Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Values: Jesus vs. Donald

As President Donald Trump displays increasing signs of a disturbed, incompetent approach to the problems that confront our nation, I have been giving much thought to the contrast between Trump and Jesus Christ.
Trump seems to believe that the answer to chaos is greater chaos.  His rhetoric is more incendiary than ever before.  He is retreating into a deeper, darker, more aggressive state of mind.  Even many of his surrogates are beginning to separate themselves slightly from their master.
All of this causes me to wonder why so many people continue to support this narcissist.  In particular, it is the evangelical Christian community that truly baffles me.  Declaring allegiance to Jesus while remaining loyal to Donald just doesn't register logically in my mind, as the two represent contrasting values.  In an effort to explore this further I decided to go to the Bible and study some of the working concepts of values as expressed by Jesus.  Then, I considered the words and actions of Donald Trump.  To make things easier for me I put these side by side in chart form.  Her is what I came up with, though I confess it could easily be expanded.

Two Takes on the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:3 (NIV2011)
3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"the pious in Israel, for the most part poor, whom the worldly rich despised and persecuted"
(A.T. Robertson)

Values money above people; displays a genuine disdain for those who are poor or struggling
Matthew 5:4 (NIV2011)
4  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Shows no compassion or support for victims of violence; remained silent after death of George Floyd and so many others; response to death of John McCain
Matthew 5:5 (NIV2011)
5  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Appears to equate “meek” with “weak”;  sees the meek as inferior;  prefers to display arrogance & pride
Matthew 5:6 (NIV2011)
6  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Prioritizes morality, integrity, goodness, justice & ethical living
Amoral; hedonistic; no concern for justice; seeks only that which gives him an edge
Matthew 5:7 (NIV2011)
7  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Show no mercy, rather, seek revenge & payback; 
Matthew 5:8 (NIV2011)
8  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

No regard for purity or honesty; habitual liar; dishonest both in business (think Trump University & Trump Foundation), politics, and personal life
Matthew 5:9 (NIV2011)
9  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

If peacemakers are the children of God, are violence-makers the children of Satan?  Trump stokes the embers of violence through his rhetoric; he “blesses” police violence, white supremacists, racists, the Confederacy
Matthew 5:10-11 (NIV2011)
10  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Seeks retribution when criticized; loves to see himself as the victim to gain sympathy & support; holds a grudge against anyone who speaks poorly of him

Additional Contrasts Between Jesus & Trump

John 13:34 (NIV2011)
34  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
Prefers to display animosity; antagonizes others;
Seeks unity: John 17:20-21 (NIV2011)
20  “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
21  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

Thrives on division, competition;  seeks to create friction between persons and groups
Loyalty to God above all else.
Matthew 6:33 (NIV2011)
33  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Loyalty to Trump above all else
Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV2011)
37  Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38  This is the first and greatest commandment.
39  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
40  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Also: note the parable of the Good Samaritan – “neighbor” is defined as any human being;

Xenophobic; “Muslim ban”;
Matthew 23:23 (NIV)
23  "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Trump’s entire life is a contradiction; he is a hypocrite through and through.
Matthew 6:19-21 (NIV)
19  "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
20  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Trump prefers glitz and glitter, bragging – and likely lying – about his net worth; he seeks attention and flattery
James 2:8-9 (NIV)
8  If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right.
9  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
tax cuts for the top 1% of the wealthy;  hyper-partisanship; 

The contrast could not be greater.

