Saturday, May 25, 2013

For Sale: Wyoming's Birthright

Want to know why Wyoming is what it is today? Read the story of the Johnson County War. This piece of history explains how it is Wyoming has always been available to the highest bidder, why certain landed out-of-state interests have successfully persuaded folks to vote against their own interests, and why the state’s politicians often choose the special interests over the public interest.

Worland attorney John W. Davis’ excellent book “Wyoming Range Wars-The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) is a good place to start. Davis has written an important history of this event, reminding us how little we learn in classrooms.

His book whetted my appetite. I took two dusty old books off the shelf and read them. First, Asa Mercer’s late 19th century account of the Johnson County war entitled, “Banditti of the Plains.” Next a book written by former Wyoming Governor Jack R. Gage. Known for both his wit and intellect, Gage wrote a delightful history of the incident from both sides of the controversy. One side of the book’s cover titles his book “The Johnson County War is a Pack of Lies-The Baron’s Side.” Turn it over and the book title reads “The Johnson County War Ain’t a Pack of Lies-The Rustler’s Side.”

The “war” was actually an invasion, in today’s vernacular, an act of domestic terrorism. Two years into statehood, there was a bitter conflict between large and small landowners. As today, a small group, many from out-of-state, controlled much of the economic and political power. Today it’s the Wyoming Mining Association and the Wyoming Petroleum Association. In the late 1800s, it was the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

Many large land barons were then, as the mining interests are today, making out-of-staters wealthy while dictating Wyoming’s future. As more small landowners came to stake a claim, the large landowners, who saw the land as their own, even when it wasn’t, reacted bitterly.

Just as today when powerful mining interests name their adversaries radical environmentalists, the cattle baron’s of the 1800s named their opponents “rustlers.” While some might have been, most were simple folks trying to make a living on the land. When they made legal land claims, they often conflicted with unlawful claims larger landowners had to land they were accustomed to using.

The barons claimed the courts wouldn’t prosecute small landowners when they alleged the little guys were rustling cattle. The judges said they’d be happy to convict if the baron’s actually had any evidence. Most often they didn’t have evidence but expected their economic and political clout to be sufficient. When it wasn’t, the barons turned to hired guns.

The cattle barons recruited what Davis, in his well-documented account, called “bands of killers.” Mercer’s contemporary version referred to them as “a band of cutthroats and hired assassins.” Their compensation included a $5 per day wage and a $50 per head bounty on the “rustlers.”

Mercer and Davis’ history implicates Wyoming’s two US Senators, Francis Warren and Joseph Carey as well as Governor Amos Barber who, Mercer says, told the Denver Post he’d support “any body of men which will attempt to exterminate the rustlers.”

An invasion force of 75-80 gunmen set out for Buffalo on April 5, 1892 intending to kill the sheriff, his deputies, the Johnson County Commissioners and large numbers of small landowners. In the end, they murdered a significant number of people though not nearly everyone on the hit list. The killers and those who hired them were never prosecuted. Their attorney, Willis Van Devanter, was rewarded with an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.

This space is too limited to tell the whole story. If you’re interested in the state’s past, you should read these and other accounts of the Johnson County War. If you are interested in the state’s future, you might want to think about the choices we’ve made over the decades to sell our birthright to out-of-state, moneyed interests who have invaded Wyoming from time to time.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Yesterday's Sermon at Highlands

“The Tower of Babelers”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
May 19, 2013

Once upon a time, everyone on the earth was the same. They had the very same color of skin, the spoke the very same language, they thought the very same thoughts at the very same time, and the worshiped the very same God in the very same way. Actually…what they worshipped was their sameness.

With the world at their command through their ability to say the same things at the same time using the same words, thus avoiding any miscommunication, distrust or lack of understanding that comes with speaking different languages, using the same words to mean different things and creating misunderstanding, lack of trust and understanding…despite all the power that came form always being on the same page…the people decided that they would us it all to build a monument to themselves.

