OF BOMBS, TREATIES AND MORAL OBLIGATION: ADVOCACY IN THREE MOVEMENTS–PART 3

In a culture wired for instant results, we often forget that meaningful change may take persistent action over a long period. This is a 35-year story of education and advocacy arising from the bomb-laden fields of Laos. Titus Peachey who, with his wife Linda Gehman Peachey, went to Laos on a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in 1980, tells the story in three parts.

Read part 1

Read part 2

In the late 1960’s a young American working in Laos named Fred Branfman began interviewing Lao refugees who had fled the bombing in the north. Together with his Lao colleague, Mr. Ngeun Luangpraseuth, he collected dozens of stories and drawings from Lao villagers who described the air war and its impact on their lives in vivid detail.

titus-peachey-picture

Some 30 years later in a chance meeting in a Washington D.C. office, a Lao-American woman named Channapha Khamvongsa was shown these original stories and drawings.  Having come to the U.S. as a child, and lovingly raised by parents who didn’t want her burdened by the pain and tragedy of war, Channapha did not know this history.  Deeply moved by the pathos in the stories and drawings, Channapha was determined to learn more, and formed a project called Legacies of War.

Channapha’s first step was to preserve the drawings, and gather people around her who could help research and share what she was learning about the history of the war and its aftermath.  When Channapha contacted me at my Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) desk in 2004, I was amazed and gratified to find a Lao-American whose interests and concerns coincided so well with my own. By 2008, I joined the Legacies of War Advisory Board and we determined that a major piece of advocacy work remained to be done, convincing the U.S. government to fully fund the work.

MCC had funded the bomb removal project in Laos for the first couple years, but the task was much larger than MCC could sustain over a long period of time. For many years the U.S. government provided $2.5-$3 million dollars a year to clear the unexploded ordnance (UXO) and assist victims of the bombing.  But with tens of millions of bombs still left in the soil, the level of funding had no connection to the scale of the problem.

Channapha began building relationships in congress and with key state department officials. Lao-American communities around the country reached out to their congressional offices, urging greater U.S. support for clearance work in Laos. Former U.S. ambassadors to Laos wrote letters of support during the appropriations process. The first congressional hearings on the problem of unexploded ordnance in Laos were held in 2010, with Channapha offering testimony.

When Secretary of State Clinton visited Laos in 2012, Legacies provided strong background material on the problem of UXO in Laos to Secretary Clinton’s office, and the U.S. government gradually increased its contribution for clearance work. During President Obama’s visit to Laos in September of 2016, he gave a speech clearly acknowledging the U.S. bombing campaign and the continued suffering and hardship it meant for the people of Laos. Stating that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal, he pledged $30 million per year for the next three years for ordnance clearance and victim assistance.  And at the end of his speech, he thanked Legacies’ Director, Channapha, for her tireless advocacy.

Sadly, it has taken many long decades for the voices of Lao villagers, gathered from refugee camps in the late ‘60s to be heard and acknowledged by the White House. Like seeds of justice planted in the hard, dry ground of war, these vibrant voices awaited the life-giving rains of public awareness and the cultivation of political will to take root, grow and bear fruit.  If, as Martin Luther King Jr. has observed, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, surely it requires the hopeful labor of many.  The task now remaining is to ensure that the arc continues to bend toward justice for Lao villagers. The goal is comprehensive clearance, zero casualties and a full complement of medical, rehab and psycho-social services available to each survivor. With tens of millions of bombs still left in the soil, the work of Legacies of War is not yet done.  Yet never before have I been part of such a gratifying and successful effort in advocacy.

For Discussion:

How do we nurture the seeds of justice that are planted along with every act of violence and injustice?  With the targeted killings by armed U.S. drones now taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya, what specific action can we take to ensure that the seeds of justice can grow?

For more information see:  Legacies of War
See especially:  Video Clips

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PeaceLab Podcast

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PeaceLab is a podcast focused on current events, faith and peacemaking from a Mennonite perspective.

Jonathan Brenneman has a unique Mennonite Voluntary Service position. It’s focused on helping MCUSA engage deeply with the Israel-Palestine conflict. In this episode of PeaceLab, Jonathan talks about his role, the new resolution on Israel-Palestine, his history with the region and more.