G. D. Gehr
July 7, 2020

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Cross Is Not A Hex Sign


I grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.  Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has taught me much.  I appreciate the culture and the history of this area, which I still live in, and it is fair to say I am a Pennsylvania Dutchman.  My father’s family came to Philadelphia from Baden Wurttemberg, Germany in 1737.  My mother’s family, of Swiss-German heritage, arrived shortly after that in 1743.  Both clans settled almost immediately in Northern Lancaster County.
The Pennsylvania Dutch culture – more accurately, Pennsylvania German – is a very broad term that includes many nuances.  It also covers a wide variety of people.  I tend to think of the Pennsylvania Dutch as primarily Anabaptists, that is, Mennonites, Amish, or Brethren.  But this sub-group only represents a small segment of the Pennsylvania Dutch.  German speaking Lutherans, Reformed, and Moravians are very much a part, too.  Neither is it just confined to Lancaster County.  Berks, Lebanon, York, Lehigh, and Schuylkill  Counties all lay claim to the label of Pennsylvania Dutch.  For many folks, Kutztown, in Berks County, is the epicenter of PA Dutch Country.
Religious traditions aside, another trait of the Pennsylvania Dutch is the hex sign.  Beautiful, colorful and artistic, these wonderful works of art decorate the landscape throughout central Pennsylvania.  If I am correct the hex sign originated as a decorative, six-pointed star within a circle – hence the name “hex” (Greek for six).  Some sources suggest the name comes from a German word “hexafoo” which means  “witch’s foot”. 
Over time many variations evolved, including stars with four, five, eight and even sixteen points – each with their own meaning.  Additionally, other images were included.  Birds, flowers, hearts and more can be found as part of the hex sign tradition.  For the most part, hex signs are an expression of folk art, much like fraktur.  But for some they are rooted in superstitions and magic.  Certain designs were supposedly intended to bring good luck, prosperity, health, good crops or fertility.  Some supposedly would ward off evil spirits.  These ideas, regardless of authenticity, benefited from promotion through the tourist industry.