“Come,” they said, all in the same language and all at the same time. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
“Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said.
With all of their ability to communicate and to work together and achieve great things because they all spoke and thought and acted alike…they were most concerned, not with what they could do to the glory of God but with making a name for themselves.
And so they set out to build a tower brick by brick…a tower to the heavens. I guess they figured that by building a tower to the heavens they would have a direct relationship with God. They could visit God regularly, perhaps have tea together, they could sit around with God and talk about the world’s problems, complain about the weather, gossip and tell jokes. A tower to the heavens would make their relationship with God complete.
God saw it differently. God saw them building the tower and thought, “This is only the beginning. If they build this tower, they’ll be hanging around heaven all day long, watching TV, eating me out of house and home, bothering me with their talk and gossip and complaints…accomplishing nothing. I asked them to go forth on the earth and multiply and do good. Instead they gathered in one place and are building this lousy tower to themselves.”
And so God came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. God scattered the people throughout the world and confused their language so that none could understand what the other said.
It came to be known as the Tower of Babel, because it was never completed but it was there that the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

God’s point in doing that? I think it was the self-centeredness of the people. Their sameness led them to believe it was only them who mattered to God…only those who spoke their language, who believed what they believed and acted the way they acted. And the only people they knew and cared about were people just like them…they didn’t need a relationship with God or others because they had themselves.

And so the tower was not built. No tower ever reached to the heavens…but God came down even though humans could not go up…God confused their languages and scattered them…but on the day of the Pentecost…something quite different happened.

Many of those whose languages had been confused and who had been scattered were together in Jerusalem. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…all people of different cultures, people of different languages, customs and beliefs…people who worshipped God in different ways…as much as the people of Babel had been the same, these were diverse.

It was what we celebrate yet today as the day of Pentecost. They were all together in one place when they heard a sound like the rush of a violent wind come from heaven. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
And at this sound the scattered crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one whose language had been confused by God thousands of years earlier…heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Some asked, “What does this mean?” Others sneered and said, “It means they are drunk with new wine.”
But Peter said, “No, these people are not drunk. It is only nine o’clock in the morning. If you come back later in the afternoon, maybe…but not this early in the morning.”

Peter said there is something else at work here…what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Meaning…that it has always been God’s hope differences in culture, color, political and religious beliefs, differences God himself created…it has always been God’s hope that none of those differences would stand in the way of the visions of the young and the dreams of the old.

Yes…all of those gathered that day…different as they were…felt the spirit of God upon them…they were drunk with God’s new wine of diversity…suddenly…through God’s spirit, those who had been scattered were brought together…those who languages had been confused as a part of God’s plan for the world could understand one another.

The story of the Pentecost teaches that the God of Pentecost doesn’t have an official language. This is the shocking revelation one often lost in a country with a history of suppressing other languages in the name of unity and imperialism and in a nation where a xenophobic English-only movement is gaining ground, nation where those who are anti-immigrant hide their disdain behind claims that “they should speak our language.

But Pentecost, at its fiery heart, is not only about language, but it is also an act of divine rebellion through language. It is the windswept protest of a borderless God, standing against humanity’s misguided preference for the empty language of the majority. It’s God’s speech against humanity’s tendency to force unity through sameness and exclusivity, to find self-righteousness in the inability to understand those who are different.

On Pentecost, they heard from a God of many tongues, a God of many peoples and cultures, a God who doesn’t have an official language. God is a God who speaks through all and is present in all, who not only welcomes all languages but also achieves God’s hopes through all of them, red and yellow black and white.

Pentecost was God’s rebellion against those that would seek to restrict God to a single, official language, a single righteous people, a single theology. Pentecost was a protest in which God refused to be silenced by the languages of the powerful.

Instead, on Pentecost, God spoke. And the people in the streets understood. Nothing could have been more subversive.
You see, the ability to see the world only one way, to understand only one culture, to know only one way of thinking, to believe that is the way to make a name for yourself…is not what God wants…God is found in the complexity not the simplicity, in the diversity, not in the sameness…

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Constitution's arc of justice

When Connecticut and Minnesota lawmakers voted to allow same-sex couples to marry, they joined other legislators who understand that when they took the oath they put their hand on a Bible and they swore to uphold the Constitution. They didn’t take an oath to uphold the Bible.

Connecticut’s decision to join the marriage equality movement has special significance.  Of the twelve states adopting marriage equality laws, eight are among the original 13 colonies. Only five of the original 13 states haven’t legalized same-sex marriage, but then four of those five once chose secession from the Union over giving equal rights to African-Americans.

Among the original 13 colonies extending marriage rights are Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

It’s meaningful that two-thirds of the states that gave us the traditions of the “Founding Fathers” have decided that gays and lesbians have waited long enough for justice. Dr. Martin Luther King said, "I know you are asking today, "How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.