 

Peace on the Hill-Slavery at Angola

By Cherelle M. Dessus

As they slowly waved to me, I felt like a free black person in the North riding by my enslaved brothers and sisters on a southern plantation.Cherelle Dessus New Staff Cropped

I recently visited Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana as part of a “pipeline to prison learning tour” sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee Central States. The Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States with more than 6,000 prisoners. Seventy-five percent of those prisoners are black.

Angola, referring to the African country where its slaves came from, sits on a plantation of 8,000 acres purchased by the state from the former plantation owner in 1901. The plantation consists of cotton fields, crops, animals and housing for prison staff.

Louisiana incarcerates more people than any other state but all residents of Louisiana fear sentencing at Angola. Once known as America’s worst prison, Angola strips the lives of those who enter. Ninety-five percent of people who serve time at Angola die there, with an average sentence of 93 years.

Some of Angola’s prisoners are wrongfully convicted through malpractice of the district attorney’s office and unfair trials. Most of the inmates come from New Orleans. The city has one of the biggest economic gaps in the country, contributing to minor crimes such as traffic violations like driving without insurance or proper licensing.

peace on the hill

Cherelle M. Dessus visits Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary as part of the pipeline to prison learning tour sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee.
MCC photo/ ChiChi Oguekwe

Once someone is sentenced at Angola, their rights to humanity are removed completely. They work without wages for their first two years and then for extremely small wages such as two cents an hour. Most of the prisoners work in the fields, picking cotton and treating vegetation. Although Angola is a public prison, free labor gives the state plenty of financial incentive to incarcerate prisoners.

The food and animals grown on the prison’s grounds are not for the inmate’s consumption or leisure, it is sold for profit. The prisoners are fed canned food (mostly beans). Those who do not work in the fields, work in the house of the warden or other employees.

There is no air conditioning at the prison despite the extreme temperatures during the summer. A spiritual advisor for prisoners on death row, Allison McQuery, compared the infirmary to the bottom of a slave ship. The beds are close in proximity and the sick moan loudly without treatment.

This prison shares great similarities with slavery that occurred over a span of hundreds of years in America. At Angola, almost nothing has changed. They call the guards “the freemen” and are aware of their lack of liberty.

Some in leadership at the prison tend to misuse Christianity, to manipulate prisoners telling the prisoners that is God’s will that they be there and die. On the way to the execution table is a Bible, opened to Psalms 37 and 38, supposedly to reveal to the prisoners that they are wicked and unworthy of life.

As I sat in a van passing by the large fields, the prisoners stopped what they were doing to wave. I did not know how to respond. Waving back felt like approval of the slavery occurring at Angola. I wanted to weep. I wanted to work for their freedom.

As Christians, it is our duty to use Scriptures to call for truth, love and justice. Throughout U.S. history, Christianity has too often been perverted to justify oppression and injustice. Many of those incarcerated are wrongly convicted, over-sentenced, discriminated against, and given cruel and unusual punishments. Learning to advocate for those victimized by the criminal justice system is a crucial step in defending freedom. It is important that we pray and encourage our brothers and sisters who are also made in the image of God.

Peace on the Hill is a monthly column in PeaceSigns written by staff of the MCC Washington Office highlighting congressional developments and detailing ways the church can continue to be engaged in the work of peace and advocacy. Cherelle M. Dessus is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator in the MCC Washington Office.

Balancing Acts–Proverbs, Politics and Practicalities

by  Tom Beutel

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.

Proverbs 11:10a (NIV) tom b

I have been reading the book of Proverbs for a Lenten devotional, coupled with some guidance on understanding Biblical wisdom literature such as Proverbs from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Perhaps it is just the way I tend to see things, but I have found a lot to ponder in Proverbs as it relates to current politics in the US and around the globe.

In particular, the recent Republican health care legislation that failed to pass is a case in point. There were several major problems with the plan which undoubtedly lead to its failure. First of all there is the matter of honesty. Consider Proverbs 11:1:

The Lord detests dishonest scales,

                        but accurate weights find favor with him.