All of this brings me the point of this post.  I just do not understand why some churches are returning to in-person worship in the midst of this pandemic.  In my opinion this is a huge mistake.  I understand there is a strong desire to fellowship together.  However, the Christian Church should be compassionate and devoted to serving the needs of others.  It is to be a healing agent in a world of pain and brokenness.  Christians are called to follow the servant-motif of their Master, Jesus Christ.  I am having great difficulty reconciling these goals with what I consider to be the reckless act of worshiping in person during the age of COVID-19 and thereby putting the health and lives of others at great risk.  I believe the facts indicate that the nation is reopening much too soon.  COVID-19 is on the rise in many areas following the relaxation of restrictions.
Right here in Pennsylvania Dutch Country we have a fairly large number of congregations that have reopened for worship even though we in Lancaster County have just recently moved to Yellow Phase.  Yellow is a step down from the more prohibitive Red Phase, but many restrictions remain in place.
·         Face masks are still to be worn in public
·         Social distancing of a minimum 6 feet is to be observed
·         Telework must be continued when feasible
·         Large gatherings of more than 25 persons is prohibited
There are additional details, but these are the ones that most strongly apply to church services, I feel.  Notice all four of these restrictions should apply to church gatherings.  Especially consider the last two.  “Telework must be continued when feasible”.  This suggests that congregations should do live streaming over in-person services.  And there is no way getting around the fourth point:  “Large gatherings of more than 25 persons is prohibited”.  That is self-explanatory. 
Now, I know that houses of worship are given certain exemptions.  Here in Pennsylvania, at least, the Department of Health has decided to offer these restrictions as recommendations for faith communities, rather than as mandates.  However, that does not excuse Christians from acting responsibly.  What kind of witness are we presenting by defying science, living recklessly, and endangering others? 
            The Christian Church has a long history of doing right by others.  Relationships, both within the church community and without, are to be respected and enhanced.  This is why I cannot understand the decision to put people at risk by holding in-person worship services at this time.  To do so not only puts the worshiper at risk of exposure to COVID-19, but also everyone that worshiper comes into contact with the rest of the week is now potentially exposed to the virus.  This is especially dangerous considering a person my be positive for the coronavirus and be asymptomatic at the same time.  In other words, they may have the virus and not know it.  What kind of compassion and respect for one’s neighbor is this?  I do not understand.
            In this age of technology many - - most - - congregations have learned to offer worship services through live streaming.  Even small congregations have mastered this technology.  I am finding live streaming to be extremely rewarding and meaningful.  We are so fortunate to have this ability.  Given this fact, we can still worship God and do so together without gathering in the same room.   Is it the same as an in-person experience?  No, but it is not a bad alternative.   We hear the same sermon, the same announcements, the same prayers.  Some congregations include an option for members to join a chat connected to their broadcast, which allows for conversation and keeping in touch.  Above all we should remember that this is only a temporary measure.  So, what is the problem here?
            I am reminded of how the Children of Judah learned that they could still worship God after their temple was destroyed and many of the citizens were taken into Exile by Babylon.  They were scattered across the vast Empire and forced to labor as slaves.  Yet they could still worship God and nurture their spiritual lives, even if they had to do so individually.  Paul, Silas, Peter and John the Revelator continued to worship God and preach to their fellow believers even while they were in prison.  How much more fortunate are we that we can worship and encourage one another and remain united as a body of faith – even if we are doing so in the confines of our homes.
            I suppose I could possibly accept some form of corporate, in-person worship if basic safety precautions were carefully observed.  But I fear that is not the case, generally.  Right here in Ephrata, the congregation that I grew up in and in which I was baptized, married, licensed to the ministry and ordained, this same congregation began worshiping in person while we were still in Red Phase.  I watched the first few weeks of services online and I was shocked to hear the Pastor begin by telling everyone present to feel free to remove their masks!  In one service he later coughed right into his bare hand.  This is outrageous!  This pastor is putting all of his congregants and the entire community at risk.  He is an intelligent man.  But he and the Leadership Team have made a terrible choice to reopen.  He claims that Churches are considered “essential” and are exempt from government oversight with regards to health issues.  I do not know who he thinks he is kidding, but he is tragically mistaken.
            This Pastor is certainly not alone.  This rebellious spirit of defiance is quite common in Christian circles.  It seems like many of these people see the Cross as a hex sign.  That is to say, they appear to believe that because there is a cross on the top or the side of the building they will be protected from the evil spirit of coronavirus.  What they are really saying is this:  I need to be careful and wear a mask in public if I go to the grocery store, or get gasoline for my car, or go to work, or…. You fill in the blank.  But, I do not need a mask or any other precautions when I go to Church because I am covered by the Cross of Jesus Christ.
            Huh?  Somebody ‘splain that to me, please.  I am protected from all harm just because there is a cross in sight?  Jesus does not protect me anywhere else I go, but when I cross the threshold of the Holy of Holies, I am protected?  I don’t think so.  Such logic is nothing more than superstition and idolatry.  I am sorry, but the coronavirus does not run and hide from the sign of the cross like a vampire. 

            In 1970 the Philadelphia Phillies were having a difficult season.  They were struck by an unusually high number of injuries that year.  In one game they lost both of their catchers to broken bones - - in the same inning!  They called up two replacements from their minor league system and both of them went down with injuries, too.  In desperation the team reactivated their bullpen coach, a retired major league catcher, and forced him into active duty.  Things were so bad that the team hired a man from Lancaster County to paint three hex signs on the roof of their dugout in Connie Mack Stadium in hopes of protecting the team against further injury.  It may have been a joke, or a publicity stunt, or perhaps an act of desperation – who knows?  But the facts speak for themselves.  The team continued to struggle with additional injuries and defeats throughout the season.  The Phillies ended that season mercifully with a record of 73 wins and 88 losses, buried in 5th place in the National League Eastern Division.  In fact, they were only one of three teams in the entire National League to post a losing record that year.  The other two were the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres – both were expansion teams that year, playing their very first season.  Up until then the Phillies had been in existence 87 years.  During that time they had won a total of two National League championships and zero World Series.  In a sense, the futile efforts of 1970 proved to be a fitting way to end their tenure in Connie Mack Stadium, previously known as Shibe Park.  The team moved to brand new Veterans Stadium the next year.