"How long?  Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
The founders created the American “arc of justice.” They held as “self-evident” the fact that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They knew it was often religious dogma that stood in the way. Pilgrims in Massachusetts left England to worship freely. Maryland and Rhode Island guaranteed religious toleration. As people from Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands settled in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, those colonies quickly became religiously diverse.

European rulers forced religious choices on the people. Thus, freedom-seekers came to America. They wanted religious freedom then and they expect it now. The heirs of the founders of America’s 13 original colonies have concluded that the only justification for the denial of marriage rights to homosexuals is the religious beliefs of some Christians.
Using one’s religious beliefs to deny “certain unalienable rights” to others is un-American and contrary to the reason our ancestors came, violating the rights the founders secured. Since the days when the Declaration of Independence was signed and the US Constitution ratified, Americans of different races, creeds, socio-economic status and sexual orientation have asked Dr. King’s question, “How long?”
King answered, echoing words of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who in an 1853 sermon, "Justice and the Conscience," declared, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
What about Wyoming? Does the long arc of justice bend toward justice here? Those who wrote our Constitution put that bend in its arc. The Preamble of Wyoming’s Constitution sets the stage. “We, the people of the State of Wyoming, grateful to God for our civil, political and religious liberties, and desiring to secure them to ourselves and perpetuate them to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”
Most rights arising from marriage emanate from federal law and hopefully the US Supreme Court will assure marriage equality regardless of where you live. Still, Article 1, Section 2 of Wyoming’s Constitution bends the arc inevitably toward justice. “In their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all members of the human race are equal.” Wyoming’s founding laws assure that all members of the human race are equal. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes true for everyone.

“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sunday's sermon at Highlands

“The meaning of slavery”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
May 12, 2013

"The church is close, but the road is icy. The tavern is far, but I will walk carefully" - Russian Proverb