Politicians from the President to rank-and-file Republicans promised that their plan would provide affordable health care coverage for all. But this was not true. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CB0) analysis premiums would increase, as would deductibles, and 24 million people would lose their insurance. Even when these facts were known the bill was still “sold” as a “good” bill. See

http://www.npr.org/2017/03/13/520031463/gop-health-care-bill-could-leave-24m-without-coverage-by-2026-cbo-says

http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/22/news/economy/deductibles-obamacare-gop-health-care-bill/)

Many of those who would have lost insurance would have been low-income people on Medicaid. To make matters worse, their loss would have been “paid for” by tax cuts for the richest Americans, up to a $207,000 cut for the top 0.1% of earners. (http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/14/top-01-of-earners-would-get-a-207000-tax-cut-under-gop-plan-to-repeal-obamacare.html) This tax cut would have created a new base for the budget from which additional tax cuts could be reckoned. The health care bill was a key to other agenda items, particularly tax reform. It was not just about health care.

The integrity of the upright guides them,

                         but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.(Proverbs 11:3)

While individual proverbs are no guarantee of a particular outcome, this proverb says that, generally, duplicitous behavior does not lead to success. This seems to have been the case with the American Health Care Act (AHCA). Promoted as a solution to the problem of providing affordable health care to Americans, the bill was really about, or at least also about, resetting the tax base for further tax reform, a fact that was generally not promoted.

Proverbs 11:10 says,

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices;

                        when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.

In general, Proverbs 11 focuses on a comparison of the behavior of the “righteous,” that is, those who follow God’s way, and the “wicked,” that is, those who don’t. It also focuses on the effects of the behavior of the righteous and the wicked on the community: neighbor, city, and nation. As Proverbs 11:10 says, it is for the common good when the “righteous proper.” It may be a bit of an oversimplification to say the the righteous prospered in the failure of the AHCA, but there were many Americans who rightly expressed concern over the loss of insurance for millions of their fellow citizens, over the reduction of benefits, and over the tax breaks for those who least need them. It strikes me that indeed the “righteous prospered,” and the “city rejoice[d].”\

So much for Proverbs and politics. On to practicalities.

First, there are alternatives to traditional insurance that may appeal to some, particularly to those who object to insurance coverage of certain procedures or who like the idea of “bearing one another’s burdens,” as advocated in Galatians 6:2. While this scripture certainly is not singling out health care, the idea of providing for needs within the Christian community, including the cost of health care, is certainly a Christian idea. It is the basis of the idea of “mutual aid” inherent in some denominations such as the Mennonites and Amish.

In this line, there are a number of “health share” ministries which provide for sharing health care costs. Typically, a member pays a monthly amount which is like a premium. This amount is used to pay qualifying medical costs such as doctors’ visits, hospital charges, and prescription drugs, for one or more other members. The specifics of how this is done vary, but this is the general idea. Depending on the particular health share ministry there may be an annual amount which acts like a deductible or there may be a per instance amount for which the member is responsible, like a co-pay. Some procedures and things that traditional insurance might cover, such as abortion, infertility, and mental health services are not covered.

While a health share program is not considered to be insurance, per se, it does qualify under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as having insurance as mandated by the ACA.

For general information and a comparison of several health share ministries, here are couple of links:

 

Clicking on the appropriate link in the second site will take you to the web page for a specific ministry.

One more thing. Prescription drugs can be expensive, especially if you have maintenance medications that you need to buy each month. There are number of free programs for getting prescription drugs at a reduced rate. One, in particular, GoodRx, generally has prices that are comparable to those provided by insurers. The program is free and is accepted at most pharmacies. If this is something you or a friend or family member might benefit from, at least check it out.

 

 

Finally, however we choose to cover our medical costs, we must keep in mind that we can improve our health or maintain good health by healthy lifestyle choices: eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting proper sleep, getting regular checkups. We can also make responsible choices about obtaining care and how we pay for that care.

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry as Prayer – From First Cry To Final Breath

By Cara EdigerCara Ediger

(While reading Michelle Obama, A Life)

From first cry to final breath,
You cover us with love.

From first cry to final breath, 
you share our suffering.

Lead us to the cross,
And beyond it on the road---
We ask for Your Presence,
And your guidance-
Lord Jesus-- Master

You are an everlasting Master
The One who carries us through this Life.

You are the source 
Of our love, the source of our health.

Let the weary traveler
Find rest in your care, 
A peace that surpasses all understanding.