Hex signs did not help the fortunes of the 1970 Phillies.  The reason is simple:  baseball games are won or lost depending on how the players perform.  Athletes train endlessly and hone their skills.  A team with limited talent will have limited success.  Fancy, colorful paintings cannot affect the outcome.  Likewise, Christians cannot improve their spiritual life or their relationship with God simply by walking into a building that displays a cross.  Rather, it is what is in your mind and your heart that counts.  It’s how you treat your brother, your sister, and what Jesus called “the least of these”.  There are no shortcuts to salvation.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

It's About Time We Get The Message

            The movement continues and shows no sign of letting up soon.  Across the nation there is an awakening to the need for peace and justice.  Black Lives Matter has re-ignited the conscience of millions of Americans.
            One of the impressive things about this current wave is how it is lasting well beyond the initial enthusiasm.  If anything, it appears to be gaining strength.  I pray we are witnessing a true revival of the soul of our United States.
            Today I attended the Black Lives Matter protest in my hometown of Ephrata, Pennsylvania.  It was a very peaceful, respectful event.  I would estimate there were about 180-200 people attending.  It was intergenerational, inter-racial (though primarily white) and most inspiring.  In addition to the crowd that gathered, an abundance of the cars that passed by showed their support by blowing their horns and giving us the thumbs up.  Some even displayed signs of their own.
To be sure not everyone was fully supportive.  A few who passed by voiced some disagreement.  But I was impressed how reserved they were.  No one tried to confront anyone with the intent of escalating tensions.  Across the street from where I stood, I could hear one man speaking with a group of protesters.  He was emphatically making the point that “All lives matter”.  One protester countered by saying exactly what I was thinking: that “All Lives Matter” includes black lives, and so, in a sense, he was agreeing with them.   The difference is that people of color are the ones experiencing the abuse and the loss of rights.  The man did not really come around to agree with them, but neither did he appear upset.  When today’s event began there was one police officer in sight.  After about twenty minutes a second officer arrived.  They both remained relaxed.  I made a point of going up to them to speak briefly with them, to encourage them, and to thank them for their faithful – and respectful – service.  There are bad cops out there.  These two guys are not among them and if we are going to criticize the bad guys, we should also show appreciation for the good guys.  It’s a simple concept known as “bridge building”.
            Perhaps there is hope for this country yet.  We have a very long way to go and many obstacles to overcome, but this feels different to me.  One speaker today said she had never heard a pastor speak about racial injustice.  I felt like telling her she has been going to the wrong church!  I have been preaching since 1983.  I did my internship in Birmingham, Alabama, where racial prejudice and discrimination was very real and the “N”-word was heard from the mouths of my church members.  Racial injustice has been one of my core concerns through the years, along with peace and radical discipleship.  But the words of today’s speaker helped me understand that far too many people have not been challenged to expand their thinking.  Looking back over my career I must admit that most of the members of my congregations were looking for messages of comfort, not challenge.  I could sense the tension when I hit a nerve by taking them out of their comfort zone. 
            But now there is no escaping the message.  Its on the news every day.  Its heard on neighborhood street corners and in city squares.  Black Lives Matter!  Its about time we get the message.  No Justice – No Peace!  What is so hard to understand here?
            We are seeing things that are blowing me away.  Police kneeling with protesters.  The officers who killed George Floyd not only fired from the Minneapolis Police Department, but charged with murder.  Police reform given serious consideration.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally admitting he was wrong to appear dressed in battle fatigues for a photo op with the President immediately after armed troops opened fire on peaceful, lawful demonstrators in order to make the photo op possible.  The former Secretary of Defense criticizing the use of American troops against American citizens.  Confederate Statues coming down throughout the South.  And perhaps the biggest shocker of all: NASCAR banning the presence of the Confederate Flag at all their events.
            I hope we can maintain the momentum.  It will not be easy – change never is.  But this is a movement that seemingly has a destiny.  There is something prophetic about this, which may be just the thing that gives it life.
G. D. Gehr