As Paul tells the story, he and some others were going somewhere to pray. Along the way they encountered a slave girl. This quickly becomes a story about slavery, theirs and hers. There were then, as there are now, many forms of slavery.
Captives who were taken during warfare were often compelled to become slaves, and this was seen by the law code of the book of Deuteronomy as a legitimate form of enslavement. Poverty compelled some people to enter debt bondage. They would agree to become slaves in order to ay off debts.
Furthermore, in the ancient Near East, wives and non-adult children were viewed as property, and were sometimes sold into slavery by the husband/father for financial reasons. The Code of Hammurabi specifically permitted debtors to sell their wives and children into temporary slavery for as long as three years. Covenant Code instructs that if a thief is caught after sunrise, and is unable to make restitution for the theft, then the thief should be enslaved.
The slave girl Paul and his friends encountered was likely either a poverty slave or a girl sold into slavery by her father. In any event, her owners used to her make money by fortune telling.
She annoyed the heck out of Paul by following him day after day and screaming, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” The slave girl called them slaves. She knew a slave when she saw one and these men were slaves…unlike she who was enslaved by men, they were slaves to God.
Isn’t it curious that Paul would have been annoyed by that salutation since that is exactly what he considered himself to be… Paul begins his letter to the Roman Christians by identifying himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus.”
Romans 1:1… “This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus. The Greek original of Romans contains the word doulos, which means “slave.” Paul identified himself as “a devoted slave of Jesus Christ.” So why does he become so annoyed with the slave wman who says he is a slave to God?.
In any event, when he’d had his fill of her, Paul stopped, turned around and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
Her days as a slave were over. Her reaction is, interestingly, not recorded but the displeasure of her master is. There was no longer a return on the investment they had made in this girl. Without the spirit of divination, she wasn’t worth a single denari to them. They turned on Paul and Silas and dragged them before the judges in the marketplace.
The marketplace as the venue for their trial is poignant. The case against Paul had to do with the economic value of the slave girl…before and after the casting out of the spirit.
“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
That is a curious charge. What customs were Paul and Silas advocating that were unlawful for them and the Romans to observe? What we should note is that the charges against them include their Jewishness…their accusers make note of the fact that these men are Jews…and are advocating customs that are inconsistent with Roman law.
They were speaking of the Roman laws regarding slavery. Slavery in ancient Rome played an important role in society and the economy. Besides manual labor, slaves performed many domestic services, and might also be assigned highly skilled jobs and professions. Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. Unskilled slaves, or those condemned to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short.
Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, were subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), they could be tortured and summarily executed.
Slavery was then as it is now…an evil institution that denies human beings not only of their freedom but also of their dignity.
The Roman economy depended on slaves…in much the same way our own economy depends on the work of undocumented workers and unskilled labor who must work for minimum wages…and on teenaged girls working in unsafe clothing factories in Bangladesh and China and elsewhere. Look at their fight today…where is Paul today to cast out the spirit that enslaves these workers?
Why can’t we hear there voices crying out to Christians the way Paul heard the voice of this slave woman? Are the benefits we receive from their work drowning out their cries for justice…aren’t they asking the slaves of the most high God to free them…to speak for them…
…it’s no small thing to give those people, those slaves, a safe work place, a livable wage and the dignity of citizenship and economic security…
…and it was no small thing in those days for these Jesus-loving Jews to free this slave girl…to take from the business men who owned her the ability she had to make money for her owners. The Roman businessmen could see that if this became Roman policy, their income and their riches would be endangered. Sound familiar?
So it is no surprise that others in the marketplace felt threatened by the freeing of this slave.  The crowd readily joined in attacking Paul and the others, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
All in all…it’s a rather odd story. Paul doesn’t cast out the demon for a particularly theological reason…he does it because this slave annoyed him. But Paul’s annoyance achieves a theological result. She’s following him, telling the truth about Paul and the others…they are slaves to the most high God and she is telling everyone…making noise and making a spectacle of herself. Paul can’t tolerate it any more and puts a stop to it by casting out the evil spirit…and in casting out the spirit, he frees her from the unjust system that enslaved her.
Perhaps the lesson here is that even the truth, when proclaimed through an abusive or exploitive system, ends up being distorted. She is owned by men of evil intentions. The spirit that possesses her enables their evil intentions.
Paul realizes that the evil intent of the slave owners is served by the credibility the slave woman gets by being a part of Paul’s group…the credibility she gains by telling the truth about these men. Her recognition of Paul and the disciples makes her other predictions more believable, more profitable. It’s an effort to manipulate the truth to their own evil designs.
So what does this mean to us?
Are not the souls of the 1200 young girls killed in the predictable collapse of that clothing factory calling out to us…hey you who claim to follow the most high God…are you going to do anything about this? Or are you just going to quietly keep buying the low cost clothing?
And what about the children in the apartment houses surrounding our church…living in poverty…in homes with no father…where mom is working more than one minimum wage job? Can we hear their voices crying out to the flowers of the most high God?
And those who are denied the basic civil right of marriage, those who are marginalized by the color of their skin or the way in which they worship God or those who live on the edges of life because they are elderly or disabled or simply different?
How about the fast food workers around the nation whose work makes their owners and shareholders millions of dollars…they are going on strike until the slave owners pay them enough of a wag to live on…will Christians support them or will those who claim the most high God support the owners?
These workers and others, like those who care for the elderly in rest homes, those who clean our houses and serve meals in restaurants…they all live lives in some form of the modern-day version of globalized slavery…and they mimic us who call ourselves the followers of the most high God when we claim that God…but fail to serve that God…
…their slavery continues because we allow it to continue, because it somehow benefits us, we like the low prices that comes from the work of low paid workers…and when someone like a disciple like Paul demands their slavery end…we drag them into the marketplace and beat them over the head with arguments about how paying a fair wage will destroy the economy…when undocumented workers fill jobs that no American will take and help build the economy…we call them “illegals” and pretend we want them deported knowing that farms and ranches and restaurants and motels would close their doors without these workers.
How often do we encounter those who claim to serve the most high God while using the scripture to manipulate the beliefs and feelings of others? To demean others? To create God in their own image?
You see the slave woman got her talking points from the slave master, the one who benefited from her work…many of the voices opposing justice today get their talking points from those who have so much at stake in making sure the poor remain poor, that the poor provide a stable workforce for businesses that won’t pay livable wages…and worse, those who choose to interpret scripture in a way that supports their political and social views of the world.
And so in the end…this is a story about how easy it is to become a slave to the lies, especially when they are told by those who cloak themselves in religion and what sounds like truth though it is self-serving.
Are we slaves to the most high God…or are we making slaves of others? AMEN