Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…

Youth-soccer-indiana

With violence overwhelming Paris in the last few weeks, a half-dozen police officers and ever more innocent citizens shot dead across the nation, genocide in Nigeria, Cuban people held in political hostage by a perplexed, American Congress in gridlock, and a controversy over a Muslim call to prayer at Duke University that incited the Reverend Franklin Graham to opine that Duke’s inclusive policy is a form of affirming Islamic extremism, it seems that peace is hard to come by these days.

Not four weeks out from Christmas, a time when we ask for God to bring peace on earth, we see the worst of humanity plague politics, communities, and nations across the globe. I fear that our only hope for peace lies, not with those of us who are old enough to understand the hymns of peace that we sing, but with the next generation who have the power to craft a future not divided by race, culture, or religion.

This is what happened last month in Haifa, the northern-most coastal territory of Israel, when 200 children from different cultures and religions gathered to play a game of soccer.

It was December 15th, and the event was organized by the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.  The event was intentional and brought together various soccer leagues from Jewish, Muslim, and Druz communities in honor of the 1914 Christmas Truce of World War 1.

The children knew full well the significance of the event, and they rallied enough support from parents, other professional soccer players, and politicians to make the event a historic day for Israel-Palestinian relations.

Melanie Lidman, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, documented the story and quoted Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab-Israeli soccer announcer as saying, “Here, we have an island of equality, and we need to develop projects like this…especially at this age.”

A few children were also interviewed.  One child, age 11, stated that he wanted to play in the tournament to meet new people and make new friends.

While we adults cower, react, respond, and act out in fear, our children have an uncanny way of building friendships across barriers and seeing the humanity in those who are different than they.  We need to learn from their example.

All of this took place near Mount Carmel, the mountain famous for the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18), a series of caves that acted as Elisha’s spiritual retreat center (2 Kings 2:25; 4:25); and a symbol of beauty for the author of Song of Solomon (7:5).

Not very far from that location, near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus challenged his disciples to follow in the footsteps of children: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).

Humility is something that we Christians are called to model, but we have to recognize that it is not a virtue we can force on others.  There will always be people who seek destruction, violence, and vitriol as a means to a dastardly end; if we respond in kind, then we are no different and humility will escape us.  God only holds us responsible for our holiness and our reactions to others.

A week after the protests and controversy at Ferguson related to the killing of Michael Brown, a group of us asked the youth at our church what they thought about race relations.  The children–ranging in ages from 11 to 15 years old–were clueless as to why such conflict between the races even existed.

One white youth who has an African-American best friend said that all of the people he knows at school have moved past issues related to race, sexual orientation, and even religion.  It seems that those conflicts are our problems, not his and his friends.

On that Israeli coastal plain half-way around the world, we see a model for how to do reconciliation, Christian or otherwise.  We can see it in the smiles of laughing, playing children.  We can see it in the collaboration of teams that work together for healthy competition.  We can see it in the innocence and joy of our beloved young people, whom I hope will craft a world far removed from the divisive–and divided–world in which we find ourselves.