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Process of Making Peace

Our United States are not so united these days.  As I write this, we are in our twelfth straight day of mass protests in cities large and towns small.  Not that this is the first time we have seen unrest in this country.  We are a nation of protesters.  From the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s we have been and still are a nation of fight cats!
What we are witnessing in the current problem is most disturbing.  I fully support the call for social and racial justice.  I am appalled by the violent response of our police forces, the National Guard, or whoever those black-clad storm troopers are that have been attacking our citizens.  As a reporter on NBC observed the heavily armored forces have no insignia on their uniforms.  It is difficult to know just who or what they are.  But their actions give them away.  Anyone who would shoot rubber bullets, tear gas and flash grenades unprovoked at their fellow citizens cannot possible be in their right mind.  It is painful to watch American “law enforcement officers” mercilessly beating American citizens with clubs, kicking them repeatedly, driving vehicles into unarmed crowds, or shoving a 75 year old man backwards to the pavement, crashing his head on the concrete, watching him lying motionless while blood is pouring from his ear, and refuse to make any effort to help him or check on his condition.  Anyone who is not disturbed by such behavior cannot call themselves an American.
I denounce violence of any kind.  When a person joins a peaceful protest and begins throwing bricks or other objects at anyone, they are wrong, and I oppose them.  If someone thinks they can break into a store and steal merchandise just because they are surrounded by chaos, they are wrong, and I condemn them!  Likewise, when an officer believes he or she has the right to inflict violence against an unarmed American citizen who is exercising their First Amendment Right to peacefully protest, that officer is wrong ,and I condemn them.
The issues behind these protests are real and legitimate.  The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution guarantees the right for people to demonstrate and protest.  The murder of George Floyd was wrong – plain and simple.  It was abuse.  It was injustice.  But above all, it was murder!
The size, magnitude and duration of these protests have been remarkable.  I am stunned and outraged at how the protestors have been bullied and beaten by the very forces intended to protect them.

I first became involved in criminal reform in 1984.  At that time, I was Pastor of the Bedford Church of the Brethren in Bedford, PA  I was also chair of the District Witness Commission.  One of our projects at the District was working with CentrePeace, Inc, a prison ministry organization working with Rockview State Prison near State College, PA.  There, I sat with numerous inmates for listening sessions, Bible Study, and non-violent intervention classes.
Prison reform is sorely needed.  According to the Equal Justice Initiative for every 9 inmates on death row that are executed there is one who was proven innocent and released.  This speaks to the problems confronting our judicial system and calls into question the use of the death penalty.  One has to wonder how many innocent lives were ended prematurely and unjustly because of the Death Penalty.  The United States General Accounting Office reveals some disturbing facts.
“In 82% of the stud­ies [reviewed], race of the vic­tim was found to influ­ence the like­li­hood of being charged with cap­i­tal mur­der or receiv­ing the death penal­ty, i.e., those who mur­dered whites were found more like­ly to be sen­tenced to death than those who mur­dered blacks.”

            A report from the ACLU concurs:    
While white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all Capital cases involve white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.”
These are just some of the reasons for the protests found throughout this country these days.  It was brought to a head with the police murder of George Floyd, but the reality is this has been happening for a very long time.

