A Holy Respite in the Legislative Fray

Conservatives and Progressives, Democrats and Republicans, Jews and Christians, together in the Nevada Legislative building together celebrating a Passover Seder…yes it actually happened. For a short time on April 7 politics was put aside and people from every persuasion joined in a learning moment to remember that the Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week shared a historical connection.

The director of Lutheran Episcopal Alliance in Nevada, Rev. Mike Patterson, was invited to this event and helped with the Host Committee. The leader for the meal was Cantor Bob Fisher who explained the ritual feast and why the Passover meal used the various elements to remember the Jewish history around the events in Egypt. The cantor also reminded those present that the Last Supper celebrated by most Christians was actually the Passover feast that Jesus and His disciples practiced on the night before the events of the crucifixion.

It was for many a time away from the divisive political atmosphere of the legislature and a time to remember what most of us share together. Everyone present was appreciative of the work done putting on this event by the Nevada legislative Jewish Council and the Host Committee.

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Public Policy for Dummies

We’ve all seen those books titled, “[fill in a topic] for Dummies” that represent that after you’ve read the book on a particular topic, you’ll know enough to get by. There’s a similar approach to public policy, and you don’t even have to buy a book!

The wonderful people at the State of Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau provide staff support to our Legislators. Their job is to do the research and marshal information so our elected officials can make sound decisions. All their reports are on the Legislative website, and it’s available for anyone. If you want to come off to your friends as a full-on policy wonk, check this out.

Find the Legislative home page on the state website: http://www.leg.state.nv.us/  Look at the left-hand corner, in the circle; you’ll see Research/Library. Clicking there will take you to a page saying “Welcome to the Research Division,” and there’s a ton of interesting stuff to check out there. But go to the left side and click on “Publications of the Research Division.” That opens up more choices, and the hot topics are flagged with buttons marked “New.” Choose “Research Briefs and Issue Papers” and you can read up on even controversial topics such as firearms and “vaping.” These two were just published in February 2015.

For a really quick read, go back to the “Publications” menu and choose “Fact Sheets.” These are two or three page rundowns on medical marijuana, the prevailing wage law, drones, and more. If you’re into statistics or little-known facts, there are other fact sheets you’ll love.

The Legislative Counsel Bureau’s main function is to ensure that Legislators are informed, but your tax dollars pay for all their research, and there’s no reason not to make use of it. There is probably no other place you can find such unbiased, professional information on topics that affect us all. An informed electorate is one of the pillars of our democracy, and LCB makes it easy to be informed.

The ELCA Social Statement on Church and Society says “God works through the family, education, the economy, the state, and other structures necessary for life in the present age. . . . This church must participate in social structures critically, for sin also is at work in the world. . . . Christians also exercise their calling by being wise and active citizens. Christians need to be concerned for the methods and content of public deliberation. . . .” The Legislative Counsel Bureau can certainly help us all fulfill that obligation.

Controversy in Indiana, Victory in Nevada

By Sheila Freed

There has been a lot of news coverage the past several days about Indiana. The legislature there passed and the governor signed a new law designed to protect religious freedom. The backlash has been immediate and significant, because the bill is seen as discriminatory against the LGBT community and potentially other groups. Several large corporations who do business in Indiana have said they will change their plans because of this law, and the result will be lost jobs and lost revenue to the state. But for an upswell of public concern — including a pushback in the media and among its voters — Nevada could have seen the same scenario play out here.

Assembly Bill 277 was introduced in the Nevada Legislature on March 12, 2015. The next day it was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. As of April 2, the bill had apparently died with no action. The “Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act” was nearly identical to the Indiana law. Defenders of the Indiana law said it’s just like a federal law passed in 1993, but in fact Indiana’s new law, and what could have been Nevada law, go much farther. Both say that a “person” has the right to practice religion free of government interference. However the definition of “person” which is specifically included in the proposed statute is a “natural person; or any form of business or social organization or other nongovernmental legal entity, whether or not the organization or legal entity is created, organized, or operated for profit.” The backlash in Indiana and potentially in Nevada is that this definition allows businesses to discriminate based on a claimed religious belief. The infamous Citizens United decision said that corporations have a right to free speech. This legislation effectively gives corporations freedom of religion as well. (Does that mean they have a conscience? Doubtful.)

There are a number of states that have similar “religious freedom” laws, most being in the Deep South. The Arkansas legislature just passed such a law, and even Wal Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, is urging the governor not to sign it. Passage of AB 277 would have had huge implications for the tourist/hospitality industry in Nevada, and could very well have negated all the incentives the state has given to Tesla and other businesses to bring them here. But, more measured minds prevailed. Our legislators not only observed and took seriously Indiana’s ill-considered passing of their own bill; they did the right thing and left Nevada’s to die.

