of the joke about how different news media outlets would handle the news of the end of the world. I read some examples during a recent sermon; here are some favorites:

  • USA Today: We’re Dead.
  • The Wall Street Journal: Dow Jones Plummets As World Ends.
  • Sports Illustrated: Game Over.
  • Readers Digest: ‘Bye.
  • Ladies Home Journal: Lose 10 Pounds by Judgment Day!
  • The New York Post: The End.
  • The New York Times: Armageddon Likely Tomorrow; Third World Hit Hardest.

My congregation howled at all of them except the last one — mainly because it wasn’t on the list I read that day in church. I’m adding it here because I was reminded of it by a recent column by the Times’ own Nicholas Kristof, who is arguably a poster child for that organization’s unabashedly global point of view.

That column was an end-of-year piece where Kristof noted that his least-read columns had attracted only 3 percent of the audience of his best-read* ones. And what were those columns (and one video) about? “Overseas news”, as he calls it. Sample topics:

  • China’s inexcusable treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo during his dying days.
  • A 14-year-old Honduran refugee girl who had been forced into a relationship with a gang member at age 11.
  • An easy (as in, inexpensive and effective) treatment for clubfoot in Liberia.
  • The security threat posed by Ebola.

Conversely, with a couple of exceptions, Kristof’s best-read columns were generally about President Trump.

The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. The most powerful human being on the planet gets more than 30 times the attention of intelligent humans than do the most powerless, voiceless and oppressed who share our planet — or as Jesus referred to them, “the least of these”.

I say “intelligent humans” because it’s hard to argue that people who willfully consume (mostly) written news by one of the most serious columnists at the flagship American arbiter of stodgy eat-your-spinach mass journalism are exactly the dilettantes of the content-consumption economy.

I’m underscoring this because I can’t even imagine what it says about the rest of us. After all, a New York Times reader doesn’t exactly represent middle America. I don’t need to see a Times media kit to know that one of their headlines generally goes straight onto the radar of the 1 percent, the business and opinion leaders, the captains of industry, the political elite, the global elite, the oligarchs, the intellectuals, the universities, the heads of foundations, royalty, the independently wealthy, the charitable elite — and a great deal of the upper middle class. It’s a bankable, almost mathematical certainty.

So if the most educated / moneyed / powerful people on the planet can’t be bothered to even read about the powerless, the forgotten, the poor, the ignored (again, “the least of these”) — how could we even hope to find a single entity focused on them? Much less a powerful entity. One that spends every day with them. And whose reach extends into every corner of the globe.

Actually, there is just such an entity. And it’s thriving at a rate that any single private or public organization could envy. It rolls around this big blue marble we call home without regard for national borders, race, color, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, ability, ethnicity, education, citizenship or socioeconomic status.

That entity, brothers and sisters, is the human immunodeficiency virus.

It’s straight out of science fiction, if you really think about it. And apparently it’s a narrative we just can’t get enough of — as long as it’s make-believe. We read books and watch movies all the time that are variations on a theme that could have been ripped from the HIV/AIDS headlines of the last 40 years. We can’t get enough apocalypse/pandemic/zombie fiction in our lives right now. But let a New York Times columnist write about actual human devastation and, well… yawn.

So here’s some current global nonfiction about the 36.7 million people that HIV/AIDS has wrapped itself around in my lifetime:

  • 2.1 million children (<15 years old) are living with HIV and were mostly infected by their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
  • It’s estimated that 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2016 — about 5,000 new infections per day. This includes 160,000 children. Most of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa, the most affected region, where there were an estimated 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2015 — and where about two-thirds of new HIV infections occurred in that same year.
  • Only 60 percent of people with HIV know their status.
  • 1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2016.

Having said that, the picture in the United States is a bit different. From 2010 to 2014, the annual number of new HIV infections in the U.S. actually declined by 10 percent. And yes, gay and bisexual men still account for more than two-thirds of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. — but here are some new HIV facts that might not be on your radar:

  • The majority of men who contracted HIV via homosexual contact are black or Hispanic/Latino. The next-largest group after gay/bisexual men are black heterosexual women.
  • Almost a quarter of newly diagnosed HIV-positive Americans is heterosexual.
  • Youth age 13-24 accounted for 22 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2015.
  • People 55 and older now account for 23 percent of HIV infections in the U.S.
  • At least 1 in 8, if not 1 in 7, Americans with HIV don’t know they have the virus.

Unfortunately, the picture in the South is decidedly bleaker:

  • The CDC estimates that the South, which is home to about a third of the U.S. population, is also home to 44 percent of all Americans living with an HIV diagnosis.
  • People in the South are three times as likely as other Americans to die of HIV — and of course, they’re less likely to know their HIV status.
  • African Americans represented more than half of new HIV diagnoses in the South in 2014 — more than a third of them heterosexual.

And you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to guess what the frontline professionals are naming as some contributing factors: Stigma, poverty, inaccessible healthcare. HIV may need a single living host in order to survive — but in order to really thrive, the virus needs an environment of fear, poverty and neglect.

What makes this even sadder is that, while there’s no known cure yet for HIV, the advances that have been made are so significant that living with HIV can be as non-threatening as living with any other chronic and manageable illness (diabetes is a good example) — so much so that there are HIV-positive people whose viral load is literally undetectable. Combine that with proper medical care, and a person with undetectable HIV is essentially incapable of transmitting the virus to another person.

Not only that, but allow me to add these two terms to your vocabulary:

  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): As a way of reducing their own risk of contracting the virus, a person can take the same type of medicine that HIV-positive people take.
  • Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP): As a way of preventing HIV infection after a recent possible exposure to the virus, a person can take the same type of medicine that HIV-positive people take.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. It’s science fact, not science fiction. It’s the world we live in today. Well actually, it’s the world that some of us live in today — the critical ingredients being a First World-worthy combination of education, empowerment and access to healthcare.

So in summary, the reason HIV is still with us isn’t because governments, science, medicine or nonprofits haven’t provided the tools. The tools are there. They exist. They work. They’re working. They’re just not everywhere they need to be. Not by a long shot.

That’s because HIV’s most powerful adversary on the planet still hasn’t been unleashed. And that adversary is the single individual. It’s us. It’s me. It’s you.

The recipe is this:

  • Know your HIV status. If you’re sexually active, get tested at least once a year. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of knowledge.
  • The next time you see something about HIV/AIDS, read it. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of education.
  • Pray for those affected by HIV/AIDS. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of prayer.

And while you’re praying for those affected by HIV/AIDS, be realistic about who you’re praying for: People of color, youth, the elderly, women, the under-educated, the mis-educated, closeted LGBT people, out LGBT people, the poor… and the people of the Two-Thirds World. And be realistic about why: Stigma, poverty, inaccessible healthcare.

If you do this, I promise that before you know it, the scope of your focus on your brothers and sisters around the world will go far beyond HIV — because HIV’s hegemony is just a symptom of what’s really going on. It’s just a symptom of what’s really broken about the world. It’s just a symptom of all the human woes we allow to persist in the face of the greatest expansion and accumulation of wealth in our collective history.

And who knows? Maybe your prayers will help change the progress of HIV/AIDS as well. Let’s meet here a year from now and compare notes. But if you’re the only one who is changed by this prayer, that’s good enough for me. That’s the job of prayer. That’s the role of God in your life.

God bless,
Pastor Paul

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.