In the early 2000’s I was serving as a pastor in Pottstown, PA.  The church was located on the corner of York and Fifth Streets, in the heart of what was commonly referred to as the Numbered Streets, a ten block by four block section of the city.  The Numbered Streets were once a solid blue-collar residential neighborhood of hard-working families.  That was when Pottstown was a bustling industrial town.  Beginning in 1714 Pottstown was the home of numerous iron forges.  Later, several steel plants took over, most notably Bethlehem Steel.  Pottstown became famous for producing steel that was used in constructing the Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge.  There was an abundance of other industries as well, including Firestone and Dana.  The Stanley Flagg Co. was a successful foundry known as the world's first manufacturer of malleable iron screwed pipe fittings.  Flagg was once the largest employer in the area.  There were also textile factories and brick yards.  Later, Pottstown became the home for Mrs. Smith’s pies, too.
None of this industrial boom could have occurred were it not for the Reading Railroad main line that ran through the heart of town.  This connected Pottstown with the suppliers to the west and north as well as the markets and ports of Philadelphia to the east.
However, the post-industrial era took its toll on Pottstown.  One by one the industries closed or dwindled to a slim image of what they once were.  By the 21st Century Pottstown was in major decay.  Unemployment was high and only surpassed by the crime rate.  In fact, Pottstown has one of the highest crime rates for any community in the United States, at 42 per 1,000 people.  The Washington Street corridor was the worst section of town.  The Numbered Streets were a close second.  The drug traffic was especially rampant, but so was prostitution, theft and vandalism.  When my family moved there in 2000 we intentionally chose to live in the Numbered Streets as a way to connect with the neighborhood.   We bought a house on Fourth Street, about two blocks away from the church.  I was struck by how the members of the church had generally moved out of the neighborhood.  We were warned not to go out at night and to always watch our backs.  The congregation did not want activities in the evening out of concerns for their safety.
Shortly after I arrived in Pottstown I met a young man named Bob.  He and his wife lived in the numbered streets.  They were not members of the Church, in fact Bob was really turned off to Christianity due to some bad experiences growing up.  But he was very committed to his hometown and wanted to do something to turn things around.  Together we brainstormed some ideas.  It was Bob who suggested forming a Town Watch chapter.  However, he wanted to avoid any sense of authority or policing.  His desire was to build positive relations and trust.
Before long we had organized a group of half a dozen locals committed to walking through the numbered streets three nights a week.  Because the Town Watch label seemed heavy-handed, we desired a more welcoming name.  Bob’s brother, Richard, is the one who came up with the name “Neighbors In Numbers”.  I saw it as a perfect representation of the human element – “Neighbors” – and respect for the neighborhood – “Numbers”.  My goal was to get the congregation behind it.  In my mind it was the perfect mission for an inner-city church founded on the principle of service and social justice.  A few members who still lived in the numbered streets became excited about the idea and joined our group.  Unfortunately, that was a small number.  Most of the congregation thought it was a good idea but seemed to be afraid to get involved personally.
We stuck with it, though, and soon our little group grew to nearly twenty people of diverse backgrounds.  We had so many participants that we held multiple walks on the same nights.  We had Brethren, Lutherans, Catholics and atheists.  We were a multi-racial, intergenerational group with a heart for our community.  We worked closely with the local police.  From time to time we invited them to speak on various topics at community meetings which we held, covering such subjects as home safety, drug awareness, emergency response and Q & A’s.  We even had the K-9 unit give a demonstration on one occasion.  The goal of these meetings was two-fold: to provide educational opportunities and to build more positive, one-on-one relations with the police.
After about one year we decided to join the National Night Out by holding a block party.  The National Night Out is an annual event that addresses crime prevention and drug abuse.  We invited the fire department, the local police, a few politicians and a host of civic organizations.  Again, the intent was to build positive relationships while meeting human needs.  With permission from the city we barricaded York Street, from Fifth to Sixth Streets, and used the church parking lot as center stage.  We hired a band to provide music, had games for the families, info booths featuring local civic organizations, offered free food and soft drinks and held door prizes.  It was a huge success.  Over 200 people came the first year and it grew each subsequent year.  Ours was just one of three National Night Out celebrations in the city.  Within four years we had an estimated 600 people share in the activities at our location.
I like to think our efforts paid dividends.  The numbered streets did see a decrease in crime.  Over time, as we walked the streets, the local residents looked forward to seeing us.  Through this process we were able to become better acquainted with a good number of our neighbors, share in conversation and establish stronger ties.

I realize none of this quite compares to the current issues facing our country.  While we had a few murders in the numbered streets of Pottstown, we did not have any instances of police shooting unarmed persons.  Still, I believe there are some lessons to learn.  For example:
1.       It is vitally important to build relationships.