That’s advocacy in action. With so many potentially damaging bills coming up for committee vote or full-on assembly or senate vote as the 2015 session enters its second half, let’s assure our voices keep being heard.

— with contributions from Vic Williams

Creating Change from … Nothing

Editor’s Note: The following is from a March 27, 2015 Lenten e-mail message by ELCA Director of Advocacy Stacy Martin. It goes to the heart of why Christ-based advocacy matters.

“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.”

Mark 6:42-44 (NRSV)

Like Thomas Jefferson, I’ve never seemed to have much patience for the Bible’s miracle stories. They’re difficult to deal with. To my modern mind, it’s hard to imagine that seas can part, food can appear from nowhere and that the dead can be raised.

It’s so tempting for me, in my very modern way, to domesticate miracles – like reducing the feeding of the 5,000 miracle to an idyllic picnic or desert potluck. Not that thousands of human beings sharing isn’t miraculous. It is. In the four Gospels, there are six accounts of this miracle. Six! It must be too important a story for it to be about people sharing their lunches. Miracles are tricky that way.

In the Gospel of John account of the miracle of feeding the crowd, the disciples estimate that the crowd is so large that not even six months’ worth of paychecks would be enough money to feed the mass of people assembled. By expressing the amount in such stark terms, what I think the disciples are really saying is, “We don’t have enough money to feed all these people.” And Jesus is saying, “Exactly. Isn’t that great?”

Isn’t that just like Jesus?

One disciple retorts with what I hear as screaming sarcasm. “There’s a boy with five loaves and two fish,” he says. Imagine! Five thousand hungry people on the side of a mountain, and only five loaves and two fish in sight to feed them with. But it seems that this is exactly what Jesus wanted. The funny thing about God is that we are called to be God’s hands in the world at precisely those times when there’s a whole lot of nothing to work with; which is to say, God calls us all of the time. God even sets God’s communion table so that we come with nothing. It seems that God likes it best that way.

God also likes to turn things on their heads. Jesus’ disciples, who expected to be the ones to provide what was needed, found themselves surprisingly dependent upon the generosity of a small child. The Gospels’ accounts of this miracle indicate that the boy gave over his lunch with the kind of abandon and generosity that we only associate with God. It is just the kind of juxtaposition that God seems to enjoy best. Jesus’ faith is placed in a little child to stave off what might become a riot if the crowd is not fed. This is the same kind of juxtaposition we find ourselves in as church when we advocate in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

This story about feeding 5,000 with so little is, among other things, a story about perspective. The disciples’ main mistake in this story, I think, is that they have no idea what it is that they have. Namely, they have a God who can feed many on nothing. A God who created the universe out of nothing. A God who put flesh on the nothingness of dry bones. “Nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing,” “insignificant,” “worthless,” and says, “HA! Now THAT is something I can work with!”

It is our poverty that we are asked to bring to God, not our treasure, because whether we think we have it all or we think we have nothing, we are all of us beggars fed at the table of God’s mercy. What do we have? Five loaves, a couple of fish? Not much. We believe that even when we want to make a difference in the world, we have to arrive fully prepared, fully equipped and fully funded.

I hear often from church folk and non-church folk alike that Lutherans, any faith community for that matter, can make no real difference in Washington. “Why bother?” I’m asked. Compared to big lobbying firms and corporations, they have a point. By comparison, we don’t have money, or connections, or power, or, often, technical expertise. What do we have? Five loves, a couple of fish? Only a smidge shy of nothing even on our most prosperous days.

It’s on the darkest of days when even bishops suggest that all is hopeless in the halls of power, when I’m dismissed by a member of Congress because I don’t come with deep pockets, when I’m ridiculed by a think tank because I attend to this work from a place of faith and not a place of “real” expertise, when I’ve received the tenth angry letter from a fellow Lutheran who is frustrated with me for even considering advocacy as a legitimate vocation, when I feel that we as the church simply don’t have enough power to change things for the better. It’s on those darkest days that I re-read this miracle story.This tricky little miracle story – the one told six times over in the Bible – says otherwise to the “why bothers” of the world. In this story we glimpse God’s inverted economy of free bread and fish paid for by, you guessed it, nothing. This is part of the juxtaposition I mentioned earlier. It is out of nothing that God will create something, even something as big as justice and peace. It is a tricky little miracle for sure.

In the last days before Easter, as we await the biggest miracle of them all – the bringing forth of life from the vast nothingness of death – may we remember that our nothingness is all that God asks or needs.