People need to work at getting to know each other in non-threatening ways.  Through community events and disseminating information we can slowly tear down walls that divide us, one brick at a time.
But we need to go further.  It is imperative that people get to know their local police, and the police get to know them.  I like to think this approach may be one reason why did not have any displays of police intimidation or violence.

We have a son with autism and intellectual disabilities.  He has numerous behavioral issues and when he was younger, he demonstrated considerable fear of unknown situations.  Like most people with autism he likes his routine.  Whenever we moved to a new community one of the first things we have done was to take him to the local police station and introduce him to the officers.  He loved it, and so did they.  They always gave him a tour of the building and made a big deal of welcoming him to town.  By doing this, relationships were being built and fears were held in check.  On a few occasions we have had the need for police intervention, but when we did, there was already a certain rapport established.  Essentially, our son trusted the officers and they understood how to approach him.  As a result, the problem could de-escalate more quickly. 

2.      I am a firm believer in non-violence.

Not everyone is in agreement with me.  But I have found there are several ways to deal with a challenge or a fear, and violence always escalates the problem.  Talking and listening are far more effective tools.  But even these must be rooted in respect.  We can disagree – and even do so vehemently - but it is still possible to maintain a level of respect for the other person or group.  Somehow, we need to reach a point where we can separate the person from the position.  You may not like me sitting with a convicted felon, or marching with civil rights activists, but even in your opposition to such positions can you still treat me as a person and show some respect, rather than going straight to name-calling, intimidation or violence?

3.      I firmly believe it is better for authorities to rely on local police rather than militias or the national guard.  I understand at times there may be a need for reinforcements or possibly even equipment that may be beyond the local police capacity.  But these options should be kept in reserve when possible.  If such measures are needed, I feel it is far better for local authorities to remain in charge.  Let outside units be subordinate to the local officials who know the community and, in many cases, the people.  Mayors and police chiefs must plan ahead for every possible scenario and communicate with their subordinates before incidents arise.  I have seen too many reports recently where violence was used against peaceful, law abiding citizens and only after such instances did the mayor or other officials find out and take corrective measures  This raises the question of who is in charge of riot control units and what is their intent.

4.      It is vitally important that elected officials, government personnel and police forces tone down the rhetoric.

Words are powerful motivators and can easily incite violence and injustice, especially when repeated time and again.  This needs to stop, and it must begin at the top.  Donald Trump and his surrogates are doing more harm than good.  They are empowering the ones who resort to violence on both sides of the debate.  This must end immediately.

5.      In the few moments when local police may need support from the State or Federal levels, it is important that all armed officers be clearly identified.  I do not understand why some of the riot-control forces engaged in many cities are clad in unmarked uniforms.  This would not be allowed in international conflicts, where it is required that soldiers be identified regarding what unit or nation they represent.  There is no excuse for anonymous troopers engaging violently against our own citizens.  When this happens, it is impossible to hold anyone accountable for any and all injustices inflicted.

I stand with Black Lives Matter and all who seek justice and criminal reform.  I recognize that blacks are discriminated against by far too many law-enforcement officers and by the judicial system.  I oppose the excessive and unprovoked use of force by law enforcement and the military.  I further oppose the use of the United States military against United States citizens. 

The Sermon on the Mount was perhaps the “Christian Manifesto” that should become the handbook of operations for those of us who are believers in Christ.  Jesus began this powerful sermon with what is commonly referred to as The Beatitudes.  They read like this.
3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We are witnessing the unfolding of a new era.  It may become an era of needed change and improvement.  Or, it may lead to the destruction of our country.  The outcome will likely depend on us.  Can we  become peacemakers who actively dedicate ourselves to the difficult process of bringing about positive, peaceful and constructive change in this otherwise chaotic era in which we find ourselves?  Jesus proved it is possible.  It is our duty to make it happen.

G. D. Gehr